A recent decision from the United States District Court of the District of Connecticut demonstrates the need for proper custodian interview before responding to discovery requests. Electrified Discounters, Inc. v MI Technologies, Inc. (2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64950) involved a dispute over sales of replacement lamps for rear projector televisions and front projectors, via online marketplaces like Amazon.com.

The plaintiff alleged trademark infringement and related claims. The defendant counterclaimed seeking cancellation of the trademark and brought a separate action against the plaintiff’s principals. The two actions were consolidated. The problems arose with plaintiff’s discovery responses.

The plaintiff’s deposition testimony contradicted its discovery responses. For example, the plaintiff repeatedly responded that it did not maintain certain records, but during its deposition testimony its witnesses testified that the records were maintained in a QuickBooks database. This testimony also contradicted the information supplied in opposition to the defendant’s motion to compel.

The court reviewed 22 different requests for production, finding that each response was inadequate. The court did not place specific blame for these inconsistencies, but required that the plaintiff provide its counsel with access to its emails (which it was required to stop deleting), and image its ESI, including hard drives and QuickBooks files. The court further required plaintiff and its counsel to examine these records, provide all non-privileged responsive documents and information and a sworn statement that all responsive discovery has been produced. The court also required that the plaintiff show cause why the movant should not be awarded its attorney’s fees incurred in making the motion.

In today’s litigious world, discovery is costly and can be perilous. Exacerbating this landscape is the fact that sanctions are imposed for discovery violations more than any other litigation error. Not surprisingly, avoidable discovery mistakes lead to client dissatisfaction.  Below are ten critical tips to avoid discovery sanctions and to remain compliant with discovery obligations.

  1. Implement Timely Litigation Holds Be sure your legal hold is implemented as soon as litigation is reasonably anticipated. Be certain that your hold notice is sufficiently broad, is sent to the right custodians, receipt is acknowledged, and it is updated as needed.
  2. Conduct Key Custodian Interviews A lawyer cannot rely only on the hold notice.  Rather, custodial interviews with key players, IT personnel and anyone else with information relevant to the dispute or the client’s network architecture should be conducted.  Minimally, these interviews will confirm the suspension of auto-delete protocols and will help identify all relevant information for preservation and collection.
  3. Be Proactive Because in today’s technology-intensive world there are substantial quantities of ESI, if you want to receive a document demand before preserving and collecting documents, you may not have time to respond to those demands.  Anticipate document demands so you can start the interview, identification and collection process.  You will have a better handle on the documents (what does and does not exist), and your client’s story such that you will be in the best position to comply with discovery and meet discovery challenges.
  4. Honesty is the Best Policy When Dealing with the Courts and Opposing Parties Never make a factual representation about the status of preservation, collection, or production efforts without confirming the underlying facts with original sources. While a client will rarely mislead their lawyer intentionally, it is common for clients to have incomplete information or operate under a misunderstanding of fact when information is communicated second- hand.   Moreover, courts and opposing parties understand that mistakes can happen at various stages of the discovery process.  Such issues must be addressed immediately and head-on.  Usually the optimal strategy is full disclosure along with remedial measures.
  5. Always Budget Obtain a realistic budget before proceeding with ESI collection processing and/or review.  This is a costly area of litigation and lawyers must manage client expectations. Update the budget as needed to accommodate changes attributable to collection volume or other factors.
  6. You Get More Bees with Honey… Seek a cooperative approach irrespective of how unpleasant or unreasonable opposing counsel may be. Indeed, a cooperative approach to discovery will invariably reduce disputes and expenses. Take the higher road and assume that every email and letter you write to opposing counsel may end up in front of the judge, so adopt a cooperative approach and reasonable tone in all communications with opposing counsel.    As one of our earlier blog posts showed (see Armstrong Pump, Inc. v. Hartman, No. 10-CV-446S, 2014 WL 6908867 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2014)), Judges have very little patience for uncooperative behavior during a lawsuit’s “search for the truth.”
  7. There’s No Longer Room For Boilerplate Discovery The amended FRCP 26(g)(1)(B)(iii) provides that every discovery request and response must be signed by at least one attorney of record, and by signing you certify that the discovery request or response is proportional – meaning “neither unreasonable nor unduly burdensome or expensive considering the needs of the case, prior discovery in the case, the amount in controversy, and the importance of issues at stake….”  The Rule goes on to state that “[i]f a certification violates this rule without substantial justification, the court must impose an appropriate sanction on the signer, the party on whose behalf the signer was acting, or both.”
  8. Be Careful What You Wish For…Lest You Receive It In Return Never send a discovery request to an adversary that you or your client would be uncomfortable complying with were opposing counsel to author a reciprocal request to you.
  9. Carefully Devised Search Terms Are Critically Important The judgment of your legal team is a good starting point for crafting search terms, but is far from sufficient.  Review a preliminary “hit-by-term” report from your ESI vendor so you can appreciate which terms are too limiting or overbroad.  During custodial interviews (see supra) ask about project code names, and other unique search terms.  Then sample, sample, sample!  Sampling the documents—both the hits and the non-hits—can help refine search terms and validate the terms chosen.
  10. Wise Use of Technology Can Be a Litigator’s Best Friend ESI processing, review (even with contract attorneys) and production is among the most costly elements of any litigation.  When used efficiently and wisely, technology can significantly reduce those costs. Consider early data assessment, filtering and predictive coding technology as appropriate for each matter.