In Youngevity Intl’s Corp. v. Smith (No: 16-cv-00704 [SD CA December 21, 2017]), defendants sought an Order pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(g) and 37.  The Order required Plaintiffs to remediate an improper discovery production to pay for Defendants’ costs for bringing the motion to compel and for the cost to review various improper prior productions.  Specifically, in connection with the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”), Defendants proposed a three-step process by which: “(i) each side proposes a list of search terms for their own documents; (ii) each side offers any supplemental terms to be added to the other side’s proposed list; and (iii) each side may review the total number of results generated by each term in the supplemented lists (i.e., a ‘hit list’ from our third-party vendors) and request that the other side omit any terms appearing to generate a disproportionate number of results.”

Approximately one week later, Plaintiffs advised in writing that they were “amenable to the three step process described in your May 9 e-mail.”  The parties then exchanged lists of proposed search terms to be run through their own ESI and the ESI of their opponent.

Pursuant to the agreed-to three-step process, Defendants provided to Plaintiffs its “hit list.”  Plaintiffs, however, never produced its “hit list.”  Instead, Plaintiff produced two large caches of documents – the first consisting of approximately 1.9 million pages and the second production consisting of approximately 2.3 million pages.   Upon receipt by Defendants, it became clear that the productions had been bulk coded with a CONFIDENTIAL legend and in some instances also with an ATTORNEYS’ EYES ONLY designation.  The produced materials also contained non-responsive documents.  A few months later, defendants advised they inadvertently failed to produce an additional 700,000 documents due to a vendor error.  Although the parties attempted to resolve amicably their differences, they were unsuccessful.

As a result, Defendants’ filed the instant motion to compel proper production and for costs.

In granting Defendants’ motion, Magistrate Judge Jill L. Burkhardt concluded, “the record indicates that Youngevity did not produce documents following the protocol to which the parties agreed.”  Specifically, “Youngevity failed to produce its hit list … and instead produced every document that hit upon any proposed search term” thus conflating “a hit on the parties’ proposed search terms with responsiveness.”  Moreover, the Court observed “the parties negotiated a stipulated protective order, which provides that only the ‘most sensitive’ information should be designated as AEO.”  As a result, Judge Burkhardt gave the plaintiffs two options for correcting their discovery productions with specific deadlines:

“1) By December 26, 2017, provide its hit list to Defendant; by January 5, 2018, conclude the meet and confer process as to mutually acceptable search terms based upon the hit list results; by January 12, 2018, run the agreed upon search terms across Plaintiff’s data; by February 15, 2018, screen the resulting documents for responsiveness and privilege; and by February 16, 2018, produce responsive, non-privileged documents with only appropriate designations of “confidential” and “AEO” (said production to include that subset of the not-previously-produced 700,000 documents that are responsive and non-privileged); or

2) By December 26, 2017, provide the not-previously-produced 700,000 documents to Defendant without further review; pay the reasonable costs for Defendant to conduct a TAR of the 700,000 documents and the July 21, 2017 and August 22, 2017 productions for responsiveness; by January 24, 2018, designate only those qualifying documents as “confidential” or “AEO”; by that date, any documents not designated in compliance with this Order will be deemed de-designated.”

Judge Burkhardt also ordered Plaintiffs to pay for the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, for bringing the motion and for the expenses incurred by Defendants “as a result of Youngevity’s failure to abide by the Stipulated Protective Order.”

Conclusion

This case is another reminder of what appears to be the well-embraced theme in Federal discovery – cooperation.  The 2015 amendments made plain that cooperation between the parties and their attorneys during the litigation process to achieve orderly and cost-effective discovery is a priority.  Indeed, mutual knowledge of the relevant facts is essential to proper litigation; and therefore the process of obtaining those facts (i.e., discovery) should be a cooperative one.  Had counsel simply abided by the three-step process and stipulated protective Order it willingly entered, there would be no need to defend against (and foot the bill for) the motion to compel.

You are involved in litigation and faced with a document review need, what now? Naturally you need to find attorneys to review these documents. To this end, depending on the volume of data at issue, many firms will either: (1) staff the document review with firm attorneys, or (2) work with a vendor to retain a review team comprised of contract attorneys. Irrespective of who conducts the needed review, the cost attendant to that review and the time to complete the review is often a concern.  Because a party to a litigation should not produce documents without reviewing them, predictive coding may be a particularly helpful option.

Simply put, predictive coding is the use of a computer system to help determine which documents are relevant to a particular legal proceeding.  The system makes this determination based upon “training” it receives from human input.  In fact, for a predictive coding system to make accurate decisions, the system needs direction from humans fluent in the intricacies of the lawsuit.  During this training phase, attorneys will review a seed set of documents and code those documents accordingly (i.e., responsive, privilege, tagging issues applicable). (FN*) At each step of this process, the computer system is being trained and educated. Refinements are made along the way and internalized by the system. Once trained, the computer will find and code (based on its training) the responsive documents far quicker (and often with far greater accuracy) than human reviewers. Specifically, the computer will build a model to identify documents that have a high probability of correct classification into categories pre-defined through the training /seed coding.

As with any review (entirely human or a combination of human and machine review), a validation process should be implemented.  Specifically, there should be a work flow created that provides for attorney reviewers to check the efficacy and accuracy of the model.   It is important here to determine what validation/QC process is best implemented.  For example, one can implement a statistical sampling of data where documents are selected at random and reviewed for accuracy.  This sort of validation would be reflective of the machine’s overall accuracy and reflective of the overall document population.  There is also, however, a more particularized sampling where a group of relevant documents are selected from the population and reviewed for accuracy.  This sort of validation would be more limited in that it would not allow the attorney running the review to form any conclusions about the entire document population.  (FN**)

Because of the ever-increasing volume of data and information, predictive coding is becoming a more attractive tool to incorporate into every document review to some degree, especially because no minimum data size is required to use predictive coding.  A document review that uses predictive coding coupled with a well-devised work flow will inevitably minimize review costs while maximizing efficiency during the review.

 

FN* Because the coding on these seed documents will impact the quality of the computer’s determinations, it is important the individuals coding the seed documents understand well the lawsuit and how the predicting coding system is to work.

FN**  And, if you are not comfortable allowing a computer to do that much work, other predictive coding options (e.g., other than allowing the system to extrapolate based upon seed sets) are available.  For example, prioritized review can be used whereby the system identifies and escalates important documents for review but keeps likely irrelevant documents in the queue.  Incorporating this option into your work flow allows attorneys to still lay eyes on all documents but provides for an efficient prioritization of documents that must be reviewed.

What do applications like Snapchat, Telegram, Wickr, Cover Me, Speak On, and Whisper have in common? They are all self-destructing message (“SDM”) applications. What exactly does this mean, you ask? Self-destructing messaging applications transmit information with end-to-end encryption, and auto destruct after a set time period of time, or after receipt and access by the intended recipient.  Consider Snapchat, for example. Snapchat is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. Indeed, in 2016, Snapchat surpassed Facebook’s number of video views per day.*  Part of Snapchat’s popularity is derived from the fact that the user can set timers for shared photos / videos to self-destruct once the person received it; allowing users (typically younger generations) to share photos without the risk of the photo going public.

Yet, what happens when SDM technologies (which are evolving rapidly) are used in the corporate world?  How does one preserve potentially relevant information?  What is the risks verses benefits of incorporating into one’s business SDM technology?  These questions – and others – are likely questions litigators will grapple with in the coming months/years given the rapid growth of SDM technology.**

While it is impossible to predict the future, I suspect it is only a matter of time until this issue becomes more of a focus in litigation and I look forward to reading decisions on point as the case law catches up to the technology.

http://mediashift.org/2016/12/state-video-2016/

** Consider, for example, the Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., lawsuit, wherein allegations have arisen that one party is hiding information relevant to the lawsuit by transmitting that information via SDM. Consider further the fact that the Department of Justice in December issued an enforcement policy urging strongly against the use of messaging applications that do not store data in a way that allows for access during a subsequent investigation.  https://www.justice.gov/usam/usam-9-47000-foreign-corrupt-practices-act-1977  These recent lawsuits and policies make plain SDM technology is being employed in corporate America.

 

In IDC Financial Publishing, Inc. v. Bonddesk Group, LLC (15-cv-1085-pp, 2017 WL 4863202 (E.D. Wis. Oct. 26, 2017)), the Eastern District of Wisconsin granted IDC’s motion to compel the production of more than 600 documents that had previously been produced by Bonddesk with extensive non-responsive redactions applied.

Bonddesk argued that the applied redactions were necessary to protect confidential business information that had no relevance to the underlying dispute.  In making this argument, Bonddesk relied on In re Takata Airbag Prods. Liab. Litig., 2016 WL 1460143 (S.D. Fla. Feb. 24, 2016). In the Takata case, the district court in the Southern District of Florida permitted the redactions based upon “non-responsiveness,” because of the “concern that the documents contained competitively sensitive materials that may have been exposed to the public, despite protective orders.”

In the present case, however, the Court looked to the Federal Rules for guidance. Specifically, the Court observed that redactions based upon relevance are not explicitly supported by the Federal Rules, and seemingly contrary to the Rules’ allowance for broad discovery. The Court also reasoned redactions based upon relevance (or a lack thereof), have the potential for abuse. For example, should non-responsive redactions be deemed per se proper, parties may be incentivized to “hide as much as they dare” (internal citations omitted).   Moreover, the Court reasoned that Bonddesk failed to provide an otherwise “compelling reason” for its “extensive” redactions and failed to explain why the protective order in place did not provide adequate protection.

Therefore, based upon the Court’s fear of party abuse, Bonddesk’s failure to articulate a compelling reason for the redactions, and Bonddesk’s failure to articulate why the protective order was insufficient, the Court granted IDC’s motion to compel. The Court concluded it “[did] not see a compelling reason to alter the traditionally broad discovery allowed by the rules by letting the defendants unilaterally redact large portions of their responsive documents on relevance grounds.”

This decision does not conclude relevance redactions are per se impermissible, but it reminds us, as practitioners, that engaging our adversary in a meaningful discussion about inter alia redactions, is good practice. Recall, the theme of late from the federal courts is “cooperation”. Here, there was a protective order in place and no compelling reason to apply the redactions at issue. Query whether had the lawyers spoken, the cost of motion practice and a subsequent (un-redacted) production could have been avoided. It seems lately that a collaborative approach is preferred by the Bench.  However, if such a meet and confer/discussion is not practical or possible, at least be prepared to provide compelling reasons why a robust “So Ordered” confidentiality agreement is not sufficient to protect the content of your client’s documents before unilaterally applying redactions.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the then-proposed changes to the Federal Rules, and how those changes (if implemented), could impact electronic discovery. (February 15, 2017 blog)  Well, the time has come — effective December 1, 2017, the amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 902 “Evidence That is Self Authenticating” went live.

As the title suggests, Federal Rule of Evidence (“FRE”) 902 applies to evidence that is self-authenticating (i.e., sealed and signed public documents, certified copies of public records, newspapers).  Because such documents are deemed “self-authenticating,” attorneys do not need to go through the authentication process in court with qualified expert testimony.  Effective December 1st, two new categories of documents will qualify as self-authenticating, too.

Specifically, 902(13) and (14) are the newly added provisions – each of which apply to electronically stored documents.

Subsection 13 provides:

(13) Certified Records Generated by an Electronic Process or System. A record generated by an electronic process or system that produces an accurate result, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12). The proponent must also meet the notice requirements of Rule 902(11).

And, subsection (14) provides:

(14) Certified Data Copied from an Electronic Device, Storage Medium, or File. Data copied from an electronic device, storage medium, or file, if authenticated by a process of digital FEDERAL RULES OF EVIDENCE 3 identification, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12). The proponent also must meet the notice requirements of Rule 902(11).

Subsection (13) applies to machine-generated information (i.e., produced by a computer system or computer process) and is analogous to Rule 902(11)’s certification of business records.  Subsection (14) applies more broadly to copied/replicated ESI provided the copy retains a hash value that is identical to the original.[1] Subsection 14, thus, effectively dispenses with the costly need for trial testimony of a forensic or technical expert where best practices are employed, as certified through a written affidavit by a “qualified person.”

While neither subsection (13) nor (14) dispense with the need to demonstrate authenticity, the new provisions drastically simplify the process.  Indeed, the expectation is that the new Rules will provide a streamlined and efficient process to establish a foundation for ESI collected in a Rule 902(14) compliant manner. This will increase predictability by eliminating surprise challenges, and will encourage the use of ESI practitioners by allowing written certifications in the place of expensive and time-intensive in-person testimony.  Indeed, the ability to eliminate foundational testimony will undeniably result in significant cost savings to one’s client and help promote judicial efficiency.[2]

[1] Recall, a file’s hash value is often likened to its fingerprint – a unique identifier attributable to the contents of a file being processed through a cryptographic algorithm, which results in a unique numerical value – the hash value – being produced that identifies the contents of the file.

[2]  However, this necessarily presupposes that practitioners in the federal courts will understand what a 902(14) compliant collection means.

In Barcroft Media, Ltd. et al. v. Coed Media Grp., LLC, No. 16-CV-7634 (JMF) (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 28, 2017), Plaintiffs – providers of entertainment-related photojournalism and owners of celebrity photographs – interposed various intellectual property claims against Defendant Coed Media Group, LLC (“CMG”).  The claims related to the allegedly infringing use of certain celebrity photographs (the “Images”) on CMG’s pop culture and celebrity gossip websites.  Because CMG purportedly failed to preserve the “webpages” on which it displayed the Images, Plaintiffs filed a motion for spoliation sanctions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37.

In deciding the sanctions motion, Judge Furman discussed the relevant provisions of Rule 37 and its 2015 amendment.  Specifically, the Court noted that a sanction may be imposed only if the ESI that should have been preserved is lost because a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it and the ESI cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery.  Once that standard is met, the next step in the inquiry is to determine whether; (1) the non-offending party has been prejudiced from the loss of ESI; and (2) the offending party acted with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation. Even a cursory reading of the (not so newly) amended Rule 37 makes plain that mere loss of data alone is not enough for sanctions. Rather, loss coupled with a prejudice is necessary and, even then, the resulting sanction must only be as great as needed to cure the prejudice. Thus, only after a Court identifies a prejudice to the aggrieved party, may the Court order measures necessary to remediate that prejudice.

Against this backdrop, the Court concluded Plaintiff’s motion for sanctions was without merit and bordered on frivolous.  Specifically, the Court found there was no foundation for the imposition of any sanctions.

“Given the plain language of [Federal Rule 37(e)], Plaintiffs’ motion borders on frivolous, for the simple reason that they cannot even show that the evidence at issue was ‘lost.’ Several of the images are still hosted on CMG’s websites…And the record makes clear that Plaintiffs themselves possess copies of the other Webpages—in the form of screen captures taken when they displayed the Images (the ‘Screenshots’)…In fact, Plaintiffs themselves list the Screenshots as trial exhibits…Given that…, there is no foundation to impose sanctions under Rule 37(e).”

The Southern District went on to conclude that “Plaintiffs obviously cannot show prejudice ‘as [they] actually possess[ ] copies’ of the relevant evidence” and sanctions are not appropriate.[1]

This decision serves as an important reminder that practitioners need to remain current in their understanding of the Federal Rules and the standards articulated under those Rules.  Indeed, a sanction for lost ESI cannot be predicated merely upon loss alone.  Rather there must be a loss of relevant ESI coupled with a prejudice before sanctions may be imposed.

[1] Bear in mind the decision is limited to spoliation issues, not authenticity and best evidence.

United States v. New Mexico State Univ., No. 1:16-cv-00911-JAP-LF, 2017 WL 4386358 (D.N.M. Sept. 29, 2017)

This case, which arises from allegations of pay discrimination by New Mexico State University (“NMSU”) based on gender, in violation of Title VII, serves as an important reminder that all counsel – irrespective of one’s computer know-how – understand their ESI obligations and cooperate in good faith with opposing counsel when engaging in the process of retrieving electronically stored information (“ESI”).

BACKGROUND

In this pay discrimination case, the United States alleged that NMSU paid a female employee less than her male counterparts, although they were performing similar responsibilities for NMSU’s track and field program.  During discovery, plaintiff sought production of documents reflecting communications regarding her compensation; production of documents regarding her complaints concerning her pay; and production of documents regarding any other complaints of pay discrimination made by other coaches, trainers, etc.  Eventually, disputes arose over NMSU’s responses to plaintiff’s discovery requests and the United States filed a motion to compel.

In response, NMSU detailed the “more than 20” keyword searches it conducted (without conferring with plaintiff’s counsel) to locate documents responsive to the plaintiff’s requests.  Thereafter, the United States identified what it perceived to be inadequacies and deficiencies in NMSU’s searches notwithstanding the 14,000 pages of documents produced.  Before the Court could resolve the issue of the adequacy of searches, NMSU moved for a protective order to preclude further searching for responsive documents.

DECISION

Citing defense counsel’s failure to “adequately confer” before performing keyword searches that were “inadequate to reveal all responsive documents,” the Court concluded that “which searches will be conducted is left to the Court” and went on to order NMSU to conduct additional searches with specific terms.  The Court found defense counsel’s failure to confer with its adversary particularly troubling as “[t]he best solution in the entire area of electronic discovery is cooperation among counsel” and “[c]ooperation prevents lawyers designing keyword searches ‘in the dark, by the seat of the pants,’ without adequate discussion with each other to determine which words would yield the most responsive results.”

Here, the failure to adequately confer in good faith was the very reason for the inadequate searches.  The Court went on to observe:

Electronic discovery requires cooperation between opposing counsel and transparency in all aspects of preservation and production of ESI. Moreover, where counsel are using keyword searches for retrieval of ESI, they at a minimum must carefully craft the appropriate keywords, with input from the ESI’s custodians as to the words and abbreviations they use, and the proposed methodology must be quality control tested to assure accuracy in retrieval and elimination of “false positives.” It is time that the Bar—even those lawyers who did not come of age in the computer era—understand this.

[Citation omitted] [emphasis added].

CONCLUSION

While this decision does not actually state that counsel must disclose their ESI search terms to opposing counsel, it comes pretty darn close.  By commenting that transparency in all aspects of ESI preservation and production is necessary, this decision effectively obligates counsel to discuss with opposing counsel the intended search terms before executing on those terms.  Indeed, collaboration and cooperation are again held to be central to one’s discovery obligations.  And, here, counsel’s failure to meet and confer and engage the adversary in that process resulted in counsel earning the expensive right to repeat the process – this time with judicial weigh-in.  Perhaps equally important of a take-away from this decision – counsel’s lack of computer savvy does not extricate counsel from the obligation to understand one’s e-discovery obligations and attain competency in technological advances relevant to litigation in today’s E-centric world.

I recently wrote about the importance of styling one’s litigation hold in a broad, but sufficiently specific way (See, “Your Litigation Hold Must be Generally Broad and Specifically Tailored”).  Some of you may be thinking, well, that’s all fine and good but what is a litigation hold? Why and when do I need one? And what should a litigation hold say?  If you have any of those questions, then continue reading.

Imagine your client was served with a complaint (or your client received a cease and desist letter or you learn it is reasonably foreseeable your client will be sued).*  What now?

Immediately, alarm bells should sound in your mind signaling you to take steps to preserve information relevant or potentially relevant to the lawsuit (or threatened lawsuit).    To this end, you want to draft and issue a written litigation hold notice (“Hold”).   While an oral directive may convey all the necessary information to the proper people, it is far better practice to paper your instructions.  Not only will a written document allow you to recall (perhaps years later) what information was subject to the Hold and who received the Hold, but it can also serve as a protective mechanism should information identified in the Hold as relevant slip through the cracks and be inadvertently deleted.** Thus, a critical function of the Hold is to serve as the means for proper compliance with one’s document preservation requirements and as the tool to avoid inadvertent destruction of evidence and potential sanctions.

It is helpful to envision the Hold as the catalyst that begins the process by which the client formally notifies key individuals that they must preserve relevant information.  Identifying who should receive the Hold can be a task in and of itself.  If, for example, your client is an individual sued in his/her individual capacity, the task is straightforward.  If, however, your client is a major financial institution with offices throughout the nation, the task of identifying the relevant custodians*** can be daunting.

Once you’ve identified the proper custodians (and who the custodians are for this purpose should be revisited throughout the litigation and supplemented as information is learned) and the sources of information they each may have, you must draft your Hold.   A well-drafted Hold need not be lengthy nor should it be replete with legal-ese.  In fact, the shorter, and more simple the better.  You do not want your audience bogged down in trying to figure out what exactly is being asked of them.  Likewise, you do not want to send a multi-page document if you can streamline the message into two pages or less.  That said, every Hold should contain at least the following information:

  1. Introduction: Explain why a Hold is being implemented so that the recipients understand the importance of compliance.  Explaining the general purpose of the Hold may also help the recipients identify relevant information.  The introduction does not have to detail the lawsuit /investigation /subpoena with granularity.  Rather, a general description is all that is necessary.  For example:

[CLIENT] recently received a subpoena requesting documents relevant to an ongoing investigation by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia (hereinafter the “Investigation”). We intend to respond to the subpoena in due course, and we are asking for your help.  Due to this Investigation, [CLIENT] must take all reasonable steps to preserve records related to the 8 topics belowWe are in the process of identifying all paper and electronic documents that may be relevant to the matter . . . You have been identified as a person who has had involvement with the [deal], or may possess relevant documents or communications.  We request your attention and assistance in preserving this relevant information for our attorney’s use as appropriate. The records must be preserved in accordance with this Notice, and must be preserved until released by a subsequent written Release Notice.

  1. What is to be Preserved: The Hold becomes a checklist for the specific records you seek to preserve.  It is important that you include not only a broad description of the types of documents you seek, but also identify documents or locations with specificity to the greatest extent possible.  As mentioned in my August 16th post, if you seek to preserve web browsing/search histories you must specify that in your hold. It is likely not sufficient to simply say preserve all ESI. You should also include a temporal limitation for the information you seek to preserve and a description of the relevant categories of information.  In addition to delivering the Hold to key employees who have an involvement in or awareness about the issues in the lawsuit (or threatened suit), it is advisable to send the Hold to relevant personnel in IT and paper records departments who control the ability to suspend normal deletion policies.

Effective immediately, it is critical that none of our employees delete, over-write, or otherwise alter or destroy any documents (print or electronic), records, and data, including without limitation,  [INSERT SPECIFIC DOCUMENTS] . . ., including any drafts of such documents, records, and data, from any device.  Devices that may contain information subject to this preservation include laptops, PCs, handheld devices (such as a BlackBerry or iPhone), and other hardware provided to employees of [CLIENT], including USB drives, shared drives, home computers and/or personal email accounts (if used to store work-related documents), departmental, regional, or local email services, or any other local or centralized storage media which may be accessed by members of your department dated from [INSERT DATE RANGE], and relating in any way to:

  1. Mandatory Preservation: Emphasize that preservation is mandatory, and that failure to comply may compromise the company’s ability to prosecute its claims or defend itself in the lawsuit.

Preservation is mandatory.  Electronically stored information is an important and potentially irreplaceable source of discovery in this matter.  Failure to retain these documents or communications, whether intentionally or accidentally or to ignore this Notice may result in the Company’s inability to prosecute its claims or defend itself in this matter.  Failure to do so could also result in financial and legal penalties against the Company that could negatively affect the outcome of this legal matter. You must take every reasonable step to preserve this information until further written notice.  

I also tend to include the following language in the introduction to ensure we capture the recipient’s attention:

Failure to read and comply fully with this Notice could subject you and [CLIENT] to civil and criminal penalties and could result in disciplinary action

  1. Confidentiality: Stress the confidential nature of the lawsuit and the company’s expectation that employees not discuss the matter with one another or others (i.e., spouses, friends) unless doing so is approved by counsel.  The purpose of limiting one’s ability to discuss the matter is to minimize discoverable communications that could impact the outcome of the lawsuit.
  2. Further Distribution: The Hold should request the names of any additional individuals that the recipients believe may have relevant information and advise recipient(s) not distribute further on their own.

Further Distribution of This NoticeDO NOT DISTRIBUTE THIS NOTICE DIRECTLY. A distribution list is attached to this Notice.  Please notify [NAME] if you believe the Hold should be distributed further.  In addition, please contact [NAME] if you are aware of any relevant records that may be in the possession of someone who previously held your position.

  1. Duration of the Litigation Hold: The Hold should advise that individuals are required to preserve materials until they are notified in writing that the Hold has been released.
  2. Prompt for Questions: The Hold should provide the name and contact information for company counsel or another person designated to provide guidance and answer questions.
  3. Receipt and Acknowledgment: It is advisable to require recipients to respond in writing that they have read the Hold and will comply with its requirements.  I tend to embed both a read receipt in the Hold and an affirmative obligation to respond to me (or in-house counsel) in writing.  Responses can be sent by individual emails, or by embedding a voting button.  It is also wise to track each response and follow up as necessary with non-responsive recipients. 

In sum, a Hold should include at least the above essential information and should be drafted in a clear and comprehensive fashion such that recipients understand what is being asked of them.   The Hold will serve as the means for proper compliance with the client’s document preservation requirements.

* Different jurisdictions have different rules as to when one’s obligation to preserve information arises.  The most common standard however, and the one embraced in New York state and federal courts alike, is “Once a party reasonably anticipates litigation…”

** Because the inadvertent destruction of relevant evidence can (depending on the circumstances) lead to judicial sanctions or a judgment against the client, a Hold committed to writing will empower you to defend yourself and the client should inadvertent destruction occur.   

*** For purposes of this blog, “Custodians” is used to refer to the individuals / sources (i.e., shared drives, file cabinets) most likely to have potentially relevant information (i.e., related to the claims or defense in the lawsuit).

In this single-plaintiff employment discrimination case (Bailey v. Brookdale Univ. Hosp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93093 (E.D.N.Y. June 16, 2017)), counsel for the parties purportedly met and conferred as directed by the Court and, thereafter, entered into an ESI agreement (“Agreement”).  The Agreement was presented to the Court and represented to be the product of mutual negotiation.  As a result, the Court So-Ordered the Agreement and its terms.

During discovery, Bailey advised the Court that he was no longer able to comply with the Agreement because the data production costs would cause an economic hardship. Specifically, he claimed the cost of production – estimated at $2,000-$3,000 – was unduly burdensome in light of his personal financial situation, notwithstanding the Agreement.  At the Court’s request, Bailey submitted an affidavit estimating the cost of production and that such a cost would inflict a “severe financial hardship” on him given that he earned approximately $90,000 annually and was the sole provider for his family of five.  In evaluating Bailey’s grievance, the Eastern District considered cost-shifting to protect Bailey from incurring an undue burden or expense. For cost-shifting to be properly granted, however, there must be sufficient proof of economic hardship and evidence that the requested data is inaccessible.  The Court found neither was established by Bailey. Nonetheless, the Court found that the Agreement proposed by Defendants was of a type, “typically utilized in a more complex litigation involving multiple parties and corporate entities” and had no applicability to a single plaintiff.   As a result, the Court concluded that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in meaningful discussions with his client regarding the terms of the proposed Agreement and what costs might be incurred by producing the information in the format the defendants sought. Likewise, it further appeared to the Court that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in a meaningful meet-and-confer session with opposing counsel, and did not thoroughly review the Agreement prior to signing it.

The Court did not find sufficient grounds to terminate the Agreement, and instead ordered partial cost-shifting [so that Defendants received the form of production they negotiated for], requiring the defendants to bear 40% of discovery costs and Bailey’s counsel, rather than Bailey himself, to bear the remaining 60%.

This case serves as an important reminder of counsels’ obligation to engage in good faith in all aspects of the discovery process – including negotiating an ESI production protocol.  Here, the Court was unwilling to revise the Agreement, and instead required Bailey’s counsel to abide by the terms of the Agreement and pay for the production.  This case also serves as an important reminder of our duty, as lawyers, to be competent in the law and the technological world in which we practice.  Indeed, as attorneys practicing in today’s ever-increasingly electronic world, we must remain abreast of the intricacies involved in electronic production and the costs associated with that ESI.  (See earlier blogs discussing duty of competence)

In Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc., No. 7:16-CV-18-D (E.D.N.C. June 7, 2017), Magistrate Judge Robert B. Jones, Jr., denied Plaintiff Eshelman’s motion seeking a jury instruction in response to Puma Biotechnology Inc.’s (“Puma”) failure to preserve (or identify in its litigation hold notice the need to preserve) internet web browser and search histories.  In denying Eshelman’s request, Judge Jones concluded that Eshelman was “not entitled to [either] a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(1)” or “an adverse jury instruction as a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2).”

Case Background & Holding

This lawsuit involved alleged defamatory statements made by Puma in an investment presentation.  Eshelman brought a lawsuit and soon thereafter Puma issued a Litigation Hold Notice (“Notice”).  That Notice defined “documents” broadly to include electronically-stored information (“ESI”) but failed to reference specifically internet browser / search/or viewing histories.   The Notice did, however, advise Puma employees to err on the side of preservation if uncertain as to whether they were in possession of potentially responsive documents.   In May 2016, a few months after the allegedly defamatory investor presentation, Eshelman’s counsel sent a letter to Puma’s counsel requesting that Puma preserve, as relevant to this dispute, “web browser histories” of individuals involved in the drafting of the January 7, 2016 presentation.  Eshelman renewed this same request a few weeks later in his first demand for documents.

Puma’s counsel responded to the discovery demand that due to the internet browser the Company uses (i.e., Google Chrome®)  web browser history is automatically deleted after 90 days.  And so, the web browser history sought in the document demand was no longer available, nor did it exist at the time of the May preservation letter issued by Eshelman’s counsel.  Upon receipt of this response, Eshelman moved for “a jury instruction to mitigate the harm caused by the defendant’s failure to preserve electronically stored information.”

Judge Jones denied Eshelman’s motion concluding that “the plaintiff has not established one of the threshold elements of Rule 37(e)—namely, that the lost ESI ‘cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery. . . .’”

Because Judge Jones believed “other avenues of discovery are likely to reveal information about the searches performed in advance of the investor presentation” the Judge concluded Eshelman was “not entitled to a sanction pursuant to Rule 37(e)(1).” Specifically, the Judge opined that Eshelman could seek information about the internet searches performed by the individuals who prepared the investor presentation through deposition testimony.

Moreover, Judge Jones further determined that a sanction was not warranted under 37(e)(1) or (2) because: (1) “the plaintiff has failed to make a sufficient showing of prejudice to support relief under Rule 37(e)(1)” and (2) Eshelman “failed to show that the defendant acted with the requisite intent to deprive him of the ESI in order to support the imposition of an adverse jury instruction under Rule 37(e)(2),” noting that “[a]t most, the circumstances indicate the ESI was lost due to the defendant’s negligence, but do not suggest the presence of intentional conduct. Negligence, however, will not support an award of sanctions under Rule 37(e)(2).”

Conclusion

This case serves as an important reminder that one’s legal hold notice must be drafted in a robust way (i.e., calling for all documents) that is also sufficiently granular such that it specifies exactly the types/categories of documents sought to be preserved.  Drafting an effective hold notice is an art that requires great thought.  Form/template notices –while a good starting point – should not be relied upon blindly.  Stay tuned for a coming blog on drafting effective hold notices.