The amendment to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) (which defines the scope of permissible discovery) did away with the timeworn “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” standard.  In its place is now the “proportionality standard,” which explicitly imposes a responsibility on litigants to tailor their discovery requests to account for the significance of the information requested, and the cost of gathering responsive information:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). (emphasis added)

Although many courts have applied the revised Rule 26 during 2016, the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently reminded practitioners that proportionality is a critical factor.  In First Niagara Risk Mgmt. v. Folino, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106094 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2016), which involved the purported violation of a non-compete agreement, the plaintiff moved the Court to compel a discovery request. Specifically, the plaintiff requested that the Court allow its e-discovery vendor to search the defendant’s personal electronic devices and email accounts for a particular set of agreed upon search terms. The defendant objected stating that “the request is overly-broad, costly, and burdensome.”  Although the Court agreed with defendant that the “request was rather broad,” the Court found the request “proportional to the needs of this case.” After verifying that the information requested by the plaintiff was relevant to the case, the Court considered the individual factors in FRCP 26(b)(1).

Specifically, using the factors set forth above, the Court found the issues were “of grave importance” to the plaintiff, the defendant is the sole source of access to the important information, and the plaintiff “needs to conduct broad discovery to uncover the scope of [defendant’s] misdeeds.” The Court granted the motion to compel, and explained that, “[w]eighing these factors makes it clear that the potential harm [plaintiff’s] discovery requests may impose on [defendant] does not outweigh the presumption for disclosure of these requests.”

In Sunderland v. Suffolk Cty., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77212 (E.D.N.Y. June 14, 2016) Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson granted plaintiff’s motion to compel defendants to search for and produce certain documents from their personal computers.

Specifically, plaintiff – a transgender inmate incarcerated at Suffolk County Correctional Facility (“SCCF”) – brought a civil rights case against the County of Suffolk and also three individuals in both their individual and official capacities. The gist of the complaint, as against the individual defendants, was that they knew of plaintiff’s gender dysphoria but were dismissive of the condition and refused to continue plaintiff’s hormone therapy while incarcerated at SCCF.

While the parties agreed on the relevant time period and search terms for purposes of identifying relevant information, the parties disagreed as to whether the individual defendants were required to search their personal emails and computers.  The defendants argued that while their electronic work devices and accounts can be searched, their personal items are not discoverable.  Plaintiff moved to compel production of personal emails.

The court granted the plaintiff’s motion to compel, explaining that the personal documents are relevant under FRCP 26(b)(1), even after the December 2015 amendments. The court elaborated that the nature of the case made it likely that information relevant to claims of bias, deliberate indifference or state of mind, would have been kept on a personal device or account rather than a work one. In its reasoning, the court further explained that such a search is not overly burdensome because the parties already agreed to the terms to be used, the searches had a limited temporal scope, and the plaintiff insisted that the defendants’ computers would not have to undergo forensic inspection.

While this decision is important for a number of e-discovery principles, it is also a good reminder that one should limit personal devices to personal emails and, likewise refrain from using work computers/emails for personal purposes.