On August 1, 2018, Judge Beetlestone (E.D. Pa.) granted Defendants’ motion for sanctions based upon unequivocal evidence that Plaintiffs manipulated and fabricated emails material to the litigation.  Although the Court imposed the drastic sanction of dismissing Plaintiffs’ complaint, the Court provided a detailed and instructive analysis supporting its ultimate conclusion.  The Court’s analysis, addressed below, can be read in full here.

Facts

The underlying matter arises from the sale of Second Opinion, Inc., (“SO”).  SO was a service business that connected lawyers representing personal injury plaintiffs with medical professionals who could serve as experts in litigation.  Plaintiffs entered into an agreement to purchase the assets of SO and eventually filed a lawsuit alleging fraud, misrepresentation and breach of contract against Howard and Wendy Weiss – the prior owners of SO and Defendants to the lawsuit.   The gist of the dispute was that the Defendants made false representations about the nature of SO and the assets the Plaintiffs were to receive pursuant to the purchase agreement.

In response to a letter request by the Defendants, the Court held a hearing on the record in December 2017 to decide a discovery dispute concerning whether Defendants’ interrogatories contained an impermissible number of subparts.  At that hearing, the Court was advised of a newly discovered issue – that there were a number of significant discrepancies between emails produced by Defendants and emails produced by Plaintiffs.

A forensic expert was retained to examine each party’s computer(s) and eventually the Defendants moved for sanctions.  In late June 2018, the Court received an ex parte fax from Plaintiff requesting dismissal of the suit, including the counterclaims filed by Defendants.

On July 5, 2018 the Court held a conference upon the record to discuss Defendants’ pending motion for sanctions.  During that conference Plaintiff – in a radical departure from his faxed letter– represented to the Court he had no knowledge of any counterclaim against him.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court scheduled another hearing to address the spoliation motion.

Spoliation

At its core, the issue boiled down to 7 emails and which, among them, were authentic.

For example, Email 3 – an email purportedly from Plaintiff to Defendant — stated, “[w]e are interested in cutting off training.  We are interested in taking over the business and moving it forward. We believe we can do this.”

Yet, Email 4  — an email sent at the exact same time as Email 3 and also from Plaintiff to Defendant stated, “[we] are not interested in cutting off training.  We are interested in taking over the business and moving it forward while still learning.  We believe we can do this.”

The forensic examiner testified that Email 3 was found only on Plaintiff’s computer and was a fabrication; and Email 4 was found on both Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s computer.  In what the Court observed was the most telling indicia of purposeful fabrication, is that Email 4 (the authentic email) was located in three different locations in Plaintiff’s computer, indicating that he had deleted the file.   Plaintiff testified but the Court found his testimony not credible, confused and riddled with inconsistencies.

Decision

In order to determine the appropriate sanction, a Court must weigh three factors:

(1) the degree of fault of the person who destroyed or altered the evidence;

(2) the prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and

(3) the existence of alternative sanctions.

In assessing these factors the Court concluded that Plaintiff “intentionally altered and manipulated evidence” and when confronted with the altered emails he “accused the Defendants of having manipulated the authentic emails.  [Plaintiff] actively deleted emails and the evidence shows that he continued to delete pertinent files as recently as…after the deposition when he was confronted with the fabricated emails.”  And so, the Court determined Plaintiff’s actions were intentional and willful.

The Court then determined that notwithstanding the early discovery of Plaintiff’s actions, the prejudice “was substantial.”  Specifically, Defendants had to hire an expert and expend significant sums of money (motion practice, full day of testimony).  Additionally, the fabricated emails materially assisted Plaintiff’s case against Defendants.  Such actions, said the Court, is a “wrong against the institutions set up to protect the public….fraud cannot be complacently tolerated…”  Thus, the Court found Plaintiff’s behavior threatened to undermine the public’s faith in courts and the discovery process.

Finally, the Court assessed the various sanctions available to it inherently and specifically pursuant to Rule 37.  The Court chose not to impose an adverse jury instruction as that would not remediate the prejudice to Defendants, would not deter this type of egregious conduct, and would be a minimal sanction where, as here, there was significant effort and costs imposed during the process.  In opting not to impose only a financial sanction the Court noted that doing so would convey the wrong message to litigants that money could cure one’s improper actions.   And so, according to the Court, based upon well-established law in the Third Circuit, the only remedy available that was proportional to the deleterious and egregious fraudulent conduct involved here was the outright dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims.  Indeed, “[a] party’s resort to fabricated evidence justifies denial of all relief to that party.”

Conclusion

There is little that needs to be said about this decision, as we all understand the egregious and continual conduct that was at play in this matter and the need for swift and severe sanctions.  The decision, however, reminds us of the vast discretion a Court has when imposing sanctions.

Have questions?  Please contact me at kcole@farrellfritz.com.

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.

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.