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.

Angela Lawrence (“Lawrence”) was a plaintiff in a civil rights action that alleged officers of the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) entered her home in August 2014 without a warrant, pushed her to the ground, damaged her property, and stole $1,000 in cash.   In September 2016, Lawrence provided photographs to her attorney (“Leventhal”) that she claimed depicted the condition of her apartment several days after the incident and which appeared consistent with Lawrence’s recitation of what transpired.  Leventhal accepted his client’s representations and, after reviewing the photographs, saved them to a PDF, Bates-stamped them, and produced them to Defendants At that time, Leventhal was unfamiliar with electronically stored metadata and “did not doubt [that] the photographs were taken contemporaneously with the occurrence of the damage.” (Decl. of Jason L. Leventhal, Esq., in Opp. to Defs.’ Mot. For Sanctions & Attorneys’ Fees & Costs, ECF No. 123 (“Leventhal Decl.”) 15–16.)

During a December 2016 deposition, Lawrence testified that her son or a friend took the photographs two days after the incident. In a subsequent deposition in April 2017, Lawrence asserted that she had taken most of the pictures, that her son had taken a few, and that none of them were taken by the previously described friend.

At that juncture, Leventhal believed his client had memory problems but did not believe she was testifying falsely. In view of Lawrence’s conflicting testimony, Defendants requested the smartphones which Lawrence claimed were used to take the photos. In August 2017, Leventhal objected, but agreed to produce the photographs’ native files, which included metadata. When Defendants checked the photographs’ metadata, they learned that 67 of the 70 photographs had been taken in September 2016—two years after the incident and immediately before Lawrence provided them to Leventhal.

In September 2017, Defendants moved for sanctions against Lawrence and Leventhal. The Court granted in part, and denied in part Defendants’ motion.  Specifically, the Court found Lawrence committed a fraud upon the Court, and dismissed her action.  The Court, however, spared the attorney and held his failure to discover that his client had lied about when digital photos were taken in order to support her case against the NYPD was not sanctionable even though he could have uncovered his client’s fraud by checking the images’ metadata.

In reaching this conclusion Judge Pauley examined each of Rule 11, Rule 26, Rule 37 and the Court’s inherent powers to impose a sanction. While the decision itself (Lawrence v. City of New York, 2018 BL 267050, S.D.N.Y., No. 15cv8947, 7/27/18) provides a detailed analysis of each Rule and its applicability, for purposes of this blog, the Court concluded that none of the Rules provided a basis for imposing a sanction on Leventhal.

The Court, noting that beyond the powers conferred expressly by rule and statute, a federal court has inherent power to sanction a party for bad faith litigation conduct, determined that the creation of staged photos was the beginning of a sustained effort by Lawrence to mislead Defendants and this Court.*   Ultimately, the Court concluded Lawrence’s willful and repeated conduct “requires that the policy favoring adjudication on the merits yield to the need to preserve the integrity of the courts” and dismissed her lawsuit.   Lawrence, however, was spared any sanction.

Conclusion

This decision is an important reminder that we, as attorneys, must verify a client’s representation, especially involving evidence and discovery.  We cannot accept blindly a client’s representation.  Indeed, if an attorney is complicit in making a false or misleading statement to Court or an adversary, we are subject to sanctions and repercussions.  In fact, Judge Pauley showed mercy to Leventhal that is not embraced by all Courts.  See, e.g., Johnson v. BAE Sys., Inc., 307 F.R.D. 220, 226 (D.D.C. 2013) (sanctioning attorney for producing doctored medical records without any inspection or inquiry); Brown v. Tellermate Holdings Ltd., No. 2:11-CV-1122, 2014 WL 2987051 (S.D. Ohio July 1, 2014) (sanctioning attorney who relied on client representations that resulted in failure to uncover basic information about an ESI database, resulting in false or misleading statements to opposing counsel that hampered their ability to carry out discovery).

* It was only after Defendants discovered the metadata that Lawrence acknowledged that the photos were taken in 2016. Lawrence’s attempts to explain the photographs and her deposition testimony continue a pattern of evasion and untruths. First, she asserted the production was caused by conjunctivitis, and presented her prescription for eye drops. (ECF No. 105.) Only after the Court rejected that explanation did Lawrence contend that the production was due to mental illness. However, after providing that explanation, Lawrence submitted further documents in which she amended her deposition testimony and claimed that the photos were taken by her grandson as part of a school project. (ECF No. 132-1, at 76.)  The Court noted that these shifting explanations were as troubling as the photographs themselves.

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

In 2012, Klipsch Group Inc. (“Klipsch”), a manufacturer of sound equipment, filed a complaint against ePRO E-Commerce Ltd. (“ePRO”), alleging an ePRO subsidiary was selling counterfeit headphones.  Through discovery demands, Klipsch called for the production of information relevant to the sale of the allegedly infringing product, including emails and specific sales data.    Eventually, however, it became clear that ePRO was not engaging in a cooperative discovery process but instead was avoiding its discovery obligations.  For example, ePRO:  failed to implement an appropriate legal hold notice even after having been directed by the Trial Court to do so; limited vendor access to electronic data; failed to produce many responsive documents; and (as demonstrated by a forensic examination authorized by the Court) engaged in routine and systematic deletion of thousands of files and emails using a data wiping software long after the suit had commenced.

Because of the numerous and continuous discovery failures, Klipsch moved for sanctions and ultimately filed an ex parte motion seeking additional relief.  The District Court concluded that ePRO willfully spoliated evidence and it imposed various sanctions on ePRO including:

(1)   a jury instruction requiring the jury find that ePRO destroyed relevant emails and related data;

(2)  a jury instruction permitting the jury to infer that the destroyed evidence would have been favorable to Klipsch; and

(3)  Klipsch’s reasonable costs and fees, which the Court ultimately concluded was $2.7 million necessitated by ePRO’s obstructionist behavior.

ePRO filed an interlocutory appeal, arguing that the District Court’s $2.7 million sanction in the case where damages were, at most, $20,000 was impermissibly punitive and grossly disproportionate.

In January, the Second Circuit upheld the District Court’s sanction.  In doing so, the Circuit held that discovery sanctions should be commensurate with the costs occasioned by the sanctionable behavior, not the value attributable to the alleged (or even proven) compensatory damages.  To allow otherwise would, according to the Circuit, force a litigant to a small value dispute to beat risk to suffer blatant and egregious discovery misconduct.  And so, sanctions must be proportionate to the costs inflicted on a party – irrespective of total case value – by virtue of that party having to remediate discovery misconduct by its adversary.

Consistent with the theme of cooperative discovery, the Second Circuit noted that “the integrity of our civil litigation process requires that the parties….carry out their duties to maintain and disclose the relevant information in their possession in good faith.”    Like the countless other cases I have blogged about since December 2015, this decision serves as another reminder that judges expect cooperation between the parties and their attorneys during the litigation process to achieve orderly and cost-effective discovery; indeed, it is a priority.  Had ePRO and its counsel simply cooperated with their adversary and engaged in good faith discovery, the outcome here would have been entirely different.*

 

 

* Cooperation among counsel is critically important and the means to insure compliance with Rule 1’s mandate that the parties are responsible for securing the “just, speedy and inexpensive determination” of a civil litigation.  Indeed, the revised committee notes state, “[m]ost lawyers and parties to cooperate to achieve these ends” and “[e]ffective advocacy is consistent with – and indeed depends upon – cooperative and proportional use of procedure.”

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.

In past blogs, I have discussed the importance of issuing a litigation hold notice (“Hold”), as soon as a litigation is reasonably anticipated. I have also written about various best practices when drafting one’s Hold. [See Practical Tips For an Effective Litigation Hold Notice and Your Litigation Hold Must be Generally Broad And Specifically Tailored]. In an effort to avoid reiterating those blog posts in full, suffice it to say it is critically important to:

  1. provide custodians with detailed instructions on what they are expected to do upon receipt of the Hold; and
  2. ensure that the Hold sets forth the specifics of what information must be preserved, thus limiting any discretion vested in the recipients of the Hold.

A recent decision out of the District of New Mexico reminds us of these best practices.

In N.M. Oncology & Hematology Consultants v. Presbyterian Healthcare Servs., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130959 (D.N.M. Aug. 16, 2017), the plaintiff moved the District Court for adverse inference sanctions against the defendants alleging defendants failed to implement a proper litigation hold (“Notice”) because, among other things, the Notice impermissibly gave discretion to employees to determine what information might be relevant to the lawsuit and thus subject to the Notice. Plaintiff contended that permitting such discretion was per se inadequate.

The Court, however, concluded that the discretion the employees were cloaked with in this specific instance was limited and, therefore, the Notice was not inadequate.  Specifically, the employees were directed to retain documents and data “that mention or discuss or relate to any of” an exhaustive list of subjects. The recipient-employees were also directed that if “you are unsure about the relevance of a document, be cautious and preserve it.”

In reaching its conclusion, the Court observed that defendant’s employees were not given a generic retain relevant documents instruction but rather one with sufficient specificity that the employees had little, if any, discretion, and were further instructed to err on the side of preservation.

While the Court further noted that allowing individual employees to exercise discretion as to whether to retain data is not, alone, indicative of bad faith nor does it render a Hold per se inadequate, the decision reminds us that generic “preserve all relevant data” instructions should never be the basis of one’s Hold. The decision also serves as an important reminder that one’s Hold should be drafted in a way that it effectively 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, thus eliminating discretionary decisions to the greatest extent possible.

Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, No. 17 Civ. 3360 (RWS), 2017 WL 3721777 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2017)  

In this case, the Southern District of New York imposed an adverse inference against defendants for their failure to preserve text messages that were in the possession of a non-party.  Specifically, Judge Sweet imposed an adverse inference against defendants based upon the spoliation of non-party text messages after concluding that as a result of the non-party’s: close working relationship with the defendants; his prior production of documents in the litigation; and his financial interest in the at-issue film, defendants had the practical ability to obtain the text messages, irrespective of any legal right to those messages.

The underlying dispute involves certain prohibitions on the use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s likeness and name. For the readers who may be too young to have a full appreciation of the band and its traumatic history, a brief factual background is provided.

On October 20, 1977, two members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd rock band, and a number of other people were killed in a plane crash in Mississippi.*  However, a number of people, including Artimus Pyle (“Pyle”) (the band’s drummer), survived the crash.  In the years that followed, the three surviving band members and Ronnie Van Zant’s surviving spouse (“Judy”) entered into what has been called a “blood oath.”  Under the blood oath, it was agreed that no surviving band member would ever perform again as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

In 1987, to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the crash, the band’s surviving members reunited for a tribute tour.  Judy disputed use of the band’s name and sought to enjoin use of the band’s name in the performance (the “1988 Lawsuit”).  The 1988 Lawsuit was resolved by the parties’ entry of a consent order, judgment and decree (the “Consent Decree”).  Pyle – who was represented by counsel in connection with the 1988 Lawsuit – was a signatory to the Consent Decree.  Among other things, the Consent Decree set forth various restrictions on the how the parties to the 1988 Lawsuit could use the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the name/image/likeness of Ronnie Van Zant and band member Steve Gaines, who also perished in the crash.  Among other restrictions, the parties were prohibited from commercially exploiting the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd without prior written approval.

In 2016, defendant Cleopatra Records, through one of its affiliate divisions (collectively, “Cleopatra”), sought to make a feature-length film based on the 1977 crash. Jared Cohn (“Cohn”) was hired as the director and writer for the proposed film.  Former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer, Pyle, was hired to work on the script with Cohn and ultimately signed an agreement with Cleopatra that entitled him to 5% of the film’s net receipts.  Pyle also contracted to narrate the film, make a cameo appearance and contribute an original song to the film.  In the course of his work on the film (tentatively titled, Free Bird), Cohn (who was paid by, but not an employee of Cleopatra) worked closely with Pyle, relying almost exclusively on phone calls and text messages to communicate.

Around the end of June, 2016, Cleopatra put out press releases advertising the film and Pyle’s involvement.  On July 15, 2016, Plaintiffs** sent Cleopatra a cease and desist letter (“Letter”).  In the Letter, Plaintiffs requested a copy of the film’s script and outlined the various restrictions in the Consent Decree.  Soon thereafter, Plaintiffs sent Cleopatra a copy of the Consent Decree.  When, many months later, Plaintiffs discovered Cleopatra was proceeding with production, they filed an action in the Southern District of New York alleging a violation of the Consent Decree, seeking a permanent injunction against Cleopatra and an award of costs and attorneys’ fees (“SDNY Lawsuit”).

Cohn was not a party to the SDNY Lawsuit.

While the Opinion and Order of the Court (“Order”) determined the merits of the lawsuit (spoiler alert – Judge Sweet granted the permanent injunction and awarded attorneys’ fees to Plaintiffs), the balance of this blog discusses only that portion of the Order relevant to a party’s preservation obligations. (Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, No. 17 Civ. 3360 (RWS), 2017 WL 3721777 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2017)).

In May 2017 — after commencement of the SDNY Lawsuit — Cohn switched cell phone providers and began using a new phone.  “Although certain data on Cohn’s old phone was backed-up, such as pictures, other data was not preserved, such as Cohn’s text messages, including those sent and received from Pyle.”  As a result, Plaintiffs moved, “either pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e) or the Court’s inherent authority” for an adverse inference with respect to the unpreserved text messages between Cohn and Pyle.

In response to Plaintiffs’ motion, Cleopatra argued that it could not be sanctioned for the actions of Cohn (a non-party) because neither Cohn nor his phone were within its control.  The Court, however, disagreed with Cleopatra.  Specifically, Judge Sweet noted the “concept of control”—pursuant to which documents are considered to be under a party’s control—has been construed broadly and is satisfied “if the party has the practical ability to obtain the documents from another, irrespective of his legal entitlement.”  The Court continued:

Here, while Cohn is a non-party, his text messages were, practically speaking, under Cleopatra’s control. Cohn was contracted by Cleopatra to work on the Film, and the evidence has establishes [sic] that he worked closely with Cleopatra for over the past year. Over the course of the instant litigation, Cohn has participated by providing documents and took a deposition sought by Plaintiffs during discovery. As has been found relevant in other cases determining the relationship between a party and non-parties, Cohn also has a financial interest in the outcome of this litigation, since he is entitled to a percentage of the Film’s net receipts, which would be zero should Plaintiffs prevail. In sum, while determining practical control is not an exact science, “common sense” indicates that Cohn’s texts with Pyle were within Cleopatra’s control, and in the face of pending litigation over Pyle’s role in the Film, should have been preserved.

(Citations omitted.)

The Court further noted that Cohn’s actions (i.e., “getting a new phone after Plaintiffs brought the instant action and managing to back-up pictures but, somehow, not text messages”) demonstrate the “kind of deliberate behavior that sanctions are intended to prevent and weigh in favor of an adverse inference.” Docket No. 61, p. 28-29.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that an adverse inference would be presumed against Cleopatra as to the missing text messages.

CONCLUSION

Because this decision concludes a party can be sanctioned for the failures of a third-party, it is critically important to assess what third-parties, if any, you have a practical ability to secure documents/information from when issuing your hold notices.

For example, does your client have the “practical ability” to retrieve documents from its software vendor? From its payroll provider? From its accountant? If so, and that third-party may have responsive information, you should seek to preserve that information and give serious consideration to issuing a litigation hold to that non-party.

*Among those who lost their lives were lead singer and song writer, Ronnie Van Zant.

**Plaintiffs include Ronnie Van Zant, Inc., Gary R. Rossington, Johnny Van Zant, Barbara Houston as the Trustee of the Allen Collins Trust, and Alicia Rapp and Carinna Gaines Biemiller as personal representatives of the estate of Steven Gaines.

*** It is also interesting to note that there was no analysis of prejudice suffered, if any, by plaintiffs as a result of this preservation failure.  This is interesting in light of the fact that the 2015 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were intended, in part, to allow a party to secure sanctions only when failures to preserve resulted in an actual prejudice or harm.  Here, the decision and order seems to infer there was prejudice – an inference more typically permitted under the pre-amendment rules.

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 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.

In a decision dated May 26, 2017, Justice Chan of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County, struck the defendant’s answer.    Although the Court acknowledged that the imposition of this particular sanction was “severe,” Justice Chan deemed it warranted in light of the “egregious” and deliberate misconduct of the defendant.

The substantive allegations in the underlying lawsuit involve the parent company of an Indian programming channel (Mumbai-based Iris Mediaworks Ltd.,) accusing a former executive (“Vasisht”) and his company (“IKK Inc.”) of breaching fiduciary duties, competing unfairly and misappropriating trade secrets.  Specifically, the suit claims that Iris owned a South Asian entertainment channel called Get Punjabi that DISH broadcast on its satellite in the U.S., and that Vasisht set up IKK, Inc., a competitor that now broadcasts extensive programming previously shown on Get Punjabi. The complaint names six defendants and includes 12 causes of action.  That litigation was commenced on July 14, 2014.

The litigation was proceeding forward when, on October 26, 2016, the Chairman and Managing director of Iris (Rajendra Karnik) discovered that all the emails in his work account were being forwarded to another account (anonymous331100@gmail.com) without either his knowledge or his consent.    As a result, Karnik subpoenaed Google® requesting certain information about the anonymous331100@gmail.com account.   Karnik learned, among other things, that the “anonymous” account was created July 10, 2014 – four days prior to the instant lawsuit being commenced.

Karnik also learned – with the help of a computer forensic consultant – that the “auto-forward functionality” was enabled on his work email (without his knowledge or consent) to forward all of Karnik’ s emails to the “anonymous” account.  Therefore, every email in the Karnik account was simultaneously accessible by the “anonymous” account owner.   The consultant also determined that the “anonymous” account received Karnik’ s emails via the auto-forward functionality from July 10, 2014 through October 27, 2016 and, during that time forwarded 317 emails (including Karnik’ s communications with his attorney regarding the litigation strategy of this lawsuit) to another email account manish@a2zmediausa.com.    The consultant further demonstrated the existence of two other dummy accounts that received Karnik’ s emails and routinelyforwarded those emails to Vasisht.

Based upon the foregoing, plaintiffs moved by Order to Show Cause to have Vasisht’s Answer stricken based upon Vasisht’s intentional hacking of their emails and taking of protected materials.    In opposition, Vasisht did not offer any evidence to contradict the computer forensic consultant’s findings.  Rather, he interposed only a general denial of knowing about either the “anonymous” account or the dummy accounts, which Justice Chan categorized as “half-hearted.”

The Court in striking the answer, observed:

“There are no issues raised…as to whether the 2000 plus hacked emails were…protected material. However, even if there were an issue, the hacking of plaintiffs’ email during litigation can only be seen as an attempt to undermine plaintiffs’ case.  It is also indicative of…[a] disregard for the judicial process.  While striking a defendant’s answer is an extreme sanction, it is warranted here as hacking plaintiffs’ email to obtain information during litigation without going through proper discovery channels is an egregious act and sidesteps discovery procedures.” (internal citations omitted).

While this case is illustrative of unequivocal bad behavior that hopefully is infrequently encountered, it serves as an important reminder of the various sanctions – including the striking of a pleading – available to Judges.  When parties/counsel engage in conduct deserving of sanctions.