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.

Mueller v. Swift, (D. Col. 2017) 2017 WL 2362137

Some opinions just have it all, and Mueller v. Swift does not disappoint!  Indeed, in this lawsuit, Taylor Swift, the pop sensation who has been sweeping the nation, alleges she was the victim of sexual misconduct, assault, and battery.

What in the world do such allegations have to do with this blog you ask? Well, even the rich and famous sometimes have to confront issues of spoliated electronically stored information (ESI).

Relevant Facts: The scene is downtown Denver—the Pepsi Center—home of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey team, the Denver Nuggets Basketball team, and host to concerts and various social events year round. On June 2, 2013, it played host to one of the biggest stars of the last decade, Taylor Swift (“Swift”). KYGO radio station was one of the entities represented at a “meet and greet” with Swift just prior to Swift’s RED TOUR. The radio station representative, David Mueller (“Mueller”), was invited to pose for a photo with Swift during the meet and greet.   Swift alleges, and uses a photo as evidence, that Mueller reached up her skirt and touched her bottom inappropriately during the photo op.

As a result, KYGO was notified of the incident, and assured Swift’s entourage and representatives that an investigation would be undertaken and, Mueller dealt with accordingly.

Ultimately, Mueller was terminated from his position at KYGO and this civil suit ensued.

As it turns out, Mueller recorded his conversations with KYGO representatives during the meeting that ultimately led to his termination. When compelled to produce those recordings during discovery, it was revealed that Mueller edited the audio clips to reflect those portions he deemed “important.”

The Swift camp was not appreciative of Mueller’s editing “assistance” and advised the Court they were entitled to the 2 hours of audio recordings; not just the “important” soundbites. However, in response to Swift’s demand for the full audio recordings, Mueller interposed a number of reasons why that was not possible, many of which — in my opinion–defied reason.

First, the laptop, on which the recording was stored, was a casualty of Mueller’s early morning routine and suffered an untimely death by a raging torrent of coffee.  Muller, in a desperate attempt to save the data, ran to Apple to try and repair or salvage what he could. Unfortunately, despite the Apple genius bar’s attempt to resuscitate the laptop, the computer — and all of its content — was gone.  But of course a man who worked for a radio station in the digital age was well versed in the benefits of backing up his data so Mueller’s external hard drive — the backup for his laptops — would necessarily have the full recording. While one may expect the recording to reside on the external backup, Mueller advised the external hard drive was lost by him a year or so before the case was filed. As a result, the full audio recording was no longer available.

As a result, Swift’s legal team moved the court for spoliation sanctions against Mueller. Most importantly, Swift wanted an adverse inference jury instruction. In simplest form, the adverse instruction proposed was to allow the jury to infer that whatever was stored on any device that suffered an early fate, was detrimental to Mueller’s causes of action.

The Colorado District Court, however, ruled that spoliation sanctions were reserved for instances where “there is proof that the party who lost or destroyed evidence did so in bad faith.” Relying on Tenth Circuit precedent, the Court stated, “Mere negligence in losing or destroying records is not enough because it does not support an inference of consciousness of a weak case.” Turner v. Pub. Serv. Co. of Colo., 563 F.3d 1136, 1149 (10th Cir. 2009). So, while the incidents that led to the destruction of the evidence were convenient, to say the least, without any evidence the recording was destroyed/modified in bad faith, foreclosed any adverse inference instruction against Mueller.

What does this case mean for E-discovery?

So, what’s the lesson?  When moving for spoliation sanctions under current Rule 37, be mindful the court is looking to punish bad faith conduct not merely negligent behavior.  Therefore, understand the facts and circumstances underpinning the spoliation and, if appropriate, advance the necessary arguments to support a finding of bad faith.

But, this case also reminds us that E-Discovery and ESI issues are everywhere. Indeed, they are not unique to corporate America but plague Hollywood starlets, mom and pop business owners, and individual litigants alike.  In today’s increasingly electronic age, it is a rare few who do not create/receive and/or store information electronically.

*A special thanks to Farrell Fritz Summer law clerk Philip Merenda for his research and drafting assistance with Taylor Swift and the Java-Dump:  An E-Discovery Tale.  Philip is a student at Georgetown University Law and anticipates receiving his J.D. in 2018.

According to the Complaint filed in Michael Distefano and Nicole Distefano v Law Offices of Barbara H. Katsos, PC and Barbara H. Katsos, Michael DiStefano and a non-party were owners of a limited liability company that was the franchisee of three Cold Stone Creamery Inc. ice cream parlors.  In 2006, the three stores suffered financial difficulties due to an extended power failure earlier in 2006.  The Complaint further alleges that as a result, DiStefano sought legal advice from Barbara Katsos, Esq., and eventually retained her for the purposes of commencing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding.   That proceeding was ultimately withdrawn in 2010 and subsequently the DiStefanos filed the instant lawsuit. The Complaint interposes claims of legal malpractice in connection with the Chapter 11 proceeding along with claims for breach of contract and breaches of fiduciary duty.

The focus of this blog will be Katsos’ failure to preserve data relevant to the malpractice lawsuit.

Relevant Facts Per Court’s Decision

During a discovery status conference before Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson, counsel for Defendants advised the Court that Katsos had discarded her computer at some point prior to the malpractice litigation being commenced.  In response, the Court directed defense counsel to provide the Court with an affidavit detailing the circumstances of how the computer was discarded.   After receipt of the affidavit, the DiStefanos moved for spoliation sanctions pursuant to Rule 37.   The Court temporarily denied that motion, without prejudice, pending a hearing.  See DiStefano v Law Office of Barbara H. Katsos, PC, No. CV 11-2893, 2013 WL 1339548, at *9 (EDNY Mar 29, 2013).  Specifically, the Court found that “a hearing is necessary to explore the circumstances under which the alleged spoliation occurred” (id. at *8) (internal quotations omitted).  The Court instructed Katsos to be prepared to testify – or bring someone who could testify – as to specific topics relevant to the issue of spoliation (i.e., the document preservation undertaken when the DiStefanos instituted an adversary proceeding in March 2010).

Which Rule 37 Applies?

Before assessing the testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, Judge Tomlinson was required to determine which version of Rule 37(e) was applicable to the motion – those in effect pre-2015 amendment? Or those currently in effect in 2017?    Citing Magistrate Judge Francis’ decision in Cat3, LLC v Black Lineage, Inc. (144 FSupp3d 488 [SDNY 2016]) (previously mentioned in my August 31, 2016 E-Discovery Update: ESI Sanctions in Federal Court During 2016 (Well, through July)), the Court noted that for cases filed before the effective date of the amendments, courts have discretion to determine which version of the Rule to apply based upon what is “just and practicable.”    Thus, Judge Tomlinson opted for the older version of the Rules based upon three considerations. First, the parties briefed the spoliation motion in 2013 based upon the former Rule 37 in.  Second, the evidentiary hearing was conducted under the tenants of former Rule 37.  And third, the conduct relevant to the motion began more than seven years before the current version of Rule 37 took effect.

Relevant Testimony At Hearing*

According to the Court, the testimony at the evidentiary hearing established the following facts:

  • While representing the DiStefanos in 2009, Katsos’ office computer crashed and a freelance computer technician told Katsos it “was bad and that nothing could be recovered”;
  • That same technician replaced the defective computer parts and drilled holes in the replaced hard drives;
  • At no time after this litigation began did Katsos take any affirmative steps to save electronic information;
  • Katsos did not issue any written instructions to her staff regarding the obligation to preserve ESI;
  • Katsos testified she was “amazed” she did not find more emails when searching her AOL accounts;
  • Katsos contacted her email provider only to learn that AOL “had no ability to save emails past the 27-day mark” absent some affirmative action by Katsos earlier;
  • Katsos’ electronic retention policies were essentially non-existent in that “everything was made in hardcopy” (and emails Katsos deemed subjectively relevant were often printed) and filed in storage cabinets;
  • There was no backup system in place to preserve electronic data;
  • Katsos was unaware of any method to set up automatic deletion of emails from her email account nor was she aware of how emails might be saved or deleted from a “sent folder”; and
  • Katsos’ office manager was not computer savvy and Katsos knew this when she hired the office manager.

Court’s Conclusion

Notwithstanding the foregoing facts, Magistrate Judge Tomlinson spared Katsos the most severe sanctions available to the Court under the pre-amendment Rule 37(e) because the Court believed that Katsos’ actions were not taken in bad faith.   Specifically, the Court noted that “[r]ather than bad faith…Katsos’ actions were occasioned by (1) her position as a solo practitioner utterly naïve about her obligations to preserve electronic evidence and (2) her total reliance upon and complete delegation to an outside consultant the responsibility for setting up and maintaining the computer system in her office.”   Moreover, the Court found that Katsos’ “utter ignorance of (i) her ESI preservation responsibilities and (ii) her efforts to save ‘substantive’ emails can be considered, to some degree, as ‘positive evidence’ of good faith.”

Ultimately, the Court concluded, “on the ‘continuum of fault ranging from innocence to the degree of negligence to intentionality’….this case falls on the spectrum between negligence and gross negligence, and closer to the former than the latter.’” Indeed, the Court found no evidence of intentional or malicious spoliation but said Katsos had “at the very least, acted with a ‘pure heart and an empty head.’”

Thus, the Court ordered Katsos to pay Defendants’ attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in connection with the spoliation motion as a sanction.

Lesson

Although the Court demonstrated leniency when imposing its sanctions, there are many important lessons to internalize from the Court’s 60-page decision.  Included among them:

  • The pre-Amendment Rules are alive and well.  Given that litigations tend to span many years, it is possible you/client could be subject to stiffer sanctions under the still-viable former Rule 37(e);
  • Ignorance of one’s preservation obligations will not insulate you from sanctions.  In fact, while Katsos’ lack of computer sophistication may have helped her when it came time for sanctions to be imposed (i.e., she was merely negligent), the fact remains she was sanctioned!  And remember – certain state’s ethics decisions expressly find that ignorance of technology is a violation of one’s duty of competence; and
  • Finally, there are resources available to help smaller firms and solo practitioners comply with their various discovery obligations – including me!  Farrell Fritz’s E-Discovery practice group is always willing to help so don’t hesitate to contact us if confronted with an ESI issue

* Memorandum and Order, dated May 10, 2017

In Hsueh v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Fin. Servs., (No. 15 Civ. 3401 [PAC], 2017 WL 1194706 [S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2017]) the Southern District imposed spoliation sanctions (specifically, an adverse inference) on the plaintiff in a sexual harassment case, because of her intentional deletion of a recorded conversation relevant to her allegations.  While the court deemed the recording ESI, it ultimately concluded the Rule 37(e) applied only to situations where a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve ESI; not to situations where, as here, a party intentionally deleted relevant information.

Factual Background

Hsueh filed her sexual harassment complaint on May 1, 2015. During her deposition almost a year later (April 20, 2016), plaintiff stated she did not believe she had any recorded conversations relevant to her lawsuit, but it was possible she may have such recordings.  As the deposition continued, however, Hsueh eventually revealed that she had recorded one conversation with a Human Resources representative but later deleted the recording because it was not “worth keeping” and “was not very clear.” She testified she deleted that recording in either December 2015 or January 2016.

A few weeks after Hsueh’s deposition, defendants filed a letter with the Court requesting a pre-motion conference on a proposed motion for spoliation sanctions in connection with Hsueh’s intentional deletion of the recording. Immediately before Plaintiff’s response was to be filed, Plaintiff’s counsel informed the Court that Hsueh provided him with a recording of the deleted conversation, which Plaintiff was able to recover with the help of her husband.  The result – discovery was reopened for 90 days so that Defendants could depose (again) Plaintiff and her husband.  The Court also reserved the right to impose upon Plaintiff the attorney’s fees and the costs incurred by Defendant’s in connection with reopening discovery.

Notwithstanding the additional discovery and depositions, Defendants proceeded with their sanctions motion.

Relying upon the plain language of Rule 37(e), the Court found the Rule 37 inapplicable in the present instance. The Court continued:

“Because Rule 37(e) does not apply, the Court may rely on its inherent power to control litigation in imposing spoliation sanctions. A party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense. If these elements are established, a district court may, at its discretion, grant an adverse inference jury instruction insofar as such a sanction would serve the threefold purpose of (1) deterring parties from destroying evidence; (2) placing the risk of an erroneous evaluation of the content of the destroyed evidence on the party responsible for its destruction; and (3) restoring the party harmed by the loss of evidence helpful to its case to where the party would have been in the absence of spoliation.”

The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that sanctions were not appropriate because the recording in issue was ultimately produced.*

Thus, having concluded Hsueh’s actions were the result of a culpable mind, rather than inadvertence, the Court exercised its inherent powers, imposed an adverse inference on Plainiff and granted to Defendants its attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in bringing the spoliation motion and in reopening discovery.

*Specifically, the Court concluded the produced recording was incomplete due to a number of factors including the length of the recording, that it cut off in mid-sentence, and Plaintiff’s husband’s concession that he could not be sure the recording was complete.

In Arrowhead Capital Fin. Ltd. v. Seven Arts Entertainment, Inc. 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 126545 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 16, 2016), District Judge Katherine Polk Failla imposed significant sanctions upon both the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) and the lawyer for defendant Seven Arts Entertainment Inc. (“SAE”).

Background

Arrowhead Capital Finance, Ltd. (“Arrowhead”) sued SAE in 2014 seeking to enforce a judgment it had little ability to enforce because all of the assets held by the debtor had been sold to SAE.  SAE filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the Court lacked personal jurisdiction.  The Court denied the motion pending discovery.

In a letter dated September 21, 2015, Plaintiff claimed SAE and its counsel had engaged in various misconduct during discovery.  The violations alleged to have been undertaken to slow down discovery included:

  • SAE inflated their document productions with nonresponsive documents;
  • SAE refused to produce critical responsive documents;
  • SAE’s discovery responses were incomplete and replete with improper objections; and
  • SAE refused to produce key witnesses for deposition.

The Court held a conference to address Arrowhead’s complaints.  During that conference, SAE’s counsel acknowledged he had not reviewed the discovery responses interposed by his client and merely forwarded to his attorney the materials he received from SAE’s CEO.

As a result of this admission, the Court stated it had no confidence SAE would meet its discovery obligations and ordered SAE’s CEO to personally appear to testify concerning the alleged misconduct.  The Court also ordered SAE to produce the responsive documents Arrowhead requested but never received.

Notwithstanding the Court’s various orders, SAE refused to produce witnesses for deposition or produce the required documents.

Because the Court deemed SAE’s CEO to be directing counsel not to comply with the Court’s orders, Arrowhead moved for sanctions.  In response, the CEO testified his offices were “paperless” and the third-party server upon which documents were maintained was destroyed as a result of SAE’s failure to pay its bills (which he claimed was unintentional).  The CEO also cast blame on various staff people to whom he had purportedly delegated the task of complying with the Court’s orders.

The Court concluded SAE was willfully making misrepresentations to the Court and showed “flagrant disregard for” Court orders for the purpose of withholding information from Arrowhead.  As a result, the Court held SAE forfeited its jurisdictional arguments due to non-compliance with Court orders.  The Court further determined a spoliation instruction would be provided in connection with any claims ultimately submitted to the jury.  Defendants’ CEO also was ordered to pay Arrowhead’s costs in association with bringing its various motions and was ordered to retain separate legal counsel to conduct a thorough review of SAE’s files to assess whether additional responsive information remained to be produced.  Defendants’ counsel, who was deemed complicit in the violations,  was ordered to pay a portion of Plaintiff’s costs.

Conclusion

This decision reinforces that counsel may not turn a blind eye to a client’s behavior nor may counsel simply follow the instructions of clients.  Rather, counsel has a duty to ensure that good faith efforts are taken to comply with discovery obligations.  This case also reminds us that the amended Rule 37(e) does not lessen punishments for willful or intentional e-discovery misconduct.  Rather, bad faith behavior will be met with sanctions, not only for the party, but for counsel as well.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 (along with others — Rules 1, 16, 26 and 34) was amended, effective December 1, 2015.

The amendment to Rule 37(e) was intended, in part, to ensure practitioners/litigants were fully aware of their preservation obligations, to ensure a uniformity of sanctions imposed upon parties and practitioners who failed to preserve discoverable electronically stored information (“ESI”), and to make adequate preservation a realistic goal, requiring that only “reasonable steps” be taken to preserve information. Indeed, the amendment requires a finding of intent or bad faith before sanctions can be imposed based upon spoliated information. (*)  Now, nearly a year after the enactment, it appears, from a review of the case law, that the amendment to Rule 37 (e) is effective in achieving its intended purposes.

Not only have federal court decisions involving sanctions declined since Rule 37’s amendment but, practitioners appear to be in better compliance with their preservation obligations since the amendment.

What Do the 2016 Statistics Look Like
Forty-nine federal decisions have cited Rule 37(e) since the Rule was amended. (**) Of these 49 decisions (20 of which did not apply Rule 37), thirteen decisions granted sanctions and sixteen decisions denied sanctions and/or reserved imposing sanctions. And so, sanctions were issued by courts approximately 40% of the time. Interestingly, the nature of the sanctions imposed spanned the gamut and included financial sanctions, adverse inferences, evidence preclusion, or a combination of sanctions. However, the most common sanction issued was an adverse inference.

Indeed, of the 13 decisions that granted sanctions:

• one decision entered a default judgment,
• three decisions precluded reliance upon certain evidence,
• seven decisions imposed monetary sanctions, and
• eight decisions imposed sanctions in the form of adverse inference sanctions. (***)

NB: some decisions imposed more than one type of sanction pursuant to 37(e).

Additionally, there was a variety of “lost” ESI at issue in the various decisions. Specifically,

• Twelve decisions involved unpreserved email data,
• Four decisions involved unpreserved text messages,
• Three decisions involved unpreserved portable device data,
• Two decisions involved unpreserved videos,
• Two decisions involved unpreserved phone call recordings,
• Two decisions involved unpreserved Internet browsing history,
• One decision involved unpreserved social media,
• Twelve decisions involved unpreserved non-email business data.

While 49 federal court decisions, in less than a year, have referenced Rule 37(e), that number is far fewer than in years past. In fact, according to research sources, the number of sanction decisions in 2011 totalled 150; and in 2012 that number was 120. Thus, it would appear that sanction decisions are on the decline. Moreover, given that there are 900 sitting federal judges, one could argue that sanctions have not lightly been sought since the Federal Rules amendments.

FOOTNOTES:

* Although Judge Scheindlin’s Zubulake opinions (which made it explicit that parties have a duty to preserve evidence when litigation is imminent) were authored many years ago, lawyers and parties nonetheless continued to fail to preserve evidence.

** Those 49 cases are:
CAT3, LLC v. Black Lineage, Inc., 2016 WL 154116 (S.D.N.Y. 2016)
O’Berry v. Turner, 2016 WL 1700403 (M.D. Ga., Valdosta Div. 2016)
Matthew Enterprise, Inc. v. Chrysler Group LLC, 2016 WL 2957133 (N.D. Cal. 2016)
GN Netcom, Inc. v. Plantronics, Inc., 2016 WL 3792833 (D. Del. 2016)
Learning Care Group, Inc. v. Armetta, 2016 WL 4191251 (D. Conn. 2016)
Best Payphones, Inc. v. City of New York, 2016 WL 792396 (E.D.N.Y. 2016)
Nuvasive, Inc. v. Madsen Medical, Inc., 2015 WL 305096 (S.D. Cal. 2016)
Thomas v. Butkiewicus, 2016 WL 1718368 (D. Conn 2016)
Ericksen v. Kaplan Higher Education, LLC, 2016 WL 695789 (D. Md. 2016)
BMG Rights Mgmt. (US) LLC v. Cox Comms., Inc., 2016 WL 4224964 (E.D. Va., Alexandria Div., 2016)
Brown Jordan Int’l, Inc. v. Carmicle, 2016 WL 815827 (S.D. Fl. 2016)
Core Laboratories LP v. Spectrum Tracer Services, L.L.C., 2016 WL 879324 (W.D. Okl. 2016)
Internmatch, Inc. v. Nxtbigthing, LLC, 2016 WL 491483 (N.D. Cal. 2016)
Living Color Enterprises, Inc. v. New Era Aquaculture, Ltd., 2016 WL 1105297 (S.D. Fl. 2016)
Marshall v. Dentfirst, P.C., 313 F.R.D. 691 (N.D. Ga., Atl. Div.)
Marten Transport, Ltd. v. Plattform Advertising, Inc., 2016 WL 492743 (D. Kansas 2016)
Saller v. QVC, Inc., 2016 WL 4063411 (E.D. Penn. 2016)
Martinez v. City of Chicago, 2016 WL 3538823 (N.D. Ill., Eastern Div. 2016)
Fiteq Inc. v. Venture Corporation, 2016 WL 1701794 (N.D. Cal. 2016)
Accurso v. Infra-Red Services, Inc., 2016 WL 930686 (E.D. Penn 2016)
United States v. Woodley, 2016 WL 1553583 (E.D. Mich., Southern Div. 2016)
Marquette Transportation Co. Gulf Island, LLC v. Chembulk Westport M/V, 2016 WL 930946 (E.D. La. 2016)
Orchestratehr, Inc. v. Trombetta, 2016 WL 1555784 (N.D. Tex., Dallas Div. 2016)
Thurmond v. Bowman, 2016 WL 1295957 (W.D.N.Y. 2016)
Mazzei v. Money Store, 2016 WL 3902256 (2d Cir. 2016)
Brackett v. Stellar Recovery, Inc., 2016 WL 1321415 (E.D. Tenn., Knoxville 2016)
Bagley v. Yale Univ., 2016 WL 3264141 (D. Conn 2016)
Thomley v. Bennett, 2016 WL 498436 (S.D. Ga., Waycross Div., 2016)
Granados v. Traffic Bar and Restaurant, Inc., 2015 WL 9582430 (S.D.N.Y. 2015)
Dr Distributors, LLC v. 21 Century Smoking, Inc., 2016 WL 4077107 (N.D. Ill., Western Div. 2016)
Henry Schein, Inc. v. Cook, 2016 WL 3212457 (N.D. Cal. 2016)
Bruner v. American Honda Motor Co., 2016 WL 2757401 (S.D. Al., Southern Div. 2016)
In re Bridge Construction Services of Florida, Inc., 2016 WL 2755877 (S.D.N.Y. 2016)
Markey v. Lapolla Industries, Inc., 2015 WL 5027522 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (Tomlinson, U.S.M.J.)
Dao v. Liberty Life Assurance Co. of Boston, 2016 WL 796095 (N.D. Cal. 2016)
Zbylski v. Douglas County School District, 2015 WL 9583380 (D. Colo. 2016)
Redwind v. Western Union, LLC, 2016 WL 1732871 (D. Or. 2016)
Stinson v. City of New York, 2016 WL 54684 (S.D.N.Y. 2016)
Whitesell Corp. v. Electrolux Home Products, Inc., 2016 WL 1317673 (S.D. Ga., Augusta Div. 2016)
Vay v. Huston, 2016 WL 1408116 (W.D. Penn. 2016)
Hammad v. Dynamo Stadium, LLC, 2015 WL 6965215 (S.D. Tex., Houston Div. 2015)
Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Exeter Holdings, Ltd. v. Haltman, 2015 WL 5027899 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (Tomlinson, U.S.M.J.)
United States v. Woodley, 2016 WL 2731186 (E.D. Mich., Southern Div.)
Grove City Veterinary Service, LLC v. Charter Practices Inter., LLC, 2015 WL 4937393 (D. Or. 2015)
United States v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America, 2016 WL 901608 (D. Idaho 2016)
Coale v. Metro-North Railroad Co., 2016 WL 1441790 (D. Conn. 2016)
Fleming v. Escort, Inc., 2015 WL 5611576 (D. Idaho 2015)
Kissing Camels Surgery Center, LLC v. Centura Health Corp., 2016 WL 277721 (D. Colo. 2016)
McIntosh v. United States, 2016 WL 1274585 (S.D.N.Y. 2016)

*** Of the 19 cases in which sanctions were not granted, the reasons for denying sanctions varied. Indeed, courts declined to impose sanctions because the party “took reasonable steps” to preserve data; party was not harmed by the fact the ESI was missing; there was insufficient evidence of bad faith; and the missing data was “restored through other methods.”

We all know that it can be damaging to one’s case if a party to a litigation fails to preserve relevant information.  But when, exactly, does one’s duty to preserve (potentially relevant information) arise?  And what type of sanctions are federal courts imposing under the amended federal rules for preservation failures?

When Does One’s Duty to Preserve Arise?

Different jurisdictions have different rules regarding when the duty to preserve arises but the most common standard is once that party “reasonably anticipates litigation.” This standard is well established in the federal courts and is embraced in New York (see, e.g., Voom HD Holdings LLC v EchoStar Satellite, (2010 NY Slip Op 33764(U)).

And, while it can (sometimes) be difficult to pinpoint precisely when one reasonably anticipates litigation, a recent case in the Northern District of California demonstrates one party’s blatant disregard for its obligation to preserve.  Specifically, in Mathew Enter. v. Chrysler Grp. LLC (No. 13-cv-04236-BLF, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67561 [N.D. Cal. May 23, 2016]), the plaintiff made no effort to preserve its internal or external emails after threatening the defendant with litigation.  Not only did plaintiff affirmatively change the email system it utilized for its business and did so after threatening Chrysler Group, LLC with a lawsuit, but Mathew Enterprises also failed to notify its database vendor of the litigation it threatened to file against defendant.   As a result, potentially relevant emails continued to be deleted regularly per normal business practice.  Indeed, there was no suspension of the auto-delete functionality used by Mathew Enterprises and no efforts were taken to otherwise maintain the emails.

Resulting Sanctions?

The Chrysler Group, LLC moved for sanctions against the plaintiff for the loss of these potentially relevant emails, highlighting there was no effort made to preserve and urged the court to utilize spoliation sanctions. The judge, Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal, issued FRCP 37(e) sanctions.  Specifically, he expanded the scope of evidence the Chrysler Group, LLC was allowed to bring to trial and he awarded reasonable attorney’s fees.   Moreover, Judge Grewal stated, “[Plaintiff’s] lackadaisical attitude towards document preservation took away [defendant’s] opportunity. Not only has spoliation occurred, but it also has prejudiced [defendant].”

The Mathew Enterprise case is a good reminder that preservation obligations must be taken seriously as the ramifications for failing to preserve can be significant.  It is thus critical that our clients are properly advised of the need to begin preservation efforts as soon as litigation is reasonably anticipated.  (i.e., upon receipt or transmittal of a cease and desist letter, for example).

In a trademark infringement case pending in the Northern District of California (InternMatch v. Nxtbigthing, 2016 WL 491483 [N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2016]), plaintiff requested copies of any documents relating to the defendants’ defense that it had continually and pervasively used the trademark at issue.   The defendants were not able to produce many responsive documents and advised plaintiff that a lightning strike in 2011 and a subsequent power surge in April 2015, destroyed responsive documents, including relevant corporate records.  Defendants further noted that after the power surge, they discarded certain laptops and hard drives that were damaged by the event.

Believing defendants intentionally destroyed electronic versions of responsive documents, plaintiff sought sanctions against defendants.  The Court, following the newly amended FRCP 37(e), found defendants violated their duty to preserve relevant evidence.  The Court specifically noted that defendants failed to run diagnostics on the destroyed computer following the power surge to assess whether the files on the laptop’s hard drive could be recovered prior to discarding it.  Defendants failed to take any recovery efforts despite their claim that the only electronic copies of the marketing materials allegedly establishing “previous use” of the trademark existed on that computer. The Court also found the power surge to be an implausible claim. The Court held that “at the very least, [the] defendants consciously disregarded their obligations to preserve relevant evidence,” and granted the plaintiff’s request for an adverse inference instruction sanction.

This case reminds us that under the new Rule 37(e), courts are authorized to use specific measures, including adverse inference sanctions, if relevant information that should have been preserved is lost – irrespective of the mechanism that caused the loss. The decision also serves as a good reminder that electronic information is susceptible to destruction and modifications based upon uncontrollable events — like power surges — and we remain obligated to take prompt preservative/remedial measures upon learning of such events.

In Brown Jordan Int’l v. Carmicle, 2016 WL 815827 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 2, 2016) – a case previously written about on February 11, 2016 the Court was required to determine whether certain actions taken by Christopher Carmicle (“Carmicle”), a high-ranking employee running two subsidiaries of an international furniture company,  warranted termination of his employment for cause.  In particular, the Court was required to determine whether Carmicle’s repeated access of other employees’ email accounts (including the CEO, CFO and General Counsel of the parent company) amounted to gross negligence or willful misconduct.  In connection with determining that larger issue, the Court had to resolve multiple factual and legal issues including whether Carmicle violated federal law (see BLOG Is Your Spouse’s Phone Subject to Production Under Federal Rule 45? ).  While familiarity with my prior posts is assumed, the consolidated cases were tried in a bench trial from October 27, 2015 through October 30, 2015, continued from November 2, 2015 through November 6, 2015 and then again from November 9, 2015 to November 10, 2015.  The Court ultimately concluded that Carmicle’s employment was properly terminated for cause.  Today’s blog, however, deals with the discreet issue that arose when Carmicle sought the return of his personal laptop from the company plaintiffs, who refused to release the laptop unless Carmicle could prove he paid for it with his own money.  Presumably frustrated and seeking to similarly frustrate his former employer, Carmicle remotely locked a company laptop he had in his possession, and refused to provide a password to unlock it throughout the case proceedings, rendering the laptop and its contents inaccessible.  The defendant also claimed to have lost a personal tablet and other devices containing screenshots of emails and other data.  The plaintiffs filed a motion for sanctions under the newly amended Rule 37(e) for spoliation of evidence.

It should come as no surprise that the Court determined that litigation was reasonably anticipated when the defendant destroyed or withheld data, and that he knew or should have known of his duty to preserve. Therefore, the court held that the defendant had acted with intent to deprive plaintiffs of information, and accordingly ordered an adverse inference instruction for the jury.

Even when emotions run high, it is critical that we – as counsel – remind our clients of their obligation to timely and fully comply with their discovery obligations.  The failure to timely preserve and produce all relevant data carries significant ramifications under the amended federal rules.

As most of those reading this are aware, companies/entities/agencies doing business in the US generally are not required to indefinitely preserve business records and information.  However, those companies/entities/agencies must preserve relevant information when a lawsuit or an investigation is reasonably anticipated. This duty stems from both the common law duty to prevent spoliation of evidence and certain state and federal statutes and regulations. *

A “litigation hold” or “hold notice” is an instruction within a business organization directing employees to preserve (i.e., refrain from destroying or modifying) certain paper and electronic information that may be relevant to the pending or anticipated lawsuit or investigation.

The importance of complying with one’s obligation to issue and abide by a litigation hold was recently the subject of a decision in the Southern District of New York.  In early December, Judge Sweet denied New York City’s request to unseal 850,000 criminal court records for putative class members in a civil rights class action against the City of New York (“City”).  The complaint, originally filed in 2010, alleged that the City and the NYPD had engaged in a pattern of stopping, seizing, and issuing summonses to individuals without probable cause – thus violating the class members’ civil rights by requiring officers to meet quotas of summonses issued irrespective of whether a crime had occurred or probable cause existed.  The records were sealed pursuant to a privilege codified in New York’s Penal Law.  The City argued that the records should be unsealed so that defendants could identify potential class members and then seek discovery from them in order to challenge class membership.  Judge Sweet found that the privacy interests for the absent class members far outweighed the City’s request on the eve of the close of discovery.

Barely a month later, in early January, Judge Sweet granted in part a motion for sanctions against the City and the NYPD for spoliation of evidence.  Calling upon Second Circuit case law, Judge Sweet noted that spoliation is defined as “the destruction or significant alternation of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.”  Judge Sweet found that the City failed to implement timely a litigation hold (FN) which, when combined with the NYPD’s existing document destruction policies, resulted in the destruction of critical information and evidence.  Specifically, the lack of preservation resulted in few, if any documents being produced for key custodians.

Notably, Judge Sweet did not find that the City and the NYPD had acted in bad faith, but instead concluded that both the City and NYPD acted with gross negligence in failing to implement a litigation hold:

The failure to circulate a litigation hold, and to ensure that it was properly implemented, was particularly damaging in the context of the NYPD’s standing document retention policies, which ensured that inaction on the part of the City would result in the destruction of evidence . . . . The NYPD cannot credibly argue that, despite setting guidelines for document destruction and providing an industrial shredding truck for that purpose, it did not know or intend that documents would be destroyed.

Judge Sweet noted that he is vested with “broad discretion” in crafting a proper sanction for spoliation but should focus on three priorities when fashioning a sanction: (1) deterring parties from engaging in spoliation; (2) placing the risk of an erroneous judgment on the party who wrongfully created the risk; and (3) restoring the prejudiced party to the same position s/he would have been absent the wrongful destruction of evidence.  Against this backdrop, Judge Sweet granted a permissive inference in response to his findings, and indicated that he will instruct the jury that the absence of documentary and email evidence does not establish in this case the absence of a summons quota policy at the NYPD.

*   Although see blog posts of Aaron Zerykier on January 6, 2016 and January 21, 2016 discussing relevant standard in NY and federal courts triggering preservation.

** The City did not issue any litigation hold until August 2013 – more than three years after the filing of the Complaint in this case.  Moreover, the evidence indicated that the litigation hold was not effectively communicated and that none of the officers named in the City’s initial disclosure ever acknowledged receiving the hold.

 Stinson v. City of New York et al – 10-Civ.-04228-Spoliation