On October 1, 2018, a new Rule (specifically, a new subdivision to existing Rule 11-e) of the Commercial Division Rules, will go into effect. 

Rule 11-e governs Responses and Objections to Document Requests.  The new subdivision, promulgated by administrative Order of Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, governs the use of technology-assisted review (“TAR”) in the discovery process. 

The new subdivision (f) states:

The parties are encouraged to use the most efficient means to review documents, including electronically stored information (“ESI”), that is consistent with the parties’ disclosure obligations under Article 31 of the CPLR and proportional to the needs of the case.  Such means may include technology-assisted review, including predictive coding, in appropriate cases…

In addition to implicitly recognizing the cost attendant to e-discovery, the rule promotes cooperation by encouraging parties in commercial cases “to confer, at the outset of discovery and as needed throughout the discovery period, about [TAR] mechanisms they intend to use in document review and production.”  And so, the new Commercial Division Rule appears to bring New York State Commercial Division expectations closer in line with those set forth in the Federal Rules, specifically Rule 26(f), which encourages litigants (with an eye toward proportionality) to discuss preservation and production of ESI.

Questions about technology assisted review?  Please contact kcole@farrellfritz.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BACKGROUND

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

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

DECISION

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

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

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

[Citation omitted] [emphasis added].

CONCLUSION

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

It is the beginning of a new year and I thought it the ideal time to list out those steps that are absolutely critical when an attorney is confronting his/her obligation to produce e-discovery in connection with a litigation.  Bear in mind, the below list is not exhaustive and each step is replete with technical and tactical sub-steps and decisions.  However, the nine steps below are a useful road map to get started.

  • Assess whether your case involves e-discovery. In today’s technology-laden world where emails are ubiquitous and many of us interface daily with the internet of things, chances are your case will involve e-discovery.
  • Implement (or cause to be implemented) a comprehensive and appropriate ESI preservation protocol.  Remember, it is wise to cast a large net when it comes to preserving data.  That strategy likely changes when it comes time to collect/process data.  Make sure to familiarize yourself with the client’s deletion policies, backup tapes, and shredding procedures.  See next step.  The scope of your hold notice is necessarily informed by your client’s data including its location.
  • Understand the client’s ESI systems and storage.  Remember, data maps can be helpful but are often out of date.
  • Understand (and educate your client about) the various options available for collecting ESI (i.e., self-collection vs retaining a vendor; targeted collection vs robust collection).
  • Identify the various custodians (and meet with/conduct collection interviews of live custodians) who may have potentially relevant ESI and understand the various media on which that ESI resides.
  • Meet and confer with opposing counsel to develop a mutually agreeable discovery plan that addresses common ESI issues including production costs and deduplication methods.
  • Collect ESI (ideally using a vendor especially when the custodians include complex or dynamic databases or servers) in a manner that is defensible and preserves the integrity of the data (for example, do not forensically image the hard drive of a Mac using a tool designed for Windows or run the risk of overwriting the hard drive’s boot sector).
  • Explore ways to minimize the review costs associated with reviewing for production the collected documents.
  • Finally, produce responsive non-privileged ESI in a recognized and appropriate manner.

As discussed in past blog posts, it is critically important for counsel to be involved in each step of the process as the recent case law makes plain that Courts expect counsel to be actively involved in collection/review and production.  Indeed, we have seen a spate of case law from 2016 where the Court imputes a client’s failures on counsel and sanctions both!  Finally, if you feel incapable of handling any of the above steps, get help!  Various ethics opinions (not yet adopted in New York) suggest an attorneys’ duty of competence owed to one’s client includes being competent in matters of ESI.

In Gardner v. Continental Cas. Co., (2016 WL 155002 [D. Conn. Jan. 13, 2016]), the District Court was called upon to decide two different issues raised by Plaintiffs in a motion to compel.  The case itself concerned the long term care insurance coverage for five Connecticut residents for stays at Connecticut Managed Residential Care (“MRC”) facilities.  As is relevant here, after some negotiation, counsel agreed to a list of search terms to use to search the emails of twenty-three custodians.   The result was the return of approximately 38,000 documents.  Defendants reviewed the documents for relevance and privilege and produced 2,214 pages of documents – many of which were copies of the complaint and other filings in the lawsuit.  Plaintiffs sought to compel the production of the balance of the 38,000 documents, all of which were found using the agreed-upon search terms, and argued the smaller production was the result of defendant “cherry-pick[ing]” documents.  Plaintiff also agreed it should not be forced to accept the “just trust us” approach defendant endorsed. Further, the plaintiffs argued that the purpose of the agreed-upon search terms was “to avoid prolonged and detailed debate over what ESI documents [were] ‘responsive’ . . .” The plaintiffs supported their position regarding the scant production by pointing out that the defendant’s third-party claims adjustor submitted a “far more comprehensive and informative” production, while the defendant argued that it had already provided “extensive discovery” and that it had spent “significant resources” reviewing the documents from the agreed-upon search terms.

This discovery issue arises with much consistency in cases with extensive electronically stored information (“ESI”).  Overwhelmingly courts conclude that the position taken by plaintiffs is “simply untenable” – the defendant is not obligated to turn over all 38,000 documents, especially where issues of privilege abound.  The court did, however, recognize plaintiffs’ “legitimate concern” regarding the limited production, and ordered opposing counsel to confer and discuss approaches for addressing the potential need to turn over results of the search hits including—“sampling and iterative refinement.”

This decision raises an interesting issue.  It would seem obvious that only relevant non-privileged documents would be produced irrespective of how many documents (i.e., false responsive or privileged) “hit” upon a search term.  However, to avoid motions to compel and protracted discovery disputes, this case reminds us all to spell out precisely what we are agreeing to do when we enter into ESI protocols.