This is Part 2 in a multi-part blog discussing various core requirements that can serve as the road map to allow a lawyer to fulfill his/her duty of technological competence. [Click here to read Part 1]

2.  Implement Appropriate Preservation Procedures

ESI spoliation remains a real issue that lawyers must confront.  The best way to prevent spoliation is to take deliberate and prompt preservation steps.

So, the first question to ask yourself is has my duty to preserve data arisen?  While different jurisdictions have different rules, the federal standard, and the one New York subscribes to, was announced in Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC (“Zubulake IV”), 220 F.R.D. 212, 218 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).  That case stands for the proposition that one’s duty to preserve potentially relevant information begins “once a party reasonably anticipates litigation.”

Assuming your duty to preserve has been triggered, now what?

A lawyer must issue an effective litigation hold notice.  I have written previously on how to draft an effective hold [See Litigation Hold Notices Should Not Cloak the Recipient with Discretion Over What Documents to Preserve, Practical Tips For an Effective Litigation Hold Notice, and Your Litigation Hold Must Be Generally Broad and Specifically Tailored] and refer you to those posts, but note it is critically important that the Hold is clear, comprehensive and provides a resource for questions.  Minimally it should provide custodians with detailed instructions on what they are expected to do upon receipt of the Hold; and 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.  Additionally, prior to issuance, an attorney must identify which custodians/entities are receiving the Hold; what third-parties over whom the client has practical control, if any, should receive the Hold; and what procedures will you implement to audit compliance with the Hold.

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

 

The role of electronically stored information (“ESI”) and new technologies has grown tremendously in recent years.  This growth has a direct impact on discovery specifically, and the practice of law, generally.   And so, the new practical reality is that attorneys need to be technologically literate and competent.  This should come as no surprise to those who read my blog.  Earlier posts discuss the ABA’s implementation of Model Rule 1.1. – which establishes a lawyer’s general duty of competence, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology – and others discuss other states’ explicit technology CLE requirement.

While New York does not have any technology CLE requirement (yet), it has adopted a technology competence for lawyers (along with 27 other states).  What exactly must a lawyer do to fulfill his/her duty of technology competence for e-discovery?  Regrettably, there is no easy answer, but a 2015 ethics opinion from California provides a very useful roadmap and identifies nine core requirements necessary to fulfill one’s duty.   Today’s blog will discuss one of those core requirements, with subsequent blogs to address the others.

  1. Assess E-Discovery Needs and Issues:

This first requirement mandates that an attorney take a long-view of the matter he or she is dealing with (sometimes in consultation with an ESI vendor) and identify e-discovery needs and issues.  Topics to consider include identifying the custodians (i.e., sources of potentially responsive ESI) and identifying any time-sensitive sources, any employee status changes, and/or IT upgrades.  Also give thought to whether third-parties within your effective control have potentially responsive information.  Think about privilege concerns and the import of a claw back agreement.  The ultimate goal of this early phase is to spend time thinking about needs and issues that might arise over the life cycle of the matter.  Obviously, not every issue can be anticipated but you may be surprised how many can be assessed and addressed early in the discovery process.

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

Often viewed as a necessary evil, the Rule 26(f) conference can serve as an invaluable opportunity to meaningfully discuss discovery such that the process is streamlined and seeks to avoid unnecessary (and often costly) disputes.   Generally speaking, Rule 26(f), among other things, sets the deadline for the conference as soon as practicable and at least 21 days before the scheduling conference, and lists several required topics for the conference, including preserving discoverable information. Although a litigant should use the Rule 26(f) conference to reduce the risk of spoliation claims through agreements on preservation, as well as reduce costs by limiting the scope of e-discovery, achieving results is almost entirely dependent on the attorney’s preparation.  Indeed, being well informed about your client, its documents ‒ including ESI ‒ and its goals will allow for a productive discussion rather than an empty formality.  But, how exactly do you prepare and what should you think about before the conference?

To prepare for the conference, it helps to think about the end game and to formulate the steps necessary to get there.  The below thoughts on preparation/topics are intended merely as a guidepost and are not exhaustive.

  • Understand your client’s ESI:  What kind of ESI is required to prosecute the client’s claims and defend against those of the adversary?  Where does that ESI reside?  To this end, it is important to become familiar with your client’s network architecture, including what hardware exists, and where.   You should strive to understand the client’s knowledge management (when/how is ESI stored), system knowledge (what is stored and where) and who is responsible for maintaining and storing data.  For example, are there physical email servers on site, or are the servers virtual?  What is necessary to access and collect data from each server?  Relatedly, give thought to addressing admissibility and how authenticity may be established over the documents (See The New Rules of Federal Evidence Have Arrived“).
  • Identify Custodians:  Take time to identify employees/custodians likely to have potentially responsive ESI.  Preservation comes at a cost and if you fail to understand your custodians, you may over-preserve.  Consider, for example, if the client is a national organization with offices throughout the U.S.  If all of the relevant custodians work out of the Omaha office, with all of the potentially responsive data located on a particular server, is there need to preserve the content of all other servers?  Consider interviewing those custodians to identify other relevant custodians.
  • Understand the timing and execution of Hold Notices, and Related Thorny Issues: At the conference the parties should determine the scope of the duty to preserve.  For example, be prepared to disclose (and ask adversary about) the status of the litigation hold.  Has one been issued?  If so, when and who received it.  If not, why not?  You may even seek to inquire about what subjects and sources the Hold covers and if there is any procedure in place for auditing compliance.  Are there any time-sensitive data sources involved and if so, have auto-delete and auto-archive functions been turned off for those data sources?  Is data from third-parties potentially responsive?  And, if so, what steps, if any, have been taken to preserve that data?   Have any key custodians left the company or potentially leaving?  If so, what steps are being taken to preserve his/her data?  Because of the large increase in e-data and the various locations where that data may reside, think about ways to narrow defensibly the scope of what you preserve.
  • Understand Collection:   While you may agree to preserve all of Katy Cole’s emails from 2010 to the present, that doesn’t mean you are agreeing to review for production all of that data.  What will be done to identify the materials that will be reviewed?  Can the parties agree upon search terms, date delimiters and other methodologies to limit the universe of material? Consider entering an agreement as to appropriate date ranges, custodians, systems, file types, and search terms.
  • Understand Privilege Obligations:  You should also discuss privilege during the Rule 26 conference.  Consider seeking a stipulation or Rule 502(d) order stating that disclosure of privileged information does not constitute a waiver of the attorney-client privilege in the instant or another proceeding.  Discuss whether a traditional privilege log is practical or burdensome for large volumes of ESI. Would it be preferable to log privileged emails by thread groups (i.e., a message and its attachments; related messages in a string of replies and forwards)?  Or are categorical logs (i.e., those that describe withheld categories instead of listing withheld records) preferable?
  • Understand Production Format:  Don’t leave format to the whim of your adversary.  Discuss expectations.  Indeed, there is little worse than receiving a thumb drive that contains various unsearchable PDFs (well, maybe a paper production is worse).  Discuss your production specifications and be prepared to produce in the same format you demand production.  Relatedly, is there any paper in the production?  If so, be certain to request that Optical Character Recognition (OCR [i.e., the process by which paper documents are converted into editable, searchable computer files]) be applied for ease text-search ability.  And, are you producing in a fell swoop or will the parties engage in phased discovery?

A meaningful and productive Rule 26(f) conference can streamline discovery, avoid unnecessary costs and avoid spoliation concerns.  It should be embraced as an opportunity to reach agreement and engage in a cooperative discovery process that will promote proportionality.

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

Imagine if the above emojis, casually fired off in a text message (or in an Instagram or Facebook post) to a friend or colleague, could be used against you as evidence of workplace harassment?

Or if another combination of cartoon-like representations of emotions could be used as proof of defamation?

Or if inclusion of a face emoji with its tongue sticking out could preclude a reasonable reader from concluding the potentially defamatory statement was anything other than a joke?

Some disbelieving readers may think, never!  But, not so fast.  In fact, there are a growing number of cases, both in the United States and elsewhere, where emoji images have been entered as evidence requiring the judge or the jury (as the case may be) to interpret what exactly was meant by the emoticon.  But therein lies the issue —  what exactly does the combination of emojis (or a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, or emotion) in any given text or communication mean?  There is, after all, no fixed emotional resonance or clear dictionary definition for interpreting them.  So, while one colleague may interpret the smirking face with a beer mug as nothing more than an innocent invitation to grab a drink, another colleague may interpret that same message to have a potentially sinister motive.   It is this very subjective nature of emojis, and the double-meaning of some emojis, that can cause issues in the workplace and elsewhere.

So what is a business to do?  Whether you   or   emojis, it is important to recognize they are here to stay and part of mainstream communication.  Regulating their use in the same way that other communications are regulated may be an advisable business practice.  For example, consider whether there should be rules governing emojis in office communications.  If so, review and update your employee handbook.    

What do applications like Snapchat, Telegram, Wickr, Cover Me, Speak On, and Whisper have in common? They are all self-destructing message (“SDM”) applications. What exactly does this mean, you ask? Self-destructing messaging applications transmit information with end-to-end encryption, and auto destruct after a set time period of time, or after receipt and access by the intended recipient.  Consider Snapchat, for example. Snapchat is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. Indeed, in 2016, Snapchat surpassed Facebook’s number of video views per day.  Part of Snapchat’s popularity is derived from the fact that the user can set timers for shared photos / videos to self-destruct once the person received it; allowing users (typically younger generations) to share photos without the risk of the photo going public.

Yet, what happens when SDM technologies (which are evolving rapidly) are used in the corporate world?  How does one preserve potentially relevant information?  What is the risks verses benefits of incorporating into one’s business SDM technology?  These questions – and others – are likely questions litigators will grapple with in the coming months/years given the rapid growth of SDM technology.**

While it is impossible to predict the future, I suspect it is only a matter of time until this issue becomes more of a focus in litigation and I look forward to reading decisions on point as the case law catches up to the technology.

** Consider, for example, the Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies, Inc., lawsuit, wherein allegations have arisen that one party is hiding information relevant to the lawsuit by transmitting that information via SDM. Consider further the fact that the Department of Justice in December issued an enforcement policy urging strongly against the use of messaging applications that do not store data in a way that allows for access during a subsequent investigation.  These recent lawsuits and policies make plain SDM technology is being employed in corporate America.

 

 

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).

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.

Lawyers often worry about their obligation to preserve relevant information.  As a result, one may direct their client to collect all potentially responsive information.  However, over-collecting is a significant cause of costly e-discovery.  So, what is a lawyer to do?

It is critical not to conflate preservation and collecting. 

While collecting is one way to preserve information, it is a very costly and inefficient preservation strategy.  Think of preservation as a means to ensure potentially relevant information is not deleted or discarded. This is a process driven exercise (i.e., suspend auto-deletion, cease recycling backup systems).   Collection, on the other hand, is a much more active exercise and should be thought of as the first link in a chain toward producing documents to your adversary.   In other words, collection involves “collecting” data from the universe of what has been preserved but it does not necessarily mean you will collect everything you preserved.   And, remember, not every document collected will be produced.  Rather, collected material must be processed, and then reviewed for responsiveness and privilege.