In a recent decision out of Oklahoma (Curtis v. Progressive N. Ins. Co., No. CIV-17-1076-C [W.D. Okla. June 13, 2018]), District Judge Robin J. Cauthron ruled that non-party ESI subpoenaed pursuant to Rule 45 was not subject to the 100 mile-limitation found in the Rule.  Specifically, the Court held there is “no violation of the 100-mile limitation,” as the non-party “subpoena at issue does not require the travel or attendance of any witnesses and Plaintiff is requesting the production of electronic documents.”

Factual Background

After plaintiff was involved in two automobile collisions, Curtis’ insurance company (“Progressive”) engaged Mitchell International, Inc. (“MII”), to create valuations of total loss for its use.  Eventually, Curtis filed the instant lawsuit against Progressive, claiming breach of contract, bad faith, unjust enrichment, and fraud in connection with the valuation of Curtis’ vehicles.  During discovery, Curtis served non-party MII with a subpoena duces tecum requesting the production of documents relating to “the correspondence, purchase, and analysis of the [computer valuation system]” MII used to create valuations of total loss for Progressive (“Subpoena”).  Curtis’ attorneys served the Subpoena upon MII using MII’s Oklahoma registered agent.  MII served written objections to the Subpoena, and meet and confer sessions failed to resolve the impasse reached between MII and Curtis.  And so, Curtis filed a Motion to Compel Compliance with Subpoena (the “Motion”).

MII argued the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the Motion because MII’s headquarters and principal place of business are located in San Diego, and the Subpoena required compliance more than 100 miles away in Shawnee, Oklahoma.

In response, Curtis argued that her subpoena was valid and enforceable because “a subpoena that commands a person to travel beyond the 100-mile boundary must be quashed however, a Court retains discretion to command compliance with a subpoena for documents which requires production beyond the 100-mile limitation.”

In granting the Motion, Judge Cauthron noted that “Federal district courts enjoy broad discretion over discovery measures” and further stated:

“Here, Plaintiff states—and Mitchell does not dispute—that the information requested can be produced electronically. Mitchell has an Oklahoma registered agent and Progressive Northern Insurance Company continues to use the valuation system licensed and provided by Mitchell in Oklahoma to conduct business. As a result, Mitchell regularly transacts business in Oklahoma. The subpoena at issue does not require the travel or attendance of any witnesses and Plaintiff is requesting the production of electronic documents. This Court finds that there is no violation of the 100-mile limitation for electronic documents…”

This case is a good reminder that the Rule 45 geographic restrictions relates to how far a subpoena-recipient can be compelled to travel in order to comply with a subpoena (see FRCP 45[c]) and that while the geographic limitation applies equally to parties, and party officers, who cannot be commanded to appear for trial outside of the geographic restrictions set forth in the Rule (FRCP 45[c], [d][3][A][ii]), it has no applicability to the production of ESI.

In this single-plaintiff employment discrimination case (Bailey v. Brookdale Univ. Hosp., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93093 (E.D.N.Y. June 16, 2017)), counsel for the parties purportedly met and conferred as directed by the Court and, thereafter, entered into an ESI agreement (“Agreement”).  The Agreement was presented to the Court and represented to be the product of mutual negotiation.  As a result, the Court So-Ordered the Agreement and its terms.

During discovery, Bailey advised the Court that he was no longer able to comply with the Agreement because the data production costs would cause an economic hardship. Specifically, he claimed the cost of production – estimated at $2,000-$3,000 – was unduly burdensome in light of his personal financial situation, notwithstanding the Agreement.  At the Court’s request, Bailey submitted an affidavit estimating the cost of production and that such a cost would inflict a “severe financial hardship” on him given that he earned approximately $90,000 annually and was the sole provider for his family of five.  In evaluating Bailey’s grievance, the Eastern District considered cost-shifting to protect Bailey from incurring an undue burden or expense. For cost-shifting to be properly granted, however, there must be sufficient proof of economic hardship and evidence that the requested data is inaccessible.  The Court found neither was established by Bailey. Nonetheless, the Court found that the Agreement proposed by Defendants was of a type, “typically utilized in a more complex litigation involving multiple parties and corporate entities” and had no applicability to a single plaintiff.   As a result, the Court concluded that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in meaningful discussions with his client regarding the terms of the proposed Agreement and what costs might be incurred by producing the information in the format the defendants sought. Likewise, it further appeared to the Court that Bailey’s counsel did not engage in a meaningful meet-and-confer session with opposing counsel, and did not thoroughly review the Agreement prior to signing it.

The Court did not find sufficient grounds to terminate the Agreement, and instead ordered partial cost-shifting [so that Defendants received the form of production they negotiated for], requiring the defendants to bear 40% of discovery costs and Bailey’s counsel, rather than Bailey himself, to bear the remaining 60%.

This case serves as an important reminder of counsels’ obligation to engage in good faith in all aspects of the discovery process – including negotiating an ESI production protocol.  Here, the Court was unwilling to revise the Agreement, and instead required Bailey’s counsel to abide by the terms of the Agreement and pay for the production.  This case also serves as an important reminder of our duty, as lawyers, to be competent in the law and the technological world in which we practice.  Indeed, as attorneys practicing in today’s ever-increasingly electronic world, we must remain abreast of the intricacies involved in electronic production and the costs associated with that ESI.  (See earlier blogs discussing duty of competence)

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.

United States ex rel Guardiola v. Renown Health, No. 3:12-cv-00295-LRH-VPC, 2015 WL 5056726 (D. Nev. Aug. 25, 2015)

In this case involving a motion to compel, the District Court addressed Defendants’ claim that emails stored on backup tapes were not reasonably accessible because of the undue burden and cost associated with retrieving them.  Turning first to the question of “undue burden”, the Court noted that the party who bears the burden of establishing inaccessibility “must establish that restoration and production of its particular tapes or other storage media, due to their particular aspects and features, would impose undue burden or cost.”  Further reasoning that “there will be a burden or a cost, but not both,” the court noted that restoration was “technologically feasible,” as evidenced by the restoration of one tape, and reasoned that because Defendants indicated the need to rely on a vendor, “[b]y implication, [Defendants] will ameliorate the burdens of in-house production, though at some cost.”  Thus, per the court, the “remaining question [was] only whether undue cost of the third-party vendor ma[de] the … emails not reasonably accessible.”

Regarding the question of “undue cost,” the court rejected Defendants’ argument that “cost” under Rule 26(b)(2)(B) included document review and storage.  Thus, assessing only Defendants’ estimate that restoration would cost approximately $136,000, the Court concluded that the amount was not undue. Explaining that “[u]ndue cost is examined not as a number alone, but instead within context of myriad facts,” the court went on note that it was Defendants that “elected to store typical disaster recovery tapes with archival data,” and further reasoned that:

ESI is now a common part and cost of business. Businesses are best situated to weigh for themselves the costs and benefits of various technology solutions in light of their needs. These needs should include some thought to the risk of litigation and corresponding discovery obligations. To the extent that restoration costs in this case owe to Renown’s failure to earlier implement a sensible email retention policy and its choice to use an archival/backup solution that did not maintain ESI in an indexed or otherwise searchable manner—a conclusion that Renown itself advances—Renown must bear some responsibility within the consideration of whether the restoration cost is undue.

In further support of its determination that the cost of restoration was not undue, the court noted that the estimated amount was an “infinitesimally small portion of [Defendants’] annual revenues.”  Accordingly, Relator’s motion to compel was granted.