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.

In Youngevity Intl’s Corp. v. Smith (No: 16-cv-00704 [SD CA December 21, 2017]), defendants sought an Order pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(g) and 37.  The Order required Plaintiffs to remediate an improper discovery production to pay for Defendants’ costs for bringing the motion to compel and for the cost to review various improper prior productions.  Specifically, in connection with the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”), Defendants proposed a three-step process by which: “(i) each side proposes a list of search terms for their own documents; (ii) each side offers any supplemental terms to be added to the other side’s proposed list; and (iii) each side may review the total number of results generated by each term in the supplemented lists (i.e., a ‘hit list’ from our third-party vendors) and request that the other side omit any terms appearing to generate a disproportionate number of results.”

Approximately one week later, Plaintiffs advised in writing that they were “amenable to the three step process described in your May 9 e-mail.”  The parties then exchanged lists of proposed search terms to be run through their own ESI and the ESI of their opponent.

Pursuant to the agreed-to three-step process, Defendants provided to Plaintiffs its “hit list.”  Plaintiffs, however, never produced its “hit list.”  Instead, Plaintiff produced two large caches of documents – the first consisting of approximately 1.9 million pages and the second production consisting of approximately 2.3 million pages.   Upon receipt by Defendants, it became clear that the productions had been bulk coded with a CONFIDENTIAL legend and in some instances also with an ATTORNEYS’ EYES ONLY designation.  The produced materials also contained non-responsive documents.  A few months later, defendants advised they inadvertently failed to produce an additional 700,000 documents due to a vendor error.  Although the parties attempted to resolve amicably their differences, they were unsuccessful.

As a result, Defendants’ filed the instant motion to compel proper production and for costs.

In granting Defendants’ motion, Magistrate Judge Jill L. Burkhardt concluded, “the record indicates that Youngevity did not produce documents following the protocol to which the parties agreed.”  Specifically, “Youngevity failed to produce its hit list … and instead produced every document that hit upon any proposed search term” thus conflating “a hit on the parties’ proposed search terms with responsiveness.”  Moreover, the Court observed “the parties negotiated a stipulated protective order, which provides that only the ‘most sensitive’ information should be designated as AEO.”  As a result, Judge Burkhardt gave the plaintiffs two options for correcting their discovery productions with specific deadlines:

“1) By December 26, 2017, provide its hit list to Defendant; by January 5, 2018, conclude the meet and confer process as to mutually acceptable search terms based upon the hit list results; by January 12, 2018, run the agreed upon search terms across Plaintiff’s data; by February 15, 2018, screen the resulting documents for responsiveness and privilege; and by February 16, 2018, produce responsive, non-privileged documents with only appropriate designations of “confidential” and “AEO” (said production to include that subset of the not-previously-produced 700,000 documents that are responsive and non-privileged); or

2) By December 26, 2017, provide the not-previously-produced 700,000 documents to Defendant without further review; pay the reasonable costs for Defendant to conduct a TAR of the 700,000 documents and the July 21, 2017 and August 22, 2017 productions for responsiveness; by January 24, 2018, designate only those qualifying documents as “confidential” or “AEO”; by that date, any documents not designated in compliance with this Order will be deemed de-designated.”

Judge Burkhardt also ordered Plaintiffs to pay for the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, for bringing the motion and for the expenses incurred by Defendants “as a result of Youngevity’s failure to abide by the Stipulated Protective Order.”

Conclusion

This case is another reminder of what appears to be the well-embraced theme in Federal discovery – cooperation.  The 2015 amendments made plain that cooperation between the parties and their attorneys during the litigation process to achieve orderly and cost-effective discovery is a priority.  Indeed, mutual knowledge of the relevant facts is essential to proper litigation; and therefore the process of obtaining those facts (i.e., discovery) should be a cooperative one.  Had counsel simply abided by the three-step process and stipulated protective Order it willingly entered, there would be no need to defend against (and foot the bill for) the motion to compel.

Electronic discovery (a/k/a ediscovery and e-discovery) is the process of identifying, preserving, collecting, preparing, reviewing and producing electronically stored information (“ESI”) in the context of a legal or investigative process.   In order that counsel may bring discovery issues (including e-discovery issues) to the forefront early on in the development of a case, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure impose on counsel certain obligations.  These obligations include, but are not limited to, requiring counsel to participate in a Rule 26(f) conference, and requiring counsel to making certain initial disclosures pursuant to Rule 26(a).  Note that these obligations are imposed upon counsel irrespective of whether there is ESI relevant to the dispute.  However, competent counsel should be prepared to attend the 26(f) conference educated as to their client’s electronic data content and infrastructure, including any data that may be difficult or costly to produce, and should be further prepared to discuss issues like inadvertent production of privileged materials and phasing of discovery.

Rule 26(f) Conference

While the precise timing of the conference will depend on the individual Court’s scheduling orders and local practice, the 26(f) conference will inevitably give rise to one of the earliest opportunities for the parties to engage in comprehensive discussions regarding discovery, including issues relating to ESI.  Moreover, there is an expectation that the parties will exchange certain information, and reach agreement on many discovery-related topics.  Thus, it is critical that the attorney attending this conference be knowledgeable about his/her the client’s data, electronic storage systems and data retention.  

At the conference, counsel should discuss, among other things, the subjects on which discovery may be needed, when discovery will be completed, and whether discovery can and should be phased or limited to particular issues.  For example, as it relates to ESI, it may be most efficient to start with a discrete list of ESI sources (i.e., 5 custodians rather than 50), review fully that material, and agree to include additional sources at a later date if necessary. 

Relatedly, it is highly advisable to discuss the format of the eventual production(s) at this early stage. Even though production may not occur for many weeks / months, the ultimate format will aid in creating processing and review plans.  For example, without knowing the production format, one party may convert or otherwise manipulate its ESI in a way that is incompatible with the ultimately required production format.

Additionally, claw back agreements or protective orders dealing with inadvertent productions of privileged materials should be addressed at the 26(f) conference.  In almost all cases, the parties should agree to a process by which each side would have the right to identify and request the return of such material without the production resulting in a waiver. This agreement — commonly referred to as a claw back agreement—should always be incorporated into a court Order, either as part of the protective order or through another type of routine court order. The issuance of such an order should always precede any production in the case. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 502, if a court orders this kind of agreement, the order will protect the parties from claims of waiver if, among other things, the disclosure is inadvertent.  And, by creating this framework to resolve a potential inadvertent disclosure issue early on, it will inevitably reduce the potential for a dispute.

ESI and Rule 26(a) Disclosures

Rule 26 also imposes certain disclosure obligations on litigants.  Specifically, Rule 26(a)(1) requires each litigant to disclose to its opponent various types of information before any formal discovery requests are served in the case. The idea behind this “initial disclosure” is to require parties to be forthcoming with information relevant to the matter and to streamline the discovery process.  According to subsection (A)(ii) of the rule, each party must provide a copy — or a description by category and location — of all documents, ESI, and tangible things that the disclosing party has in its possession, custody, or control and may use to support its claims or defenses. Identifying specific custodians and non-custodial sources of ESI (i.e., departmental share drives or database programs) that are expected to be searched for relevant data should also occur at this stage.  It is critical to note that if you plan to argue that certain data is  not reasonably accessible for production due to the burden and/or expense of restoring/producing that data (i.e., legacy data or backup media), it must be disclosed to your adversary.   In fact, Rule 26(b)(2)(B) includes a provision related to “not reasonably accessible” ESI, which anticipates possible cost-shifting under particular circumstances. Under this provision, a party need not produce any ESI from sources that it deems to be not reasonably accessible so long as the party identifies the source with particularity to its opponent.  A source can be considered not reasonably accessible on the basis of “undue burden or cost.”*

Notwithstanding the obligations Rule 26 imposes, many lawyers enter a lawsuit (specifically as it relates to ediscovery) without a detailed understanding of their client’s ESI or a specific execution plan in mind. That’s a mistake that often proves to be costly.  Educating one’s self as to one’s clients’ ESI will inevitably result in a more efficient process, and may also help reduce discovery disputes and—most importantly—get parties to the litigation’s most relevant information faster.

* Note, however, once the source is identified as “not reasonably accessible,” the requesting party may nevertheless move to compel production from the identified source, but will need to make a showing of “good cause” to require it. If the court determines that good cause has been shown, it may in addition require the requesting party to bear the reasonable costs of production under the proportionality rule.

 

The short answer is – maybe; if there is any possibility that the information contained on the phone may be relevant to the claim or defense of any party in the lawsuit.

In this action (Brown Jordan Int’l Inc. v. Carmicle, 2015 WL 6142885 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 19, 2015)), plaintiffs sued defendant in the United States District Court for Southern District of Florida asserting a number of claims including: (a) a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030 (“CFAA”); (b) a violation of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §2701; (c) a breach of fiduciary duty and the duty of loyalty; (d) conversion; (e) unjust enrichment; and (f) breach of contract and declaratory judgment (28 U.S.C. § 2201).    Defendant, Chris Carmicle, filed suit against BJI Holdings, LLC and other entities and individuals in the Circuit Court of Kentucky wherein he asserted multiple claims including: (i) wrongful termination; (ii) wrongful discharge; (iii) breach of contract; (iv) a violation of the CFAA; (v) conversion; and (vi) defamation.

Carmicle’s suit was eventually removed and consolidated in the Southern District of Florida with the original suit.

During the course of coordinated discovery, the parties entered into a Jointly Stipulated Order Setting Computer Forensic Investigation Protocol (“Ordered Protocol”). Pursuant the Ordered Protocol, Carmicle submitted his electronic devices and storage sites for forensic examination.  Based upon review of those devices and sites, BJI Holdings believed that the iPhone owned by Rashna Carmicle (“Rashna”)—Carmicle’s spouse—may contain information relating to the claims in the action.  Consequently, on September 5, 2015, BJI Holdings served a subpoena on Rashna requesting the production of her iPhone by September 11, 2015.  Rashna resisted and refused to voluntarily produce her iPhone.  BJI Holdings accordingly filed a motion to compel.

The Court, relying upon the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure generally, stated that the scope of discovery empowered parties to obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense.  Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). The Court further noted that:

a request for discovery should be considered to be seeking relevant information if there is any possibility that the information sought may be relevant to the claim or defense of any party in the action.

Against this backdrop, the Court found that the information sought from Rashna’s iPhone appeared to be relevant to the claims asserted in the action and good cause exists.   Specifically, Rashna is married to Christopher Carmicle, who is a party in both related actions pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and during the course of discovery, BJI Holdings received a forensic report indicating that Rashna’s iPhone may contain discoverable information.  In the forensic examination report, the examiner outlines data destruction that took place on one of Chris’s Macbook Air laptops and notes:

Review of additional data, including Internet history, cookie files, p-lists and log files do not document any Brown Jordan International data, covered by the scope of this investigation, having been transferred through this laptop. The exception is an Apple iTunes backup file of Rashna’s iPhone, which contains some of the original Brown Jordan International screenshots. This data was not deleted, but apparently unintentionally captured on this computer as the iPhone had been synched via iTunes in December of 2013.

Because BJI Holdings presented sufficient evidence to convince the Court that Rashna’s iPhone may contain information relevant to the claims asserted in the litigation and demonstrated good cause to seek the forensic examination of the iPhone, the burden shifted to Rashna to establish that the requested material either does not fall within the scope of relevance or is of such marginal relevance that the potential harm resulting from production outweighs the presumption in favor of broad disclosure.

Having failed to carry her burden, the Court granted BJI Holdings’ motion to compel and ordered Rashna to produce her phone for forensic examination.  The Court did, however, permit Rashna to review the material on the iPhone for privileged material prior to forensic examination.