Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. v. Cammarata, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14573 (S.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2010)
Procedural History: In Nov. 2006, Rimkus was sued by former employees Nickie Cammarata and Gary Bell. In this action in Louisiana, Cammarata and Bell sought a declaratory judgment that the forum-selection, choice-of-law, noncompetition, and nonsolicitation provisions in agreements they had signed with Rimkus were unenforceable. In response, Rimkus brought two actions in 2007 against these ex-employees in Texas; one in January and one in February. Rimkus alleged breach of the noncompetition and nonsolicitation covenants in their written employment agreements and that they used Rimkus’s trade secrets and proprietary information in setting up and operating a competitive enterprise (U.S. Forensic). The Texas cases were consolidated in this court.
Procedural Posture: The court convened to hear motions by Rimkus alleging that the Cammarata and Bell and their counsel “conspiratorially engaged” in “wholesale discovery abuse” by destroying evidence, failing to preserve evidence after a duty to do so had arisen, lying under oath, failing to comply with court orders, and significantly delaying or failing to produce requested discovery. Defendants responded by acknowledging that they did not preserve “some arguably relevant emails” but argue that Rimkus cannot show prejudice because the missing emails “would be merely cumulative of the evidence already produced.” Rimkus asked the court to strike the defendants’ pleadings,enter a default judgment against them or give an adverse inference jury instruction, and hold both defendants and their counsel in contempt.
Discussion: The court began its analysis by acknowledging the framework recently set out by Judge Scheindlin in Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan v. Banc of America Securities, LLC, No. 05 Civ. 9016, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4546, 2010 WL 184312 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2010) (see our case summary here). Unlike Montreal Pension Plan, this case involve allegations of intentional destruction of ESI, but common analytical issues existed, nevertheless.
In the fifth circuit, Federal Courts apply federal rules in diversity cases. The court stated that allegations of spoliation are addressed by courts by an applicable statute that adequately addresses the conduct with its attendant limits, and if no such statute exists, by the more flexible inherent power of the court. When inherent power does apply, it is interpreted narrowly, and its reach is limited by its ultimate source–the court’s need to orderly and expeditiously perform its duties. In this case, the court’s inherent power and Rule 37 both apply.
Electronically stored information is routinely deleted or altered and affirmative steps are often required to preserve it. Such deletions, alterations, and losses cannot be spoliation unless there is a duty to preserve the information, a culpable breach of that duty, and resulting prejudice. Generally, the duty to preserve arises when a party has notice that the evidence is relevant to litigation or . . . should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation. Generally, the duty to preserve extends to documents or tangible things (defined by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34) by or to individuals likely to have discoverable information that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defenses.
The court stated that bright-line rules were difficult to draw with respect to acceptable and unacceptable behavior in e-discovery matters, and explained that acceptable conduct turned on the concepts of reasonableness and proportionality with respect to the case.
Analysis depends heavily on the facts and circumstances of each case and cannot be reduced to a generalized checklist of what is acceptable or unacceptable. Determining whether sanctions are warranted and, if so, what they should include, requires a court to consider both the spoliating party’s culpability and the level of prejudice to the party seeking discovery. Culpability can range along a continuum from destruction intended to make evidence unavailable in litigation to inadvertent loss of information for reasons unrelated to the litigation. Prejudice can range along a continuum from an inability to prove claims or defenses to little or no impact on the presentation of proof. A court’s response to the loss of evidence depends on both the degree of culpability and the extent of prejudice.
The court explained that the general rule for the 5th Circuit is that severe sanctions of granting default judgment, striking pleadings, or giving adverse inference instructions may not be imposed unless there is evidence of “bad faith.” This is different from the 2d Circuit’s rule allowing for such rulings in instances of gross negligence, under which the court in Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan was operating. The court went on to list the general rule of other circuits, as summarized in the table below.
Circuit Standards for Severe Sanctions
The court then contrasted case law between the 5th and 2d circuits, noting that the Supreme Court’s decision in Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32 (U.S. 1991) might limit the ability of a court to impose sanctions when acting under the authority of its inherent powers.
The court then turned to the issue of burden of proof. A party seeking the sanction of an adverse inference instruction based on spoliation of evidence must establish that: (1) the party with control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) the evidence was destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) 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.
The “relevance” and “prejudice” factors of the adverse inference analysis are often broken down into three subparts: “(1) whether the evidence is relevant to the lawsuit; (2) whether the evidence would have supported the inference sought; and (3) whether the nondestroying party has suffered prejudice from the destruction of the evidence.” Like the court in Pension Committee, the court here acknowledged the difficulty and potential unfairness in requiring an innocent party seeking discovery to show that information lost through spoliation is relevant and prejudicial. Fortunately in this case (and many others), the party seeking discovery can also obtain extrinsic evidence of the content of at least some of the deleted information from other documents, deposition testimony, or circumstantial evidence.
The court also stated its belief that such requirements act as an important check on spoliation allegations and sanctions motions. Unlike the 2d circuit, case law in the Fifth Circuit indicates that an adverse inference instruction is not proper unless there is a showing that the spoliated evidence would have been relevant. Also unlike the 2d circuit, the 5th circuit has no case law allowing for the presumption that destroyed evidence was relevant or its loss prejudicial, even in the event that bad-faith is established. Before an adverse inference may be drawn, there must be some showing that there is in fact a nexus between the proposed inference and the information contained in the lost evidence and that “some extrinsic evidence of the content of the emails is necessary for the trier of fact to be able to determine in what respect and to what extent the emails would have been detrimental.
In the present case, the party seeking sanctions for deleting emails after a duty to preserve had arisen presented evidence of their contents. The evidence included some recovered deleted emails and circumstantial evidence and deposition testimony relating to the unrecovered records. There was no need to rely on a presumption of relevance or prejudice.
In determining an appropriate penalty, the court stated that the severity of a sanction for failing to preserve when a duty to do so has arisen must be proportionate to the culpability involved and the prejudice that results. A sanction should be no harsher than necessary to respond to the need to punish or deter and to address the impact on discovery. Adverse inference instructions can take varying forms that range in harshness, and are properly viewed as among the most severe sanctions a court can administer.
The court made the findings necessary to submit the spoliation evidence and an adverse inference instruction to the jury. The court noted, however, that the record also presented conflicting evidence about the reasons the defendants deleted the emails and attachments; evidence that some of the deleted emails and attachments were favorable to the defendants; and an extensive amount of other evidence for the plaintiff to use.
The instruction formulated by the court will ask the jury to decide whether the defendants intentionally deleted emails and attachments to prevent their use in litigation. If the jury finds such misconduct, the jury must then decide, considering all the evidence, whether to infer that the lost information would have been unfavorable to the defendants. Rather than instruct the jury on the rebuttable presumption steps, it is sufficient to present the ultimate issue: whether, if the jury has found bad-faith destruction, the jury will then decide to draw the inference that the lost information would have been unfavorable to the defendants