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Case Summary, Lafarge North Amer.; Accusations of Spoliation and E-Discovery Experts

Posted by rjbiii on April 5, 2010

United States Gypsum Co. v. Lafarge North Am. Inc., 670 F. Supp. 2d 768 (N.D. Ill. 2009)

Background: Plaintiffs US Gypsum Co. (USG) claim that Defendants Lafarge North. Am. (Lafarge) infringed USG’s patents and stole confidential information relating to wallboard manufacture.
Procedural Status: The court considers motions by each party to exclude the testimony of the other party’s forensics expert.

Basic Points:

  • A witness may be qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education.
  • An expert witness may testify to those areas within his expertise, which may include areas closely associated with or encompassed in general by their subject of expertise, even if not explicitly stated in their credentials.
  • An expert witness may not testify to the state of mind of actor’s without specific qualification, or based on speculative means.
  • Accusations of spoliation based on speculation are barred from admission
  • Criticisms on one expert’s methodology based solely on a study of that methodology, and absent an independent study, are admissible to the extent the criticisms are based on expert-level knowledge and not speculative means.

Admissibility of Expert Testimony in General:

Under FRE 702, a witness can be qualified as an expert by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. Courts consider a proposed expert’s full range of practical experience as well as academic or technical training when determining whether that expert is qualified to render an opinion in a given area.”

The court stated that the admissibility of expert testimony depends not only on the witness’s qualifications as an expert. Under Daubert, court’s are to consider the following factors, among others that may present themselves:

(1) whether the expert’s technique or theory can be or has been tested–that is, whether the expert’s theory can be challenged in some objective sense, or whether it is instead simply a subjective, conclusory approach that cannot reasonably be assessed for reliability;
(2) whether the technique or theory has been subject to peer review and publication;
(3) the known potential rate of error of the technique or theory when applied;
(4) the existence and maintenance of standards and controls; and
(5) whether the technique or theory has been generally accepted in the scientific community.

The court must ensure, therefore, that the proffered testimony has, at its core, some reliable basis. The testimony must also be relevant, so that it assists the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or in determining a fact in issue.

Testimony of Carl Florez:
Carl Florez was retained by Plaintiffs to testify to the security measures undertaken by USG to protect its proprietary information.
Upon examining Mr. Florez’s qualifications, it concluded that he was a qualified expert in the areas of computer forensics and investigation. In his expert reports, Mr. Florez offered a list of “reasonable” measures a company might take to protect its confidential information, and then compared them to the measures implemented by USG. He concluded that “USG’s efforts to protect the secrecy of its proprietary and confidential information, including the information that is electronically stored, are more than reasonable, and are among the most thorough I have encountered in my experience.”

Defendants Lafarge, contended that Florez is not qualified to render an opinion regarding the steps USG took to protect its confidential information. While acknowledging Florez’s knowledge and experience in the areas of computer forensics, defendants argued that has no apparent expertise in the steps necessary to protect the secrecy of information. Florez’s opinions on these matters are, therefore, unreliable.

In beginning its analysis, the court stated the following rule: whether a witness is qualified as an expert can only be determined by comparing the area in which the witness has superior knowledge, skill, experience, or education with the subject matter of the witness’s testimony. Florez has gained expertise and familiarity with how breaches occur, including the measures and countermeasures used to protect information and to overcome protections. Efforts to protect information and efforts to access confidential information evolve on parallel tracks, such that a person familiar with the challenges of accessing protected information will also be familiar with steps necessary to protect it. Florez’s unique familiarity with computer crime provides him with an understanding of computer security measures. The court concluded that Florez’s testimony passed the test.

Defendants also argued that Florez’s opinion with respect the reasonableness of USG’s data security measuares rested on an unreliable method. Again, the court disagreed. Florez’s failure to undertake a specific experimental analysis in reaching his opinion does not, by itself, require the court to exclude his testimony. Indicators of reliability depend on the particular circumstances of the particular case at issue. Determining whether a particular activity is reasonable in light of other facts is often a function of experience, of which Defendants admit Mr. Florez has a sufficient measure. The court was persuaded that in this case, experience provided a reliable basis for determination of what precautions are reasonable and effective to prevent breaches

Reasonable Measures Cited by Mr. Florez:
Florez cited and expounded on five “generally accepted measures” for protecting electronic information:
(1) establishing and communicating protection polices;
(2) need-to-know distribution of confidential information;
(3) marking information as “confidential” or “proprietary”;
(4) maintaining confidentiality agreements; and
(5) controlling access to information with physical or electronic systems.

In the context of forming his opinion, Florez consulted authoritative sources and publications in the field. He also compared USG’s policies with those at several other organizations he was familiar with, including the FBI. Defendants suggested that these comparisons are inadequate because none of these organizations is in the manufacturing business or construction industry. While the court acknowledged that discussion of confidentiality measures in the manufacturing setting might have been useful, its omission was not fatal, as the need for security in manufacturing sector here cannot be greater than that present at the FBI. The court concluded that Florez’s opinion appeared reasonable, even in the face of his inability to cite specific sources of information used for his analysis.

Mr. Florez’s Analysis of the Intent of Actors:

The court did agree with Defendants assertions that where Mr. Florez made oblique references to the state of mind of certain actors, he appeared to exceeded the scope of his expertise. The court noted that nothing in the record suggested that Florez was particularly qualified to understand the mental attitudes of others. Even assuming he were, he is able to render an opinion on intent only by drawing inferences from the evidence. Such opinions merely substitute the inferences of the expert for those the jury can draw on its own. Thus, the court excluded this type of testimony from the case.

Mr. Florez’s Analysis of Document Spoliation:

In his reports, Florez opined that various Defendants committed intentional acts of spoliation to cover up the misappropriation of USG documents. In an earlier opinion, the court had barred USG, its attorneys and witnesses from offering evidence of any alleged spoliation of evidence by any of the Defendants . . . and precluding all comment or testimony on such matters in the presence of the jury, either directly or indirectly, at any stage of trial from jury selection to verdict. Plaintiff now sought to use Florez’s testimony to explain “what steps were taken resulting in deletion of the documents, how partial information was recovered, and what information is irretrievably lost.”

The court was not persuaded to change its view on the matter of accusations of spoliation. The opinion stated that plaintiffs implicitly conceded that the main purpose of Florez’s testimony was to create the inference that Defendants intentionally destroyed evidence in an attempt to cover up alleged wrongdoing. Because plaintiffs offer no new non-speculative evidence on the issue, the court prohibited all testimony of this type.

Testimony of Andrew Reisman:

Mr. Reisman opined primarily on the validity of Florez’s methods and conclusions, contending that the evidence Florez reviewed failed to establish his subsequent findings. Mr. Reisman conducted no independent investigation or data analysis, but rather he reviewed Florez’s reports and consulted the same data Florez did. Plaintiff suggested that Reisman was obligated to undertake a broader investigation because he “had unfettered access to the entire Lafarge computer network” and concludes that the failure to do so constituted cherry-picking data in a way that fatally undermined the reliability of his conclusions. Defendants respondrf that Reisman would testify, based on his own experience, to “what forensic analysts do, what information they look at, what conclusions they can reach, and what conclusions they cannot reach based on forensic evidence.”

The court concluded that Reisman’s methodological criticisms were sufficiently based on his relevant experience to be reliable, and because computer forensics is a highly complicated area, the jury would benefit from having access to criticism from another expert in the field. However, to the extent that Reisman’s opinion offers speculation with respect to the use or dissemination of USG information at Lafarge, in the guise of criticizing Florez’s methodology, such testimony will be excluded.

The court ruled that any comments from Reisman that appear to divine an actor’s intent through speculative means will also be excluded. Finally, the court also ruled that Reisman may not opine on issues of spoliation or destruction of documents in answer to Florez’s accusations, becuase those accuasations have already been barred. Anything that Reisman would add is therefore not needed.

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One Response to “Case Summary, Lafarge North Amer.; Accusations of Spoliation and E-Discovery Experts”

  1. […] Case Summary, Lafarge North Amer.; Accusations of Spoliation and E-Discovery Experts […]

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