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Case Summary: Nissan N. Am; Court examines Collection Protocol and Request for Protective Order

Posted by rjbiii on March 21, 2011

Nissan N. Am., Inc. v. Johnson Elec. N. Am., Inc., CIVIL ACTION NO. 09-CV-11783, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16022 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 17, 2011).

Nissan had already produced “1.79 million” pages of documents, and 84,000 pages of documents from its non-party parent company. The court had ordered Nissan to supplement this production with information specifically identifying data sources not previously searched because, in Nissan;s view, they were “not reasonably accessible.” Johnson Electric, defendant company, crafted “informal” discovery requests requesting that Plaintiff produce:

  1. a data map showing what data is stored on each of Plaintiff’s systems, who uses the systems, the retention of the data stored and where and how the data is backed up or archived;
  2. document retention policies;
  3. tracking records and/or requests for restores; and
  4. backup policies.

Johnson Electric believed Nissan was obligated to produced the above to comply with the court’s order. Nissan responded by filing for a protective order denying Defendant discovery on:

  1. system-wide searches of Plaintiff’s systems and custodians beyond what has already been provided;
  2. sources identified by Plaintiff as “not readily accessible,” including back-ups;
  3. Plaintiff’s record retention practices or disaster recovery backup policies;
  4. Plaintiff’s tracking records and requests for computer restores to IT and vendors; and
  5. a “data map” to provide information on all of Plaintiff’s systems.

Johnson Electric filed a brief in response, and a cross-motion to compel Nissan’s compliance with the earlier order. Johnson Electric also asked the court to impose sanctions on Nissan, arguing that Nissan had failed to comply with their discovery obligations under that order.

The court began by stating the governing standard for its analysis, and the party’s respective arguments:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) allows the Court to issue a protective order for good cause shown to protect a party from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense. Plaintiff has the burden of showing good cause for a protective order. Plaintiff first asks for a protective order denying Defendant discovery of system-wide searches of Plaintiff’s systems and custodians beyond what Plaintiff has already provided. Defendant argues in response that it has not asked Plaintiff to conduct additional searches. Rather, Defendant argues that it merely asked for confirmation that Plaintiff searched its systems for relevant ESI for forty-one employees who are either members of the Task Force assigned by Plaintiff to the recall issue, or who are listed in Plaintiff’s Rule 26 disclosures.

About those Additional System-Wide Searches…
The court concluded that Nissan was barking up the wrong tree. “Letter correspondence” proved that Johnson Electric did not ask for additional searches, but rather that Nissan merely confirm that the computers, email accounts, network shares, and databases associated with 41 specific custodians had been searched. The court ruled against Nissan here, because it couldn’t deny Johnson Electric something for which it hadn’t asked.

Data Sources that aren’t readily accessible
The court first noted Nissan’s description of its Identification protocol:

[] Plaintiff claims to have searched Outlook email data and PST files; hard drives on individual computers, network shares mapped as various drive letters; and the ANEMS, IDOCS, IDEAS, GCARS, WRAPS, CPIA, VHF, CICS PO system, and Legacy business databases. In addition, Plaintiff states that it identified key custodians who were likely to have responsive information relevant to this case and had their documents searched. Plaintiff also asserts that it requested documents and information from its non-party parent company, and that both it and its parent company searched hard copy files for paper documents, for documents stored on CD, DVD, or other external sources, and for physical parts.

Plaintiff has identified in table format electronic data sources identified by key custodians as being potential sources of responsive information and claims that it identified, processed, and produced responsive information from these systems. (Docket no. 79 at 4-7). Plaintiff contends that the only systems it did not search are its disaster recovery or backup systems for email, network shares, and business databases because they are not readily accessible.

Nissan argued that information on its back-up systems are not reasonably accessible because of “undue burden and cost,” evidently supported by an estimate submitted to court. Nissan further contended that searches over these sources wouldn’t produce any new data “because the information on these systems is duplicative of information on [Nissan’s] main systems,” which have already been examined.

The court quoted FRCP 26(b)(2)(B):

A party need not provide discovery of electronically stored information from sources that the party identifies as not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost. On motion to compel discovery or for a protective order, the party from whom discovery is sought must show that the information is not reasonably accessible because of undue bur-den or cost. If that showing is made, the court may nonetheless order discovery from such sources if the requesting party shows good cause, considering the limitations of Rule 26(b)(2)(C). The court may specify conditions for the discovery.

The court agreed with Nissan that it had shown “that Plaintiff’s backup systems are not reasonably accessible and that Defendant has not shown good cause to search these systems.” Alas for Nissan, however, the court once again stated that Nissan’s argument were off point, stating that Johnson Electric did not appear to ask Nissan to search their back-up systems, but rather, “asked for Plaintiff’s backup policies, and its tracking records and requests for restores, claiming that data that has been restored is reasonably accessible.” The court concluded that Nissan had not shown “good cause” to preclude Johnson Electric from seeking discovery of this data. As Johnson Electric had not asked for searches of back-up systems, there was no reason for the court to grant Nissan’s request on that issue.

Retention Policies

The court quickly denied Nissan’s request to protect it from having to produce its retention policies, stating that Nissan failed to show “good cause” to preclude the production request.

Data Map

The court noted that Johnson Electric had asked Nissan for a data map “to show what data is stored on each of Plaintiff’s systems, who uses the systems, the retention of the data stored and where and how the data is backed up or archived.” The court further noted that Johnson Electric attempted to tie Nissan’s failure to provide the data map to non-compliance to the previously mentioned court order requiring supplemental production from Nissan.

FRCP 26 requires certain mandatory disclosures be made. Nissan claims that Johnson Electric has failed to commit to specific search terms or system limitations. The court warned Johnson Electric that if true, it could see no reason for such a failure. Beyond that, there was no connection between the previous court order and this request from Johnson Electric. This request, the court said, was for new material, separate and distinct from that associated with the earlier order. Although the court could not see compelling production of a data map, it again stated that Nissan had failed to show good cause to preclude production. The court, therefore, denied Nissan’s motion for a protective order, both on this part, and in whole.

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Posted in 6th Circuit, Case Summary, Collection Protocol, Data Retention Practices, Duty to Disclose, E.D. Mich., FRCP 26(b), FRCP 26(c), Good Cause, Magistrate Judge Mona K. Majzoub, Objections to Discovery Requests, Protective Order, Reasonably Accessible, Undue burden or cost | Leave a Comment »

Case Summary: Scalera; Triggering Mechanism for Litigation Holds

Posted by rjbiii on December 15, 2009

Scalera v. Electrograph Sys., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91572 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2009).

Status: Plaintiff, an individual, sought sanctions against Defendants (a company and two individuals) for spoliation of evidence.

Factual Background: Plaintiff is a former employee of Defendants. Plaintiff asserted that prior to her employment by Defendants, she had suffered from “noticeable muscular weakness.” Initially diagnosed as Muscular Dystrophy, the diagnosis was changed to Pompe disease. Plaintiff claimed that she was disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 (ADA) and the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL), and that Defendants failed to suitably accomodate her disabilities.

Procedural History: Plaintiff filed the original Complaint on January 4, 2008. She subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on September 30, 2008. Plaintiff served her First Request for Production of Documents upon Defendants on August 13, 2008. Plaintiff requested (1) all emails sent or received by Electrograph employees regarding Plaintiff’s medical condition, (2) all emails sent by Electrograph employees regarding Plaintiff’s request or need for any accommodation for her medical condition, (3) all emails sent on Electrograph’s “Inter-Office email system” to and from Plaintiff from 2005 to the present, “including any emails predating Plaintiff’s employment.” Plaintiff also requested all “backup and/or archive (computer) data which was generated by Defendants” and related to Plaintiff’s employment.

In response to the request, Defendants produced certain documents. Plaintiff characterized the production as consisting of a handful of emails relating to Ms. Scalera. According to Plaintiff, defendants stated that other emails were stored on backup tapes and that these tapes were corrupted and could not be restored. On November 4, 2008, Defendants sent Plaintiff’s counsel a letter stating that Electrograph had retained an outside vendor to restore the electronic data contained on the backup tapes. Defendants provided RDA Enterprises with a total of sixteen backup tapes. First, the vendor ran an inventory process to see if the tapes “met the criteria with restorable data.” Only two of the tapes met that criteria. However, the vendor was not able to restore the data on either of those two email backup tapes.

Argument: The court began by articulating the analytical framework found in Toussie v. County of Suffolk, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93988, 2007 WL 4565160, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2007). A party seeking an adverse inference instruction as a sanction for the spoliation of evidence must establish that:
(1) “the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed,”
(2) “the records were 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.”

Plaintiff argued that Defendants had a duty to preserve the destroyed information while asserted various theories as to when this duty attached. Plaintiff contended that Defendants’ obligation to preserve the information arose immediately following Plaintiff’s July 13, 2006 fall down the steps outside Electrograph’s side entrance. According to Plaintiff, Electrograph’s July 14, 2006 accident report acknowledges that “had a railing been installed, Ms. Scalera might not have fallen.” Plaintiff maintained that if Defendants were aware of Plaintiff’s disability, Defendants had a duty to accommodate that disability — “which would include installing railings, where necessary.” Thus, Plaintiff asserts that if her injury was caused by the absence of the railing, “Defendants should have known that they were potentially liable for failing to accommodate Ms. Scalera’s disability.” Thus, according to Plaintiff, immediately following her July 13, 2006 accident, Defendants knew or should have known that some of their internal employees’ emails would be relevant to a potential litigation and that Electrograph therefore was under a duty to preserve those emails.

Plaintiff also noted that within two weeks of her fall, she had hired an attorney and filed for worker’s compensation. Because, argued Plaintiff, the company was aware of the pending worker’s compensation case and retention of counsel, Defendants were under a duty to preserve documents relating to Ms. Scalera’s disability and injury.

In opposition to Plaintiff’s motion, Defendants stated that they first anticipated litigation regarding any claim of discrimination when they received the Notice of Claim from the EEOC,” which was sometime in late November or early December 2006. Defendants argue that a letter sent by Plaintiff’s attorney to the building landlord — not Electrograph — “making a claim for negligence in maintaining the stair and personal injury” did not put Electrograph on notice that Plaintiff intended to bring a discrimination claim against the company. Defendants also maintained that “plaintiff’s submission of a worker’s comp claim and retaining an attorney for worker’s comp, an employee’s exclusive remedy in New York, also led them to the conclusion that there would be no claim by plaintiff for discrimination.” Defendants added that Plaintiff’s worker’s compensation paperwork was filed in July 2006 and did not make any reference to discrimination.

The court stated that Plaintiff evidently did not address the letter mentioned above by Defendant’s in their written arguments and there was some confusion with this point in their oral arguments. Plaintiff claimed to regularly use her e-mail to communicate with coworkers and supervisors during the tenure of her employment, and this fact on its face establishes that failed to produce numerous documents covered by the discovery request. During oral argument, Plaintiff’s counsel highlighted a statement made by one of Plaintiff’s co-workers, Carolyn Reutter, that emails she received on her Electrograph email system “would stay in her inbox . . . unless she deleted it or the technical support employees purged the emails,” and that this apparently only happened “once every couple of years.”

The Internal Support Manager of Electrograph’s IT department stated that “documents can be stored locally on the hard drives of individual computers assigned to specific employees at Electrograph,” and that such documents “may or may not also be backed up as ‘ESI,’ depending on whether the document was created on the network or only locally at a particular end-user’s computer.” Plaintiff concluded, therefore, that there must have been relevant emails exchanged between Electrograph employees in the relevant time period that were not produced by Defendants.

Plaintiff also pointed to specific examples that “proved” the failure to produce. Plaintiff submitted two e-mails she claimed were not produced in whole. Plaintiff further argued that one of those emails is clearly a “string email,” but Defendants did not “produce the underlying email correspondence. Plaintiff asserted that although Defendants touted their production of emails regarding their provision of a raised chair to Plaintiff as an accommodation for her physical condition, that Plaintiff was the only party producing such e-mail; Defendants failed to produce any Plaintiff continued by claiming that the hard drive on the computer of Defendant Rose Ann Gordon, the former Director of Human Resources for Electrograph, and the computer Plaintiff used at work, were wiped clean because (and according to an affidavit filed by Defendants) once an employee left Electrograph, all data on the hard-drive of the computer assigned to such employee was removed.

Defendants countered that despite all ESI was backed up to tape on a daily basis, although documents stored on local hard drives might not have been backed up, and they were unaware that this material would not be available (remember that the outside vendor was unable to restore data from any of the back-up tapes). With respect to Ms. Gordon’s hard drive, Defendants essentially argued that no relevant documents resided on the drive prior to wiping. Defendants granted that the emails referring to the provision of a raised chair were produced by Defendant but noted that those emails predated the start of Plaintiff’s employment and were made after having extended an offer for employment to Plaintiff but before she had begun working for the company.

Discussion:
The court concluded that Defendant’s obligation to preserve relevant emails arose as of the time Defendants received Plaintiff’s EEOC Charge. The court noted that the general rule that an employee’s disability must be accomodated where the disability is obvious or otherwise known to the employer without notice from the employee. Whether specific accomodations were requested by the Plaintiff was in dispute, and Plaintiff’s claims that a hand-rail had been requested at the spot where she then fell, should have alerted Defendants to possible pending litigation. The court dismissed their arguments to the contrary as pushing logic beyond the boundary of reasonableness.

The court found that the filing of a worker’s compensation claim by Plaintiff did not trigger a duty to preserve. The court did not find “controlling” Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff’s choice to bring a claim under worker’s compensation implied that she would not be bringing a claim under the ADA. The court stated that Plaintiff had failed to point to case law that supported the proposition that an employer should reasonably anticipate a forthcoming disability discrimination action each time an employee files a worker’s compensation claim in circumstances such as those in the instant matter. Finally, the court noted that nothing in the worker’s compensation forms completed by Plaintiff indicated that she had requested a handrail.

As to Plaintiff’s contention that the ADA required the retention of certain documents, the court cited Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell, 243 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2001) for the proposition that where a party has violated an EEOC record-retention regulation, a violation of that regulation can amount to a breach of duty necessary to justify a spoliation inference in an employment discrimination case. After examining the language in the Act, the court ruled:

According to the regulations, therefore, upon their receipt of Plaintiff’s EEOC Charge, Defendants were under an obligation to preserve Plaintiff’s “personnel or employment record” as that term is defined in the regulation. The regulation also makes clear that Defendants’ duty did not cease upon their provision of Plaintiff’s HR file to the EEOC during their initial investigation.

The court next reviewed Plaintiff’s arguments concerning Ms. Scalera’s (plaintiff’s) “wiped” hard drive. It quickly dismissed these claims by reasoning that because the “wiping” occurred prior to the notice of the EEOC charge, Defendants were not under a duty to preserve.

The court then moved to the subject of Ms. Gordon’s hard drive, which also had been wiped. The destruction of data in this situation occurred nearly two months after Defendants had received notice of the EEOC charge. The court stated that Defendants’ argument that the destruction of Defendant Gordon’s hard drive did not amount to a breach of a duty to preserve because Defendant Gordon printed all relevant documents and maintained them in Plaintiff’s Human Resources file does not get them off the hook. The court cited Treppel v. Biovail Corp., 233 F.R.D. 363 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) for the proposition that permitting the downgrading of data to a less accessible form — which systematically hinders future discovery by making the recovery of information more costly and burdensome — is a violation of the preservation obligation. The court reasoned that Plaintiff had the right to test the accuracy of Defendants’ representations of facts and is not obligated to simply take Defendants’ word for it that all relevant emails and documents that were on Defendant Gordon’s hard drive actually made their way into Plaintiff’s personnel file.

On the matter of other emails, the court returned to the subject of two “partial” emails that Defendants produced, concluding that these documents fell within the meaning of a “personnel or employment record” that should have been preserved for one year after their creation. If Defendants had executed on that duty, then a duty to preserve would have prevented their destruction once the EEOC charge had been filed.

With respect to those e-mails produced by Plaintiff, but not Defendant, the court was not convinced by Defendants arguments that these had been generated prior to Plaintiff’s employment. The court found that the ADA regulations would have required Defendants to preserve these emails for one year from the time they were created, namely, in September 2005. Even if Defendants had done so, the obligation to preserve these emails would have expired in September 2006 — a month and a half before Plaintiff’s EEOC Charge was filed. Therefore, the court concluded that Defendants had not breached a duty to preserve.

The first element of the analysis, the court stated, was established. However, in turning to the second element, the court articulated the rule that “even where the preservation obligation has been breached, sanctions will only be warranted if the party responsible for the loss had a sufficiently culpable state of mind.” In its examination of the facts, the court concluded that Defendants had been negligent, though not grossly negligent. Defendants, said the court, took no active steps to preserve electronic documents until early 2007, almost two months after the filing of the EEOC charge. Key facts that swayed the court included:

  • Searches of key employees’ hard drives were either never completed at all or were not completed for some time after the EEOC Charge was received.
  • The message was never communicated to the IT department to search the hard drives of two key custodians.
  • And finally, no formal written litigation hold was ever implemented.

The court cited Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 229 F.R.D. 422, 432 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) in listed the steps expected from parties under a duty to preserve:
(1) issue a litigation hold at the outset of litigation or whenever litigation is reasonably anticipated,
(2) clearly communicate the preservation duty to “key players,” and
(3) “instruct all employees to produce electronic copies of the their relevant active files” and “separate relevant backup tapes from others.”

The court also repeated Zubulake’s admonition that one of the primary reasons that electronic data is lost is ineffective communication with information technology personnel.

In turning to the final element, the court went off on a different direction, finding that Plaintiff had ultimately failed to demonstrate that any destroyed emails would have been favorable to her position. The court noted that relevance may be inferred if the spoliator is shown to have a sufficiently culpable state of mind, such as acting in bad faith or gross negligence. However, the court had already determined that Defendant was merely negligent. The court further found that Plaintiff had not submitted extrinsic evidence tending to demonstrate that the destroyed emails would have been favorable to her case, leaving the third and final element as not being established.

Result: Plaintiff’s motion for sanctions was denied.

Posted in 2nd Circuit, Back Up Tapes, Case Summary, Data Retention Practices, Duty to Preserve, E.D.N.Y., Litigation Hold, Magistrate Judge A. Kathleen Tomlinson, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation, Relevance, Sanctions, Spoliation | 2 Comments »

Case Blurb: Asher Assocs LLC; Role of Intent in Assessing Sanctions

Posted by rjbiii on July 12, 2009

Common sense suggests that a failure to produce or preserve relevant evidence may involve conduct that falls “along a continuum of fault — ranging from innocence through the degrees of negligence to intentionality.”

In Aramburu v. Boeing Co., 112 F.3d 1398, 1407 (10th Cir. 1997), the Tenth Circuit held that “the bad faith destruction of a document relevant to proof of an issue at trial gives rise to an inference that production of the document would have been unfavorable to the party responsible for its destruction.” In the same decision, the Tenth Circuit further reasoned that no adverse inference should arise where the destruction of a document resulted from mere negligence, because only bad faith would support an “inference of consciousness of a weak case.” FN11.

FN11: “‘Bad faith’ is the antithesis of good faith and has been defined in the cases to be when a thing is done dishonestly and not merely negligently. It is also defined as that which imports a dishonest purpose and implies wrongdoing or some motive of self-interest.” Of course, in cases where an adverse inference instruction is neither requested nor appropriate, the Tenth Circuit has held that a finding of bad faith is not required to impose non-dispositive sanctions, such as excluding evidence.

Asher Assocs., LLC v. Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40136 at *27-28 (D. Colo. May 12, 2009)(internal citations removed).

Posted in 10th Circuit, Adverse Inference, Bad Faith, Case Blurbs, D. Colo., Data Retention Practices, Duty to Preserve, Exclusion of Evidence, Good Faith, Magistrate Judge Craig B. Schafer, Sanctions, Spoliation | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Asher Assocs LLC; Second Letter with an ‘Emphatic Tone’ Likely Triggered Duty to Preserve

Posted by rjbiii on July 12, 2009

Defendant cites my decision in Cache La Poudre Feeds, LLC v. Land O’Lakes, Inc., 244 F.R.D. 614, 623 (D. Colo. 2007), as support for its assertion that Plaintiff’s correspondence in September 2006 was too vague to trigger a duty to preserve evidence. To the contrary, the facts in Cache La Poudre are completely distinguishable. In that case, plaintiff’s counsel sent the putative defendant successive letters over a nearly two-year period in which she reiterated her client’s desire to explore a negotiated resolution of the parties’ dispute. I concluded that the less-than-adamant tone of counsel’s letters, coupled with the lengthy passage of time, belied the contention that Cache La Poudre’s correspondence had triggered a duty to preserve evidence.

Here, the facts compel a different conclusion. Plaintiff’s letter of September 8, 2006, came quickly on the heels of the Warranty Claim letter sent on September 1, 2008. While the earlier letter had not specifically threatened litigation, the September 8 correspondence adopted a decidedly different and emphatic tone. Plaintiff’s outside counsel characterized the earlier letter as a “failed” attempt to resolve the dispute “without litigation.” Where Plaintiff’s September 1st letter referred to “expenditures” incurred by [Plaintiffs] in connection with [certain] Contracts, outside counsel now indicated that his client had been “significantly damaged,” provided [Defendants] with an “interim damage calculation,” and claimed that “damages continue to accrue.” The September 8th letter demanded an “immediate payment” and imposed a five-day deadline for making that payment. Outside counsel went so far as to identify the specific claims for relief that [Plaintiffs] would assert if it initiated “such legal or other action to enforce its rights.” Given the tenor of the September 8th letter, [Defendants] should have understood that future litigation was reasonably foreseeable and substantially “more than a possibility.”

Asher Assocs., LLC v. Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40136 at *24-25 (D. Colo. May 12, 2009)(internal citations removed)(emphases added).

Posted in 10th Circuit, Case Blurbs, D. Colo., Data Retention Practices, Demand Letter, Duty to Preserve, Magistrate Judge Craig B. Schafer | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Asher Assocs LLC; Exercise of the Court’s ‘Inherent Powers’ to Sanction Party for Spoliation (10th Cir)

Posted by rjbiii on July 12, 2009

Plaintiffs correctly note that the court has inherent power to impose sanctions for the destruction or loss of evidence. []A spoliation sanction is proper where (1) a party has a duty to preserve evidence because it knew, or should have known, that litigation was imminent, and (2) the adverse party was prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence.[]

In exercising its discretion to fashion an appropriate sanction, the court must consider the culpability of the responsible party and whether the evidence was relevant to prove an issue at trial.

First, the court must determine whether the missing [evidence] would be relevant to an issue at trial. If that question is answered in the negative, the court’s analysis stops there. If the missing evidence would be relevant, the court must then decide whether [Producing Party] was under an obligation to preserve the [evidence]. Finally, if such a duty existed, the court must consider what sanction, if any, is appropriate given the non-moving party’s degree of culpability, the degree of any prejudice to the moving party, and the purposes to be served by exercising the court’s power to sanction.

Asher Assocs., LLC v. Baker Hughes Oilfield Operations, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40136 at *16-18 (D. Colo. May 12, 2009)(internal citations removed).

Posted in 10th Circuit, Case Blurbs, D. Colo., Data Retention Practices, Duty to Preserve, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Magistrate Judge Craig B. Schafer, Sanctions, Spoliation | Leave a Comment »

Case Summary: Phillip M. Adams & Assocs., On Spoliation and Info. Management

Posted by rjbiii on July 5, 2009

Phillip M. Adams & Assocs., L.L.C. v. Dell, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26964 (D. Utah Mar. 27, 2009)

FACTS: Plaintiffs, and requesting party, Philip M. Adams & Associates, alleged infringement of their patents for technology that detected and resolved defects in the most widely used floppy disk controller, thus preventing data from being destroyed. The patents in question were purportedly assigned to plaintiffs by the original inventor. FDC-related defects gave rise to multiple lawsuits, culminating with the settlement of a class action suit against Toshiba in October of 1999.
Requesting party accused producing party of spoliation, as stated in the opinion:

…first, that ASUS has illegally used Adams’ patented software; and second, that ASUS has destroyed evidence of that use. The first assertion is identical to the liability issue in this case. The second assertion is premised on the first: Assuming ASUS used Adams’ software, ASUS’ failure to produce evidence of that use is sanctionable spoliation. Adams has no direct proof of destruction of evidence but is inferring destruction or withholding of evidence. Since Adams is convinced that ASUS infringed, Adams is also convinced that failure to produce evidence of infringement is sanctionable.

Issues we examine:

  1. When did the producing party’s duty to preserve attach?
  2. How does the Safe Harbor provision (FRCP 37(e)) factor into the determination of sanctions in this case?
  3. What role does producing party’s information management system play in the sanctions calculus?
  4. How does the producing party’s lack of produced data on certain subjects in the aggregate balanced against the absence of specific evidence of wrong-doing by requesting party?

Issue 1: Court’s reasoning:
Producing party acknowledges receiving a letter from requesting party’s counsel asserting infringement on February 23, 2005. It does not acknowledge receiving an earlier letter dated October 4, 2004. Thus, Producing Party dates the beginning of its duty to preserve from the date of the February letter, and states that it has complied with that duty from that time forward. Producing party takes the position that a delay in giving notice and bringing suit by requesting party is the reason for the lack of available data from the years 2000 and 2001.
The court noted that both parties agreed that “a litigant’s duty to preserve evidence arises when ‘he knows or should know [it] is relevant to imminent or ongoing litigation.'” The court acknowledged the producing party’s stance that this trigger occurred upon receiving counsel’s letter, but stated that this was “not the inviolable benchmark.” The court cited 103 Investors I, L.P. v. Square D Co., 470 F.3d 985 (10th Cir. 2006) to buttress its argument.
In 103 Investors, the defendant disposed of 50 to 60 feet of “busway” material after a fire had occurred, destroying all but four feet of the busway, and eliminating any of the busway that should have contained a warning label. The court concluded that in that instance, the defendant should have known that litigation was imminent, although the material had been disposed of long before the complaint was filed.
The court described the history of this defect. In 1999 Toshiba paid a large sum to settle a class action related to the floppy drive error in play in the instant matter. That same year, a class action suit was filed against HP for the same defect. In 2000, producing party was working on correcting the issue. Sony became embroiled in a class action in 2000. The court stated that the industry had (or should have become) “sensitized” to the possibility of litigation on this issue.

It appears that this extends the duty to preserve, which is already among the more difficult and costly issues in e-discovery today. By extending the duty’s trigger to occur prior to any direct or specific action against defendants, the court is asking too much of any IT department. It may be that the lack of documents produced by the defendants (this is discussed below) puts the court in the position of trying to fashion a rationale for punishment. But taken literally, the effects of the opinion could set a difficult, perhaps impossible, standards for compliance with the duty.

Issue 2: Safe Harbor?

The court, to the dismay of many commentators, dismisses the effects of the safe harbor provision in FRCP 37(e). Ralph Losey claims the court “mines” the rule into oblivion. I think what is in play here is that the court feels that the producing party would use Safe Harbor as a rationale for not producing data that it should have. Nevertheless, Safe Harbor’s reach, already attenuated, appears to weaken further in this opinion.


Issue 3: What role does producing party’s information management system play in the sanctions calculus?

The court comes down hard on the IG practices of the producing party. It stated that the system’s architecture, possessed of questionable reliability, should not be excused, though it evolved, rather than was deliberately designed to operate as it does. The result is that it operated to deprive the requesting party of access to evidence.
Traits of this system are described thusly:
[Producing Party] extensively describes its email management and storage practices, to explain the nearly complete absence of emails related to the subject of this litigation.

First, [Producing Party] says its email servers are not designed for archival purposes, and employees are instructed to locally preserve any emails of long term value.

[Producing Party] employees send and receive email via company email servers.

Storage on [Producing Party’s] email servers is limited, and the company directs employees to download those emails they deem important or necessary to perform their job function from the company email server to their individual company issued computer.

[Producing Party] informs its employees that any email not downloaded to an employee’s computer are automatically overwritten to make room for additional email storage on ASUSTeK ‘s servers.

It is [Producing Party’s] routine practice that its employees download to their individual computer those emails the employee deems important or necessary to perform his or her job function or comply with legal or statutory obligations.

Second, ASUS employee computers are periodically replaced, at which time ASUS places all archiving responsibility for email and other documents on its employees. During the course of their employment, ASUSTeK employees return their individual company issued computers in exchange for newer replacement computers.

40. The hard drives of all computers returned to or exchanged with the company are formatted to erase all electronic information stored on these computers before they are recycled, reused or given to charity.

41. During a computer exchange, it is [Producing Party’s] practice to direct its employees to download those emails and electronic documents from the employee’s individual computer to the employee’s newly issued computer that the employee deems important or necessary to perform his or her job function or comply with legal or statutory obligations.

The court stated that descriptions these data management practices may explain why relevant e-mails were not produced, but it did not establish the Producing Party’s good faith in managing its data. It calls the information management practices of the producing party “questionable” and that although an organization may design its systems to suit its business purposes, the information management practices are still accountable to such third parties as adversaries in litigation. The court opines that: “[a] court – and more importantly, a litigant – is not required to simply accept whatever information management practices a party may have. A practice may be unreasonable, given responsibilities to third parties.

Furthermore, while the court accepts that the Producing Party’s system “evolved” rather than was purposefully designed with the goal of hiding data needed for litigation, it nevertheless quoted the Sedona Conference: “An organization should have reasonable policies and procedures for managing its information and records.”

Finally, the court took aim at the practice of allowing individual users to drive retention practices, when it stated: “[Producing Party’s]’ practices invite the abuse of rights of others, because the practices tend toward loss of data. The practices place operations-level employees in the position of deciding what information is relevant to the enterprise and its data retention needs.”

Issue 4: How does the producing party’s lack of produced data on certain subjects in the aggregate balanced against the absence of specific evidence of wrong-doing by requesting party?

Producing Party turned over executable files of their own invention, but failed to surrender the source code for those executables. They also failed to produce other relevant executables and related source code, or “a single document” relating to the development of the applications under scrutiny. The court expressed concern over the absence of certain types of documents from the production:

[Producing Party’s] only response is that it has produced a large volume of documents. That may be the case; but, it has not produced the most critical documents – those that relate to its misappropriation, its copying, and its willful behavior. The only conclusion after all this time is that [Producing Party] has destroyed critical evidence that it simply cannot show did not exist.

By this expression, the court adopted Requesting Party’s argument that Producing Party had “‘spoliated the most critical evidence in this case, e.g., test programs and related source code’ “[S]ince [Producing Party] has not produced it, the only conclusion is that [they have destroyed it.”

The court also noted, in its analysis of Producing Party’s objection to the admissibility of data produced by third parties on grounds of authentication, that the Producing Party, while claiming “a near total absence of evidence…[sought] to eliminate the only evidence available. The court concluded that such tactics should not prevail to “prevent consideration of the best evidence available.”

Requesting Party listed types of documentation that they would expect Producing Party to possess, but never received during production. Communications and documentation from outside sources contributed to a suspicion that such documentation once existed. Indeed, as the court examines the Producing Party’s duty to preserve, it leads off by stating: “[t]he universe of materials we are missing is very large. Indisputably, we have very little evidence compared to what would be expected.”

In dismissing arguments that destruction of the data in question was covered by the “Safe Harbor” provision under FRCP 37(e), the court stated: “[o]ther than the patent application and the executable file, it does not appear [Producing Party] has produced any significant tangible discovery on the topics where information is conspicuously lacking.”

Ultimately the court found that Producing Party had breached its duty to preserve relevant data. It appears from the information above that the dearth of critical documentation from the Defendant’s productions was a significant contributor to the ruling, but the court does not explain the weight to which it assigned this as an element in its ruling.

Posted in 10th Circuit, Best Practices, Case Summary, D. Utah, Data Custodians, Data Management, Data Retention Practices, Document Retention, Duty to Preserve, FRCP 37(e), Good Faith, Information Governance, Magistrate Judge David Nuffer, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation, Safe Harbor, Source Code, Spoliation | 1 Comment »

The difference between an archive and a backup

Posted by rjbiii on December 26, 2008

Computer Technology Review has posted an article describing the effect of the FRCP on business and corporate IT departments. The article contains the now familiar refrain to proactively manage your digital resources. One nice blurb, though, discusses the difference between archives and back-ups:

This underscores the difference between an archive and a backup system. An archive in today’s regulatory and litigation preparedness sense is an actively managed set of information kept as a business record when needed and disposed of when not. Backups on the other hand are designed for near term disaster recovery and not long term preservation. But many companies have suspended the rotation of their backup media, sometimes for years, because of a fear of sanctions or even bad press resulting from the improper deletion of this potentially discoverable data. What should have been a disaster recovery mechanism is now functioning as a very inefficient archive of all historical information. This becomes magnified as companies inherit backup media through merger and acquisition. In many instances the current IT staff has no idea what data exists upon those tapes.

Posted in Articles, Back Up Tapes, Best Practices, Compliance, Data Management, Data Retention Practices, FRCP 26, FRCP 34 | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

On a New British Standard for Storing Data to be Used as Evidence

Posted by rjbiii on December 25, 2008

The Register reports that the national standards body of the U.K., the BSI Group, has formulated a new standard for storing data properly for “maximizing” the weight of data presented in court. The standard deals with the manner in which evidence is stored.
From the article:

By complying with BS 10008, “it is anticipated that the evidential weight of electronic information transferred to and/or managed by a corporate body will be maximised,” said national standards body BSI British Standards.

The Standard is called Evidential weight and legal admissibility of electronic information – Specification. It sets out the requirements for the implementation and operation of electronic information management systems, including the storage and transfer of information, and addresses issues relating to authenticity and integrity of information.

Legal admissibility concerns whether or not a piece of evidence would be accepted by a court of law. To ensure admissibility, information must be managed by a secure system throughout its lifetime, which can be for many years. Where doubt can be placed on the information, the evidential weight may be reduced, potentially harming the legal case.

From the BSI Group’s description:

What does the standard include?

* The management of electronic information over long periods, including through technology changes, where information integrity is vital
* How to manage the various risks associated with electronic information
* How to demonstrate the authenticity of electronic information
* The management of quality issues related to document scanning processes
* The provision of a full life history of an electronic object throughout its life
* Electronic transfer of information from one computer system to another
* Covers policies, security issues, procedures, technology requirements and auditability of electronic document management systems (EDMS).

Posted in Best Practices, Data Management, Data Retention Practices, International Issues, United Kingdom | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

An Education on ESI and Records Management: Schools need a lesson plan for E-mail

Posted by rjbiii on November 2, 2008

Michael Osteman has posted a story that cites a recent survey showing some interesting numbers:

* 62% of school administrators revealed they do not have a district policy regarding e-mail communications between themselves and teachers.
* 68% of these administrators revealed they do not have a policy regarding e-mail communications between themselves and parents.

And a big one:

The survey also revealed that 90% of schools had not yet created a plan to be in compliance with the new amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP).

Not really all that surprising, but nevertheless, always something of a jolt when see such high numbers in black & white.

Posted in Articles, Data Management, Data Retention Practices, email, Employee Practices | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Bright; Court Discusses Company’s Retention Practices of Surveillance Tapes and Spoliation

Posted by rjbiii on September 9, 2008

This appeal concerns a slip and fall accident that took place at the Plaza Extra supermarket in Estate Sion Farm, St. Croix on June 20, 2004. […]

The Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaza, holding that, because [Plaintiff] Bright failed to provide any evidence that Plaza knew or should have known about the substance on the floor, no reasonable jury could find that Plaza had breached its duty to Bright as a matter of law. The instant appeal followed. […]

Bright’s fall was captured on Plaza’s closed-circuit video surveillance system, which is comprised of both a digital hard drive that records only a finite amount of data before reusing itself and a video recorder. The digital footage is automatically recorded over every few weeks unless it is manually copied from the digital hard drive to the video recorder. At his June 2005 deposition, Plaza’s manager testified that he examined the footage of Bright’s fall immediately after being notified of her fall, the video failed to show anything visible on the floor at the time of the fall. Concluding that Bright “probably tripped on herself,” the manager testified that he elected not to review or copy any of the footage prior to or after the fall. He also testified that the store had no set procedure for retaining video footage of slip and fall accidents and that the store simply retained the footage of the actual fall in Bright’s particular circumstance. […]

Therefore, the record contains no video evidence indicating when or if someone spilled anything on the floor prior to Bright’s fall. The only evidence in the record which indicates length of time is Bright’s deposition testimony. When asked if anything indicated how long the substance had been there, she testified that there was a little dust on the drops which indicated to her that it had to be there “for a little while.” […]

Plaza filed a motion for summary judgment asking the trial court to find that Bright had failed to establish that Plaza had actual or constructive notice of any substance on the floor that may have caused Bright’s injuries. Bright opposed the motion arguing she was entitled to a spoliation inference because Plaza had intentionally erased the video footage depicting what had transpired prior to and after her fall. Plaza replied to the opposition by contending that Bright failed to show that the store had engaged in bad faith, malicious, or fraudulent conduct, which is a prerequisite to the application of a spoliation inference. In a Memorandum Opinion, dated June 11, 2007, the Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of Plaza, holding that Bright failed to provide sufficient evidence that Plaza knew or should have known of the substance on the floor and failed to demonstrate fraud or deceit that would permit deliberation on the availability of the spoliation inference. Bright timely filed her Notice of Appeal… […]

On appeal, Bright contends that Plaza’s destruction of the surveillance video establishes constructive notice because it permits a jury to infer that the video would have shown that the liquid was on the floor long enough for Plaza to have discovered it prior to her fall. According to Bright, the adverse inference created by Plaza’s destruction of the tape defeats summary judgment. Plaza contends that Bright is not entitled to a spoliation inference, and that even if she was, common law precludes the use of a spoliation inference to substitute for actual evidence supporting constructive notice. According to Plaza, a spoliation inference is improper where the evidentiary destruction was a matter of routine and was devoid of any fraudulent intent, and the inference cannot be utilized to establish an essential element of a negligence claim. […]

There is no dispute in this matter that the recorded surveillance footage was at all times within the exclusive possession and control of Plaza. The parties dispute, however, whether there was an actual suppression or withholding of evidence. Bright argues that Plaza intentionally destroyed the recorded surveillance footage in order to conceal evidence which was unfavorable to Plaza. Plaza argues that as a regular course of business, the store only maintains the relevant footage of any recorded fall. Therefore, according to Plaza, the failure to retain footage of the time preceding and following the fall was neither fraudulent nor intentional. The trial court found that “Bright offer[ed] no evidence that Plaza … attempted to perpetrate a fraud or that Plaza’s conduct was anything other than a matter of routine.” (App. at 12-13.) The evidence, however, belies the trial court’s determination. […]

During his deposition, Plaza’s manager testified that he retained only the portion of the surveillance footage which captured Bright’s fall. (App.211-12.) The manager’s conscious and intentional choice not to review or retain the recorded footage prior to or after the fall resulted in the destruction of relevant evidence. […]

We find this case to be very analogous to Stevenson v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 354 F.3d 739 (8th Cir.2004). In analyzing a routine document retention policy, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals applied the Gumbs test and held that the trial court did not abuse it discretion in permitting a spoliation inference as a sanction for the defendant’s pre-litigation destruction of a voice recording. Id. at 747-48. Similar to Plaza, the Stevenson defendant learned of the accident shortly after it occurred and began his investigation immediately thereafter, but failed to take the steps necessary to preserve the recorded evidence. Also like Plaza, the Stevenson defendant had previously been involved in several accidents and knew that such recorded evidence would be relevant to any potential litigation. FN1 Additionally, Bright, like the Stevenson plaintiff, was prejudiced by the destruction of the evidence because there is virtually no other evidence establishing the dispositive issue. In concluding that fraudulent intent was present, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that the case “tests the limits of what [the court is] able to uphold as a bad faith determination.” Id. Nevertheless, the particular circumstances present in that case, which were similar to those present in the case before this Court, warranted a spoliation inference.

FN1:Remarkably, in another case currently before this Court, Plaza’s management applied a different procedure in determining what portion of a recorded slip and fall accident to retain. In Williams v. Plaza Extra, S.Ct. Civ. No.2007/118, where the recorded surveillance footage appeared to vindicate Plaza, management retained a large portion of the footage, including footage from depicting a custodian cleaning the area twelve minutes prior to the fall and several minutes of footage after the fall. The fall in Williams occurred in the same store on April 8, 2002, nearly two years before the fall at issue in this case. […]

While this Court does not find any statutory or case law indicating precisely what portion of surveillance footage capturing a slip and fall accident should be retained, common sense dictates the retention of comprehensive surveillance footage of any accident, including a reasonable period of time preceding and following the accident.

Bright v. United Corp., 2008 WL 2971769 (V.I. July 22, 2008).

Posted in 3d Circuit, Adverse Inference, Case Blurbs, Data Retention Practices, Data Sources, Document Retention, Justice Edgar D. Ross, Sup. Ct. Virgin Islands, Video Files | Leave a Comment »