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Case Blurb: Cammarata; Court’s Authority to Impose Sanctions for Spoliation

Posted by rjbiii on March 29, 2010

Allegations of spoliation, including the destruction of evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation, are addressed in federal courts through the inherent power to regulate the litigation process if the conduct occurs before a case is filed or if, for another reason, there is no statute or rule that adequately addresses the conduct. If an applicable statute or rule can adequately sanction the conduct, that statute or rule should ordinarily be applied, with its attendant limits, rather than a more flexible or expansive “inherent power.”

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 [Supreme Court case] Chambers, the inherent power was linked to the bad-faith conduct that affected the litigation. See 501 U.S. at 49. If inherent power, rather than a specific rule or statute, provides the source of the sanctioning authority, under Chambers, it may be limited to a degree of culpability greater than negligence.

See case summary here.

Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. v. Cammarata, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14573, 14-15 (S.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2010) (internal citations removed).

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Posted in 5th Circuit, Case Blurbs, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, S.D. Tex., Sanctions, Spoliation | Leave a Comment »

Case Summary: Cammarata; Court Discusses E-Discovery Misconduct, Proportionality and Reasonableness

Posted by rjbiii on March 26, 2010

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

Posted in 5th Circuit, Adverse Inference, Burden of Proof, Case Summary, Duty to Preserve, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, Litigation Hold, S.D. Tex., Sanctions, Spoliation | 7 Comments »

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 »

The Basics on Sanctions

Posted by rjbiii on October 22, 2007

This is the Fourth Installment of Effectively Managing E-Discovery.

Which actions or omissions may give rise to sanctions is partly dependent upon the circuit in which one practices. First, the attorney approaching a discovery project of any size should not have any misguided notion that judges are apt to forgive a lack of familiarity of his client’s system. The Conference of Chief judges stated in a report it issued 2005:

While the manner in which this encouragement should be given will, of necessity, depend on the procedures and practices of a particular jurisdiction, the court should establish the expectation early that counsel must be well informed about their clients’ electronic records. FN1

FN1: Conference of Chief Judges, Guidelines for State Trial Courts Regarding Discovery of Electronically-Stored Information (Rev. Draft, Sept. 2005). See also, Leonard Dutchman, Preserving Data in the Wake of Amended Rule 37(f), http://www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/PublArticleFriendlyLT.jsp?id=1160643922347 (last visited October 30, 2006) (“It is ultimately counsel’s duty to preserve and gather discoverable ESI.”); Phoenix Four, Inc. v. Strategic Resources Corp., 2006 WL 1409413 (S.D.N.Y May 23, 2006), *5 (citing Zubulake V) (“Counsel has the duty to properly communicate with its client to ensure that ‘all sources of relevant information [are] discovered.’ “); Craig Ball, EDD Showcase: Worst Case Scenario, Law Technology News (Oct. 31, 2006) at http://www.law.com/jsp/legaltechnology/pubArticleLT.jsp?id=1162215324083, (quoting J. William Speros, referring to attorney liability and explicitly mentioning Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 108 (2d Cir. 2002) and In re Worldcom, 2004 WL 768573 (S.D.N.Y. 2004)) (“We’ve seen courts hold parties responsible for failing to supervise their vendors.”)

As a matter of principle, sanctions should be used sparingly. Fed. R. Civ. P. R. 37(b)(2). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorize a court to issue, as sanctions for disobeying discovery orders, the following orders (not an exclusive list):

  • An order that the matters regarding which the order was made or any other designated facts shall be taken to be established for the purposes of the action in accordance with the claim of the party obtaining the order;
  • An order refusing to allow the disobedient party to support or oppose designated claims or defenses, or prohibiting that party from introducing designated matters in evidence; and
  • An order striking out pleadings or parts thereof, or staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed, or dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof, or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party.

Federal courts also possess an inherent authority to impose sanctions for the conduct of litigants in counsel regardless of whether the behavior at issue would be covered specifically under a rule or statute. O’Brien v. Ed Donnelly Ents., Inc., 2006 WL 2583327, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 5, 2006). The court is given a great deal of latitude in deciding what, if any, sanction should be imposed for bad conduct. Id. What kind of conduct may be penalized? The spectrum of attorney or disputant behavior subject to sanction is large, but for the purposes here, non-production or late production of relevant documents is behavior subject to sanctions, as is spoliation, and the destruction of evidence. Spoliation may be defined as “the failure to preserve evidence that is relevant to pending or potential litigation. See, e.g., Jimenez-Sanchez Restaurants, LLC, Civ. No. 05-1131 (JAG), 2007 WL 1098667, at *1 (D. Puerto Rico March 5, 2007).

The purpose of sanctions is to “deter parties from engaging in [prohibited conduct], place the risk of an erroneous judgment on the party who wrongfully created the risk, and restore the prejudiced party to the position it would have been in had the misconduct not occurred.” Consolidated Aluminum Corp. v. Alcoa, Inc., 2006 WL 2583308 (M.D.La. July 19, 2006). A court has “broad discretion to fashion appropriate sanctions on a case by case basis.” Phoenix Four, Inc., 2006 WL 1409413 at *3. The form in which sanctions can appear include:

  • Exclusion of “spoiled evidence.
  • Allowance of an Adverse Inference;
  • Allowance of further discovery by the party injured by the misconduct;
  • Monetary sanctions;
  • Dismissal of a case (for misconduct by the plaintiff or cross-plaintiff).
  • Default Judgment.

Although the flexibility accorded district courts is understandable, clarity is diminished because of it. Additionally, clarity suffers further from the fact that particular sanctions may be imposed for differing standards of conduct, depending upon the circuit in which the case is taking place.

Posted in Discovery, EDD Basics, Effectively Managing E-Discovery, FRCP 37(b), Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Sanctions | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Phoenix Four; Court has broad discretion to address misconduct during discovery

Posted by rjbiii on August 31, 2007

Where the alleged discovery misconduct consists of the non-production of evidence, a district court has broad discretion to fashion appropriate sanctions on a case-by-case basis. Phoenix Four, Inc. v. Strategic Resources Corp., 2006 WL 1409413 (S.D.N.Y 2006).

Posted in 2nd Circuit, Case Blurbs, Discovery, Duty to Produce, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, S.D.N.Y, Sanctions | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Ed Donnelly Ents., Inc.; Inherent authority to govern process given to courts w/o regard to FRCP

Posted by rjbiii on August 29, 2007

Fed. Courts possess inherent authority to sanction bad-faith conduct w/o regard to whether such conduct could be sanctioned under other applicable rules or statutes. O’Brien v. Ed Donnelly Ents., Inc., 2006 WL 2583327 (S.D. Ohio).

Determination of the correct sanction for discovery misconduct is left to the broad discretion of the trial court. Id. (citing Nat’l Hockey League v. Metropolitan Hockey Club, 427 U.S. 639, 642 (1976)).

Posted in 6th Circuit, Case Blurbs, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Magistrate Judge Norah McCann King, S.D. Ohio, Sanctions | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Assn; Court’s authority to sanction

Posted by rjbiii on August 29, 2007

A trial court has the authority to sanction a party for failing to preserve evidence that it knows or should know is relevant before litigation is commenced. King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Ass’n v. Blackwell, 448 F.Supp.2d 876 (S.D. Ohio 2006) (citing United States v. Kitsap Physicians Service, 315 F.3d 995, 1001 (9th Cir. 2002)).

Posted in 6th Circuit, Case Blurbs, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, S.D. Ohio, Sanctions | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Crandall; source of court’s power to require preservation of evidence

Posted by rjbiii on August 28, 2007

[The court’s] authority [to require the preservation of evidence] emanates from the inherent powers of the federal courts to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases. Crandall v. City and County of Denver Colorado, 2006 WL 2683754 (D. Colo. 2006) (citing Jordan F. Miller Corp. v. Mid-Continent Aircraft Svc., Inc., 139 F.3d 912 (10th Cir. 1998)).

Posted in 10th Circuit, Case Blurbs, D. Colo., Duty to Preserve, Inherent Power of Fed. Courts, Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty | Leave a Comment »