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Case Summary: In re Delta/AirTran; Preservation Trigger for Civil Suit following DOJ Anti-Trust Investigation Discussed

Posted by rjbiii on April 1, 2011

In Re Delta/AirTran Baggage Fee Antitrust Litigation, CIVIL ACTION FILE NUMBER 1:09-md-2089-TCB, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26945 (N.D. Ga. Feb. 22, 2011).

Plaintiffs brought their respective actions against Delta and AirTran for collusion on baggage fees after a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. During its action, the DOJ served a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) on Delta, requiring the airline to produce certain documents. There were some missteps along the way for Delta in its attempts to preserve the targeted data:

  • A litigation hold notice failed to include the CEO on it, despite the fact that he was a custodian in the case. The court appears to dismiss concerns on this ground, reasoning that the CEO received verbal instructions, his exchange mailbox was already being preserved by the company’s IT staff, and he did produce documents in accordance with the DOJ’s request.
  • Some data from back-up tapes was lost, and there was a dispute as to whether Delta was responsible. Delta claimed they had verbally instructed a third party vendor not to continue the process of rotating (and overwriting) tapes. The process wasn’t changed by the vendor until later, resulting in the deletion of data from some of those tapes.

While plaintiffs argued that the DOJ had been concerned about spoliation because of these missteps, the court noted that:

  • Delta worked closely with the DOJ “to ensure all relevant documents were…produced,” and
  • The DOJ has not requested additional information from the airline since December 2009.

After the court stated the standard that it would typically use for spoliation analysis, it came to the crux of the issue:

Unlike the quintessential spoliation situation, Plain-tiffs do not contend that Delta destroyed or altered evidence during the course of this litigation. 7 Plaintiffs’ argument is more nuanced; they contend that they are entitled to spoliation sanctions because Delta did not immediately comply with the CID issued by the DOJ.

The court explained that in order to be successful, plaintiff’s must argue that they, as private civil litigants, can enforce the provisions of a CID when the DOJ has not taken such action and where the CID was issued three months prior to the first case in this action.

The court noted that:

Plaintiffs have not cited any authority that would support such a sweeping and novel theory of spoliation. 10 In the absence of such authority, the Court is unwilling to conclude that upon service of a DOJ-issued CID, a duty to Plaintiffs to preserve documents devolved upon Delta even though Plaintiffs did not file this action until three months later. The Court’s caution in this regard is particularly justified given the severe sanctions that Plaintiffs seek.

And the opinion further explained:

During oral argument, Plaintiffs suggested that the duty to preserve documents is a duty that does not attach to any party. Thus, Plaintiffs posit that anyone (including them) could advance a spoliation argument against Delta for its alleged failure to comply with the DOJ’s CID. However, not only is such a suggestion unsupported by any case law, but it flies in the face of the legal definition of the word duty, which defines duty as a “legal obligation that is owed or due to another . . . .” BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 580 (9th ed. 2009).

During oral argument, Plaintiffs also chastised Delta for not having found a case that supports its position on the duty issue. However, Plaintiffs, not Delta, have the burden of proof on the spoliation issue, including the legal elements needed to establish spoliation. See Eli Lilly & Co. v. Air Express Int’l USA, Inc., 615 F.3d 1305, 1318 (11th Cir. 2010).

In essence, Plaintiffs ask this Court to hold that, as a matter of law, when a business is served with a CID, an irrebuttable presumption arises that civil litigation filed by one or more parties against the business receiving the CID is reasonably foreseeable. No court has so held, and this Court is unwilling to be the first.

The court concluded with this:

Two important points about the CID must be emphasized. First, it triggered the commencement of a confidential investigation. Indeed, the Government did not publicize its investigation, and all documents and testimony provided to the Government in response to the CID remain confidential. Second, the first case in this MDL action was not filed until May 22, 2009, over three months after Delta was served with the CID. As Delta explains in its briefs, it has been the recipient of numerous CIDs, subpoenas, or similar formal demands for information from the DOJ that have not led to either private or government litigation. For these reasons, when Delta received the CID, it cannot be said that Delta should have anticipated this lawsuit. Consequently, Delta owed no preservation duty to Plaintiffs that it could have breached. If Delta failed to comply with the CID, the DOJ–not Plaintiffs–is the appropriate party to take action.

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