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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.

Posted in 11th Circuit, Case Summary, Civil Investigative Demand, Duty to Preserve, Judge Timothy C. Batten, N.D. Ga., Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation | Leave a Comment »

Case Summary: Calixto; Court Analyzes Preservation Methodology

Posted by rjbiii on April 16, 2010

Calixto v. Watson Bowman Acme Corp., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111659 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 16, 2009)

Case Background: Plaintiff Calixto brought this action against defendants CRT and Watson Bowman Acme Corp. (WABO), alleging infringement of patent and trademark, breach of contract, and tortious interference of an agreement between plaintiff and another party. CRT had signed an Asset Purchase Agreement and was negotiating with Calixto on a licensing agreement for the Asian territory, for use of a patented system for joining concrete slabs that may be used in the construction of parking garages or vehicular roadways and an associated trademark. WABO was to be a sub-licensee of CRT’s rights.

Procedural History: The court addresses a motion to compel by Calixto.

Basic Points:

  • Restoration of 30 back-up apes was found to be unnecessary when moving party failed to establih a reasonable expection that doing so would yeild relevant documents not already produced.
  • Restoration of a single back-up tape was ordered because of sufficient possibility that new information would be found
  • Failing to object to search methodology might be a factor in losing your motion to compel
  • Failing to counter expert opinion on pricing might be a factor in losing your motion to compel
  • When sending a deman letter to trigger the duty of preservation, make sure it explicitly cites all possible causes of action and directly addresses every potential litigant.

Factual Background: During a deposition, WABO’s former CEO discussed a document retention policy that included measures to ensure the retention of e-mails on offsite storage for, as best as he could recall, a minimum of ten years. In a 30(b)(6) deposition, WABO’s witness implied that there was a systematic data purge for e-mails older than six months that was implemented when BASF AC acquired WABO. However, the deponee was unable to say whether such a purge had been in place prior to the acquisition. Based on this testimony, however, Calixto filed a motion to compel, requesting the court find spoliation had occurred in the face of ongoing litigation.

During the hearing on the motion to compel, Calixito challenged WABO’s actions on two grounds:
1. the destruction of former CEO Burri’s e-mails on his hard drive after Burri left WABO; and
2. WABO’s refusal to restore monthly back-up tapes.

WABO argued that its policy was to destroy ESI from the hard drives of separated employees, and that Mr. Burri left prior to December 1, 2004, which was the earliest date from which it still retained data on back-up tapes. Therefore, no record of Burri’s e-mails existed, and WABO could not recover the e-mails from anywhere.

With respect to the second issue, WABO claimed that nothing relevant that existed on the back-up tapes had not already been produced to Calixto.

The Court ordered WABO to produce an affidavit explaining, among other matters,
(1) how WABO conducted its search for documents responsive to the deposition notice and discovery obligations;
(2) what, if any, documents had been deleted from WABO’s IT system, and the circumstances surrounding any such deletions; and (3) what, if any, options existed for recovery of any deleted documents.

Subsequently, WABO filed the affidavit with the court.

Process Used for Conducting a Search and Collection of Relevant ESI:
WABO first identified and contacted all WABO employees who:
1. had any possible contact with Plaintiff;
2. Who had any possible knowledge of the Trademarks or Patent at issue; or
3. Who possibly had any information relating to the Lawsuit or to Plaintiff’s document requests.

WABO instructed these individuals to search their personal electronic records, including their personal hard drives and computer files, and their personal hard copy records for any responsive documents or information. WABO searched the Lotus Notes mailboxes of the selected group of custodians.

WABO IT searched the server house directories, the shared drives, and the individual files (including archive files) for the identified individuals for keywords and terms, including the terms “Degussa,” “BASF,” “CORTE,” 4 “Calixto, “Asset Purchase Agreement,” “‘381 Patent,” “JEENE,” and “ALADIN.” WABO also directed the identified individuals to search their local hard drives and Lotus Notes mailboxes for the same search terms. WABO officers also made personal inquiries of those identified as possibly having responsive information or documents, asking about their knowledge and the location of any pertinent information.

WABO made available to its counsel all documents obtained through the efforts outlined above. Counsel then provided relevant documents to Calixto and listed privileged documents on a log.

The court observed that testimony in the declaration implicitly suggested that reconfiguring the back-up tapes into a searchable format and then searching the reformatted version would not yield additional responsive documents because everything reasonably anticipated to be relevant to the litigation was preserved via the litigation hold and searched pursuant to the procedures articulated above.

WABO stated that the it was a routine business practice to delete a former employee’s email upon separation, although no written policy existed. No documentation recording the deletion operation was generated, and the exact date of deletion could not be recalled, although WABO insisted that the deletion did occur prior to receiving a letter from Plaintiffs threatening litigation.

Back-up Tapes:
Because back-up tapes used a compressed format that rendered data contained by them inaccessible, WABO claimed that the data must be restored in order to render it accessible. Because of the tape rotation schedule, WABO only held data for approximately 30 months, meaning that WABO now only retained tapes containing data from December of 2004. WABO has preserved data from that time forward in order to comply with its discovery obligations.

In reviewing WABO’s IT representative’s testimony, the court noted that IT felt they needed to deleted data to increase performance and liberate memory and disk space. IT generated the policy of deleting emails of departed employees at its own initiative, although it did communicate the fact that it was engaged in this practice to executives at the time. BASF’s newly implemented automatic deletion program exempts those custodians on a litigation hold.

WABO (and BASF) Counsel:

Senior counsel at BASF, who also had a history with WABO also testified on the existence of two letters and their effects on the litigation hold process. The first, dated March 1, 2004, was sent to WABO president Burri, described negotiations with respect to licensing at an impasse, and concluded that no further discussions would occur. The “re” block was “Proposed Exclusive License Agreement Between Jorge Calixto and Shanghai Master Builders Co., Ltd.” It reminded WABO that they were prohibited from making, distributing, or selling any product using the process set forth in the Patent and from using the JEENE trademark in the Asia/Pacific Territory. It warned that Calixto would enforce his rights and remedies under an earlier signed Asset Purchase Agreement, as well as any common law and/or statutory rights in the relevant jurisdiction.

Counsel claimed never to have seen that letter, but contended that he did not view it as threatening imminent litigation against WABO because:
(1) he saw the letter as a demand letter for royalty payments; and
(2) WABO is not a signatory to the Asset Purchase Agreement discussed in the letter

The second letter was dated September 9, 2004. The “re” block on this letter reads, “Breach of Asset Purchase Agreement dated November 17, 2003 by and Between [CRT] and . . . Calixto.” the letter alleges that CRT was engaging in precisely these activities within the Asia/Pacific Territory. Among other instances, Plaintiff’s counsel cited a WABO announcement that it had “changed the name of the ‘JEENE’ system to ‘Aladin’ as of 1st January 2004.'” The letter concluded by demanding that CRT:

cease and desist from engaging in [such] activities. Furthermore, . . . Calixto is entitled to damages as a result of the breach of the Agreement, including the attorneys’ fees and costs he has incurred pursuant to Section 10.2 of the Agreement. Unless we receive a written response from [CRT] within ten (10) days of your receipt of this notice detailing its intended actions for addressing these matters and compensating . . . Calixto, . . . Calixto has authorized us to pursue all rights and remedies available to him under the Agreement and in accordance with applicable law.

Senior counsel testified that he remembered receiving this letter, but he did not view it as triggering document retention requirements at WABO because:
(1) the letter was about CRT’s alleged breach of the Agreement, and WABO was not a party to that Agreement,
(2) it did not appear to him as though litigation was imminent, based on this letter, and
(3) even had it appeared so, because CRT is a German entity and Calixto is a citizen of Brazil, Pendergast did not anticipate that litigation in the United States would occur, and document preservation and discovery requirements in other countries can differ substantially from those in the United States.

Counsel stated he did not consider that WABO might be sued until Calixto actually filed suit against WABO and others in Florida Circuit Court and served it on WABO. More specifically, Pendergast stated, on March 30 or 31, 2005, after learning of the lawsuit, he put a litigation hold in place.

As mentioned above, Calixto sought to obtain letters of request enabling service of subpoenas duces tecum to proceed against BASF SE Construction Chemicals Division, in Germany; BASF Construction Chemicals Asia Pacific in Shanghai, China; Sanfield Industries Ltd. in Hong Kong; and Vispack Co., Ltd., in Thailand. WABO objected, asserting that it had already provided Calixto with documents in its possession regarding all sales during the relevant time frame.

Analysis:

The court observed that it must address two issues in resolving Plaintiff’s Motion to Compel:
(1) Whether WABO’s alleged destruction of the Burri e-mails or its process of searching for documents relevant to this litigation and responsive to Calixto’s requests was so deficient as to justify an order from the Court directing WABO to engage in sampling or some other methodology requiring WABO to reconfigure any or all of its back-up tapes and conduct a search of them; and
(2) Whether WABO’s destruction of the Burri e-mails in 2004 constituted spoliation warranting some type of sanction.

Sufficiency of WABO’s Search:
The court began this part of its analysis by citing FRCP 26(b)(2)(B):

Specific Limitations on Electronically Stored Information. 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 burden 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.

Rule 26(b)(2)(C), in turn, directs the court to limit discovery when it finds that the discovery sought is, as relevant to the analysis in this case, unreasonably cumulative or duplicative. The burden fell on WABO to demonstrate that the information that Calixto seeks is not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost.

WABO submitted an estimate from e-discovery vendor Kroll Ontrack, stating the cost to restore these back-up tapes to a searchable format would be approximately $ 40,000.00. WABO would then have to spend further funds for a review for relevance and privilege any documents resulting from this endeavor. The Court concluded that WABO satisfied its initial burden of showing that the materials that Calixto seeks from the back-up tapes are not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost. The court then concluded that Calixto has not established good cause for the Court to require WABO to restore and search the back-up tapes, despite the cost and burden.

The court continued by finding that Calixto has failed to establish a reasonable expectation that restoring and searching all of the back-up tapes will yield relevant documents that WABO’s other search methods have not. Calixto raised no objections to the adequacy of WABO’s search methods, including, among other procedures, the keywords that WABO chose to use in performing its search for relevant and responsive material from its electronic databases. Moreover, the Court’s independent review of WABO’s specified search methodology revealed that it appeared to have been designed to find relevant information, and no obvious significant gaps in the methodology.

The court did find, however, that the very earliest back-up tape should be restored and searched, because of doubts about the actual date of the deletion of former CEO Burri’s email. The court stated that it was possible that such a search would not return merely duplicative data, and the court was not persuaded that searching a single back-up tape would constitute an undue burden.

Spoliation Sanctions:
Spoliation sanctions constitute an evidentiary matter, and in diversity cases, the Federal Rules of Evidence govern the admissibility of evidence in federal courts. The key to unlocking a court’s inherent power requires a finding of bad faith.

Where no direct evidence of bad intent exists, in this Circuit, bad faith may be found on circumstantial evidence where all of the following hallmarks are present:
(1) evidence once existed that could fairly be supposed to have been material to the proof or defense of a claim at issue in the case;
(2) the spoliating party engaged in an affirmative act causing the evidence to be lost;
(3) the spoliating party did so while it knew or should have known of its duty to preserve the evidence; and
(4) the affirmative act causing the loss cannot be credibly explained as not involving bad faith by the reason proffered by the spoliator.

In applying these factors to the deleted emails, it first concluded that it was likely that Burri’s email store contained relevant documents. There was no doubt that WABO affirmatively caused the data to be destroyed. However, the court was not convinced that a duty to preserve attached at the time of destruction, as it decided that neither of the letters discussed above triggered that duty. The court emphasized that WABO was not a signatory of the Asset Purchase Agreement cited in the letters, and that it appeared that WABO was not a proper defendant for a breach of contract claim based on that document.

WABO IT’s representative credibly testified that, as a senior information systems analyst, her primary job was to ensure the security and proper functioning of WABO’s computer system, something that too much information storage threatened. Therefore, no deliberate act of destruction of evidence occurred.

Ultimately, the court agreed to require the restoration and search of a single back-up tape while denying the other requests discussed here.

Posted in 11th Circuit, Case Summary, Demand Letter, Document Retention, Duty to Preserve, FRCP 26(b), FRCP 28(b), Litigation Hold, Magistrate Judge Robin S. Rosenbaum, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation, S.D. Fla., Spoliation, Undue burden or cost, Unreasonably Cumulative | 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 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 »

Case Blurb: Zubulake; Sanctions for Destroying Evidence Explained

Posted by rjbiii on August 29, 2007

A party can only be sanctioned for destroying evidence that it had a duty to preserve, and such duty arises when the party has notice that the evidence is relevant to litigation or when a party should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation. Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 216 (S.D.N.Y.2003).

However, a corp. upon recognizing the threat of litigation, need not preserve every shred of paper, every e-mail or electronic document, and every backup tape. Id.

Instead, the duty to preserve extends to any documents or tangible things made by individuals “likely to have discoverable information that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defenses.” Id.

The duty also extends to documents prepared for those individuals and to information that is relevant to the claims and defenses of any party, or which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the action. Id.

Thus, the duty to preserve extends to those employees likely to have relevant information, i.e. the “key players” in the litigation. Id.

Posted in 2nd Circuit, Case Blurbs, Document Retention, Duty to Preserve, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, Key Players, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation, S.D.N.Y, Spoliation | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: WESTLB AG, Cost shifting when party inadvisably converts data to inaccessible format

Posted by rjbiii on August 29, 2007

If a party creates its own burden or expense by converting into an inaccessible format data that it should have reasonably foreseen would be discoverable material at a time when it should have anticipated litigation, then it should not be entitled to shift the costs of restoring and searching the data. Quinby v. WESTLB AG, 2006 WL 2597900 (S.D.N.Y 2006) (citing Zubulake IV, 220 F.R.D. at 216).

Posted in 2nd Circuit, Back Up Tapes, Case Blurbs, Data Management, Duty to Preserve, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation, S.D.N.Y, Undue burden or cost | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Napster C/R Litigation, Reasonable anticipation means any future litigation must be probable

Posted by rjbiii on August 28, 2007

[Any] future litigation must be “probable,” which has been held to mean “more than a possibility.” In re Napster, Inc. Copyright Litigation, 2006 WL 3050864 (N. D. Cal. 2006) (citing Hynix Semiconductor Inc. v. Rambus, Inc., 2006 WL 565893 at *21 (N.D. Cal. 2006)).

Posted in 9th Circuit, Case Blurbs, Duty to Preserve, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, N.D. Cal., Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation | Leave a Comment »

Case Blurb: Quintus Corp., Debtor’s failure to comply with Agreement triggers duty to Preserve

Posted by rjbiii on August 28, 2007

Debtor should have anticipated litigation over its failure to comply with an Asset Purchase Agreement, therefore should not have destroyed electronic files relevant to the litigation. In re Quintus Corp. v. Avaya, Inc., 2006 WL 307982 (Bkrtcy. D. Del. 2006).

Posted in 3d Circuit, Case Blurbs, D. Del., Duty to Preserve, Reasonable Anticipation of Litigation | Leave a Comment »