The duty to preserve ESI is not always cut and dried


The amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) describe the duty to preserve potential evidence when litigation can be reasonably anticipated. The term “reasonably anticipated” is a key idea and one that has caused many arguments over the last four-plus years. To make the point that organizations need to be conservative and take this seriously, it makes sense to look at a case that has gone on for several years.

On April 17, 2008, Phillip M. Adams & Associates L.L.C. (Adams) filed a motion for sanctions against ASUSTEK Computer, Inc. and ASUS Computer International for spoliation (destruction) of evidence. Adams claimed that “ASUS has destroyed the source code and documents relating to ASUS’s test programs, as well as other documents that would have conclusively demonstrated ASUS’ piracy.” On March 30, 2009, the magistrate judge issued a decision granting in part Adams’s motion. The magistrate judge found that “the universe of materials we are missing is very large,” and that “we have very little evidence compared to what would be expected.” In this case, the court reaffirmed its earlier holding regarding the trigger for defendants’ duty to preserve, namely that “in late 1999 the entire computer and component manufacturer’s industry was put on notice of a potential for litigation regarding defective floppy disk components (“FDCs”) by the well publicized settlement in a large class action lawsuit against Toshiba.”  In this ongoing case, a litigation hold responsibility was triggered by a settlement years before. The magistrate judge further found that “ASUS’ practices invite the abuse of the rights of others, because the practices tend toward loss of data.” In other words when the case was in process in 2008, the defendants should have applied a litigation hold to specific data back in 1999-2000, eight to nine years before the case showed up in court.

A related recent ruling: Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Windbond Elecs. Corp., 2010 WL 3767318 (D. Utah Sept. 16, 2010)

What does this mean for organizations today? Well, it’s difficult to “anticipate” future litigation so be conservative in your litigation hold triggering events meaning if even the slightest possibility exists of litigation based on external events, news stories etc. lock down that potentially responsive ESI as soon as possible. That’s easy to say but difficult to accomplish. The first step as pointed out in this case is to train your staff and employees to be sensitive to these “events” and to not be shy about pointing them out to your corporate legal department. The point is to manage your ESI more effectively. If you have control of your data you have a better chance of reacting to and finding responsive ESI when you need to and securing it.

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Spoliation does not require purposeful destruction of evidence


In a recent decision, Rosenthal Collins Group, LLC v. Trading Techs. Int’l, No. 05 C 4088, 2011 WL 722467 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 23, 2011), the court ordered the plaintiff to pay $1,000,000 in monetary sanctions, and ordered plaintiff’s counsel to pay “the costs and attorneys fees incurred in litigating this motion” because the plaintiff’s agent was found (and admitted) to have modified metadata related to relevant source code and had wiped several relevant disks and devices prior to their production. The court found plaintiff’s counsel had participated in “presenting misleading, false information, materially altered evidence and willful non-compliance with the Court’s orders.”

The plaintiff’s counsel did not dispute any of the allegations of misconduct” but instead sought to distance itself from “its own agent, employed for the purposes of pursuing this litigation” and disavowed any “actual knowledge” of wrongdoing. RCG’s counsel similarly disavowed “any personal wrongdoing and any actual knowledge of any wrongdoing, while unequivocally distancing themselves and RCG from [the consultant].”

The court stated; “The imposition of sanctions, however, does not require actual knowledge, but gross negligence or recklessness, i.e., RCG knew or should have known. See Porche v. Oden, 2009 WL 500622, at *7 (N.D.Ill. Feb.27, 2009). Even if this Court were to accept that RCG had no actual knowledge of the evidence destruction and modification that occurred, RCG’s conduct still warrants the imposition of a default judgment. See, e.g., Grochicinski v. Schlossberg, 402 B.R. 825, 842-43 (N.D.Ill.2009) (finding bad faith sufficient to impose default judgment because “[e]ven if Schlossberg did not destroy the files himself, the bankruptcy court found that at the very least Schlossberg acted in ‘reckless disregard’ of his discovery obligations”).

The court went on to reason that “it strains credulity that RCG now claims it had no knowledge of anything [its consultant] was doing and he was just a ‘non-party fact witness’ for whom it bears no responsibility.” The court found that the record reflected that the consultant was “under RCG’s control and was its paid agent,” as evidenced by a myriad of facts laid out by the court.

Accordingly, finding that plaintiff and its counsel “acted in bad faith and with willful disregard for the rules of discovery and this Court’s orders,” the court entered default judgment in favor of defendant and dismissed the claims and defenses of plaintiff. The court also ordered plaintiff to pay sanctions in the amount of $1,000,000 and, for their part in presenting “misleading, false information, materially altered evidence, and willful non-compliance with the Court’s orders,” ordered counsel to “pay the costs and fees incurred in litigating this motion.”

The managing attorneys on either side are responsible to the court to insure the discovery process was done correctly and in the timeframe expected by the court. The argument by RCG that they just didn’t know was seen by the Judge as not meeting their responsibilities. A spoliation finding does not need to be purposeful, grossly negligent will also do.

Beware: Your Facebook Posts Could End Up in Court


Social networking posters beware…your Facebook and other social media accounts may be seen by more than just your friends; in fact, what you post and tweet could become court evidence.

But many of us don’t consider these implications when tweeting and posting. Current employers, potential employers and, yes, even attorneys review social networking sites for information on workers, job candidates and litigants.

Individuals as well as organizations need to carefully consider what they post to these sites. In the personal injury case of McMillen v. Hummingbird Speedway, Inc., No. 113-2010 CD (C.P. Jefferson, Sept. 9, 2010), Hummingbird Speedway, Inc. sought access to plaintiff’s social network accounts, requesting an eDiscovery production of his usernames, log-ins and passwords.

Plaintiff objected, arguing that the information on those sites was confidential.  Upon defendants’ Motion to Compel, the court found the requested information was not confidential or subject to the protection of any evidentiary privilege and ordered its production to defendants’ attorneys within 15 days. Additionally, the court ordered that plaintiff should not take steps to delete or alter the existing information on his social network accounts. The court said:

Specifically addressing the expectation of privacy with regard to Facebook and MySpace, the court found that any such expectation “would be unrealistic.”  The court then analyzed the relevant policies of the two sites, and concluded as to both that, “[w]hen a user communicates through Facebook or MySpace, however, he or she understands and tacitly submits to the possibility that a third-party recipient, i.e., one or more site operators, will also be receiving his or her messages and may further disclose them if the operator deems disclosure to be appropriate.”  Accordingly, the court determined that defendant could not successfully assert that his accounts were confidential.  In so holding, the court also noted the possibility that communications could be disclosed by friends of the account holder with whom the communications were shared.

Organizations need to establish and enforce employee social media policies to lower their risk and better protect their brand. Check out this related blog titled “Companies Need a Social Media Policy” for suggestions on establishing a corporate social media policy. And for all of us posters, bloggers and tweeters, be careful what you say; otherwise, it could be read back to you by an employer or judge.

Effective Records Management Greatly Benefits the Legal Dept for eDiscovery


Many (but not all) corporate legal types consider ESI retention management as the legal hold process. Not a bad thought but really falls short of a true corporate definition of the term. To records managers ESI retention management refers to the systematic retention and disposition of the organizations electronic business records; either for the day to day running of the business, regulatory compliance or litigation support. And in this case I believe the records managers are right.

ESI retention management, also known as records management, needs to be better understood by corporate legal because the proper management and deletion of electronic business records have a direct relationship to the corporate legal department for both legal holds and eDiscovery.

A properly managed ESI records management system allows legal to quickly find and place on legal hold, all archived potentially responsive electronically stored information thereby reducing the risk of spoliation; destruction of evidence. A centralized ESI management system will also act as a on-going collection point so that when eDiscovery starts, the collection phase is already taken care of for that ESI already under management. Because the archive acts as an on-going collection point, the legal department can quickly search the ESI archive for responsive ESI and begin their culling and review responsibilities almost immediately; without the need to spend days or weeks trying to find/collect potentially responsive ESI.

Anatomy of an Adverse Inference


In the investor related action, Pension Comm. of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan v. Banc of Am. Secs, No. CIV. 05-9016, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1839 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2010) the defendants, who were connected to a hedge fund that lost money, sought sanctions against the plaintiffs for failing to preserve and produce documents, including ESI, and for submitting false declarations regarding their collection and production efforts. The Judge in this case was the Honorable Shira A. Scheindlin.

This case came down to two questions about litigation holds: when should a litigation hold be initiated, and what actions are required in the placement and tracking of the litigation hold.

In addressing the charges of spoliation, the court’s opinion included:

“[i]t is well established that the duty to preserve evidence arises when a party reasonably anticipates litigation. “‘[O]nce a party reasonably anticipates litigation; it must suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and put in place a ‘litigation hold’ to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.’” A plaintiff’s duty is more often triggered before litigation commences, in large part because plaintiffs control the timing of litigation.

When the spoliating party’s conduct is sufficiently egregious to justify a court’s imposition of a presumption of relevance and prejudice, or when the spoliating party’s conduct warrants permitting the jury to make such a presumption, the burden then shifts to the spoliating party to rebut that presumption.

“[i]n short, the innocent party must prove the following three elements: that the spoliating party (1) had control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it at the time of destruction or loss; (2) acted with a culpable state of mind upon destroying or losing the evidence; and that (3) the missing evidence is relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense.”

The Court issued the following adverse inference instruction to the jury:

The Citco Defendants have demonstrated that most plaintiffs conducted discovery in an ignorant and indifferent fashion. With respect to the grossly negligent plaintiffs – 2M, Hunnicutt, Coronation, the Chagnon Plaintiffs, Bombardier Trusts, and the Bombardier Foundation – I will give the following jury charge:

The Citco Defendants have argued that 2M, Hunnicutt, Coronation, the Chagnon Plaintiffs, Bombardier Trusts, and the Bombardier Foundation destroyed relevant evidence, or failed to prevent the destruction of relevant evidence. This is known as the “spoliation of evidence.”

Spoliation is the destruction of evidence or the failure to preserve property [*104] for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation. To demonstrate that spoliation occurred, the Citco Defendants bear the burden of proving the following two elements by a preponderance of the evidence:

First, that relevant evidence was destroyed after the duty to preserve arose. Evidence is relevant if it would have clarified a fact at issue in the trial and otherwise would naturally have been introduced into evidence; and

Second, that 2M, Hunnicutt, Coronation, the Chagnon Plaintiffs, Bombardier Trusts, and the Bombardier Foundation were grossly negligent in their failure to preserve the evidence.

I instruct you, as a matter of law, that each of these plaintiffs failed to preserve evidence after its duty to preserve arose. 250 As a result, you may presume, if you so choose, that such lost evidence was relevant, and that it would have been favorable to the Citco Defendants. In deciding whether to adopt this presumption, you may take into account the egregiousness of the plaintiffs’ conduct in failing to preserve the evidence.

However, each of these plaintiffs has offered evidence that (1) no evidence was lost; (2) if evidence was lost, it was not relevant; and (3) if evidence was lost and it was relevant, it would not have been favorable to the Citco Defendants.

If you decline to presume that the lost evidence was relevant or would have been favorable to the Citco Defendants, then your consideration of the lost evidence is at an end, and you will not draw any inference arising from the lost evidence.

However, if you decide to presume that the lost evidence was relevant and would have been unfavorable to the Citco Defendants, you must next decide whether any of the following plaintiffs have rebutted that presumption: 2M, Hunnicutt, Coronation, the Chagnon Plaintiffs, Bombardier Trusts, or the Bombardier Foundation. If you determine that a plaintiff has rebutted the presumption that the lost evidence was either relevant or favorable to the Citco Defendants, you will not draw any inference arising from the lost evidence against that plaintiff. If, on the other hand, you determine that a plaintiff has not rebutted the presumption that the lost evidence was both relevant and favorable to the Citco Defendants, you may draw an inference against that plaintiff and in favor of the Citco Defendants – namely that the lost evidence would have been  favorable to the Citco Defendants.

Each plaintiff is entitled to your separate consideration. The question as to whether the Citco Defendants have proven spoliation is personal to each plaintiff and must be decided by you as to each plaintiff individually.

The Court also noted, “[w]hile litigants are not required to execute document productions with absolute precision, at a minimum they must act diligently and search thoroughly at the time they reasonably anticipate litigation. All of the plaintiffs in this motion failed to do so and have been sanctioned accordingly.”

The courts are moving towards being much less lenient in the question of when should ESI be protected from deletion due to potential civil litigation and also whats expected of the attorneys in protecting potentially responsive ESI.   Corporate Attorneys should always be conservative in their handling of the litigation hold question.

Place holds quickly, communicate the holds to custodians quickly, even those at the periphery of the case, track the custodians actions around the hold communication, and lastly, document everything.

Taking litigation holds seriously will lower your overall litigation cost and risk.