Will Spoliation Insurance Change How Judges Rule?


On Dec.2 2010, the Lexington Insurance Company started selling a new product–spoliation insurance. No, spoliation is not misspelled, and no, it’s not a witty descriptor for what’s likely to happen inside the office break room refrigerator before the end of the holidays. Spoliation is a legal term for the destruction of evidence in civil litigation matters. And this form of insurance protects you in the event a judge imposes fines or penalties because of lost evidence or other eDiscovery failures.

Why might you need spoliation insurance? Well, Duke University conducted a recent study finding 97 eDiscovery sanction cases in 2009, more than any prior year. These are cases where the judge has determined one of the parties destroyed evidence and now must determine a penalty for this destruction of evidence.

Some questions that come to mind for me:

  1. Does having spoliation insurance mean the discoveree can exercise less care with his records information management (RIM) program, litigation hold, or discovery processes because they don’t have to worry about a fine or penalty?
  2. Is the fact that you have spoliation insurance discoverable?
  3. Would the fact that you have spoliation insurance alter the ruling by the judge? (Would the judge, for instance, impose a higher fine or penalty to hammer the insurance company?)

Obviously, spoliation insurance will not affect whether your organization wins or loses the case. Also, I would expect insurance companies to set premiums to reflect their risk. If the insured has an effective RIM program and processes to find and protect responsive electronically stored information easily, insurers should lower premiums for these buyers over other applicants with questionable or no processes or other tools.

The next question that comes to mind is: Do you need spoliation insurance if your organization has prepared for effective eDiscovery by creating RIM policies, training employees on responsibilities and processes, and acquiring technology like an archive to better control ESI?

Now, the answer to this question is pretty commonsensical. Invest in responsible processes and training as well as the best tools/automation for RIM and eDiscovery, and you likely won’t need spoliation insurance.

The ABA Journal had a story on spoliation insurance on March 1, 2011. The ABA Journal article can be viewed here.

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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.

Are Custodial Self-Discovery and Preserving ESI in Place Good for You?


A majority of organizations still follow the traditional practice of instructing custodians—that is, employees–to search for and protect potentially responsive electronically stored information (ESI) locally or what’s known colloquially as “preserving it in place”. In fact, the international law firm Fulbright & Jaworski found in its 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey that more than half (55%) of companies still rely on custodians as their primary method to identify and preserve their own information for litigation or an investigation.

By following this practice, these companies, particularly those with larger numbers of custodians,  have a higher risk of incomplete collection, inadvertent deletion/spoliation, and metadata corruption. What’s more, it’s difficult for legal to supervise  the collection process,  leading to inadequate defensibility of the litigation hold and eDiscovery process.

In a 2008 Kahn Consulting survey on employee understanding of eDiscovery responsibilities, only 22% of respondents said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities for retaining ESI for discovery. Only 16% said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities when responding to a litigation hold. These statistics, while a few years old, blatantly highlight the risk of custodial self discovery and preservation in place.

Still not convinced? The courts are now holding litigants to a higher standard. In a recent case, Roffe v. Eagle Rock Energy GP, et al., C.A. No. 5258-VCL (Del. Ch. Apr. 8, 2010), the Judge expressed surprise overt the custodial self discovery practice used by one attorney:

The Judge asked:

Am I correct that you have been relying on what they [the defendants] self-selected to put in their transaction files in terms of what you obtained and produced?

The defense attorney answered:

That’s correct, your Honor. I was told that they uniformly would put all of their Eagle Rock e-mails into that folder. I have not checked, and I don’t know whether that is true or whether that is accurate. I believe they are telling the truth, but I don’t know if that is accurate.

The Judge immediately responded:

Then here is my ruling. This is not satisfactory. From what you have described to me, you are not doing what you should be doing. First of all, you do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system. Okay? There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly. So both as to the two directors who already have produced — we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court. And you certainly need to put somebody on a plane to go out and see Mr. Smith.

In this exchange, the Judge clearly states: We don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive. Custodial self-discovery is like the fox guarding the chicken coop.

Relying on litigants to find, protect and eventually turn over potentially responsive ESI can be problematic. Most of them will attempt to do what’s right to the best of their understanding. But as we’ve seen from the 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey, fewer  than1 in 4 (23%) have a good understanding. Those few that could have something to hide may find ways to do a sub-par job in the discovery process. If I am the opposing counsel, I  want to know if self discovery was relied on.

So what is a defensible answer for the risks posed by custodial self discovery and preservation in place? Well in my opinion—and I’m about to sound like a corporate schill–you need an ESI archive, which captures the majority of potentially responsive ESI from the in-house infrastructure along with a solution for the remote collection of custodian ESI from their locally controlled equipment.

First, a central ESI archive that captures, indexes, stores, protects, manages and disposes of ESI allows for central discovery of ESI for silos like email systems, share drives and SharePoint systems.

So what can be done for the discovery of locally controlled custodian locations?

Some organizations centrally backup custodian workstations on a regular basis. But relying on restoring backups and searching for responsive ESI has never been considered a good idea. It’s also expensive.

What if you could schedule forensically sound backups of all custodian workstations and use those backups of custodians’ workstations to discover against, even when those custodians are traveling and not synced to the organization’s infrastructure?

A consolidated metadata repository provides enterprises with an accessible catalog of the types of data and content stored on PCs. Using flexible metadata selections, administrators can quickly identify information that is relevant to litigation or compliance matters and, if necessary, retrieve that relevant data from the solution for further review.

Are Custodial Self-Discovery and Preserving ESI in place a good idea?


A majority of organizations still rely of the practice of instructing custodians to search for and protect potentially responsive ESI locally or “preserve it in place”. In its 7th Annual Litigation Trends Survey, Fulbright & Jaworski reported that 55% of responding companies still rely on custodians to identify and preserve their own information as the method used most frequently to preserve potentially relevant information in litigation or an investigation.

Custodial self-discovery and “preservation in place” is a potentially risky in that, especially with larger numbers of custodians, the risk of incomplete collection, inadvertent deletion/spoliation, and meta data corruption is greatly increased, legal supervision of the collection process is impossible leading to inadequate defensibility of the litigation hold and eDiscovery process.

In a 2008 Kahn Consulting survey on employee understanding of eDiscovery responsibilities, only 22% of respondents said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities for retaining ESI for discovery. Only 16% said they had a good understanding of their responsibilities when responding to a litigation hold. These statistics blatantly highlight the risk of custodial self discovery and preservation in place.

The courts are now holding litigants to a higher standard. In a recent case, Roffe v. Eagle Rock Energy GP, et al., C.A. No. 5258-VCL (Del. Ch. Apr. 8, 2010), the Judge was surprised at the custodial self discovery practice one attorney was relying on:

The Judge asks;

Am I correct that you have been relying on what they [the defendants]  self-selected to put in their transaction files, in terms of what you obtained and produced?

The defense attorney answers;

That’s correct, your Honor. I was told that they uniformly would put all of their Eagle Rock e-mails into that folder. I have not checked, and I don’t know whether that is true or whether that is accurate. I believe they are telling the truth, but I don’t know if that is accurate.

The Judge immediately responds to the defense attorney;

Then here is my ruling. This is not satisfactory. From what you have described to me, you are not doing what you should be doing. First of all, you do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system. Okay? There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly. So both as to the two directors who already have produced — we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court. And you certainly need to put somebody on a plane to go out and see Mr. Smith.

In this exchange, the Judge clearly states; we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive. Custodial self-discovery is like the wolf guarding the chicken coop.

Relying on litigants to find, protect and eventually turn over potentially responsive ESI can be problematic. Most of them will attempt to do what’s right; to the best of their understanding (less than 23% have a good understanding). Those few that could have something to hide may find ways to do a subpar job in the discovery process. If I am the opposing counsel, I am going to want to know if self discovery was relied on.

Custodial Self-Discovery and Common Sense


The eDiscoveryJournal, recently ran an article about desktop collection for eDiscovery and mentioned the case of Roffe v Eagle Rock, a case involving custodial self-discovery and expectations from the Judge. The transcript from the conversation between the Judge and both parties of the case can be seen here.

This transcript is interesting in that the judge clearly explains his (and most judges) expectations of the discovery process especially in dealing with custodian’s email accounts and personal computers. In the exchange, one of the defendant’s attorneys explains that he has received some potentially responsive emails from the defendants and is still waiting for some more. To clarify, the Judge asks;

Am I correct that you have been relying on, for the other two committee members, what they self-selected to put in their transaction files, in terms of what you obtained and produced?

The defense attorney answers;

That’s correct, your Honor. I was told that they uniformly would put all of their Eagle Rock e-mails into that folder. I have not checked, and I don’t know whether that is true or whether that is accurate. I believe they are telling the truth, but I don’t know if that is accurate.

In the defense attorney’s answer it becomes obvious that he is relying on the defendants to find and turnover all responsive emails to him and that he has not done any supervisory direction or auditing of the discovery process.

The Judge immediately responds to the defense attorney;

Then here is my ruling. This is not satisfactory. From what you have described to me, you are not doing what you should be doing. First of all, you do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system. Okay? There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly. So both as to the two directors who already have produced — we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court. And you certainly need to put somebody on a plane to go out and see Mr. Smith.

So the question for me would be, one, how fast can you do this right? And that means not only the e-mails from Mr. Smith. As I say, somebody should have been on a plane a long time ago to go through his e-mails. And if he chose to use his personal computer, well, that was his bad choice. All right? And if he has it mixed in other stuff that he gets, 150 e-mails a day, or whatever, that was his bad choice. That makes it all the more essential that a lawyer get on a plane, and go and sit down with Mr. Smith, and go through his e-mail and make sure that what is produced is — what is responsive is appropriately produced. And whoever it is better check his auto-delete settings, and they had better find out if these things have been auto-deleting every 30 days or 60 days or 90 days, and they better think through, as somebody properly should have done, whether there needs to be some type of, again, image and forensic check, to make sure that something hasn’t been lost in what sounds to me to be a lackadaisical, unsatisfactory process.

In this exchange, the Judge clearly states; we don’t rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive. Custodial self-discovery is like the wolf guarding the chicken coop. So for large matters with many custodians with potentially responsive ESI, what can an organization do?

First, the defense attorney should be overseeing the discovery process to ensure it is accomplished correctly. In most courts, the attorney has to certify that the discovery process was done correctly and what attorney wants to do that if they didn’t really manage it?

Second, relying on defendants to find and turn over potentially responsive ESI can be problematic. Most of them will attempt to do what’s right, to the best of their understanding. Those few that could have something to hide may find ways to do a subpar job in the discovery process. If I am the opposing counsel, I am going to want to know if self discovery was relied on. There are a couple of ways to accomplish a custodian-centric discovery. You can image all custodians workstations etc and filter the images for responsive ESI. You can conduct one on one interview with custodians and run search applications on their workstations. Both of these processes are expensive and time consuming.

Putting some real teeth in eDiscovery sanctions will drive effective information management


Ok, I know there is a push back from the legal industry in reference to the problem of the cost of discovery. Yes, companies create, use, receive and delete huge amounts of electronic information on a daily basis and it is unreasonable to expect an organization to have enough of a handle on this moving target to be able to place an effective legal hold – quickly, and provide all responsive information in response to an eDiscovery request. But come on… organizations live and die by their information, especially electronic information and if an organization doesn’t have enough of a handle on their data to be able to place a legal hold on select data, then I’m sorry they have other problems.

It all comes down to effective information management. Why is it unreasonable for a Judge to expect a company knows what data it has at any point in time and can find it when it needs to?

I understand the proportionality doctrine argument, and it makes sense. If proportionality did not exist, a plaintiff’s counsel could win every case just based on how they construct their discovery request.

Many businesses in the United States have long given employees total control of the company records, with a few exceptions, with little or no central control or even knowledge the information exists and how it pertains to the business. This does not seem the best business decision for the long run.

Maybe eDiscovery can serve as the impetus to nudge companies to start taking information management seriously. If Judges start imposing even larger penalties and fines for what amounts to eDiscovery failings because of ineffective or no information management policies in an organization, then we may see a corporate change of attitude.

In a recent LTN Law Technology News article, e-discovery analyst Barry Murphy of Murphy Insights noted that very few sanctions for e-discovery have had any real teeth, and the few that have involved large dollar amounts have been overturned. In some cases, e-discovery snafus have led to negative inferences that almost certainly impacted the outcome, but he says even those rulings seem to have had little impact. “The sanctions we’re seeing are too small to register with many people, and while negative inferences may lead to a bad outcome, the impact is not always obvious,” says Murphy. “Once we see a sanction for many millions of dollars because of a failure to preserve electronic evidence, the point will be clearer.”

Let me offer some common sense suggestions around information management and eDiscovery:

  1. Have regularly updated and tested records retention policies
  2. Get rid of data your business no longer needs
  3. Really know what electronically stored information (ESI) you have and don’t have
  4. Be ready to find it quickly
  5. If you are a big enough organization, have tools on hand to help in the searches
  6. Have a tested litigation hold process. Be able to stop records deletions based on content, employee, date etc. quickly
  7. Have a tested eDiscovery process

Too many organizations are willing to risk the consequences; “It’s never happened to me before”. If you manage your ESI effectively, then discovery response should not be a problem

A Proper Legal Hold Requires More Than Just an Email to a Few Employees


In the recent case; Jones v. Bremen High School Dist. 228, 2010 WL 2106640 (N.D. Ill. May 25, 2010), one of the discovery points made in the decision was what is the appropriate legal hold process to meet an organization’s legal hold responsibilities.

The court determined that the defendant breached its duty to preserve by failing to immediately issue a litigation hold to “all employees who had dealings with plaintiff” and by relying on only a few individual employees to identify and preserve responsive email. The Judge stated:

It is unreasonable to allow a party’s interested employees to make the decision about the relevance of such documents, especially when those same employees have the ability to permanently delete unfavorable email from a party’s system.  As one court has noted, “simply accept [ing] whatever documents or information might be produced by [its] employees,” without preventing defendants from clearing the hard drives of former employees, was improper.  Most non-lawyer employees, whether marketing consultants or high school deans do not have enough knowledge of the applicable law to correctly recognize which documents are relevant to a lawsuit and which are not.  Furthermore, employees are often reluctant to reveal their mistakes or misdeeds.

The court also rejected defendant’s argument that placing a proper litigation hold would have resulted in burden to the defendant and noted the troublesome nature of defendant’s failure to produce the document retention policy posted on the district’s website.   The court then determined that plaintiff had been harmed by the delayed production of documents as well as the possibility that emails had been permanently deleted.

This case again highlights the need to comprehensive and tested litigation hold policies. A comprehensive Information Management solution should include central control of all ESI and the ability to search for the responsive ESI and place a secure litigation hold on it immediately.

The full case review can be viewed at eDiscoverylaw.com