Category Archives: sanctions

Evidence destruction leads to ruling U.S. was negligent

Under the civil rules of procedure, a sanction for the destruction of evidence would include an adverse finding.  In other words, if you are a party to a lawsuit and destroy evidence, the court may find that you were guilty of the allegations.

One of the reasons for this is that now, the court has no way of telling what the evidence said.  Would the evidence point to the party knowing about the problem?  Would the evidence show the party did nothing while it knew?  Would the evidence show nothing?

That is why it is so important to write a Spoliation Letter.  An Spoliation Letter is a letter that explains your duty to preserve evidence.  The letter explains that because there is a lawsuit (or there will be one), you now have to stop destroying evidence.

As an attorney, regardless of what side you are in, you have a duty to advise your client.  A big part of discovery is finding relevant evidence.  It would be against the idea of justice to go about destroying evidence.

This case highlights the importance of not destroying evidence.  In this case, in 2009, a 9-year old boy was at a mountain trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park when the retaining wall gave way.  Unfortunately, the boy died from this accident.

Court records show a complaint that the chief of maintenance shredded all of his documents, some of which dealt with visitor safety issues.  The documents were shredded sometime around December 2009 and January 2010.

As a sanction for destruction of evidence by the National Park Service in a wrongful death case, a federal judge in Sacramento, Calif., ruled Tuesday that the United States was negligent.

U.S. District Judge Nunley, held that the government was negligent “for all purposes in this case.”  The judge found that the government “purposely destroyed” the remains of the retaining wall, and that the park director and some staff knew the wall was unsafe, the newspaper says.

“What is less clear, although highly suspicious, is whether defendant [destroyed] evidence other than the wall,” U.S. Magistrate Gregory G. Hollows wrote in a previous decision.

Still undecided in the case and expected to be addressed at a June hearing is whether the government can assert a “discretionary function” defense under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The government argues that those in charge of the park had discretion to decide whether or not to repair the wall, and hence the government cannot be held liable for their decision-making.

via As sanction for destroying evidence, federal judge finds US negligent in wrongful death case – ABA Journal.

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Major Possible Changes to Federal Discovery Rules

Corporate Counsel reported about a very important and significant change that might occur next year.  Here are the highlights of the proposed amendments (starting on Page 91 of 322).

The e-discovery rules may change once again by next year.  The United States Court’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rules voted last week to send proposed amendments to the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure.  The Standing Committee will consider approving or rejecting the proposal in early June.

The most significant proposals would narrow the scope of discovery under Rule 26; impose or reduce numerical limits on written discovery and depositions under Rules 30, 31, 33, and 36; Rule 37 will adopt a uniform set of guidelines regarding sanctions when a party fails to preserve discoverable information; and Rule 34 will tighten the rules governing responses for production of documents.

Rule 26’s proposed amendments are as follows:

  • Rule 26(b)’s proposed amendment restricts the defined scope of discovery to information that is “proportional to the needs of the case.”  The language is as follows:

    “and proportional to the needs of the case considering the amount in controversy, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

    These proportional considerations are currently listed in Rule(b)(2)(c)(iii).  This amendment would mandate adherence by the parties without court intervention.

  • Rule 26(b)’s proposed amendment would delete the following sentences:

    (1) “For good cause, the court order discovery of any matter relevant to the subject matter involved in the action.  Relevant information need not be admissible at trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”

  • Note, that the proposed amendment for Rule 26(b) states that “Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.
  • Rule 26(c) (protective orders) adds “or the allocation of expenses.”

Rules 30’s and 31’s proposed amendments are as follows:

  • The number of depositions (oral and written) would be reduced from 10 to 5.
  • The limit of an oral deposition is reduced to 6 hours.
  • The number of written interrogatories would change from 25 to 15.
  • The number of requests will be 25, except for requests relating to the genuineness of documents.
  • There will be a presumptive limit on the number of Requests for Admissions a party may serve.
  • A court order or a stipulation by the parties may increase the limits on any numerical discovery.

Rule 34’s proposed amendments (which govern the production of documents and electronically stored information) are as follows:

  • The objections to document requests must be stated with specificity.  This requirement has already been applied to interrogatory responses under Rule 33.
  • When the responding party must state that it will produce the requested documents (instead of permitting inspection), the production must be completed by the date for inspection stated in the request or by a later reasonable time stated in the response.
  • A party objecting to a document request must state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of the objection.

Rule 37(e)’s proposed amendment (which concern sanctions for failure to preserve discoverable information) state:

  • A court may impose sanctions when it finds that a party failed to preserve information that should have been preserved for litigation.  The sanctions includes remedies and curative measures that are not considered “sanctions,” such as allowing additional discovery, requiring a party to recreate or obtain the information that it lost, or ordering a party to pay reasonable expenses resulting from the loss of information.
  • The court may also impose sanctions listed in Rule 37(b)(2)(A) when to address preservation failures.  These sanctions include issue or evidence preclusion, the striking of pleadings, the dismissal of the action in whole or in part, and an adverse inference.
  • The court may impose sanctions or order an adverse jury instruction only if it finds that the failure to preserve caused “substantial prejudice” in the litigation and was “willful or in bad faith.” or that the failure to preserve “irreparably deprived a party of any meaningful opportunity” to litigate the claims in the action.

 

via On the Cusp of Major Changes to E-Discovery Rules.

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Judicial Ethics and Social Media

On February 21, 2013, the American Bar Association released a formal opinion (#462) regarding judicial ethics in the social media context.  The ABA concluded,

A judge may participate in electronic social networking, but as with all social relationships and contacts, a judge must comply with relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and avoid any conduct that would undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality, or create an appearance of impartiality.

So what does this mean?

Electronic Social Media and the Judicial Independence, impartiality, and integrity

The ABA recognized that social networking is a part of worldwide culture and that electronic social media interactions might be beneficial to judges in order to prevent them from being thought of as isolated or out of touch.

So how should judges then behave in this electronic environment?  Given the oath and importance of promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality,” the judge must be sensitive to the appearance of relationships with others.

It is important to understand that relations over the internet are difficult to manage because messages may be taken out of context, misinterpreted, or relayed incorrectly.

In other words, judges must assume that comments, images, or profile information, as well as any other information, might be publicly revealed without the judge’s permission.

In addition, judges should not form relationships with persons or organizations that might be violative of Judicial Ethics because these relationships convey that the individuals or organizations are in a position to influence the judge.

Furthermore, there might be disclosure or disqualification concerns regarding judges when the sites that were “friended” or “liked” which are used by lawyers or others who may appear before the judge.  The context is important here when assessing the judge’s relationship to attorneys or others who may appear before them.

Electronic Social Media and Election Campaigns

In the ABA Model Code (which may be adopted as a whole or in part by states), a judge or judicial candidate may engage in political or campaign activity with certain enumerated exceptions.

Of great importance is that judges and judicial candidates must “be free and appear to be free from political influence and political pressure.” ABA Model Rule 4.1 [1].

Similarly of equal importance, the judge or judicial candidate is prohibited from personally soliciting or accepting campaign contributions other than through a campaign committee.  ABA Model Rule 4.1(A)(8); see also ABA Model Rule 4.4.  In the Model Rules, the method of communication is not addressed or restricted.

In addition, judges and judicial candidates are prohibited from “publicly endorsing or opposing a candidate for any public office.” ABA Model Rule 4.1(A)(3).  This means that judges or judicial candidates should be aware that by “liking” or becoming a “fan” of, or by “sharing” messages, photos, or other content, this Model Rule might be violated.

In sum, judges and judicial candidates can use social media but must be aware of the potential pitfalls that might arise. These might arise from “friending,” “liking,” “sharing,” being a “fan” of, and posting comments, photos, or other information that might be distributed.  It is also important for judges and judicial candidates to be aware that any information on the Internet might be distributed by others and made public with or without their consent.

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In Minnesota, Amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure Highlight Proportionality

On February 4, 2013, the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota adopted amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure, including those affecting discovery.  Of particular note were amendments to Rules 1 and 26.  Specifically (and significantly), Rule 1 was amended to state that it is the responsibility of the parties and the court to assure proportionality throughout the litigation.  Accordingly, Rule 1 now states (new language is underlined):

These rules govern the procedure in the district courts of the State of Minnesota in all suits of a civil nature, with the exceptions stated in Rule 81.  They shall be construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.

It is the responsibility of the court and the parties to examine each civil action to assure that the process and the costs are proportionate to the amount in controversy and the complexity and importance of the issues.  The factors to be considered by the court in making a proportionality assessment include, without limitation: needs of the case, amount in controversy, parties’ resources, and complexity and importance of the issues at stake in the litigation.

Similarly, in addition to other significant amendments to Rule 26, Rule 26.02(b) has been amended to require that the scope of discovery “comport with the factors of proportionality, including without limitation, the burden or expense of the proposed discovery weighed against its likely benefit, considering the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties’ resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, and the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues.”  While such limitations to discovery were previously acknowledged, the amended rule more strongly emphasizes the importance of proportionality.

Significant amendments to other rules were also adopted.  Notably, an order attaching “corrective amendments” was entered several days later.  Those orders are available HERE and HERE.  The newly adopted amendments become effective July 1, 2013.

via In Minnesota, Amendments to the Rules of Civil Procedure Highlight Proportionality : Electronic Discovery Law.

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Zubulake revisited: Shifting standards in e-discovery

InsideCounsel has a very insightful article regarding the changes in Zubulake.  As previously addressed, the Zubulake cases are the leading guide posts of electronic discovery.  Nevertheless, recent case law signals potential departures from Zubulake.

InsideCounsel’s article states as follows:

 

Litigation holds 101

While the American concept of the litigation hold (also known as legal hold) received a passing reference in the advisory notes to the 2006 Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) amendments, it was not until Zubulake, and later, Pension Committee, that courts connected the legal hold to the spoliation sanction framework.

Generally, sanctions are warranted when a party with control over discoverable information and under a duty to preserve acted with a culpable state of mind when destroying or losing relevant information. Once a party has established spoliation, a court must assess which sanction (ranging from further discovery to dismissal) aligns with the culpability of the spoliating party and the prejudice caused.

In Pension Committee, the court held that failing to issue a litigation hold is gross negligence per se. The court found that not only can relevance and prejudice be presumed when a spoliating party is grossly negligent, but that an adverse inference instruction was the appropriate sanction in that case.

Departures from Zubulake

In 2012, in Chin v. Port Auth. of New York & New Jersey, 11 plaintiff employees sued the defendant employer for alleged civil rights violations. In discovery, the plaintiffs learned that the defendant failed to implement a document retention policy, which resulted in the spoliation of at least 32 folders used to make promotion decisions from August 1999 to August 2002. The plaintiffs also learned that the defendant failed to issue a litigation hold regarding the promotion folders at any point between 2001 and 2007, and thus argued that this inaction amounted to gross negligence. However, the court rejected the argument that a failure to institute a litigation hold automatically constitutes gross negligence per se, contrary to the rule of Zubulake.

Instead, the court ruled in favor of a case-by-case approach, in which failure to preserve documents is one of multiple factors in the determination of whether to issue sanctions. In the end, the court upheld the district court’s conclusion that an adverse inference instruction was inappropriate in light of the limited role of the destroyed folders in the promotion process, as well as the plaintiffs’ ample evidence regarding their relative qualifications when compared with the officers who were actually promoted.

What does it all mean?

Chin established that, depending on the facts, if a party acts reasonably and in good faith to preserve documents, it may be off the hook for severe sanctions. However, many commentators have argued that this does not change best practices—that parties should still issue a written litigation hold in accordance with Pension Committee.

For large organizations that touch many jurisdictions (many of which still follow Zubulake), corporate counsel should not disband their litigation hold systems just yet—in fact, they probably do not want ever to disband them. The litigation hold is an incredible powerful and defensible means to preservation. Large organizations often must track many custodians storing potentially relevant information on complicated IT systems. Corporations derive substantial benefits from being able to maintain holds, as well as being able to internally track multiple simultaneous preservation obligations.

It is worth noting, however, that not every case, or company, is the same. Should a tight-knit company of a few employees in a non-complex litigation have to issue a written legal hold in order to be safe from sanctions? As case law in 2013 develops, perhaps litigants in these types of cases will take a second look at the role of the litigation hold.

A breath of “reasonable” fresh air

On the topic of preservation, case law developments are not the only item on the horizon for 2013. The discovery subcommittee tasked with developing potential FRCP rule changes has been scrutinizing the preservation topic. In one possible version amending FRCP 37, the drafters adopted a factor-based approach to determining culpability. While one factor looks at the reasonableness of a party’s efforts to preserve the information, “including the use of a litigation hold,” another factor includes “the proportionality of the preservation efforts to any anticipated or ongoing litigation.” On Nov. 2, 2012, when the Advisory Committee voted to adopt the subcommittee’s proposal, a common opinion was that even this minor reference to the litigation hold should be omitted or reverted to the commentary to underscore the factor-based nature of draft Rule 37. As we continue down the road to Federal Rule amendments, it is becoming clear that the gold standard of Zubulake may be shifting in the coming year.

via Zubulake revisited: Shifting standards in e-discovery.

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Lawyer’s misconduct did not prevent class action certification

In a class action, lawyers’ conduct when contacting (or trying to contact) possible putative class members, is regulated by the court or federal statute.

In this case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals determined  that class counsel’s faxing of unsolicited advertisement was misconduct.  The decision rested on the question of whether the law firm bribed a third-party in order to obtain a list of the possible putative class members.  Due to a lack of evidence that the payment of $5,000 was a bribe, the court allowed the class to be certified.

I raise this case because it raises the issue of attorney misconduct.  First of all, there are across-the-states ethics rules that govern attorneys’ conduct.  You can access ethics rules governing attorneys by going to the state court’s website and looking for the Board of Professional Responsibility or ethics rules.

As the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted multiple times, the law firm’s misconduct could possibly warrant disciplinary action.  The Court of Appeals commented that litigants and attorneys should report to the relevant bar authority (the Board of Professional Responsibility) instances of attorney misconduct.  Otherwise, the court warned, unpunished and inappropriate attorney conduct will continue.

In fact, there are ethical rules that discuss the reporting of misconduct.  In Minnesota, Rule 8.3 discusses the reporting of professional misconduct.  Rule 8.3 states, in relevant part,

(a) A lawyer who knows that another lawyer has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness as a lawyer in other respects, shall inform the appropriate professional authority.

Secondly, in a class action, the class representatives through their class counsel must show that the class counsel can appropriately represent the class.  In other words, the court must decide that the law firm can properly represent the entire class (which may in the hundredths).

So, if a law firm possibly engaged in misconduct, i.e. shows a lack of integrity – is the law firm’s representation proper?  The court did state that unethical conduct (regardless of whether it is prejudicial) raises “serious doubt” as to counsel’s ability to adequately represent the class.

via Courthouse News Service.

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Judge Admonished for Comments About Victim’s ‘Technical Rape’ and Lack of Body Shutdown

You may remember the argument, which caused public outrage, over the belief that a body just “shuts down” when a woman is not subjected to real rape.  A judge used this same language in a California case, and was admonished for showing bias – a trait that runs afoul of judicial ethics.  These are the relevant parts of the article published in the ABA Journal News.

Judge Derek Johnson, from Orange County, California, was publicly admonished for saying a sexual assault victim had suffered only a “technical” rape and didn’t display vaginal damage characteristic of rape victims he had encountered as a prosecutor.

Judge Derek Johnson of Orange County had advanced his theory on body shutdowns during rape in a 2008 sentencing hearing, according to the opinion (PDF) by the California Commission on Judicial Performance.  The judicial discipline opinion has a transcript of his explanation why:

Johnson: “I spent my last year and a half in the DA’s office in the sexual assault unit. I know something about sexual assault. I’ve seen sexual assault. I’ve seen women who have been ravaged and savaged whose vagina was shredded by the rape. I’m not a gynecologist, but I can tell you something: If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down. The body will not permit that to happen unless a lot of damage is inflicted, and we heard nothing about that in this case. That tells me that the victim in this case, although she wasn’t necessarily willing, she didn’t put up a fight. And to treat this case like the rape cases that we all hear about is an insult to victims of rape. I think it’s an insult. I think it trivializes a rape.”

Johnson: “I just found the threats to be technical threats. I found this whole case to be a technical case. The rape is technical. The forced oral copulation is technical. It’s more of a crim law test than a real live criminal case.”

The commission said Johnson’s remarks reflected biased and insensitive views about sexual assault victims who do not “put up a fight.” Johnson had apologized for the remarks to the commission, saying he was frustrated by a sentencing request he considered inappropriate under the law. He remains on the bench.

via Judge Admonished for Comments About Victim’s ‘Technical Rape’ and Lack of Body Shutdown – News – ABA Journal.

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City of Detroit Faces Default Judgment

Good reminder to Defendants why they need to respond to a lawsuit.  If you don’t, you will likely face default judgment.

The City of Detroit is facing a $1.1 million judgment in a civil rights suit, after failing to respond to the litigation and being held in default by a federal judge.  Caleb Sosa, who is now 19, says he was coerced at age 14 into initialing a confession he couldnt read, to a murder he had nothing to do with, and held in juvenile detention for two years before he was acquitted at trial. His lawyer, Ronnie Cromer Jr., said he might well have been able to persuade a jury to award even more than U.S. Judge Sean Cox did had the case gone to trial, the Associated Press reports.  The city has declined to discuss the management of the Sosa case and why no response was ever filed to the 2010 suit, even after an amended complaint was filed in 2011 and hand-delivered to Detroits law department. The suit accused city police of faking Sosas confession and covering up evidence in his favor.

via After City of Detroit Ignores Civil Rights Suit, Federal Judge Declares Default, Awards $1.1M – News – ABA Journal.

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Waiver of Attorney-Client Privilege

This is an illustrative case as to why attorneys want to take precautions when producing discovery.  The case is Inhalation Plastics, Inc. v. Medex Cardio-Pulmonary, Inc., No. 2:07-CV-116, 2012 WL 3731483 /0S.D. Ohio Aug. 28, 2012).

In this case, the court held that privilege had been waived as to 347 pages of inadvertently produced emails where, among other things, Defendant failed to establish the reasonableness of the precautions taken to prevent the disclosure and “failed to take adequate measures to rectify or mitigate the damage of the disclosure.”

Here, Defendant did not stamp any documents as confidential.  Upon reviewing the documents at issue, the court held that those documents were covered under the attorney-client privilege.  However, the court found that the privilege had been waived.  The court highlighted the following facts:

  • Defendant’s lack of specificity as to who conducted the review and how the review was conducted.  The general assertion that multiple lawyers reviewed it was not enough.
  • Defendant failed to produce a privilege log during discovery;
  • 4.6% of the documents were inadvertently produced, which the Court found to be “relatively high.”

In sum, the Court opined:

After balancing the required factors, the Court concludes that Medex waived the attorney client privilege otherwise applicable to the 347 documents in the May 30 production.  To summarize, the Court finds that Medex did not take reasonable precautions to protect its privileged information, the number of documents disclosed is significant, no privilege log was provided at the time of disclosure, the contents of some of the documents may be relevant to the heart of the dispute, and Medex made insufficient attempts to mitigate its damage even after it learned of the disclosure.

via Inadvertent Production Results in Waiver of Attorney-Client Privilege as to 347 Pages of Emails : Electronic Discovery Law.

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