Tag Archives: spoliation

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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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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D. Minn Court Holds Defendant in Contempt (ESI)

Multifeeder Tech. Inc. v. British Confectionery Co. Ltd., No. 09-1090 (JRT/TNL), 2012 WL 4135848 (D. Minn. Sept. 18, 2012)

In this case, the Magistrate Judge recommended that an adverse inference be issued, that Defendant be held in contempt and that significant monetary sanctions be imposed upon his determination that two of Defendant’s employees had intentionally spoliated evidence by deleting certain information and by failing to reveal the existence of encrypted data.  Upon the parties’ objections, the District Court adopted in part the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation, but increased the monetary sanctions imposed.

While the details provided in these opinions are somewhat complicated, the bottom line is simple: two of Defendant’s employees were found to have intentionally spoliated evidence.  The spoliation was discovered by a forensic investigator who had been appointed by the court following Plaintiff’s first motion for sanctions.  At the time of that appointment, pursuant to an ESI protocol crafted by the court, the parties were each ordered to bear a portion of the costs of further investigation.

Briefly, the relevant incidents of spoliation included the use of wiping software by Defendant’s Director of Quality Assurance and the deletion of a PST file by the Vice President of Sales and Marketing.  The Magistrate Judge also found that the Vice President’s failure to reveal the existence of encrypted data on his laptop despite an order requiring that Defendant provide the court-appointed forensic investigator with “reasonable access to personnel and facilities,” which encompassed the custodian’s computers, amounted to spoliation:

[He] knew that an encrypted and passwordprotected [sic] volume was installed and in use on his computer, and he failed to provide any notice that such a volume existed.  Encryption software exists so that—without notice and a password—entities like CFS are unlikely to find and access the ESI stored on encrypted volumes.  Thus, the failure to provide any notice of the encrypted volume until November 2011 violated the ESI Protocol Order and amounts to spoliation of evidence.

(CFS was the court-appointed forensic examiner.)

In light of Defendant’s spoliation, the Magistrate Judge recommended that an adverse inference be imposed at trial and that Defendant be held in contempt and required to pay $25,000 to the court and $475,000 to the plaintiff.  The Magistrate Judge’s order took into account Plaintiff’s “reasonable expenses” caused by Defendant’s actions, including the significant fees of the forensic examiner.

Both parties objected.  Upon review, the District Court adopted the recommendations of the Magistrate Judge, in part, but increased the amount of monetary sanctions to be paid to Plaintiff.  The court indicated that the amount was increased for several reasons, including to better compensate Plaintiff for the significant costs of the forensic investigator and its attorneys’ fees and in light of the court’s consideration of other circumstances, such as the “significant prejudice” suffered by Plaintiff (which the District Court determined could not be mitigated to the extent indicated by the Magistrate Judge) and the fact that this was not the first sanctions order in this case.

The District Court largely rejected Defendant’s assertion that Plaintiff was “at least partially responsible” for the investigator’s “ballooning costs” (Plaintiff initially estimated the cost of the investigation would be around $10,000 + travel) and that some portion of the fees were not reasonably attributable to Defendant because of Plaintiff’s failure to timely inform Defendant or the Court that the fees would be far greater than expected.  Despite acknowledging the disparity between the estimated and final cost and that Plaintiff should have disclosed the “exploding” costs sooner, the court ultimately determined that it was largely Defendant’s conduct that resulted in the extensive fees: “It is no fault of Multifeeder that documenting the extent of British’s drive wiping was extremely time consuming.”

Accordingly, the court raised the sanction to $600,000, an amount which “represents reasonable expenses and attorneys’ fees because it encompasses much of CFS’s current unpaid invoices, at least some past paid amounts by Multifeeder to CFS, and reasonable legal fees and expenses in litigating this discovery dispute.”  The court also ordered Defendant to pay the recommended $25,000 to the court.

Indicating its reluctance to modify the previously imposed ESI protocol which ordered Plaintiff to pay a portion of the investigator’s costs, but recognizing that the fees owed could financially devastate Plaintiff absent receipt of the payment ordered from Defendant, the court ordered Defendant to make staggered payments to Plaintiff and that Plaintiff in turn pay the investigator its fees within a time certain.

A copy of the Magistrate Judge’s order is available here, a copy of the District Court’s order is available here.

via For Spoliation, Court Holds Defendant in Contempt, Orders $600,000 to be Paid to Plaintiff, $25,000 to be Paid to the Court : Electronic Discovery Law.

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