“Dog Ate My Emails” No Defense Against Spoliation Sanction

On a motion for spoliation sanctions, it makes no difference that a party destroyed emails without “malevolent” purpose. For a sanctions motion to be granted, it is necessary only to demonstrate that the evidence was destroyed deliberately.

In an article, August 19, 2013, titled “Sanctions Imposed for Non-Malevolent Destruction of Emails,” the New York Law Journal  reported on a decision handed down by the Hon. Shira Scheindlin in the Southern District of New York on August 15, 2013 in Sekisui Medical America v. Hart, 1:12-cv-03479, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115533 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

In that case, plaintiff, a Japanese medical equipment manufacturer, was sanctioned by Judge Scheindlin for deliberately destroying electronic records found relevant to a dispute over its acquisition of a business from the former owners, Richard Hart and Marie Louise Trudel-Hart. As federal court practitioners are well aware, Scheindlin decided the Zubulake case which, along with several other decisions, created the modern standard for preservation of electronic materials. Although her holding rests on established Second Circuit precedent, Judge Scheindlin’s analysis provides important guidance to practitioners.

It emerged during discovery that Sekisui had not placed a litigation hold on the relevant business unit’s electronically stored information (“ESI”) until fifteen months after a Notice of Claim was received. During that period, the business unit’s HR director ordered deleted the relevant emails because they were cluttering the company’s servers.

 Not one, but multiple missteps appear to have haunted Sekisui in the run-up to the ruling. For example, before directing the permanent deletion of the defendant’s ESI, the HR director apparently “identified and printed any emails that she deemed pertinent to the company,” which emails were produced in discovery. However, these “pertinent” emails were not backed up before being deleted; they were merely printed out in hard copy. Eventually, Sekisui was able to search alternative sources and produced 36,000 emails to and from defendant Hart. However, the court determined that it was impossible to say how many emails were permanently deleted and remained unrecoverable. Due to a cognitive disorder, defendant Hart could not testify or be deposed in the action.

By now, federal court practitioners know the importance of issuing a litigation hold as early as possible. However, it is not enough to have the client merely distributing the litigation hold to the staff. It is necessary to ensure that the correct individuals are sent the notice and that they completely understand their legal obligations with regard to ESI preservation. Following up with the client on preservation compliance after the litigation hold is sent is essential in avoiding potentially catastrophic result.

The court recognized that Sekisui had made a real effort to minimize the harm done by the destruction of emails. However, it was still not able to rebut the presumption of prejudice because of the unknowable amount of ESI that was permanently destroyed.  Judge Scheindlin advised the parties that she would give the following jury charge in the case: 

The Harts have shown that Sekisui destroyed relevant evidence. This is known as the "spoliation of evidence."

Spoliation is the destruction of evidence or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation. To demonstrate that spoliation occurred, several elements must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence:

First, that relevant evidence was destroyed after the duty to preserve arose

Second, that the evidence lost would have been favorable to the Harts.

As to the first element I instruct you, as a matter of law, that Sekisui failed to preserve relevant evidence after its duty to preserve arose. This failure resulted from an employee’s intentional directive given to ADI’s information technology vendor to destroy the email files of— at least— Richard Hart and Leigh Ayres. Moreover, this failure resulted from Sekisui’s gross negligence in performing its discovery obligations. I direct you that I have already found as a matter of law that this lost evidence is relevant to the issues in this case.

As to the second element, you may presume, if you so choose, that such lost evidence would have been favorable to the Harts. In deciding whether to adopt this presumption, you may take into account the egregiousness of the plaintiffs’ conduct in failing to preserve the evidence.
Sekisui offered evidence that, although evidence was lost and it may have been relevant, nevertheless such evidence would not have been favorable to the Harts.

If you decline to presume that the lost evidence would have been favorable to the Harts, 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 would have been favorable to the Harts, you must next decide whether Sekisui rebutted that presumption. If you determine that Sekisui rebutted the presumption that the lost evidence was favorable to the Harts, you will not draw any inference arising from the lost evidence against Sekisui. If, on the other hand, you determine that Sekisui has not rebutted the presumption that the lost evidence was favorable to the Harts, you may draw an inference against Sekisui and in favor of the Harts – namely that the lost evidence would have been favorable to the Harts.

Without question, spoliation of evidence will become a major trial theme for the defense in Sekisui. As is often the case when the jury is given a charge of this nature, jurors will assume the worst of the party responsible for the spoliation–a challenging scenario for any trial lawyer or jury consultant to deal with.

Why Discuss E-Discovery In A Toxic Tort Blog?

In In toxic tort cases where plaintiffs have questionable liability claims, serving burdensome e-discovery demands on defendants often threatens to change the focus of the case from the merits of the claim to a spoliation of evidence sideshow that focuses on the efforts of the defendant to preserve and produce electronically stored information ("ESI"). To avoid traps for the unwary (potentially both corporate defendants and the law firms that represent them), this blog will occasionally provide e-discovery guidance and reference information.  The Electronic Discovery Reference Model  or ERDM is one such authoritative reference. The ERDM is an industry group that establishes practical standards and guidelines for ESI, including its identification, collection, processing, review, analysis, storage and production. The ERDM also provides helpful information on the  triggering events, which may give rise to a duty to preserve or disclose email, documents or other data in conjunction with a pending or future legal proceeding. (According to ERDM,  It is the point at which the party or the law firm may become liable to meet certain standards, the violation of which can result in any number of  unfavorable outcomes depending upon the forum).  Ensuring that both you, as counsel, and your client, have a firm understanding of how these triggering events work is an important first step in approaching ESI issues in litigation.  EDRM’s trigger discussion expands upon some of the following concepts: (1) The duty to preserve and disclose data may be triggered by a judicial order, a discovery request, or mere knowledge of a pending or future proceeding likely to require data; (2) The scope of data to be preserved or disclosed is determined by the subject matter of the dispute and the law and procedural rules that a court or other authority will ultimately apply to resolve it. In general, data is potentially discoverable if it is relevant to the disputed transaction or may lead to relevant data; and (3) Failure to preserve or disclose discoverable data may result in serious penalties. To minimize this risk, diligent steps must be taken to identify all potentially discoverable data in the client’s possession or control.

ESI In New York State Court Practice

Are defendants in New York product liability and toxic tort litigation better off in federal court than in state court? Federal court discovery rules certainly are more liberal than state court discovery rules. There, plaintiff’s experts are subject to deposition and, if appropriate, Daubert challenges. In contrast, state court provides only minimal expert disclosure. However, state court rules concerning the production of electronically stored information (“ESI”) may be more favorable to corporate defendants litigating in state court. In state court, the general rule is that the requesting party pays for the defendant’s ESI retrieval. In federal court, the court will apply “proportionality” concepts, and balance the importance of the discovery with the burden on the producing party. Thus, the result of the burden shifting analysis is somewhat more complex and subject to more variables. As reported in this space on November 4, 2009, (“Cost Allocation of E-Discovery in NY Trial Courts”), the Joint Committee on Electronic Discovery, convened by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, has recommended that the legislature amend the CPLR to address time-consuming ESI disclosure disputes. The new proposed CPLR rule is expected to address a litigant’s duty to preserve ESI in anticipation of litigation; the scope of that duty; and the scope of ESI production. 

An article in Kramer Levin’s Electronic Discovery Update (January 2010), “Cost Shifting in New York: Forum Makes All the Difference,” discusses the background of the general presumption in state court that the requesting party pays for the cost of discovery. Although the CPLR does not explicitly apply this presumption to ESI costs, New York state courts have followed this presumption when deciding how to allocate e-discovery costs. In Lipco Elec. Corp. v. ASG Consult. Corp., for example, the court found that “… cost shifting of electronic discovery is not an issue in New York, since the courts have held that, under the CPLR, the party seeking discovery should incur the costs.” Lipco Elec. Corp. v. ASG Consult. Corp., 4 Misc.3d 1019(A), 2004 WL 1949062 (Sup. Ct. Nassau Co. Aug 18, 2004). In contrast to state court practice, the standard under federal jurisprudence is less clear cut.  The Hon. Shira Scheindlin (SDNY) has articulated a multi-factored balancing test, which has been influential in guiding determinations of when the cost of producing “inaccessible” data should be shifted to the requesting party. Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 216 F.R.D. 280 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). The Kramer Levin Update observes that a recent New York trial court opinion declined to apply this federal approach, stating that it was “not empowered – by statute or case law – to overturn the well settled rule in New York state that the party seeking discovery bear the cost incurred in its production.” T.A. Ahern Contractors Corp. v. Dormitory Auth. of the State of N.Y., 2009 WL 806779 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. Mar. 19, 2009). Citing the policy behind the rule, the court observed that the requester-pays standard gives a party “a strong incentive to formulate its discovery requests in a manner as minimally burdensome as possible.”  I predict that the differences between state and federal ESI practice will narrow in the near term, possibly with the promulgation of a CPLR rule, and that New York will ultimately adopt a more federal approach modeled on the influential Sedona Conference Working Group template.  However, for the present, a New York state court plaintiff runs the risk of incurring substantial costs in demanding burdensome ESI from a corporate defendant.  Be careful what you wish for!


Fighting E-Discovery And Not Losing Your (Client’s) Shirt

If you litigate in federal courts and have not yet reviewed the Sedona Conference Cooperation Proclamation, wake up!  The final exam is about to start and you have slept through your alarm!  Although not as revolutionary as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Cooperation Proclamation is premised upon the heretical (to some) proposition that "Cooperation In Discovery is Consistent with Zealous Advocacy" and makes a sharp distinction between advocacy (good!) and adversarial conduct (self-defeating when it comes to e-discovery).  Significantly, a number of federal judges have "signed on" to the Cooperation Proclamation and their published discovery decisions provide the wise practitioner with a road map for navigating through the shark-infested waters of  e-discovery.  On March 19, 2009, SDNY Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Peck issued what he characterized as a "wake-up call to the Bar in this District about the need for careful thought, quality control, testing and cooperation with opposing counsel in designing search terms or "keywords" to be used to produce emails or other electronically stored information ("ESI")." William A. Gross Construction Associates, Inc. v. American Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Company, 07 Civ. 10639 (LAK) (AJP).  In his well-crafted decision, Magistrate Peck derides lawyers, who design "keyword searches in the dark, by the seat of the pants" without even bothering to consult with their clients beforehand.  The danger for practitioners in not "getting it right" the first time is running the risk that the Court may issue an e-discovery order that is more costly and burdensome to your client than might have otherwise been the case.  Some very good articles have been written by practitioners concerning how to anticipate meeting the concerns of a Cooperation Proclamation jurist during your initial client meetings in preparation for the Rule 26(f)(3) ESI meet and confer.  One such article is "The Collaborative Model of E-Discovery" written by J. Mark Coulson at Miles and Stockbridge PC in Baltimore in Product Liability Law 360 on March 11, 2009 (Law 360 requires a subscription)  Mr. Coulson provides  practical advice such as being aware before offering to search your client’s hard drive for documents that each gigabyte on a hard drive may contain 30,000 to 50,000 documents.  The "take-away" from most of the good  e-discovery articles is for the practitioner to be proactive and to address ESI issues with both the client and opposing counsel early in the meet and confer process.  Strong client advocacy in the ESI realm requires not hiding the ball about relevant witnesses, e-mail system and retention schedules.