“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.

Remedies For Spoliation Of Evidence

New York state courts are increasingly turning to federal Zubulake standards when confronted with spoliation of electronic evidence issues. However, in dealing with garden variety spoliation of evidence scenarios, not involving ESI, New York courts have generally engineered their own solutions without turning to federal common law for guidance. We previously addressed how New York courts address ESI spoliation.

Pursuant to the common law doctrine of spoliation, when a party negligently loses or intentionally destroys key evidence, the responsible party may be sanctioned. There may be circumstances where the destruction is so egregious that the offending party’s pleading may be stricken where no other remedy will achieve a fundamentally fair outcome.

In their article, “Remedies for Spoliation of Evidence,” published in the New York Law Journal on March 27, 2012, Plaintiff lawyers Robert S. Kelner and Gail S. Kelner provide a good overview of how state courts address spoliation of evidence and the circumstances under which a court will impose the “ultimate sanction.”

Unlike some states, New York does not recognize an independent tort claim for third-party negligent spoliation of evidence. In a 2007 Court of Appeals case, Ortega v. City of New York, 9 N.Y.3d 69, 845 N.Y.S.2d 773 (2007), the City of New York was under a court order to preserve an impounded vehicle so that the cause of a vehicular fire could be determined by forensic analysis. Due to negligence, the City of New York failed to preserve the vehicle. Despite this negligent destruction, the court declined to establish an independent tort of spoliation of evidence, pursuant to which a tort action against the City of New York might have been pursued. In declining to establish a spoliation tort, the court explained that there was “no way of ascertaining to what extent the proof would have benefited either the plaintiff or defendant in the underlying lawsuit and it is therefore impossible to identify which party, if any, was actually harmed.” Applying this logic, the Ortega court stated that an independent cause of action was not viable because it would recognize a claim that, by definition, could not be proved without resort to speculation. However, speculative the damages that might have resulted from spoliation in Ortega,  New York courts have not hesitated to levy sanctions when a party has destroyed evidence.

New York courts have been willing to strike an offending party’s pleading when it can be shown that a party destroyed key evidence which deprived the adversary of its ability to prove its claim or defense. The court may also, in its discretion, apply any number of remedies short of striking the pleading. These remedies include an “adverse inference” (where the jury is instructed that it may infer that the missing evidence, if available, would tend to inculpate the spoliating party), or preclusion of testimony at trial. Generally, in crafting an appropriate sanction, the trial court will consider two factors first and foremost: (1) whether the destruction was willful; and (2) the resultant prejudice.  Prior to bringing a spoliation issue to the court’s attention, the practitioner should document by every means possible the intentional nature, if appropriate, of the spoliation at issue through investigation and discovery. 

New York’s First Department Adopts Even More Of Zubulake

On February 28, 2012, the Appellate Division, First Department, issued its decision in U.S. Bank N.A. v. GreenPoint Mortgage Funding, Inc., 2012 N.Y. App.Div. LEXIS 1487, which  adopted the standards established in the SDNY’s 2003 landmark decision in  Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212 (SDNY 2003).  In its decsion, he First Department held that the  party producing electronically stored information ("ESI") bears the the burden of paying for the production.  This unanimous decision represents a reversal of several New York trial court rulings holding that the party requesting disclosure had the obligation to pay for its production. 

As is often the case, interesting appellate decisions can be the product of discovery disputes that have a high chutzpah quotient.  Here, not only did GreenPoint seek to have plaintiff pay for its ESI production, it went a step further in demanding that plaintiff pay for the cost of GreenPoint’s attorneys’ pre-production time in performing a pre-production privilege review. Would this appeal have been filed if attorneys’ fees had not been in the mix?

Several weeks ago, I reported here about the First Department’s adoption (in Voom H.D. Holdings) of Zubulake’s standards for addressing the spoliation of ESI evidence.  In  U.S. Bank N.A. v. GreenPoint Mortgage Funding, Inc., the court has turned to Zubulake yet again, in the absence of any guidance in the CPLR concerning ESI disclosure cost allocation.  Although it is unclear whether the other New York appellate departments will similarly embrace Zubulake, the decision harmonizes state and federal discovery practice in Manhattan courts, if not upstate.

Therefore, it is all the more important for the practitioner to appreciate that Zubulake’s cost allocation mandate is by no means absolute.  Under Zubulake, the producing party must only bear "the initial cost of searching for, retrieving and producing discovery".  The decisions sets forth seven factors for courts to consider in evaluating whether to shift all or part of the cost of ESI production back to the requesting party.  For example, costs may be shifted back to the requesting party if: (1) the request is not tailored to discover relevant information; (2) the discovery can be obtained from other sources; (3) the cost of production as compared to the amount in controversy; (4) the cost of production, compared to the resources available to the parties; (5) the relative ability of each party to control costs and their incentive to do so; (6) the importance of the stakes in the litigation; and (7) the relative benefit to the parties of obtaining the information at tissue. 

We should expect that state court practitioners, seeking to avoid having their clients bear  the costs of ESI production alone,  will shortly be committing these seven factors to memory. 

New York’s First Department Adopts Federal E-discovery Standard

On January 31, 2012 decision, the Appellate Division, First Department, adopted the federal Zubulake standard for spoliation of electronic evidence in Voom H.D. Holdings v. EchoStar Satellite, LLC, 600292/08.  Voom is the first New York state appellate decision to apply the standard for spoliation of electronic evidence set forth in Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin’s decision in Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, LLC, 220 FRD 212.  Brendan Pierson wrote an article about the case in the New York Law Journal on February 1, 2012.

We have discussed the heightened sensitivity to E-discovery spoliation in state courts in this space previously.  See blog post titled, “New E-discovery ‘Best Practices’”, (January 5, 2012). 


The First Department’s adoption of Zubulake’s reasoning has far reaching consequences in commercial litigation in state court.  It potentially opens the floodgates to all of the post-Zubulake jurisprudence that has been percolating in federal courts over the past several years.  I predict that New York appellate courts will see a number of interlocutory discovery appeals on E-discovery in coming months.

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!


Cost Allocation Of E-discovery In NY Trial Courts

The Manual For State Trial Courts Regarding Electronic Discovery Cost-Allocation, authored by the Joint E-Discovery Subcommittee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, is required reading for any New York state court litigator involved in e-discovery.  The Manual is intended to assist New York State judges and court personnel in managing issues relating to the cost of discovery of electronically stored information, or "ESI’.  As  state court decisions on e-discovery cost allocation are likely to reference the Manual, practitioners are well-advised to familiarize themselves with the Manual now.  The authors cite one study that found that between 58% and 90% of litigation budgets are devoured by document review.  The issue of who pays for  e-discovery–the requesting party or the responding party–often involves sums of money above and beyond the damages sought by the claimant.  As a result, litigation costs drive cases to settle that should not settle on the merits.  Although New York law mandates that the requesting party pay the costs of discovery, there is authority in New York law for requesting parties to seek protective orders aimed at shifting all or part of the ESI costs to the producing party.

Of interest to practitioners outside New York, the Manual provides an overview of ESI burden and expense, and cost-shifting rules, adopted in states across the country.  This discussion, as well as a review of federal case law, suggests that New York is not "going it alone" but is drawing on the principles developed at the Sedona Conference and in leading cases such as Zubulake, which provides a seven-factor balancing test for determining cost allocation.