Key Social Media Evidence Missed, Court Finds “No Justification” for Defense Counsel’s Failure to Perform Adequate Pre-Trial Social Media Investigation

Law Journal for webLast week the US District Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit, affirmed a trial court’s ruling denying a motion for new trial based in part on newly discovered (post trial) social media evidence. Xiong vs. Knight Transportation, (D.C. No. 1:12-CV-01546-RBJ) (D. Colo. July 27, 2016). This decision illustrates the importance of performing a diligent and timely social media evidence investigation, most certainly before trial.

The case involved a major traffic collision, where a Knight Transportation truck collided with Plaintiff’s car, forcing it into the median where it overturned multiple times. Xiong suffered a spinal compression fracture from the accident. The Plaintiff, her family and friends all testified at trial that she incurred severe pain from her injuries, which impacted her social life and daily activities. The jury awarded Xiong $832,000.

After the trial, a paralegal employed by Knight Transportation’s counsel found a litany of Facebook evidence apparently showing Xiong taking a trip to Las Vegas, visiting nightclubs, attending a wedding and smiling happily with friends at restaurants. Based upon the results of this Facebook investigation, Knight Transportation’s counsel hired a private investigator to follow Xiong and record her daily activities, which led to even further evidence supporting the defense’s case.

Citing this newly discovered Facebook and Facebook-derived evidence, Defendant Knight Transportation filed a motion for new trial. However, the district court denied Knight Transportation’s motion, finding that “the new (Facebook) evidence could have been discovered before trial and Knight offered no justification for its failure to develop it earlier.” The appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision.

A key apparent flaw in Knight Transport’s social media investigation, as suggested by the court’s written opinion, was that the investigation team seemingly only realized after it was too late that a Facebook page maintained by Plaintiff’s cousin contained social media evidence relevant to the case. This illustrates the importance of not only performing a timely social media investigation, but one that utilizes proper technology to enable a scalable and cost-efficient effort that is not limited to a small number of screen captures.

When rudimentary tools such as web browsers and print screen are used, social media investigations are indeed burdensome, costly and inefficient. A single publically available Facebook account may take hours to review manually, and may often require over 100 screen captures to collect with manual processes. This limits the ability to branch out to other sources of publically available information, such as key friends, spouses and, as in this case, a close cousin.

However, with the right software, such investigations can be the foundation of a very scalable, efficient and highly accurate process. Instead of requiring hours to manually review and collect a public Facebook account, the right specially designed software, like X1 Social Discovery, can collect all the data in minutes into an instantly searchable and reviewable format.

So as with any form of digital investigation, feasibility (as well as professional competence) often depends on utilizing the right technology for the job.  As law firms, law enforcement, eDiscovery service providers and private investigators all work social discovery investigations into standard operating procedures, it is critical that best practices technology is incorporated to get the job done.

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Recent Court Decisions, Key Industry Report Reveal Broken eDiscovery Collection Processes

 

While the eDiscovery industry has seen notable advancements and gained efficiencies in widespread adoption of hosted document review and supporting technologies, the same is not yet true for the collection and preservation of Electronically Stored Information (ESI). Leading industry research firm Gartner notes in a recent Market Guide report that eDiscovery collection and preservation process “especially when involving device collection, can be intrusive, time consuming and costly..”  And some recent court decisions imposing sanctions on corporate litigants who failed to meet their ESI preservation obligations are symptomatic of these pain points.

Earlier this year, a Magistrate judge imposed spoliation sanctions for destruction of ESI in a commercial dispute, where the Plaintiff made no effort to preserve such emails — even after it sent a letter to the defendant threatening litigation. (Matthew Enter., Inc. v. Chrysler Grp. LLC, 2016 WL 2957133 (N.D. Cal. May 23, 2016). The court, finding that the defendant suffered substantial prejudice by the loss of potentially relevant ESI, imposed severe evidentiary sanctions under Rule 37(e)(1), including allowing the defense to use the fact of spoliation to rebut testimony from the plaintiff’s witnesses. The court also awarded reasonable attorney’s fees incurred by the defendant in bringing the motion.  And in another case this year,  Internmatch v. Nxtbigthing, LLC, 2016 WL 491483 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2016), a U.S. District Court imposed similar sanctions based upon the corporate defendant’s suspect preservation efforts.

In her June 30, 2016 “Market Guide for E-Discovery Solutions,” Gartner eDiscovery analyst Jie Zhang notes that “searching across multiple and hybrid data repositories becomes more onerous and leads to overinvestment.” Given that most enterprises’ retention policy efforts are often unenforced or immature, there is often a glut of content to search through. Accordingly, almost every e-discovery request is different and often time pressured, as IT typically handles e-discovery requests in an ad hoc manner.” As such, Jie observes that “In order to guarantee data identification and collection quality, IT tends to err on the side of being overly inclusive in data preservation approach. This could result in too much legal hold or preservation. For example, it is not rare for an organization to put all mailboxes on legal hold or put them on legal hold over time (due to multiple holds and never-released holds). Being put on hold not only adds to IT management overhead and prime storage cost, but also makes any archive or records management difficult.”

The common theme between the cited cases and Zhang’s analysis is a perceived infeasibility of systemized and efficient enterprise eDiscovery collection process, causing legal and IT executives to wring their hands over the resulting disruption and expense of ESI collection. In some situations, the corporate litigant opts to roll the dice with non-compliance — a clearly misguided and faulty cost benefit analysis.

What is needed is an effective, scalable and systemized ESI collection process that makes enterprise eDiscovery collection much more feasible. More advanced enterprise class technology, such as X1 Distributed Discovery, can accomplish system-wide searches that are narrowly tailored to collect only potentially relevant information in a legally defensible manner. This process is better, faster and dramatically less expensive than other methods currently employed.

With X1 Distributed Discovery (X1DD), parties can perform targeted search and collection of the ESI of thousands of endpoints over the internal network without disrupting operations. The search results are returned in minutes, not weeks, and thus can be highly granular and iterative, based upon multiple keywords, date ranges, file types, or other parameters. This approach typically reduces the eDiscovery collection and processing costs by at least one order of magnitude (90%), thereby bringing much needed feasibility to enterprise-wide eDiscovery collection that can save organizations millions while improving compliance.

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Full Disk Imaging is Expensive Overkill for eDiscovery Collection

Early in my tenure as co-founder at Guidance Software (EnCase), we commercialized full-disk imaging circa 2001 with EnCase Forensic edition, which was the first Windows-based computer forensics tool. EnCase Forensic enabled broader market adaption of computer forensic drive imaging, but the tool was originally designed for law enforcement to perform criminal computer evidence seizures. We were thinking more CSI than ESI.

However, soon a funny thing happened. For a two to three year period in the mid-2000s, a majority of standalone forensic software purchases came from eDiscovery service providers. Law enforcement represented a sizable minority during this “surge period” of commercial sector purchases, but we eventually realized that the eDiscovery services community was in the process of standardizing on full disk imaging as their default collection practice.

I have a few theories on why this trend occurred, but suffice to say that one of the many reasons that full-disk imaging is burdensome is because the process often involves service providers traveling out to the individual custodians, which is very disruptive to employees, not to mention time consuming. Additionally, as eDiscovery processing and hosting fees are usually calculated on a per-gigabyte basis, costs are increased exponentially. In a word, this is overkill, with much more effective and efficient options now available.

However, many eDiscovery practitioners continue to collect or direct the collection of Electronically Stored Information (ESI) through full disk forensic “images” of targeted media as a routine practice. Full disk images capture every bit and byte on a hard drive, including system and application files, unallocated space and a host of irrelevant user-created data. While full disk images may be warranted in some limited situations, the expense and burden associated with the practice can be quite extensive, particularly in matters that involve multiple custodians.

The Duty to Preserve Only Extends to Relevant Information

It is established law that the duty to preserve evidence, including ESI, extends only to relevant information. Hynix Semiconductor Inc. v. Rambus Inc., 2006 WL 565893 (N.D.Cal. Jan. 5, 2006) at *27. (“The duty to preserve evidence, once it attaches, does not extend beyond evidence that is relevant and material to the claims at issue in the litigation.”)  As noted by the Zubulake court, “Clearly [there is no duty to] preserve every shred of paper, every e-mail or electronic document, and every backup tape…Such a rule would cripple large corporations.”  Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 217 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (“Zubulake IV”).

The vast majority of ESI on a full disk image will typically constitute irrelevant information. As stated by one court, “imaging a hard drive results in the production of massive amounts of irrelevant, and perhaps privileged, information.” Deipenhorst v. City of Battle Creek, 2006 WL 1851243 (W.D.Mich. June 30, 2006) at *3.  In noting that the “imaging of computer hard drives is an expensive process, and adds to the burden of litigation for both parties,” the Deipenhorst court declined to require the production of  full disk images absent a strong showing of good cause. See also, Fasteners for Retail, Inc. v. DeJohn et al., No 1000333 (Ct. App.Ohio April 24, 2014).

Similarly, in Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 2004 WL 1620866 at *8 (S.D.N.Y. July 20, 2004) (“Zubulake V”), Judge Scheindlin suggested that eDiscovery could be more manageable for producing parties but still defensible by taking advantage of the development of technology like X1 Distributed Discovery, which would be capable of conducting distributed keyword searches.  She anticipated that, due to the expansion of eDiscovery in coming years, counsel “must be more creative” because:

[It may not always] be feasible for counsel to speak with every key player, given the size of a company or the scope of the lawsuit, counsel must be more creative. It may be possible to run a system-wide keyword search; counsel could then preserve a copy of each “hit.” [FN75] Although this sounds burdensome, it need not be. Counsel does not have to review these documents, only see that they are retained. For example, counsel could create a broad list of search terms, run a search for a limited time frame, and then segregate responsive documents. . .

FN75. It might be advisable to solicit a list of search terms from the opposing party for this purpose, so that it could not later complain about which terms were used.

The recommended collection and preservation approach described by Judge Scheindlin is a far cry from obtaining full-disk images of the hard drives of each potential custodian, and in fact maps directly to the capabilities of X1 Distributed Discovery.

Courts do require that ESI be collected in a forensically sound manner, which does not mean a full forensic disk image is required, but generally does entail that metadata is not altered and a documented chain of custody is maintained. Historically, eDiscovery collection efforts not involving full disk imaging would often result in the loss or alternation of metadata. More advanced enterprise class technology, such as X1 Distributed Discovery, can accomplish system-wide searches that are narrowly tailored to collect only potentially relevant information while preserving metadata at the same time. This process is better, faster and dramatically less expensive than manual disk imaging. As with the Zubulake V decision, which advocates employing technology to perform “system-wide keyword searches”, courts recognize that advanced computer software can be deployed to limit the scope of computer searches and thus support reasonable discovery efforts.

With X1 Distributed Discovery (X1DD), parties can perform targeted search collection of the ESI of thousands of endpoints over the internal network without disrupting operations. The search results are returned in minutes, not weeks, and thus can be highly granular and iterative, based upon multiple keywords, date ranges, file types, or other parameters. This approach typically reduces the eDiscovery collection and processing costs by at least one order of magnitude (90%). This method is sound from an evidentiary standpoint as the collected data is preserved in its native file format with its metadata intact. X1DD features a solid chain of custody and robust logging, tracking and reporting.

The authorities cited above establish that effective technology can enable corporate counsel to establish a highly defensible process that at the same time minimizes cost. Routine full-disk imaging, over collection, and high eDiscovery costs are symptoms of an absence of a systemized process.  By establishing a scalable and system-wide eDiscovery process based upon the latest technology, large organizations can save millions while improving compliance.

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Changing the Game for Rule 26(f) Meet and Confer Efforts with Pre-Collection Early Data Assessment

One of the most important provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that impact eDiscovery is Rule 26(f), which requires the parties’ counsel to “meet and confer” in Meet and Conferadvance of the pre-trial scheduling conference on key discovery matters, including the preservation, disclosure and exchange of potentially relevant electronically stored information (ESI).  With the risks and costs associated with eDiscovery, this early meeting of counsel is a critically important means to manage and control the cost of eDiscovery, and to prevent the failure to preserve relevant ESI.

A key authority on the Rule 26(f) eDiscovery topics to be addressed is the “Suggested Protocol for Discovery of Electronically Stored Information,” provided by Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm and his joint bar-court committee. Under Section 8 of the Model Protocol, the topics to be discussed at the Rule 26(f) conference include: “Search methodologies for retrieving or reviewing ESI such as identification of the systems to be searched;” and “the use of key word searches, with an agreement on the words or terms to be searched” and “limitations on the time frame of ESI to be searched; limitations on the fields or document types to be searched.”

However, Rule 26(f) conferences occur early on in the litigation, typically within weeks of the case’s filing. As such, attorneys representing enterprises are essentially flying blind at this pre-collection stage, without any real visibility into the potentially relevant ESI across an organization. This is especially true in regard to unstructured, distributed data, which is invariably the majority of ESI that is ultimately collected in a given matter.

Ideally, an effective early data assessment (EDA) capability can enable counsel to set reasonable discovery limits and ultimately process, host, review and produce less ESI.  Counsel can further use EDA to gather key information, develop a litigation budget, and better manage litigation deadlines. EDA also can foster cooperation and proportionality in discovery by informing the parties early in the process about where relevant ESI is located and what ESI is significant to the case.

The problem is any keyword protocols are mostly guesswork at the early stage of litigation, as under current eDiscovery practices, the costly and time consuming step of actual data collection must occur before pre-processing EDA can take place. When you hear eDiscovery practitioners talk about EDA, they are invariably speaking of a post-collection, pre-review process. But without requisite pre-collection visibility into distributed ESI, counsel typically resort to directing broad collection efforts, resulting in much greater costs, burden and delays.

What is clearly needed is the ability to perform pre-collection early data assessment, instead of EDA after the costly, time consuming and disruptive collection phase.  X1 Distributed Discovery (X1DD) offers a game-changing new approach to the traditional eDiscovery model.  X1DD enables enterprises to quickly and easily search across thousands of distributed endpoints from a central location.  This allows organizations to easily perform unified complex searches across content, metadata, or both and obtain full results in minutes, enabling true pre-collection EDA with live keyword analysis and distributed processing and collection in parallel at the custodian level. This dramatically shortens the identification/collection process by weeks if not months, curtails processing and review costs from not over-collecting data, and provides confidence to the legal team with a highly transparent, consistent and systemized process.

A recent webinar featuring Duff & Phelps Managing Director and 20-year eDiscovery and computer forensics veteran Erik Laykin included a live demonstration of X1DD searching across 20 distributed endpoints in a manner of seconds. In reaction to this demonstration, Laykin commented “the ability to instantaneously search for keywords across the enterprise for a small or large group of custodians is in its own right a killer application. This particular feature gives you instantaneous answers to one of the key questions folks have been wrestling with for quite some time.”

You can now view a recording of last month’s webinar: eDiscovery Collection: Existing Challenges and a Game Changing Solution, which features an overview of the existing broken state of enterprise eDiscovery collection, culminating with a demonstration of X1 Distributed Discovery. The recorded demo will help illustrate how pre-collection EDA can greatly strengthen counsel’s approach to eDiscovery collection and meet and confer processes.

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