The Three Categories of eDiscovery Spoliation Sanctions

My last post discussed the important new Sedona Conference guidance, The Sedona Principles, Third Edition: Best Practices, Recommendations & Principles for Addressing Electronic Document Production. The revised principles are compelling, providing important direction to lawyers and eDiscovery practitioners alike. The Sedona Principles often make their way into court opinions and thus inform eDiscovery case law. In my view, the most interesting component of the updated Sedona Principles is its stance against full disk imaging for routine eDiscovery preservation, labeling the practice as unnecessary and unduly burdensome. Full disk imaging is still very widely used (some attorneys would say abused) for eDiscovery collection, which is an issue I highlighted at length last year on this blog.

The Sedona commentary brings into focus the judges’ rationale when issuing sanctions for failure to properly preserve ESI. Specifically, what types of conduct resulting in the destruction of ESI do the courts actually impose penalties for? I have been monitoring the caselaw involving failure to preserve ESI sanctions for over 15 years, and such cases fall under three general categories.

The first and most obvious category involves intentional conduct to delete or otherwise destroy potentially relevant ESI. There are many examples of such cases, including Sekisui Am. Corp. v. Hart, 2013 WL 4116322 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2013), and Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. v. Cammarata, 688 F. Supp. 2d 598 (S.D. Tex. 2010).

The second category involves situations where there is no process in place and the organization asserts little or no effort to preserve ESI. In a recent example, a magistrate judge imposed spoliation sanctions where the Plaintiff made no effort to preserve their 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 attorneys fees incurred by the defendant in bringing the motion. See also, Internmatch v. Nxtbigthing, LLC, 2016 WL 491483 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2016), where a U.S. District Court imposed similar sanctions based upon the corporate defendant’s suspect preservation efforts.

The final category involves situations where an organization does have a palpable ESI preservation process, but one that perilously relies on custodian self-collection. In a recent illustrative case, a company found themselves on the wrong end of a $3 million sanctions penalty for spoliation of evidence. The case illustrates that establishing a litigation hold and notifying the custodians is just the first step. Effective monitoring and diligent compliance with the litigation hold is essential to avoid punitive sanctions. GN Netcom, Inc. v. Plantronics, Inc., No. 12-1318-LPS, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93299 (D. Del. July 12, 2016). Even with effective monitoring, severe defensibility concerns plague custodian self-collection, with several courts disapproving of the practice due to poor compliance, metadata alteration, and inconsistency of results. See Geen v. Blitz, 2011 WL 806011, (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011), Nat’l Day Laborer Org. v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, 2012 WL 2878130 (S.D.N.Y. July 13, 2012).

So those are the three general categories for ESI preservation sanctions. But here is the question that the new Sedona commentary indirectly raises: Are there any cases out there where a court sanctions a party who; one, had a sound and reasonable ESI preservation process in place, and two, reasonably followed and executed that process in good faith, but were sanctioned anyway because that one document or email slipped through the cracks, which theoretically could have been prevented by employing full disk imaging as a routine practice? I believe this is an important question because some organizations and/or their outside counsel cite this concern as justification for full disk imaging across multitudes of custodians as a routine (but very expensive and burdensome) eDiscovery preservation practice. This still occurs even with the 2015 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, specifically FRCP 26(b)(1), which requires the application of proportionality to all aspects of eDiscovery, including collection and preservation.

I am unaware of any such case described in the previous paragraph. But if anyone is, please let me know in the comments below!

 

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