Bad faith or culpability may not mean evil intent

Phillips

In many ways sanctions cases are the lifeblood of the electronic discovery industry. While the FRCP, Sedona Conference and EDRM are all out there as shining examples of what to do, it seems like more practitioners learn from the scared straight cases like Zubulake, Morgan Stanley, Pension Committee, etc. Well, if you liked those horror stories, Philips Elecs. N. Am. Corp. v. BC Tech., may certainly keep you up at night.

In this intellectual property (IP) case with copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets, and associated claims, the court entered a number of discovery orders compelling both production and preservation. The court found that, despite these orders, a proper litigation hold was not issued until 19 months after the duty to preserve arose and thousands of files were deliberately deleted from five key players’ computers. Not surprisingly, the plaintiff moved for a finding of contempt and for terminating sanctions.

In this decision, Magistrate Judge Samuel Alba goes the extra mile in his initial opinion (which was upheld on appeal) to detail the defendant’s significant errors. While it doesn’t quite rise to the maliciousness demonstrated in Victor Stanley 2 (by the “gang that couldn’t spoliate straight”), it still provides a textbook example of “worst” practices.

To begin, Magistrate Alba cites Pension Committee for the general notion that “[c]ourts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection. Nonetheless, the courts have a right to expect that litigants and counsel will take the necessary steps to ensure that relevant records are preserved when litigation is reasonably anticipated, and that such records are collected, reviewed, and produced to the opposing party.” Despite the early recognition that the electronic discovery process need not be perfect, he then uses most of the 48 page opinion to detail the parade of horrors committed by the defendant:

“BCT’s behavior, such as failing to timely issue a litigation hold, failing to follow up on that litigation hold, failing to request discovery documents from key employees, and so forth, reveals its intentional failure to meet discovery obligations and its flagrant disregard of the obvious great risk that it was highly probable the destruction of relevant documents would result from its behavior, and BCT’s conscious indifference to the consequences of that risk.”

Magistrate Alba honed in on the culpability analysis because terminating sanctions were being sought and the case law requires the judge to consider lesser sanctions before dismissing a case (“Because dismissal with prejudice ‘defeats altogether a litigant’s right to access to the courts,’ it should be used as ‘a weapon of last, rather than first, resort.’”). The Defendant not surprisingly proffered a host of unpersuasive arguments about their behavior, attempting to portray many of the key player’s actions as merely inept and rogue. Examples include:

  • Employee “deleted files and folders for over 5 1/2 hours” and then started “loading five movies onto his computer” which comprised approximately twenty gigabytes of data, permanently overwriting the files recently deleted, eliminating the possibility of forensic recovery.
  • Employee “deleted and intentionally wiped files from his computer” the day after Philips demanded his laptop be turned over. He also “twice ran a Microsoft program called “’Cipher.exe’.”
  • Employee deleted 97,000 files from his My Documents file, of that 41,000 were lost files covered up by AbsoluteShield (a file wiping program).

But, Magistrate Alba found the requisite scienter anyway, despite lacking express malice. He held: “[b]ad faith, or culpability, ‘may not mean evil intent, but may simply signify responsibility and control.’” This control component was critical since the defendant attempted to convince the court that it did not have sufficient power over its employees during the legal hold and preservation process.

“BCT argues that it is not responsible for the ESI’s destruction because the executives and employees who destroyed the documents were acting individually and contrary to BCT’s express directives not to delete documents from their laptops.”

Magistrate Alba was not convinced:

“Also, other commonsense actions were not taken to preserve evidence, such as interviewing key employees, or even asking them to produce discoverable information. BCT appears to have been merely going through the motions rather than genuinely trying to preserve evidence since this method of communication was known to be unreliable and ineffective within the company; thus, BCT was not fulfilling its responsibility to diligently and thoroughly ensure that relevant documents were preserved. … BCT’s sparse and ineffective communication with its employees does not relieve it of its responsibility of its employees’ actions in disobeying direct court orders and destroying massive numbers of electronic documents…. BCT is the party; it has the responsibility; it must follow the court’s orders. The justice system would break down if company employees could claim that they did not know about the court orders and simply disregard them.”

To further complicate the spoliation allegations, the timing of the deletions were extremely suspect (“almost all of the deletions took place a day or two before the BCT laptop computers in question were sent to be imaged”). And, the number of the deletions were significant as well, with thousands of files that were forensically unrecoverable.

At the end of the day, the Defendants’ underlying incompetence was compounded by attempts to obscure the facts, ultimately dooming any shred of credibility.

“BCT’s dishonesty and efforts (perhaps even strategy) to hide and destroy ESI shred BCT’s credibility and reveal BCT’s overall contumacious and dishonest attitude toward this case, this court, and the system of justice. This inexcusable behavior and attitude greatly contribute to this court’s finding of bad faith. BCT must be excoriated for filing false sworn declarations, giving testimony riddled with lies and deceit, and making false representations to this court.”

These repeat offenses shut the door on any potential “do-over” with the Magistrate noting that the integrity of the judicial process cannot function when litigants so blatantly disregard their obligations.

“Civil litigation and discovery demand a level of integrity from the parties in order to properly function. When parties disregard that responsibility and/or ignore the court’s mandates, there must be strong consequences. Having examined the degree of prejudice to Philips, the interference with the judicial process, BCT’s culpability, whether BCT was warned in advance that its non-compliance may result in dismissal, and the efficacy of lesser sanctions, the court concludes that extreme sanctions are warranted in this case where discovery abuses of a serious magnitude involving bad faith and willful disregard of two direct court orders occurred.”

And, to pour further salt on the Defendant’s wound, the Magistrate recommended perjury sanctions for lying under oath: “[I]n light of the above findings, the court recommends that this matter be referred to the United States Attorney’s Office for investigation and criminal prosecution.”

Searching for a singular takeaway amongst all the culpable behavior is a bit hard. But certainly it is easy to point out that the Defendant’s legal hold process (and technology) was woefully behind the times. If a litigant is going to utilize a manual, custodian based litigation hold process it needs to recognize the risks. This isn’t to say that this type of approach won’t work, but an unsupervised process (via outside counsel) means that internal employees who may have something to hide can easily put their employer in the cross hairs, as was seen in Phillips. Once files are destroyed, it’s not surprising to see an ensuing cover-up, and then terminating sanctions aren’t far behind. We’ll see how many folks are scared straight by this latest horror story.

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Dean Gonsowski is a licensed member of The Sedona Conference Working Group on Electronic Document Retention and Production (“WG1”), the Electronic Discovery Reference Model, and teaches a series of CLE courses on various e-disclosure topics. Dean also serves as VP of E-Discovery Services at Clearwell Systems, where he helps enterprise customers deploy best practices as they bring e-disclosure in-house.