E-discovery legal cases you must read

I was at Sedona midyear meeting last week and during Ken Withers’ excellent discussion of recent e-discovery case law, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, there are so many cases coming out now each week it’s hard to stay above the fray and mine for useful nuggets.

The task is a bit Sisyphean, so folks like Ken (who keep a rolling index of cases) are particularly helpful. Next, I was struck by how hot Pension Committee still is, even after almost a year and a half. Certainly, this ongoing spotlight wasn’t an accident, and it’s almost certain that Judge Scheindlin is pleased by the ongoing debate.

I frequently get questions from enterprise clients regarding which cases they should know about, and so I put together an EDRM oriented (left to right) list for folks who just can’t get to all the latest cases. While it’s not an annual roundup per se, I do think it’s a bit more functional for busy electronic discovery professionals who need to stay current. So, here’s the buzz index of cases arranged by topic:

Preservation: The Legal Hold Gold Standard

Case: Pension Committee of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan, et al., v. Banc of America Securities, LLC, et al. (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: The dispute focused on claims by a group of investors who brought an action to recover losses of $550 million dollars stemming from the liquidation of two British Virgin Islands based hedge funds. Unlike many typical e-discovery disputes, this instant action focused on the conduct of the plaintiffs as they attempted to deal with the often murky landscape of electronically stored information (ESI) preservation, collection and production. Judge Scheindlin goes out of her way to crystallize duties and identify the type of conduct that can cause an e-discovery breach. “After a discovery duty is well established, the failure to adhere to contemporary standards can be considered gross negligence. Thus, after the final relevant Zubulake opinion in July, 2004, the following failures support a finding of gross negligence, when the duty to preserve has attached:

  • to issue a written litigation hold;
  • to identify all of the key players and to ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved;
  • to cease the deletion of email or to preserve the records of former employees that are in a party’s possession, custody, or control;
  • and to preserve backup tapes when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”

Why it’s (still) important: First of all, Pension Committee is written by Judge Scheindlin, who is the most famous electronic discovery jurist on the planet. Next, since she’s in the Southern District of New York, it means that folks even in other jurisdiction that aren’t bound by her opinions still must take heed given the fact that New York is home to so many multinational organizations. Finally, her opinion is the clearest (even if disputed) articulation regarding the standard of care for the issuance of legal holds and the duty to preserve ESI. She attempts to categorically define conduct that is grossly negligent and therefore susceptible to extreme sanctions, including spoliation inferences and terminating sanctions. Fortunately, she recognizes the numerous challenges associated with electronic discovery. And, so as to blend in a healthy dose of reality Judge Scheindlin also said: “In an era where vast amounts of electronic information is available for review, discovery in certain cases has become increasingly complex and expensive. Courts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection.”

In the end, Pension Committee, was the case of the year in 2010 and even in 2011 it’s generating an unprecedented level of retrospectives (here and here). It may be because Judge Scheindlin’s relatively bright line standard has created so much debate, but in the end the Pension Committee discussion will likely continue for the foreseeable future (perhaps only ending when/if the culpability rules are amended to create a unified national standard).

Preservation: Why Preserve in Place is Risky?

Case: Wilson v. Thorn Energy, LLC, (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: In Wilson, the defendant corporation identified a flash drive that contained relevant ESI, but rather than copying that data safely to a centralized evidence repository, the defendant’s employee chose to hold on to the drive, putting it instead into a desk drawer. When the files were requested for review and production, the files could not be read from the drive. The defendant’s employee attempted to recover the ESI contained on it, but those efforts failed. Granting plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, the court ordered that defendants would be precluded from offering evidence at trial concerning the data contained on the discarded drive.

Why it’s important: In today’s e-discovery world, many organizations are instituting hold processes via manual solutions and then waiting weeks or months to ultimately collect the ESI. Wilson shows the danger of simply preserving data and makes the argument that you should either “collect to preserve” or collect very shortly after the litigation hold notice goes out. While focusing on a certain media type (flash drive), this analysis can be extended to any digital system containing ESI that inherently has some set failure rates or can be imagined to fail without express, conscious action (due to loss, theft, recycling, etc.).

Identification & Collection: “Manual” Collections Come Under Fire

Case: Green v. Blitz U.S.A. (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011)

Summary: In this case, Plaintiff sought to re-open her lawsuit despite prior settlement upon learning that defendant had failed to produce relevant documents. Finding that defendant had committed discovery abuses, including failing to disclose relevant evidence and failing to issue a litigation hold, the court ordered defendant to pay plaintiff $250,000, to provide a copy of the court’s order to plaintiffs “in every lawsuit proceeding against it” for the past two years and to file the court’s order in every case that defendant is involved in for the next 5 years. It was revealed that the employee “solely responsible for searching for and collecting documents relevant to litigation” issued no litigation hold, conducted no electronic word searches for emails, and made no effort to speak with defendant’s IT department regarding how to search for electronic documents.

Why it’s important: Green is the latest in a line of cases [See also Ford Motor Co. v. Edgewood Properties Inc., 257 F.R.D. 418 (D.N.J. 2009) and Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell, Inc., 621 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Utah 2009) ] that have been highly critical of manual (or self) collection efforts by the individual custodians. Historically, if the custodians were monitored/supervised enough by counsel, this manual collection process was largely deemed defensible, but it looks like this behavior is simply too risky for any conservative enterprise. The better practice is to leverage the custodians to point out where relevant ESI might exist and utilize software tools to conduct broad collections from key players. While it’s not necessary to use IT tools to collect data immediately for all custodians who have received a litigation hold notice, it’s probably unreasonable to not quickly collect ESI (via formal, IT based methods) from at least some subset of key players. The main point is that this isn’t an all or nothing calculation. Costs, risks and benefits should all be carefully evaluated and documented, in case there’s a downstream challenge.

Analysis & Review: Failure to Test Keywords and Sample

Case: Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Felman Prod., Inc., (S.D. W. Va., 2010).

Summary: In this case the court examined the reasonableness of plaintiff’s precautions to prevent disclosure of email, which was inadvertently produced by the plaintiff amidst “a massive disclosure of e-discovery.” The Mt. Hawley court applied the five-factor test established in Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc. (D. Md. 2008) and found that the producing party had not taken reasonable steps during discovery. In particular, the court was unwilling to find that the inadvertent production of 377 privileged documents was “solely attributable” to a technological glitch and instead found that plaintiff and counsel “failed to perform critical quality control sampling to determine whether their production was appropriate and neither over inclusive nor under-inclusive.” This finding meant that their attorney client privilege was waived as to the subject documents.

Why it’s important: Mt. Hawley demonstrates why sampling and keyword search term formulation is critically important to any defensible discovery effort. In many instances where “blind” keyword strategies are used, the producing party is taking on an undue risk, in essence flirting with the “3rd rail” of electronic discovery (inadvertent production). Blind keyword searching (followed by brute force review and production) is sadly still a very common practice today. My hope is that cases like Mt. Hawley will force the blissfully ignorant practicioners to take stock of their risky practices and get with contemporary best practices like ECA, sampling, iterative search and the like.

Conclusion

Simply by creating such a list, I’m sure to leave off cases other folks think are more buzz worthy. But, for me, having a few good legal chestnuts is better than trying to boil the ocean and synthesize all the available case law. If you have any comments I’d be eager to hear (good, bad or indifferent).

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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.

  • E-discovery and data forensics in litigation is becoming a popular subject these days. Good to have this resource for cases to consult.

    Kind regards, CaseCheck Case Law

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