The answer is yes, yes they can.
In Haskins v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., the first issue was whether the Defendant was in “possession, custody, or control” of documents held by its “independent title agents,” and second whether the Defendant had a duty to direct its agents to “preserve” the documents. Haskins v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 149947 (D.N.J. Oct. 18, 2012).
By way of background, the lawsuit involved allegations of overcharging on title insurance. The “independent title agents” issued most of the policies. Haskins, at *1-2.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 34(a), a requesting party can request information within an opposing party’s “possession, custody, or control.” This does not actually require physical control. Haskins, at *3.
Moreover, the Court explained, “It logically follows that a litigating party has control of documents if a contractual obligation requires a non-party to provide requested documents to the litigating party upon demand.” Haskins, at *4.
Furthermore, a party has control if it has “a right to access the [requested] documents or obtain copies of them.” Haskins, at *4, citing Andrews v. Holloway, 256 F.R.D. 136, 145 n.13 (D.N.J. 2009).
The Court zeroed in on the Defendant’s contracts with its agents that gave the Defendant control of the files, because the Defendant the right to access and use of the files. Haskins, at *6-8.
Litigation Hold Overview
Case law holds that a party has a duty to preserve when a party “knows or reasonably should know” that litigation is foreseeable. Haskins, at *11-12, citing Mosaid Techs. Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd. 348 F. Supp. 2d 332, 336 (D.N.J. 2004). Once there is a duty to preserve, a party must “put in place a litigation hold to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” Haskins, at *12, citing Major Tours, Inc. v. Colorel, No. 05-3091(JBS/JS), 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68128, at *2 (D.N.J. Aug. 4, 2009).
In the age of smartphones and complex networks, the Court stated for a hold to be “suitable” (probably code for reasonable), “a party must identify potentially relevant sources of information, implement procedures to retain that information, and produce information responsive to discovery requests.” Haskins, at *12.
If there is a failure to preserve data and a party seeks spoliation sanctions, a party must demonstrate four factors:
1) The evidence must have been in the party’s control;
2) It must be relevant to claims or defenses in the case;
3) It must have actually been suppressed or withheld by the party; and
4) The duty to preserve evidence must have been reasonably foreseeable to the party.
Haskins, at *12-13, citing Bull v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 665 F.3d 68, 73-74 (3d Cir. 2012).
The Court held that the Defendant had a duty to preserve, because litigation was active and the material relevant. As such, the Defendant was required to issue a litigation hold of documents within its possession, custody or control. As the Court explained, control did not require physical control, but contractual control was enough to require the Defendants to issue a litigation hold to its independent agents.
Bow Tie Thoughts
The duty to preserve can become tricky with third parties bound by contractual obligations that show control over data. The issue of data stored in “cloud computing” could become extremely complicated, especially if data is hosted in different states or countries from the venue of a lawsuit.
In the end, control of “cloud storage” will be a review of “Terms of Service” in contractual agreements, most of which are likely clickwrap agreements. These cases will be interesting to watch, especially as more companies host data in a “cloud.”
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg from 2013 to 2016 and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.