When two managing officers involved in the termination of an employee are repeatedly asked by an attorney for their electronic calendars, including a letter threatening an EEOC complaint if there was not an amicable resolution, and then followed by formal discovery requests.
How do you get sanctions?
When after repeated statements that the Defendants did not have electronic calendars, one of the managing officers states in deposition that he kept a daily electronic calendar and routinely deleted the entries after the date has passed. Making matters more complicated, the witness admitted “he was told a week before his deposition to retain his calendars but he nonetheless continued his practice of deleting” his electronic calendars. Kirgan v. Fca Llc, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51747, at *1-2 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 10, 2013).
Overview of Sanctions
A party must enact a litigation when it reasonably anticipates litigation, which generally requires the suspension of its document destruction policy. Kirgan, at *3.
Courts analyze three factors in determining sanctions for the failure to preserve evidence:
(1) A breach of the duty to preserve or produce documents;
(2) The level of culpability for the breach; and
3) The prejudice that results from the breach.
Kirgan, at *3, citing Danis v USN Communications Inc., 2000 WL 1694325, at *31 (NDIL).
Case law states that sanctions must be proportionate to the offending conduct. Kirgan, at *3. A party also had to know or had reason to know that litigation was forthcoming. Kirgan, at *3 citing Morton v Motel 6 Operating L.P., 534 F3d 672, 681 (7th Cir 2008). Sanctions can be imposed on a finding of bad faith, willfulness, or fault. Kirgan, at *3 citing Brandt v Vulcan, Inc., 30 F3d 752, 756 (7th Cir 1994).
The Court’s Findings
The Court held that the Defendants breached their duty to preserve the daily calendars and that the Plaintiff had been prejudiced by the destruction of the electronic evidence. Moreover, the Court found that the Defendants’ conduct was misleading and intentional. Kirgan, at *5.
The Court stated the following on determining sanctions:
I do not believe that the sanction of default is warranted. I do, however, believe that stern measures are called for. The Defendant’s direct and vicarious conduct was willful and intentional, and it cannot be condoned.
Kirgan, at *7.
However, that misconduct included untruthful statements that the calendars did not exist, with one of the parties deleting the ESI. Kirgan, at *6.
This conduct created a “clear impression that [the officer] had deliberately decided to thwart Plaintiff’s efforts to obtain them.” Id.
Based on the above, the Court entered the following sanctions order:
1. The jury is to be given a spoliation instruction, which permits the jury to draw a negative inference from its failure to preserve and its destruction of relevant documents.
2. Defendant may not use — at summary judgment or at trial — any evidence or argument that may have been contained in Borsdorf’s destroyed calendars, unless that evidence or argument is corroborated by other documentary evidence or by testimony of witnesses independent of the Defendant.
3. Defendant shall pay attorney’s fees to the Plaintiff for the fees his counsel incurred in preparing this motion. That amount shall be doubled, in a rough effort to compensate Plaintiff for the efforts that were made in her counsel’s attempts to obtain the calendars.
Kirgan, at *7.
Bow Tie Thoughts
Judges do not like lies. Attorneys have a duty of candor to the Court and witnesses take an oath to tell the truth. Judges get upset when anything less than the truth is told.
This is the first time I have seen a Court double an attorneys fee award as part of a sanction for the destruction of evidence (I am sure it has happened before). However, it is noteworthy, because the Court did it “in a rough effort to compensate Plaintiff for the efforts that were made in her counsel’s attempts to obtain the calendars.”
Complying with the duty to preserve is rightly a hot topic in litigation. Attorneys must conduct detailed interviews with their clients to determine what technology is used in the ordinary course of business. Does the client text? Is there data outside the firewall in a “cloud,” such as a Google Calendar?
Attorneys must develop a preservation strategy after determining the relevant sources of information. Telling a custodian to “stop deleting” is a good first step, but the relevant data has to be collected in a defensible manner. This could range from content information management systems “locking down” the custodians’ communications, which are then exported for analysis and review. Other options include collecting data directly from the computers with computer forensic experts. Regardless of the strategy used, it is advisable to not allow custodians to self-collect their own data.
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, the Web 100 from 2017 to 2018, 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.