Here is my advice: NEVER agree to a stipulation to produce native files when “it is more practical to do so” and agree to productions in PAPER, PDF’s, or TIFFs. Melian Labs v. Triology LLC, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124343 (N.D. Cal.Sept. 4, 2014).
That is what happened in Melian Labs v. Triology LLC. It reads like a personal Sum of All Fears for anyone who has spent years working with ESI, because the Court denied motions to compel email and spreadsheets in native files with metadata, because of the parties’ Rule 26(f) stipulation.
The Requesting Party challenged the Producing Party’s email production, because the production was “7 large PDF image documents, which each appear to be a compilation of ESI improperly collected and produced” and the collection was not forensically sound. Melian Labs, at *4.
The Producing Party claimed it did not need to forensically collect discovery. Further, the Producing Party claimed the email was printouts directly from Gmail or Microsoft. Id.
The Court stated that the Requesting Party was complaining about the form of production and not that the production was incomplete. As the parties had agreed to the form of production being paper, PDF’s, or TIFFs, Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(b)(2)(E) did not control, but instead the parties’ stipulation. Melian Labs, at *4-5.
The Court stated the following on the stipulation and the discovery dispute:
Instead, it states that ESI may be produced in paper, PDF or TIFF. That producing the documents in a searchable format would ease Triology’s review does not render Melian’s production deficient. Triology fails to articulate why metadata is important to emails, when every email should contain the information sought on the face of the document. To the extent that emails have this information cut off or it is not apparent from the face of the email (i.e. as may be the case with BCC), Triology is entitled to the complete email with the agreed upon metadata, and Melian must provide it upon request.
Melian Labs, at *5 (Emphasis added).
Based on the above, the Court DENIED the moving party’s request to compel the production of all emails in a searchable or native format is denied. Id.
Things get equally frustrating for spreadsheets.
The Producing Party admitted reading some of the spreadsheets were difficult and produced those ones in native file upon request. Melian Labs, at *5-6. However, the Producing Party stood their ground that they agreed to produce native files “when it is more practicable to do so.” Id.
The Court held again that the joint stipulation controlled and that the Producing Party could NOT be compelled to produce spreadsheets in native file format. Melian Labs, at *6 (emphasis added). However, the Court did end with a subtle suggestion the Producing Party would produce spreadsheets that were “easily readable without seeking court intervention” in the event of any disputes over the readability/legibility of spreadsheets. Id.
Bow Tie Thoughts
I hate stipulations like this one. Producing in native file format is the only practical option when it comes to ESI. If I were a Federal Judge, I would summarily deny any such Rule 26(f) stipulations that called for the production of ESI as paper, PDFs, or TIFFs, on the grounds that the agreement would violate Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 1 by unnecessarily driving up costs. The fact the parties end up shackled to a bad form of production agreement should serve as a warning label to never let this happen again.
I worked on a case where over 2000 documents were produced as 8 non-searchable PDF’s. To say it was a mess was an understatement. We were able to correct the production gamesmanship with a useable production, but it made document review very difficult until it was corrected.
There is value in native files, because it provides objective coding for databases and expedites review, both of which further the goals of Rule 1. Moreover, there is amazing review technology that empowers lawyers to identify communication patterns, key players, and other useful information. Printing Gmail as PDF’s dramatically undercuts that ability to make use of these tools.
That being said, the Requesting Party could have very forceful deposition questions on what was done to preserve ESI, the steps to identify responsive discovery, and what methodology was employed to ensure substantive and embedded metadata was not destroyed after the duty to preserve triggered. Additional questions could be asked to identify formulas in printed spreadsheets of Excel files. This might force the production of un-produced native file spreadsheets.
Discovery must be collected in a defensible manner. Many people call this process “forensically sound.” This might not mean that every computer has a mirror image made of it, but a targeted collection. Using targeted collection tools can also be done in a defensible manner, with many great technology options to use. That being said, I would question the adequacy of a product done where the collection process was printing email as PDF’s. It might be justified in a small case, but if in Federal Court with high stakes, I would strongly encourage having a mirror image done of the subject computers.
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.