There is no question that automotive product liability litigation is complex. However, self-collection is never a good idea. The Ford Unintended Acceleration Litigation is a case study on why it is a good idea to use archiving solutions and have expert witnesses conduct data collection.
The Plaintiffs argued that Ford did not have a reasonable search and collection methodology, because the data from custodians was all “self-collected.” Moreover, the self-collection appeared to be conducted by custodians using search terms in the internal email system, which were then stored on the company server. Burd v. Ford Motor Co., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88518, *9-11 (S.D. W. Va. July 8, 2015).
The case continued down a bumpy road with bi-weekly conference calls with the Court. As the Court was faced with contradictory statements from both sides, the Plaintiffs were directed to take depositions of the custodians to investigate whether the search methodology was reasonable. Burd, at *13. Deposition testimony showed that key employees performed limited searches or no searches at all. Burd, at *35-36.
The parties also attempted to meet and confer over how to search for the responsive ESI. The Defendant took the position they would not share their search terms because 1) the search terms were work product; and 2) there actually was no list of search terms used, because each custodian developed their own search terms after discussing the case with counsel. Burd, at *14-15.
Ford argued against producing their own document retention policies as being irrelevant “non-merits” discovery. Burd, at *30. Moreover, Ford argued that information regarding their collection and production methodology was irrelevant “discovery on discovery” that invaded attorney work product. Burd, at *30-31.
The Court stated that the generic objections to “discovery on discovery” and “non-merits” discovery are outmoded and unpersuasive. Burd, at *34 (emphasis added). The Court went on to state:
Here, there have been repeated concerns voiced by Plaintiffs regarding the thoroughness of Ford’s document search, retrieval, and production. Although Ford deflects these concerns with frequent complaints of overly broad and burdensome requests, it has failed to supply any detailed information to support its position. Indeed, Ford has resisted sharing any specific facts regarding its collection of relevant and responsive materials. At the same time that Ford acknowledges the existence of variations in the search terms and processes used by its custodians, along with limitations in some of the searches, it refuses to expressly state the nature of the variations and limitations, instead asserting work product protection. Ford has cloaked the circumstances surrounding its document search and retrieval in secrecy, leading to skepticism about the thoroughness and accuracy of that process. This practice violates “the principles of an open, transparent discovery process.”
Burd, at *34.
The Court explained that document retention policies can be discovered through a Rule 30(b)(6) witness and were not contingent on a claim of spoliation. Burd, at *34-35. Moreover, the Court rejected the claim that the search terms used to identify responsive discovery was protected by the work product doctrine. Burd, at *36. Simply because an attorney discussed how to search with a custodian does not make the search terms and the results protected by the work product doctrine. Burd, at *36-37. The search terms could be produced without disclosing any substances of discussion with an attorney. Id.
The Court granted the Plaintiff’s motion for a deposition of a Rule 30(b)(6) witness on the Defendant’s search and collection methodology for a more transparent process and their collection methods. Burd, at *40-41. However, the Court did not rule on the issue of whether the Defendant had a reasonable collection process or adequate production, because the issue was premature. Id. Witnesses still had to be deposed. That being said, the Plaintiffs could file a new motion if the facts justified it. Id.
Bow Tie Thoughts
Self-collection is like driving a car without brakes. Defensibility requires that litigants document how electronically stored information is identified for collection. This traditionally is done by expert witnesses who use a chain of custody form, documenting search terms, processes, and results as they conduct their investigation. Custodians who are simply looking for ESI in Outlook, not documenting their process with any form of notes, run the huge risk of having an indefensible collection methodology. Moreover, one can argue that a lawyer could not certify the production under Rule 26(g) because the collection process was unreasonable.
Archiving solutions are a huge help to large organization in enacting litigation holds. Many have the ability to sequester custodians by date range and keywords. Alternatively, an expert witness can develop the proper collection methodology for the computer system in use. Once the data is defensibly collected, it can be reviewed for relevance by attorneys.
There is always a justified desire to control litigation costs. However, the discovery workflow of preservation, collection, review, and analysis cannot be shifted to custodians performing self-collection. Litigation requires forensic software used by experts and eDiscovery software used by attorneys to competently practice law.
My advice: put the brakes on self-collection.
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.