Tagged: Sanctions

“The Death Penalty Lives”: Magistrate Judge Recommends Entry of Default Judgment After Defendants Manipulate and Permanently Delete Electronic Data

This blog has previously discussed cases in which district courts considered and sometimes ultimately entered the so-called sanctions “death penalty” – a default judgment order of terminating sanctions, pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2), as a result of a party’s destruction of evidence. Recently, a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas magistrate judge recommended granting terminating sanctions, i.e., default judgment, after finding that the defendants “delayed discovery, manipulated electronic data, and permanently deleted a significant amount of electronic data.” The magistrate judge noted that the deletions that occurred required the user to “go into the bowels of the system, requiring advanced knowledge,” and the electronic data was deleted “within days” of an agreed upon preliminary injunction. In Calsep Inc. v. Intelligent Petroleum Software Solutions, LLC, the plaintiffs alleged misappropriation of trade secrets after their employee, one of the defendants, left their employment and allegedly downloaded the plaintiffs’ trade secret information to a personal device. According to the plaintiffs, the former employee then used the trade secret information with the other defendants to develop oil and gas industry software to compete with the plaintiffs’ software. The plaintiffs attempted to obtain discovery, including specifically the defendants’ “source code control system, which ordinarily contains the complete, auditable, and accurate history of the creation and evolution of software...

Negligent Deletion of Meeting Notes Does Not Warrant Adverse Inference Sanctions

Recently, in the District Court for the Southern District of California, Magistrate Judge Karen Crawford declined to impose adverse inference sanctions against the defendants, despite the defendants’ negligent destruction of relevant evidence. Instead, the court found that the plaintiffs were not severely prejudiced by the defendants’ spoliation of relevant handwritten notes from meetings pertaining to the subject matter of the litigation. Therefore, the court opted for the “least burdensome sanction” and recommended that the defendants be precluded from offering testimony or other evidence about the discussions at the meetings, during which the handwritten notes at issue were taken, in support of their defenses during the trial. In Al Otro Lado, Inc., et al. v. Chad v. Wolf, Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, et al., the plaintiffs claimed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (the “Department”) implemented a policy, known as the “Turnback Policy,” at the U.S.-Mexico border that discouraged individuals from seeking asylum in the U.S.. The plaintiffs requested that adverse-inference sanctions be imposed against the Department due to the admitted destruction of handwritten notes by two senior officials within the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) made during the Department’s daily operation meetings where the Turnback Policy would be discussed. Essentially, the plaintiffs sought an adverse inference finding (to be adopted...

“It Wasn’t My Fault”: Court Rejects Attempts by Client and Attorney to Duck Responsibility and Sanctions Both Jointly

This blog has previously discussed the importance of cooperation among parties in a litigation to effectuate a comprehensive discovery framework; however, a recent decision from the District Court for the Northern District of California exemplifies the importance of joint responsibility and collaboration between attorneys and their clients when dealing with e-discovery matters, including preservation, collection, and production of electronically stored information (ESI). In a case that ultimately settled and involved both foreign and domestic parties, the court granted a motion for monetary sanctions pursuant to its inherent authority and Rule 37, after finding that the plaintiff’s discovery misconduct “not only forced [defendant] to incur additional attorneys’ fees but … also forced the court to expend considerable resources beyond what was necessary.” Because both the plaintiff and its former counsel “failed in their responsibilities,” the court imposed sanctions jointly and severally against them. In Optrics Inc. v. Barracuda Networks Inc., the plaintiff, a Canadian engineering firm, filed suit in August 2017 against the defendant, an American company, “bringing trademark, contract, and other claims stemming from allegedly unfair and deceptive business practices by [defendant] during the parties’ thirteen-year business relationship.” Beginning in June 2019, discovery disputes and “discovery violations” by the plaintiff plagued the litigation. In February 2020, “with discovery still mired in disputes,” the parties stipulated...

Opening Pandora’s Box: A Preliminary Showing of Spoliation May Result in the Compelled Production of a Litigation Hold Notice

In Radiation Oncology Servs. of Cent. N.Y., P.C. v. Our Lady of Lourdes Mem’l Hosp., Inc., the New York Supreme Court reminded litigants that while litigation holds are generally protected by the attorney-client privilege or under the attorney work product doctrine, a preliminary showing of spoliation of evidence may compel the production of an offending party’s litigation hold documentation. In this litigation involving clinical privileges related to an exclusive radiation oncology services agreement, the plaintiffs identified seven specific instances of spoliation by the defendants. These included certain emails that the defendants produced in hard copy form, but for which they were unable to produce the corresponding electronic version and the related metadata – which the court seemed to globally refer to as the “electronically stored information,” or ESI, relating to the emails – because they had been deleted. The plaintiffs successfully argued that the failure to produce the ESI constituted spoliation because it deprived them of the ability to understand whether there were follow-up discussions with other individuals about the content of the communications, including those who may have been copied on the communications or follow-up emails. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to compel the production of the defendants’ litigation hold notice because it found that the permanent deletion of the ESI “potentially deprived...

The Destruction of a “Startling Amount of Discovery”: District Court Imposes Severe, Case-Ending Sanctions Pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2)

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington recently entered a default judgment order of terminating sanctions against defendants pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2), as a result of defendants’ wholesale destruction of a “startling amount of discovery” as part of defendants’ adoption of a document disposition program during the course of the litigation. The district court found that the defendants “purposefully destroyed” relevant electronically stored information (ESI) “to avoid their litigation obligations.” This decision highlights the importance of extreme caution in the adoption of a document disposition or information governance program, which necessarily eliminates typically large quantities of ESI, during the time period when the duty to preserve relevant ESI has been triggered. In Moreno v. Correctional Healthcare Companies, Inc., plaintiffs filed constitutional claims against defendants–providers of healthcare services to inmates–after plaintiffs’ eighteen-year-old son died while in defendants’ custody. In January 2018, prior to filing the lawsuit, plaintiffs sent a letter to defendants notifying defendants of their plan to file a lawsuit and advising defendants to “preserve all paper and electronic records that may be relevant to our clients’ claims” including “all e-mails and other electronic and paper records regardless of where they are maintained.” Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in October 2018 and, in December 2018, served discovery requests on defendants, seeking certain categories...

Federal Court Sanctions Defense Attorney Under § 1927 for Unreasonably Vexatious Conduct During Discovery

A Minnesota federal court recently issued a stern warning to attorneys and litigants who ignore court orders and fail to make any effort to engage in meet and confers during the discovery process. In Management Registry, Inc. v. A.W. Companies, et al., the District Court for the District of Minnesota ordered a defense attorney to pay $25,000 in attorney’s fees, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1927, in addition to other forms of sanctions for the attorney’s “pervasive discovery misconduct.” This case arose from plaintiff’s claims against defendants “after a corporation acquisition went wrong.” The litigation has a tortured procedural history during which the parties fought for almost two years over various discovery disputes, a number of which involved the format of production of certain documents. The parties had participated in a telephonic conference in late 2018, during which time the court ordered defendants to produce ESI in the same manner that plaintiff was required to produce ESI. Following that conference, a number of issues arose with respect to defendants’ production, and counsel for the defendants (at that time) agreed to make a supplemental production to resolve the technical issues. Defendants then obtained new counsel, and the new counsel proceeded to file a motion to compel without: (1) first reviewing the status of documents that had...

End of the Road: GN Netcom Inc. and Plantronics Settle Eight-Year Litigation Saga Beset by E-Discovery Sanctions

On July 12, 2020, United States District Judge Leonard P. Stark of the District Court for the District of Delaware (“District Court”) approved a joint stipulation of settlement filed by GN Netcom Inc., parent of Jabra headphones, and Plantronics. This settlement will end the eight-year old litigation saga between GN Netcom and Plantronics involving allegations that Plantronics had monopolized the relevant market via exclusive distribution deals which required its distributors to only sells Plantronics’ headsets and not those of its rivals. This case is noteworthy as to e-discovery because of the severe sanctions of $3,000,000 and an adverse inference jury instruction entered by the District Court against Plantronics in 2016 pursuant to then recently amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e). This blog post will not recount the full panoply of discovery abuses addressed in the District Court’s July 12, 2016 Order, but, in broad strokes, Plantronics was found to have acted in bad faith in failing to take reasonable steps to preserve ESI which could not be restored or replaced. The District Court’s sanctions order was entered because Don Houston, a former executive of the company, “double-deleted” thousands of his own relevant emails despite the existence of a legal hold. Mr. Houston also directed other employees of the company to delete relevant emails. While...

Disappearing Act: Northern District of California Issues Rare Terminating Sanctions for Spoliation on a Massive Scale

In WeRide Corp. v. Kun Huang, the Northern District of California addressed an egregious case of discovery abuses and spoliation by defendants in a business litigation involving the alleged theft of autonomous vehicle technology. Applying Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(b) and 37(e), the court issued rare terminating sanctions against several defendants who willfully and intentionally deleted various forms of ESI, including relevant emails, status reports, and source code, well after the commencement of litigation and after a preservation order issued by the court requiring the preservation of such information. Defendants compounded these abuses by adopting the use of “DingTalk,” an ephemeral communication technology, after the court had issued the preservation order. WeRide, a technology company engaged in the business of developing autonomous cars, employed defendant Jing Wang as CEO in January 2018. WeRide alleged that Wang went on to form his own company, AllRide, as a direct competitor. WeRide also alleged that former employee defendant Kun Huang was recruited by Wang to work for AllRide while still employed by WeRide. WeRide alleged that Huang downloaded various forms of data during this time period and transferred this data onto several USB devices from two WeRide-issued computers, then proceeded to delete files from the devices. WeRide further alleged that AllRide and Huang stole WeRide’s source code,...

In It for the Long Haul: The Duty to Preserve Social Media Accounts Is Not Terminated Upon an Initial Production

In a recent decision by a federal district court in Ohio, the court admonished a plaintiff in a gender-based pay discrimination for deactivating her LinkedIn account during the pendency of the litigation after making an initial production. The court concluded that plaintiff had violated her duty to preserve pursuant to Rule 37(e), as the conduct resulted in the deletion of relevant and discoverable information that was the subject of a previous court order. The court declined to impose sanctions because plaintiff had in fact produced data from her LinkedIn account and because defendant could not demonstrate prejudice. However, the court did not let plaintiff’s offense go lightly; the court stated that plaintiff’s action was serious and inappropriate. In Faulkner v. Aero Fulfillment Services, plaintiffs alleged gender-based pay discrimination during their employment with defendant. Pursuant to a court order, plaintiffs had to produce, among other things, the “last three years of social media information.” Plaintiff Faulkner’s counsel followed the directions on the LinkedIn website to download a full data archive in Microsoft Excel format and produced the Excel file to defendant. Subsequently, defense counsel requested the social media information in a different format, a “screenshot” format. But plaintiff’s counsel was unable to produce Ms. Faulkner’s LinkedIn information in the “screenshot” format because the account had already...

SDNY Expands Interpretation of “Possession, Custody, or Control” – Orders Adverse Inference Against Company for Spoliation of Text Messages by Non-Party, Independent Contractor on Personal Phone

In Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, et al., 270 F. Supp. 3d 656 (S.D.N.Y. 2017), the Southern District of New York ordered an adverse inference against Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Entertainment LLC (“Cleopatra”), based on the conduct of its independent contractor and non-party to the case, Jared Cohn (“Cohn”). Cohn had been hired by Cleopatra to write and direct a motion picture about the 1977 plane crash that killed two members of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. During the film’s production, Cleopatra and Cohn enlisted the aid of Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle (“Pyle”), who, along with other surviving band members (and the estates of deceased members), was party to a 1988 Consent Order that set limits on the permissible use of the Lynyrd Skynyrd name; the likenesses, names, and biographical material of its members; the band’s history; and related items. The Consent Order also detailed the respective parties’ rights to royalties from Lynyrd Skynyrd music, merchandise, and other proceeds, and prohibited the parties from “implicitly or through inaction authoriz[ing] the violation of the terms [of the agreement] by any third party.” Pyle initially did not make Cleopatra aware of the Consent Order, but plaintiffs (also parties to the 1988 Consent Order) sent Cleopatra a copy, along with a cease and desist letter, after learning...