This is part two of a two-part blog, Fears and Loathing (and Pain) in Seattle. Part one is found here. This is not really a Hunter S. Thompson worthy story, but it is Seattle after all. And the name of the law firm involved here just begs for the analogy.
Before you begin reading part two of this sanctions saga, take a look at the poll results from Part One. If you have not already done so, cast your vote. I promise you it is all anonymous. The last time I checked it was about evenly split on both questions, but not enough readers have voted. So, please join in now.
Seattle Court’s Finding of Bad Faith
Judge Robart in Knickerbocker v Corinthian Colleges found that there was clear and convincing evidence the defendant, and their counsel, the Seattle law firm of Payne & Fears, had refused to participate forthrightly in the discovery process and that this refusal constitutes or is tantamount to bad faith. He found that they had delayed resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims, expended both the court’s and Plaintiffs’ limited resources on matters ancillary to the merits, and threatened to interfere with the rightful decision of this case.
Judge Robart did not think too much of defendants argument against all sanctions because the email was eventually found and produced. Here is his well written response to this argument (citations removed and emphasis added):
Corinthian argues that, at least with respect to emails, no spoliation has occurred because Corinthian has since recovered and produced all responsive employee emails from the backup tapes. The court notes that this argument contravenes what appears to have been Corinthian’s previous position that the backup tapes were not reasonably accessible. Corinthian’s characterization of the backup tapes has shifted with the winds throughout this litigation, adopting whatever posture is most convenient in the immediate context. (Compare Ruiz Decl. ¶ 17 (“I explained that it was unreasonable and impractical to search them . . . .”) with 12/12/13 Trans. (“It would be perfect. It would be one day, $1,000.”) (Mr. Brown testifying).)
Corinthian cannot have it both ways. If the information on the backup tapes was unavailable within the meaning of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(2)(B) such that Corinthian was not required to recover it, then the Plaintiffs’ deleted emails were, in fact, spoliated evidence. If, as Corinthian’s counsel represented at oral argument, the information on the backup tapes was accessible, then Corinthian had little basis for refusing to search the backup tapes under the parties’ Stipulated Order, no basis for filing a verification with the court affirming that it had searched “all available electronic sources”, and appears to have assumed a misleading stance with Plaintiffs from the beginning.
Corinthian counters that it encountered substantial technical difficulties and costs in retrieving the emails from the backup tapes. But any obstacles Corinthian faced in recovering the emails were the direct result of Corinthian’s inadequate discovery search, deletion of evidence, and lack of candor with both Plaintiffs and with the court. Such obstacles do not transform bad faith into good.
The judge basically accuses the defendant’s law firm, and thus the defendant itself, of not being straight with the court about plaintiffs’ emails and the defendant’s backup tapes.
Throughout the course of the litigation, Corinthian did not once provide a straight-forward explanation of the process and cost of extracting information from the tapes.
Here is how Judge Robart wrapped it all up.
In sum, the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence, that Corinthian’s and Corinthian’s counsel’s lackluster search for documents, failure to implement a litigation hold, deletion of evidence, refusal to cooperate with Plaintiffs in the discovery process (particularly as evidenced by its withholding of information regarding both the backup tapes and its interpretation of the parties’ Stipulated Order), reliance on a recklessly false declaration, shifting litigation positions, and inaccurate representations to the court constitute bad faith or conduct tantamount to bad faith.
Bad Faith Does Not Necessarily Mean Dispositive Sanctions
Even though the court found bad faith, no dispositive sanctions were granted. The adverse inference instruction the plaintiffs had requested was also denied. These harsh sanctions were denied because plaintiffs provided, as the judge put it – zero evidence that any evidence of significance to the case was not produced. They only offered conjecture. As Judge Robart noted: produced documents cannot form the basis for a spoliation instruction.
I am kind of surprised by plaintiffs’ failure to offer up some evidence that relevant evidence was not produced. You would think the plaintiffs would be able to come up with something concerning their own email.
Based on this record, the wise Judge Robart, although obviously upset with defense counsel, wanted the racial discrimination case to be tried on the merits. Besides, perhaps he knew that the emails that were produced were good enough for the plaintiffs to prove their case. Or maybe it was the opposite. The plaintiffs could have had a very weak case. We cannot tell from this opinion. We can only tell that the judge wanted the case tried on the merits, despite the bad faith e-discovery by defendant.
The judge got his message across on his intolerance of bad faith by imposition of the $10,000 fine against the Payne & Fears law firm, and the $25,000 fine against defendant. He also awarded the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred in connection with the sanctions motions and duplicative discovery related thereto. Justice was done.
Lessons learned from Knickerbocker
Several lessons can be learned from this case. For one thing, there is the trial lawyers lesson. Be careful how you answer questions posed to you by the judge. Be sure you remember these magic words: I don’t know. Restrain the urge to speculate or BS. Just keep to the facts you do know. Ask to get back to the judge on important questions with a supplemental brief or something. This case clearly shows why that is important.
The obvious primary e-discovery lesson is to always implement a litigation hold. The hold should be in writing and there should be follow up by conversations with the custodians on hold and with IT. Auto-deletions programs should be suspended, and, if the size of the case warrants it under proportionality analysis, preservation of ESI by bulk IT collection should be done. In smaller cases, collection may not be required and preservation-in-place may be adequate. There is no one-size fits all in e-discovery. Although there are plenty of plaintiff’s experts out there ready to tell a court every case should be treated like the Taj Mahal. They should not. Efforts should be scaled proportionally. See eg: My Basic Plan for Document Reviews: The “Bottom Line Driven” Approach – Part Two (e-Discovery Team, 10/9/13)
The final lesson here pertains to backup tape restoration and search. It is never as easy as you think. Indeed, the tape or tapes may have deteriorated to the point that restoration is impossible. You never know until you try. Once you restore, finding the relevant ESI can also be a challenge. Do not ever sat easy peasy when it comes to backup tapes.
This opinion does not really go into the defendant’s search efforts here, merely stating that about 3,000 relevant emails were found from a search of the emails of all employees at one location. That still seems like a low production. But I suspect the “search” consisted of running keyword terms agreed upon with plaintiff’s counsel, and then manual review of the emails that contained the terms. If they were relevant, they were part of the 3,000 produced. If not, then of course they were not produced. You do not produce irrelevant email just because they happen to have an agreed upon search term. I suspect this kind of procedure was followed here, and if so, the plaintiffs cannot complain about the search efforts made by defense counsel. They were following the parties agreed upon protocol.
We really do not know what that protocol was, but if, as I suspect, it was a keyword search protocol, then, questions of estoppel aside, the issue of whether it was a reasonable effort would depend on whether the common sense dictates for keyword search contained in Judge Peck’s Gross Construction opinion were followed. William A. Gross Construction Associates, Inc. v. American Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Co., 256 F.R.D. 134 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Were the witnesses interviewed as to the language used? Were various keywords tested? Was the underlying data studied? The key documents? Or was it all done in the blind, like a child’s game of GO FISH? Child’s Game of “Go Fish” is a Poor Model for e-Discovery Search (e-Discovery Team blog, 10/4/09).
Tested Keyword Search is Adequate for Most Cases
Keyword search alone, when done according to the standards set forth in Gross Construction, is a fair and adequate effort in most employment discrimination cases like the one in Knickerbocker v Corinthian Colleges. Most employment cases are not really that complicated. For that reason the key documents needed to try most of these cases are not that difficult to find. Keyword search can and does work in the average case to meet the requirements of both Rule 26(g) and Rule 1 (just, speedy and inexpensive). It apparently worked just fine in Knickerbocker too, that is, after defense counsel stopped their Hunter S. Thompson routines and started playing it straight
There are some exceptional employment cases where keywords are inadequate. It depends on the case and the type of ESI, and the importance of the ESI to the case, and volume of ESI. But for most employment law cases the tested keyword search method of Gross Construction is reasonable and proportional. More sophisticated search methods, such as my favorite, predictive coding, may be needed in larger, more complex cases in other fields of law, as well as in some class action employment cases. But tested keywords work just fine for the vast majority of small cases that now flood our court system.
Most of these small cases in federal court are employment law cases. It seems like everyone has a beef these days. You would not believe the kind of frivolous cases that we see every day in my firm. Plaintiff’s counsel are not being selective. Many seem unable to overcome the natural trial lawyer tendency to be overconfident, unable to objectively predict the likely outcome of a potential client’s case. See: Lawyers as Legal-Fortune Tellers, (e-discovery Team, 3/30/14); Goodman-Delahunty, Granhag, Hartwig, Loftus, Insightful or Wishful: Lawyers’ Ability to Predict Case Outcomes, (Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 2, 133–157).
This limit of predictive coding to larger, more difficult cases will probably change in the future. The ever growing volume and types of ESI may demand the use of predictive coding in more and more cases. That should be made easier as the software costs of using predictive coding comes down even further. (For instance, my firm just closed a deal with Kroll Ontrack that lowers the costs for our clients even further. Look for press releases on this soon.) In the future predictive coding will expand to many more types and sizes of cases, but for now, predictive coding remains the exception in e-discovery, not the rule.
If your life revolves around discovery in the big cases, the complex cases with tons of ESI (actually, its weightless you know), then you should be using predictive coding all of the time. But for the vast majority of lawyers, dealing with the vast majority of relatively simple cases, it is not needed yet. You might as well hunt mosquitos with an elephant gun. Keyword search, done right, still works fine for the mosquito cases. Do not misunderstand me, mosquito bites can still hurt, especially if you get hit by too many of these blood suckers. You have to defend your company, but bad faith attempts to avoid discovery are never the way to go. Knickerbocker shows that.
Be straight with your judges. Always tell the truth. Talk about proportionality. They get it. The judges will protect you from the disproportionate use of e-discovery as an extortion tactic. We all know it still goes on. Has been for a long time as my parting string cite below reminds us. Both responding and requesting parties have to conduct discovery in good faith. When they do not, there are plenty of good judges around like James L. Robart to stop the abuse.
Discovery abuse as a weapon. See, e.g.:
- Advisory Committee Note to the 1983 Amendment of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure creating Rule 26(g) (“Thus the spirit of the rules is violated when advocates attempt to use discovery tools as tactical weapons rather than to expose the facts and illuminate the issues by overuse of discovery or unnecessary use of defensive weapons or evasive responses.”)
- Branhaven LLC v. Beeftek, Inc., _F.R.D._, 2013 WL 388429 (D. Md. Jan. 4, 2013) (Rule 26(g) enforced and counsel sanctioned for reckless disregard of their discovery duties.) The Increasing Importance of Rule 26(g) to Control e-Discovery Abuses (e-Discovery Team, 2/24/13).
- Judge Refers Defendant’s e-Discovery Abuse to U.S. Attorney for Criminal Prosecution of the Company and Four of Its Top Officers (e-Discovery Team, 4/10/11); Philips Electronics N.A. Corp. v. BC Technical, 2011 WL 677462 at *2 (D.Utah, Feb. 16, 2011).
- Discovery As Abuse, (e-Discovery Team, 1/18/11); Discovery As Abuse, 69 B.U. L. REV. 635 (1989).
- Kipperman v. Onex Corp., 2009 WL 1473708 (N.D.Ga., 2009) (“The court regards the instant case as a textbook case of discovery abuse.”)
- Qualcomm Inc. v. Broadcom Corp., No. 05-CV-1958-B(BLM) Doc. 593 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 6, 2007) (Clear and convincing evidence that Qualcomm[‘s] counsel participated in an organized program of litigation misconduct and concealment throughout discovery, trial, and post-trial)
- Malautea v. Suzuki Motor Co., Ltd., 987 F.2d 1536, 1542 (11th Cir.1993) (Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(g) was “designed to curb discovery abuse by explicitly encouraging the imposition of sanctions.”)
- Bondi v. Capital & Fin. Asset Mgmt. S.A., 535 F.3d 87, 97 (2d Cir. 2008) (”This Court . . . has taken note of the pressures upon corporate defendants to settle securities fraud ‘strike suits’ when those settlements are driven, not by the merits of plaintiffs’ claims, but by defendants’ fears of potentially astronomical attorneys’ fees arising from lengthy discovery.”)
- Spielman v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 332 F.3d 116, 122-23 (2d Cir. 2003) (“The PSLRA afforded district courts the opportunity in the early stages of litigation to make an initial assessment of the legal sufficiency of any claims before defendants were forced to incur considerable legal fees or, worse, settle claims regardless of their merit in order to avoid the risk of expensive, protracted securities litigation.”)
- Lander v. Hartford Life & Annuity Ins. Co., 251 F.3d 101, 107 (2d Cir. 2001) (“Because of the expense of defending such suits, issuers were often forced to settle, regardless of the merits of the action. PSLRA addressed these concerns by instituting . . . a mandatory stay of discovery so that district courts could first determine the legal sufficiency of the claims in all securities class actions.” (citations omitted))
- Kassover v. UBS A.G., 08 Civ. 2753, 2008 WL 5395942 at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2008) (“PSLRA’s discovery stay provision was promulgated to prevent conduct such as: (a) filing frivolous securities fraud claims, with an expectation that the high cost of responding to discovery demands will coerce defendants to settle; and (b) embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’ or ‘abusive strike suit’ litigation.”)