The Importance of Witness Interviews: ‘What Happens in Vegas Shouldn’t Stay in Vegas’

September 16, 2018

A discovery order in Vegas shows the importance of witness interviews and what can happen when you take a cavalier attitude towards preservation. Small v. University Medical CenterCase No. 2:13-cv-0298-APG-PAL (D.C. Nev., 9/9/18) (FLSA class action seeking unpaid wages for skipped meal breaks). The lengthy order is entitled Report and Recommendation and Final Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and imposes severe sanctions on the defendant. The order proves, when it comes to e-discovery at least, what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. The truth does and should come out, including where’s the electronic evidence. Interviews are a good way to find out what really happened.

This is a long blog – 5,122 words – but it is still a lot shorter than the 123 page Short opinion, which is not short at all. I counted, it is 48,980 words. Not that I’m complaining, but it is one of the longest discovery orders I have ever read. It has many good instructional elements. Specialists should probably read and skim the whole opinion.

The Short opinion also has the distinction of having taken longer to prepare than any other discovery order I have ever read – FOUR YEARS! Can you imagine any decision taking that long? I am sure there were good reasons, but still. That is a full presidential term.

First Steps of e-Discovery: Prepare and Preserve

The FLSA suit arose from a DOL investigation that faulted the defendant employer hospital, UMC, for failing to keep “accurate records” of the time worked. UMC’s alleged records failures continued after it was sued. They failed to give timely preservation notices and failed to interview key custodians. That’s a failure of the first two legal tasks a lawyer is required to do in Electronic Discovery Best Practices (EDBP), steps two and three (step one is prepare). See EDBP.com (detail shown above right with all ten legal activities shown below); also see: Favro, Phillip, Vegas Court Spotlights the Importance of Custodian Interviews with New ESI Sources (LegalTech News 8/30/18) (further discussed below); John Patzakis, Three Key eDiscovery Preservation Lessons from Small v. University Medical Center (Next Generation eDiscovery Blog, 9/12/18).

Judge Peggy Leen’s Order

Magistrate Judge Peggy A. Leen is the learned judge who wrote the opinion in Small v. University Medical Center, Report and Recommendation and Final Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The order affirms and implements most of the recommendations of the Special Master for e-Discovery appointed several years ago in this case, Daniel Garrie.

The Special Master’s Report was issued four years earlier on August 18, 2014, two years after the suit was filed in July 2012. The Report was notable for characterization of defendant’s discovery misconduct as so egregious as to “shock the conscience” and make “a mockery of the orderly administration of justice.” It was a long, complicated report.

When she completed her work she ruled in large part for the plaintiffs and  sanctioned the defendant:

VI. THE COURT’S FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS

The court has personally conducted a thorough review of the record prior to the special master’s appointment and the record of the proceedings conducted by the special master. The record before the court and the record developed by the special master amply supports his findings that UMC destroyed evidence by failing to identify, preserve, collect, process, and search multiple repositories of information relevant to the parties’ claims and defenses.

UMC failed to preserve several different types of ESI, including an estimated 26,000 text messages and 38,000 documents from a shared drive “containing human resources, corporate compliance, employee grievance, payroll, and DOL investigation data.” The documents lost include important policy and procedure manuals regarding meal breaks and compensation. Relevant ESI on laptops, desktops and local drives were not preserved until some 18 months into the litigation. UMC also failed to comply with multiple discovery orders, leading to the plaintiffs’ motions for sanctions.

Judge Leen did not follow the recommendation of the Special Master to impose a sanction of default judgment in favor of 613 class members on the Fair Labor Standards Act claims. Instead, she imposed a permissive adverse inference jury instruction, along with monetary sanctions. These jury instructions can have a profound impact on the jury, but not as  strong as a mandatory adverse inference instruction. The mandatory instruction almost always leads to a verdict against the spoliating party. The permissive kind of instruction imposed here still gives a defendant like UMC a chance. The sanctioned party can still prevail with a jury on the merits of the case, albeit a slim chance. Here is the specific language that Judge Leen suggested be used at trial with the jury:

2. UMC is sanctioned in the form of an instruction to the jury that the court has found UMC failed to comply with its legal duty to preserve discoverable information, failed to comply with its discovery obligations, and failed to comply with a number of the court’s orders. The instruction will provide that these failures resulted in the loss or destruction of some ESI relevant to the parties’ claims and defenses and responsive to plaintiffs’ discovery requests, and that the jury may consider these findings with all other evidence in the case for whatever value it deems appropriate.

Careful study of the long opinion shows a very practical, albeit unstated reason for Judge Leen to make this concession. It made her order much harder to appeal; some would say appeal-proof. (After you put four years into something you want it to last.) That is because near the end of the process at one of the hearings Judge Leen was able to get defendant’s own attorney to concede that an adverse inference jury instruction would be appropriate. You do not see that happen very often. But this attorney apparently saw the writing on the wall from the comments the judge was making and realized that accepting a permissive inference was the best they could hope for and certainly a lot better than default judgments for all 613 class members.

Here is Judge Leen’s explanation of how this admission came about.

During oral argument on its objections to the special master’s R & R, counsel for UMC stated “I’m not even going to tell you that I don’t think we shouldn’t be sanctioned.” (Hr’g Tr. 24:28-25:1, Oct. 21, 2014, ECF No. 229.) When asked what sanction he felt was appropriate based on the developed record, UMC’s counsel suggested that an adverse inference jury instruction would be appropriate. (Tr. 25:4-10.)

Here we see a wise and experienced judge in action. Too bad Peggy Leen retires in 2019.

Judge Leen had good reason under the law to hesitate to enter default judgments on 613 claims, effectively ending the cases except to determine the amount of damages, all without any hearing on the merits of the claims. Entry of the  lesser sanction of a permissive instruction was consistent with Judge Leen’s analysis of Rule 37(b) on sanctions for violation of court orders.

[T]he court cannot conclude that UMC’s multiple discovery failures and failure to comply with the court’s orders threatens to interfere with the rightful decision of this case on the merits.

The lesser sanction was also consistent with her analysis of 2015 revisions to Rule 37(e) on sanctions for ESI spoliation, Rule 1 on just-speedy-inexpensive, and Rule 26(b)(1) on proportionality. Here is Judge Leen’s well-accepted analysis of 37(e):

To summarize, the court may impose sanctions against UMC under the current version of Rule 37(e) only if it finds: (1) UMC failed to preserve ESI “that should have been preserved” in anticipation or conduct of litigation; (2) the information was lost because UMC failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it; (3) the ESI cannot be restored or replaced; and (4) the plaintiffs were prejudiced by the loss. If all of these prerequisites are met, the court may issue sanctions no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice caused by the loss. Only if the court finds UMC acted with intent to deprive may the court impose the most severe sanctions.

Judge Leen then applied the law to the facts.

The court has found that UMC failed to preserve ESI that should have been preserved in anticipation of litigation, and throughout the course of this litigation. The court has also found that the information was lost because UMC failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it. Thousands of text messages on UMC Blackberry devices were lost and cannot be restored. Tens of thousands of files from the Q-Drive were lost and cannot be restored prior to December 2013. . . .

However, the special master’s extraordinary expertise and persistence resulted in restoration, remediation, and production of a great deal of relevant and discoverable ESI. The special master was able to direct restoration of the time tracking systems UMC failed to disclose until near the end of special master proceedings. Fortunately, Jackie Panzeri, UMC’s payroll manager who described herself as a “pack rat” that “keeps documents forever” had a lot of documents on her personal drive and several archives full of emails she did not delete or modify. She was involved in the DOL investigation from the beginning and saved both documents collected and produced to the DOL and for this case. The court is also mindful that ESI is stored in multiple locations and that modified or lost data from the seven key custodians is likely to be found in other locations. . . .

Although the court finds plaintiffs have been prejudiced by the loss of data from key repositories and custodians, the loss has not threatened to interfere with the rightful decision of the case on its merits given the large volume of ESI the special master was able to ensure that UMC produced. For these reasons, the court finds that lesser sanctions are appropriate, proportional, and no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice caused by the loss of ESI uncovered by the special master.

As you can see, hope springs eternal. Judge Leen’s still thinks that the now lost ESI from the seven key custodians is likely to be found in other locations. 

I doubt the Special Master Garrie would share the same optimism. He has already called defendant’s conduct a mockery of the orderly administration of justice. In his Report the Special Master said he has “serious doubts that UMC can complete discovery in a defensible manner going forward without increased candor to the Court and their own counsel, and more competent technical assistance.’ Well, maybe they will change. If not, and Judge Leen is wrong and the missing ESI is not found, then Judge Lee or her successor might reconsider and upgrade the sanction to a mandatory adverse inference. Special Master Garrie may yet get his way.

Defendant’s Threshold Errors

The quotes below from Small summarize the key factual findings of defendants’ threshold errors, the ones that lead to most of the others (emphasis added), much like a domino effect. To me these are the most important errors made and you should study Judge Leen’s words here closely.

D. UMC Executives Failed to Accept Responsibility for Ensuring that ESI was Preserved and Failed to Notify Key Custodians and IT Staff to Preserve, and Prevent Loss, or Destruction of Relevant, Responsive ESI

The record amply supports the special master’s findings that UMC had no policy for issuing a litigation hold, and that no such hold was issued for the first eight months of this litigation until after Mr. Espinoza was deposed on April 8, 2013, and was asked about UMC’s response to plaintiff’s August 6, 2012 preservation letter. The special master accurately found that UMC executives were unaware of their preservation duties, ignored them altogether, or at best addressed them “in the hallway in passing.” . . .

The special master’s finding that UMC executives failed to accept responsibility for their legal duty to preserve is amply supported in the record. UMC executives and counsel failed to communicate with and provide adequate instructions to the department heads and IT personnel of repositories containing discoverable ESI to prevent the loss or destruction of potentially relevant ESI. . . .

There is no evidence in the record, and UMC does not suggest there is any, that current or former counsel gave instructions to UMC to suspend business as usual to prevent the destruction, deletion or modification of ESI responsive to plaintiffs’ discovery requests. . . .

It is also undisputed that UMC’s prior and current counsel failed to conduct timely custodian interviews. Custodian interviews were not conducted until well into the special master proceedings when it became apparent they had not been done. The special master required the interviews to be conducted a second time because the initial custodian interviews conducted by counsel were inadequate. . . .

There is ample support in the record that UMC executives displayed a cavalier attitude about their preservation obligations addressing them in passing, and that UMC executives repeatedly took the position in declarations and testimony that responsibility for preservation was someone else’s job. . . .

The special master correctly found that current and former counsel failed to conduct timely custodian interviews to identify individuals with discoverable information and key repositories of discoverable ESI.

The record in this matter is very complex and voluminous. That is why the Special Master Report and the Order by Judge Leen are so lengthy; 123 pages for the order alone. Suffice it to say, if witness interviews of key custodians been conducted when they should have, shortly after suit was filed, a great deal of relevant evidence that ultimately was lost could have been saved. The Special Master’s detailed findings make that obvious. The lost-files could have been identified and preserved unaltered. Lines of responsibility to comply with legal preservation obligations could have been clarified and enforced. Had these interviews been conducted, and the ESI found quickly, the relevant ESI could have been bulk-collected and the evidence saved from spoliation.

As it is, the actions and mistakes of defendant here have severely weakened their case. That’s what can easily happen when a company has a cavalier attitude to compliance with their legal obligation to preserve potentially relevant ESI.

Eight Failed Challenges to the Special Master’s Report

Judge Leen considered and rejected eight challenges to the Special Master’s report that were raised by the defendant employer, UMC:

  1. Competence and Impartiality of the Special Master, Daniel Garrie.
  2. UMC’s Failure to Comply with the Court’s Orders to Preserve and Produce ESI.
  3. UMC’s Failure Have a Preservation Policy or Litigation Hold Policy and Failure to Timely Implement One.
  4. UMC’s Executives Failure to Accept Responsibility for Ensuring that ESI was Preserved and Failure to Notify Key Custodians and IT Staff to Preserve, and Prevent Loss, or Destruction of Relevant, Responsive ESI.
  5. UMC’s Failure to Disclose the Existence of Relevant ESI Repositories, Including Multiple Timekeeping Systems and the Q-Drive Until Late in the Special Master Proceedings.
  6. UMC Modified, Lost, Deleted and/or Destroyed ESI Responsive to Plaintiffs’ Discovery Requests.
  7. UMC’s Failure to Comply with its Legal Duty to Preserve, Failure to Put in Place a Timely Litigation Hold, Failure to Comply with Multiple Court Orders to Preserve and Produce Responsive ESI, and Loss and Destruction of Responsive ESI (1) Necessitated the Appointment of a Special Master, (2) Caused Substantial Delay of these Proceedings, and (3) Caused Plaintiffs to Incur Needless Monetary Expenses.
  8. The Special Master Correctly Concluded UMC Repeatedly Misrepresented the Completeness of its Production of Documents Produced to DOL; However, UMC Was Not Ordered to Produce Kronos Payroll Data in Spreadsheet Format.

Defendants failed in their challenges to the Special Master’s findings, including the threshold challenge to Special Master Dan Garrie’s competence. Ouch! Garrie is a Senior Managing Partner of Law & Forensics. He has written numerous articles and books on law, technology and e-discovery. See eg. D. Garrie & Yoav Griver. Dispute Resolution and E-Discovery, Thomson Reuters (2nd ed. 2013). Garrie earned a Masters degree in computer science at Brandeis University before going on to law school. A challenge to his expertise was misplaced.

The challenge did not go over well with the supervising Judge who studied his work more closely than anyone. After emphatically rejecting the hospital arguments, Judge Peggy Leen stated:

The court has conducted a de novo review of all of the special master proceedings and finds that he was professional and courteous, if occasionally frustrated by testimony displaying a lack of appreciation of UMC’s legal duties to preserve and produce responsive ESI. He was repeatedly told by UMC executives and employees that they did not know about their duty to preserve, had not learned about their preservation obligations from counsel, did not know what a litigation hold was, and had not explored relevant repositories of information responsive to plaintiffs’ discovery requests.

Bench Slap of Defendant’s Attorneys

With a background like that it is not surprising that the Special Master uncovered so much evidence of incompetence and malfeasance in preserving evidence. Judge Leen held: (emphasis added)

UMC was on notice that its timekeeping, time systems, payroll policies, and procedures were relevant to this litigation. UMC also knew it was unable to document that employees were being compensated for actual time worked. Both UMC and its former and current counsel failed to comply with UMC’s legal duty to suspend routine document retention/destruction policies to ensure the preservation of relevant documents. UMC failed to communicate the need to preserve relevant documents and ESI to employees in possession or likely to be in possession of discoverable information, or for that matter to communicate this duty even to “key players.” UMC and its counsel failed to identify, locate, and maintain information relevant to specific, predictable, and identifiable claims involved in this litigation.

Note that Judge Leen goes out of her way to include the defendant and its lawyers in the blame, both its  prior attorneys and its present attorneys. All of these attorneys failed in the “legal duty to suspend routine document retention/destruction policies to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” In situations of shared blame like this the attorneys involved are sometimes personally sanctioned along with the client, but this has not happen here. Judge Leen did make several sharp comments against the defendants lawyers, includi9ng this finding:

UMC’s current counsel blamed former counsel and their ESI consultants for the delay in producing responsive ESI. Counsel for UMC advised the court at the hearing on June 25, 2013, that the client did not have any real understanding of what MPP had done or what data had been collected. This representation turned out to be false. . . . Thus, the representation UMC’s current counsel made to the court that the client did not have any real idea of what prior counsel had done regarding ESI collection was patently false. In the light most favorable to current counsel, they did not ask the right questions of the individuals involved in the initial collection. The people involved in the process— MPP, its vendors and consultants, and the IT personnel at UMC who did the collection of ESI from 26 custodians—were simply not asked until after the special master was appointed and made the appropriate inquiries.

You do not see comments like that very often. Basically the judge is saying you lied to me and I cannot trust you. Again, more conscience shocking conduct by these attorneys, well outside the norm of accepted behavior.

Importance and Art of Custodian Interviews

The interviews that eventually were taken under the Special Master’s order and supervision show that critical evidence could have been saved from routine destruction, if the interviews been done at the time the suit was filed, not years later. The interviews would have ensured that preservation notices were properly given, understood and followed, and the right ESI was collected and effectively searched. See William A. Gross Construction Associates, Inc. v. American Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Co., 256 F.R.D. 134, 136 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (custodian interviews to assist also in keyword search formulation).

It is important to note that the custodian interviews in Small had to be done twice. The attorneys botched the first attempt at witness interviews. They were ordered to do it again. I am not surprised. Many people underestimate the complexity and sophistication of interviews in cases like this. They also underestimate the wiliness of custodians and tendency of some of them to evade questions.

It is very difficult for most attorneys to conduct an interview on the subject of information storage, IT systems, company document storage systems, email, texts, other personal messaging, social media, personal computers, phones, other devices and  software programs used. Questions on these subjects are very different from questions on the merits of a case. A good custodian interview requires special technical knowledge and skills, which, unfortunately, most lawyers still lack. Too bad, because witness interviews are so very important to big cases with complex, messy ESI systems.

Philip Favro, an expert consultant for Driven, Inc., makes this point well in his excellent article on Small:

Fulsome custodian interviews are essential for ensuring that relevant electronically stored information (ESI) is preserved. Such interviews are characterized by exhaustive questioning on any number of topics including traditional and newer sources of ESI.

Properly conducted, custodian interviews should provide counsel with a thorough understanding of the nature and types of relevant information at issue in the litigation, together with the sources where that information is located. If custodian interviews are neglected or deficient, parties are vulnerable to data loss and court sanctions. The Small v. University Medical Center case is instructive on these issues.

Vegas Court Spotlights the Importance of Custodian Interviews with New ESI Sources (LegalTech News 8/30/18).

Phil’s explanation of some of the facts behind the Special Master ordered redo of the interviews shows how difficult some custodian interviews can be, especially when they want to hide something from the lawyers:

Once conducted, the interviews were deemed insufficient by the special master and (later on) the court. In its order, the court spotlighted some of the evasive answers that UMC’s custodians provided. For example, UMC’s director of human resources disclosed the existence of only one relevant timekeeping application despite having approved the use of other timekeeping systems for certain employees. UMC argued that its HR director was only obligated to disclose the timekeeping application he actually used:

[The custodian] did not use those applications himself and therefore had no obligation to disclose these systems in custodian interviews ordered by the special master because a “custodian interview is aimed at uncovering the applications, systems, programs, data with which the actual custodian interfaces.” (emphasis added).

The court decried this limited notion of a custodian interview, observing that it failed to satisfy UMC’s “legal obligation to identify, locate, maintain, and produce relevant information.”

In Small they never did any custodian interviews until after the case blew up and a Special Master was appointed. Even when interviews were finally conducted by defense counsel, they did a poor job; they were not well-informed of the client IT systems and were not “tough enough” with the interviewees. They seemed to be easily deceived and accepted evasive, incomplete answers. You must cross-examine and be the devils advocate for effective interviews, especially when the custodian is evasive.

Favro recommends:

Interviews should go beyond cursory questioning and focus instead on identifying all sources of relevant information. Nor should they be limited to safe topics like “where can relevant messages be found in your email account” or “where are relevant documents stored on your laptop.” Interviews should now include questions regarding the existence of information exchanged through new communications media or stored in online locations . . .

There is an art to interviews like this. The witnesses have to be comfortable telling you the truth, the full truth, without fear of reprisals. Assurances of confidentiality and witness protection can be a good tongue loosener, but do not mislead them. Remind them who you represent, typically at the very beginning.

Trust, friendliness and rapport are important in interviews, but fear has its place too. I like to tell the witness up front how important it is for them to be fully truthful and candid. A short, but stern formal reminder can go a long way if delivered properly. Since interviews are usually not under oath this is especially important. Some formality is important as part of the tongue-loosening process. Moreover, interviews like this are typically done one-on-one with no court reporter and no written statement for the witness to read and sign at the end. An interview is just two people talking, one asking all of the questions, preferably face-to-face and preferably in the witnesses office with their computer equipment at the ready to show you something, if need be.

To encourage full honesty and to help get at the truth I also sometimes inform a witness that they will likely be deposed and subject to intense cross-exam by opposing counsel. (I might possibly exaggerate the adversaries capabilities from time to time.) I point out how it will all be under oath and penalty of perjury. Then I start my role of the devils advocate, saying these are the kind of questions you will be asked, and then tear into them and make sure the story is straight and the memory not too patchy. Hey, do not get mad at me for pressing on you; these are the kind of questions you can expect and we have to be prepared. That works. Fear can be a powerful motivator of truth. So can good cross-exam. The carrot and stick approach is usually effective.

Another important guardian of truth is for the questioning attorneys to be able to look the witness in the eye and follow exactly what they are saying; full technical understanding of the ESI questions. Do not speak the language? Too technical? Then bring a translator, an expert. Do not allow the witness to speak over your head. They may well be bs-ing you. Nodding your head at everything said, even when you do not understand, is a natural lawyer tendency that you must fight against. Do not be afraid to ask stupid questions. When it comes to technical interviews of any kind I interrupt and ask questions all of the time. Much of the language used in tech and e-discovery is vague and subject to multiple meanings. You need to ask questions. Only a fool is afraid to ask questions for fear of seeming foolish.

Good interviews are a best practice to start e-discovery off right and protect clients from wasted expense and unnecessary risks. See the fine article on point by Kelly Twigger, 5 Things A Great Custodian Interview Can Do For Your Case And Your Budget (Above The Law, 6/27/17).

Proper custodian interviews require skill and training. They require the attorney or paralegal doing the interview to have a basic understanding of technology, communications software and social media. It can be challenging in some situations and even advanced practitioners need a good detailed outline to do it right. Make sure your law firm or law department has a good ESI custodian interview outline. I suggest having both a short and long form. These help even experienced lawyers to make sure they do not forget to ask something.

Expert consultants like Kelly Twigger of ESI Attorneys can help you to prepare good outlines and other tools. They can also do the most challenging tasks for you, such as prepare custom Preservation Notices, conduct Custodian Interviews, supervise ESI Collection, attend the 26(f) conference and prepare an ESI discovery plan, and ultimately, document search, review and production. An e-discovery expert can make it far easier and less expensive to stay current with the many technical-legal issues in the field.

A custodian interview can provide a wealth of information to help lawyers to find and save important evidence, but only if done properly by skilled legal practitioners. Do not risk the judge ordering a redo. Make sure you do a proper interview of the key custodians as soon as possible

Conclusion

Small shows what can happen when you take a cavalier attitude towards ESI preservation and interviews. Small v. University Medical CenterCase No. 2:13-cv-0298-APG-PAL, Report and Recommendation and Final Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law dated August 9, 2018. Preservation errors at the beginning of a case can easily cascade into serious negligence and ESI destruction. This often results in sanctions motions and discovery about discovery. That diverts everyone from the merits of the case. In Small the sanctions not only included a permissive inference jury instruction, but also monetary sanctions, amount yet to be determined. What happened to the defendant in federal court in Vegas in Small is something that you should fear and loathe ever happening to you.

Proper timely custodian interviews could have prevented the loss of data in Small, could have prevented any sanctions. We all know that what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas, at least not when discovery in a law suit is concerned. The truth will come out as it should. This is especially true in a case like Small with misconduct that shocks the conscience in a mockery of justice, as Special Master Dan Garrie put it back in 2014.

Early custodian Interviews are an important, well-accepted best-practice, especially in a large matter like Small v. UMC. Interviews are the third step in the ten-step best practices of Electronic Discovery shown below. Electronic Discovery Best Practices (EDBP.com). They are one of three important activities that attorneys must perform in every law suit to preserve potential electronic evidence (shown in blue in the diagram below): hold notices, interviews and ESI collections.

See EDBP on Preservation.

In a large firm like mine, which only does Labor and Employment law, you can use one of the specialists in e-discovery to assist in these tasks, at least until you become proficient on your own. Specialists in large firms are usually experienced attorneys that now limit their work to e-discovery. (I recommend against specializing too early, but some are able to do it effectively.) In my firm there is only one full-time specialist, me, but I have over fifty attorney liaisons to assist. They have special training in e-discovery and are the go-to e-discovery lawyers for their office (we have 50), but they spend most of their time in employment litigation and other services outside of e-discovery. Other large firms have more full-time e-discovery specialists, but fewer part-time specialists. I decided to try to spread out the knowledge.

One of the things a specialists do, full or part-time, is help to create and update good standard witness interview question outlines for use by other attorneys in the firm. For instance, I have both a long and short form that I recently updated. Your firm probably has something similar. If not, do it now. Better late than never.

If you are in a smaller firm and do not have a full-time specialist in your ranks, then you should consider retaining an outside specialist as co-counsel in larger e-discovery matters. They can help you to save on overall costs and, most importantly, prevent a disaster like Small v. University Medical Center from ever darkening your door.

 

 

 


Disproportionate Keyword Search Demands Defeated by Metric Evidence of Burden

June 10, 2018

The defendant in a complex commercial dispute demanded that plaintiff search its ESI for all files that had the names of four construction projects. Am. Mun. Power, Inc. v. Voith Hydro, Inc. (S.D. Ohio, 6/4/18) (copy of full opinion below). These were the four projects underlying the law suit. Defense counsel, like many attorneys today, thought that they had magical powers when it comes to finding electronic evidence. They thought that all, or most all, of the ESI with these fairly common project names would be relevant or, at the very least, worth examining for relevance. As it turns out, defense counsel was very wrong, most of the docs with keyword hits were not relevant and the demand was unreasonable.

The Municipal Power opinion was written by Chief Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Preston Deavers of the Southern District Court of Ohio. She reached this conclusion based on evidence of burden, what we like to call the project metrics. We do not know the total evidence presented, but we do know that Judge Deavers was impressed by the estimate that the privilege review alone would cost the plaintiff between $100,000 – $125,000. I assume that estimate was based on a linear review of all relevant documents. That is very expensive to do right, especially in large, diverse data sets with high privilege and relevance prevalence. Triple and quadruple checks are common and are built into standard protocols.

Judge Deavers ruled against the defense on the four project names keywords request, and granted a protective order for the plaintiff because, in her words:

The burden and expense of applying the search terms of each Project’s name without additional qualifiers outweighs the benefits of this discovery for Voith and is disproportionate to the needs of even this extremely complicated case.

The plaintiff made its own excessive demand upon defendant to search its ESI using a long list of keywords, including Boolean logic. The plaintiff’s keyword list was much more sophisticated than the defendants four name search demand. The plaintiff’s proposal was rejected by the defendant and the judge for the same proportionality reason. It kind of looks like tit for tat with excessive demands on both sides. But, it is hard to say because the negotiations were apparently focused on mere guessed-keywords, instead of a process of testing and refining – evolved-tested keywords.

Defense counsel responded to the plaintiff’s keyword demands by presenting their own metrics of burden, including the projected costs of redaction of confidential customer information. These confidentiality concerns can be difficult, especially where you are required to redact. Better to agree upon an alternative procedure where you withhold the entire document and log them with a description. This can be a less expensive alternative to redaction.

When reading the opinion below note how the Plaintiff’s opposition to the demand to review all ESI with the four project names gave specific examples of types of documents (ESI) that would have the names on them and still have nothing whatsoever to do with the parties claims or defenses, the so called “false positives.” This is a very important exercise that should not be overlooked in any argument. I have seen some pretty terrible precision percentages, sometimes as low as two percent.

Get your hands in the digital mud. Go deep into TAR if you need to. It is where the time warps happen and we bend space and time to attain maximum efficiency. Our goal is to attain: (1) the highest possible review speeds (files per hr), both hybrid and human; (2)  the highest precision (% of relevant docs); and, (3) the countervailing goal of total recall (% of relevant docs found). The recall goal is typically given the greatest weight, with emphasis on highly relevant. The question is how much greater weight to give recall and that depends on the total facts and circumstances of the doc review project.

Keywords are the Model T of legal search, but we all start there. It is still a very important skill for everyone to learn and then move on to other techniques, especially to active machine learning.

In some simple projects it can still be effective, especially if the user is highly skilled and the data is simple. It also helps if the data is well known to the searcher from earlier projects. See TAR Course: 8th Class (Keyword and Linear Review).

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Below is the unedited full opinion (very short). We look forward to more good opinions by Judge Deavers on e-discovery.

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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO, EASTERN DIVISION. No. 2:17-cv-708

June 4, 2018

AMERICAN MUNICIPAL POWER, INC., Plaintiff, vs. VOITH HYDRO, INC., Defendant.

ELIZABETH A. PRESTON DEAVERS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE. Judge Algenon L. Marbley.

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

This matter came before the Court for a discovery conference on May 24, 2018. Counsel for both parties appeared and participated in the conference.

The parties provided extensive letter briefing regarding certain discovery disputes relating to the production of Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”) and other documents. Specifically, the parties’ dispute centers around two ESI-related issues: (1) the propriety of a single-word search by Project name proposed by Defendant Voith Hydro, Inc. (“Voith”) which it seeks to have applied to American Municipal Power, Inc.’s (“AMP”) ESI; 1 and (2) the propriety of AMP’s request that Voith run crafted search terms which AMP has proposed that are not limited to the Project’s name. 2 After careful consideration of the parties’ letter briefing and their arguments during the discovery conference, the Court concluded as follows:

  • Voith’s single-word Project name search terms are over-inclusive. AMP’s position as the owner of the power-plant Projects puts it in a different situation than Voith in terms of how many ESI “hits” searching by Project name would return. As owner, AMP has stored millions of documents for more than a decade that contain the name of the Projects which refer to all kinds of matters unrelated to this case. Searching by Project name, therefore, would yield a significant amount of discovery that has no bearing on the construction of the power plants or Voith’s involvement in it, including but not limited to documents related to real property acquisitions, licensing, employee benefits, facility tours, parking lot signage, etc. While searching by the individual Project’s name would yield extensive information related to the name of the Project, it would not necessarily bear on or be relevant to the construction of the four hydroelectric power plants, which are the subject of this litigation. AMP has demonstrated that using a single-word search by Project name would significantly increase the cost of discovery in this case, including a privilege review that would add $100,000 – $125,000 to its cost of production. The burden and expense of applying the search terms of each Project’s name without additional qualifiers outweighs the benefits of this discovery for Voith and is disproportionate to the needs of even this extremely complicated case.
  • AMP’s request that Voith search its ESI collection without reference to the Project names by using as search terms including various employee and contractor names together with a list of common construction terms and the names of hydroelectric parts is overly inclusive and would yield confidential communications about other projects Voith performed for other customers. Voith employees work on and communicate regarding many customers at any one time. AMPs proposal to search terms limited to certain date ranges does not remedy the issue because those employees still would have sent and received communications about other projects during the times in which they were engaged in work related to AMP’s Projects. Similarly, AMP’s proposal to exclude the names of other customers’ project names with “AND NOT” phrases is unworkable because Voith cannot reasonably identify all the projects from around the world with which its employees were involved during the decade they were engaged in work for AMP on the Projects. Voith has demonstrated that using the terms proposed by AMP without connecting them to the names of the Projects would return thousands of documents that are not related to this litigation. The burden on Voith of running AMP’s proposed search terms connected to the names of individual employees and general construction terms outweighs the possibility that the searches would generate hits that are relevant to this case. Moreover, running the searches AMP proposes would impose on Voith the substantial and expensive burden of manually reviewing the ESI page by page to ensure that it does not disclose confidential and sensitive information of other customers. The request is therefore overly burdensome and not proportional to the needs of the case.

1 Voith seeks to have AMP use the names of the four hydroelectric projects at issue in this case (Cannelton, Smithland, Willow and Meldahl) as standalone search terms without qualifiers across all of AMP’s ESI. AMP proposed and has begun collecting from searches with numerous multiple-word search terms using Boolean connectors. AMP did not include the name of each Project as a standalone term.

2 AMP contends that if Voith connects all its searches together with the Project name, it will not capture relevant internal-Voith ESI relating to the construction claims and defenses in the case. AMP asserts Voith may have some internal documents that relate to the construction projects that do not refer to the Project by name, and included three (3) emails with these criteria it had discovered as exemplars. AMP proposes that Voith search its ESI collection without reference to the Project names by using as search terms including various employee and contractor names together with a list of generic construction terms and the names of hydroelectric parts.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: June 4, 2018

/s/ Elizabeth A. Preston Deavers

ELIZABETH A. PRESTON DEAVERS

UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

 

 


Evidence Code Revisions and the Grimm/Brady Evidence Admissibility Chart

April 22, 2018

Great fanfare was provided for  the changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in December 2015. But not much attention has been given to the December 2017 changes to the Federal Rules of Evidence. Maybe that has to do with the disappearing trial, the fact that less than one percent of federal cases actually go to trial. Still, you need to know the rules of evidence admissibility, even if you are preparing for a trial that will never come. You need to collect and discover evidence in a way that it can be used, even if it is just in a motion for summary judgment.

Two New Subsections to Rule 902 on Self-Authenticating Evidence

In December 2017 two new subsections were added to Evidence Rule 902, subsections (13) and (14). They are designed to streamline authentication of electronically stored information (ESI). The goal is to eliminate the need to call a witness at trial to authenticate evidence, at least in most instances. Here are the two new provisions:

Rule 902. Evidence That Is Self-Authenticating

The following items of evidence are self-authenticating; they require no extrinsic evidence of authenticity in order to be admitted: . . .

(13) Certified Records Generated by an Electronic Process or System. A record generated by an electronic process or system that produces an accurate result, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12). The proponent must also meet the notice requirements of Rule 902(11).

(14) Certified Data Copied from an Electronic Device, Storage Medium, or File. Data copied from an electronic device, storage medium, or file, if authenticated by a process of digital identification, as shown by a certification of a qualified person that complies with the certification requirements of Rule (902(11) or (12). The proponent also must meet the notice requirements of Rule 902 (11).

The Evidence Rules Committee Notes explain the background of these two new subsections.

Committee Notes on Rules—2017 Amendment

Paragraph (14). The amendment sets forth a procedure by which parties can authenticate data copied from an electronic device, storage medium, or an electronic file, other than through the testimony of a foundation witness. As with the provisions on business records in Rules 902(11) and (12), the Committee has found that the expense and inconvenience of producing an authenticating witness for this evidence is often unnecessary. It is often the case that a party goes to the expense of producing an authentication witness, and then the adversary either stipulates authenticity before the witness is called or fails to challenge the authentication testimony once it is presented. The amendment provides a procedure in which the parties can determine in advance of trial whether a real challenge to authenticity will be made, and can then plan accordingly.

Today, data copied from electronic devices, storage media, and electronic files are ordinarily authenticated by “hash value”. A hash value is a number that is often represented as a sequence of characters and is produced by an algorithm based upon the digital contents of a drive, medium, or file. If the hash values for the original and copy are different, then the copy is not identical to the original. If the hash values for the original and copy are the same, it is highly improbable that the original and copy are not identical. Thus, identical hash values for the original and copy reliably attest to the fact that they are exact duplicates. This amendment allows self-authentication by a certification of a qualified person that she checked the hash value of the proffered item and that it was identical to the original. The rule is flexible enough to allow certifications through processes other than comparison of hash value, including by other reliable means of identification provided by future technology.

Nothing in the amendment is intended to limit a party from establishing authenticity of electronic evidence on any ground provided in these Rules, including through judicial notice where appropriate.

A proponent establishing authenticity under this Rule must present a certification containing information that would be sufficient to establish authenticity were that information provided by a witness at trial. If the certification provides information that would be insufficient to authenticate the record of the certifying person testified, then authenticity is not established under this Rule.

The reference to the “certification requirements of Rule 902(11) or (12)” is only to the procedural requirements for a valid certification. There is no intent to require, or permit, a certification under this Rule to prove the requirements of Rule 803(6). Rule 902(14) is solely limited to authentication, and any attempt to satisfy a hearsay exception must be made independently.

A certification under this Rule can only establish that the proffered item is authentic. The opponent remains free to object to admissibility of the proffered item on other grounds—including hearsay, relevance, or in criminal cases the right to confrontation. For example, in a criminal case in which data copied from a hard drive is proffered, the defendant can still challenge hearsay found in the hard drive, and can still challenge whether the information on the hard drive was placed there by the defendant.

A challenge to the authenticity of electronic evidence may require technical information about the system or process at issue, including possibly retaining a forensic technical expert; such factors will affect whether the opponent has a fair opportunity to challenge the evidence given the notice provided.

The reference to Rule 902(12) is intended to cover certifications that are made in a foreign country.

Also see: Paul Grimm, Gregory Joseph, Daniel Capra, Manual on Best Practices for Authenticating Digital Evidence; Authenticating Digital Evidence, 69 BAYLOR L. REV. 1 (2017).

Grimm/Brady Evidence Admissibility Chart

The rule change is a helpful addition to the litigator’s toolkit, but many challenges remain for attorneys handling electronic evidence. I agree with Kevin Brady, who is a top expert in the field of ESI evidence, who says that “the challenge for lawyers trying to authenticate digital evidence using the traditional rules of evidence can be confusing.” This may be an understatement! Kevin thinks that part of the challenge for attorneys arises from the rapidly-evolving landscape of data sources. He gives examples such as bitcoin, blockchain, smart contracts, social media, IoT, mobile devices, and cloud computing services. Moreover, the use of social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and others continues to increase at an unbelievable rate and adds to the problem. Moreover, according to Business Insider, there are more people using the top four social messaging apps (WhatsApp, Messenger, WeChat, and Viber) than the top four social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn). According to Tech Crunch, Facebook’s Messenger alone has more than 1.3 billion monthly active users, and Instagram is officially testing a standalone messaging app, Direct.

Recognizing the problem Kevin Brady teamed up with U.S. District Court Judge Paul Grimm, the leading judicial expert in the field, to create the Grimm/Brady Evidence Admissibility Chart shown below.

The detailed reference chart provides discovery lawyers and trial attorneys with a quick reference guide for handling many different sources of ESI evidence. It covers Rule 104 to Rule 803(6) to Rule 901 and 902. The chart provides a step by step approach for authenticating digital information and successfully getting that information admitted into evidence.

The e-Discovery Team highly recommends that you carefully study this chart. Click on the photos and they will open in a larger size. Also suggest you download your own copy here: Grimm Brady Evidence Admission Chart 2018. Many thanks to Kevin Brady for helping me with this blog.



 


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