Second Circuit Uses “Klipsch” to Speak Loud and Clear on e-Discovery Misconduct

September 23, 2018

Klipsch makes some of the best speakers in the world, especially their high-end Klipschorn speaker series shown here. The Second Court of Appeals used a Klipsch in a dispute recently to sound an alarm about e-discovery abuse and how it will not be tolerated. Klipsch Group, Inc. v. ePRO E-Commerce Ltd., 880 F. 3d 620 (2d Cir, 2018). The unanimous opinion written by Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch upheld the lower court’s sanctions against Klipch’s adversary in the suit, ePro. The adverse inference sanction entered means that Klipsch will now almost certainly win the case.

The Second Circuit also affirmed the full amount of monetary sanctions, $2,680,000. Klipsch was compensated for almost* all of the additional discovery efforts occasioned by ePRO’s misconduct. ePro was also required to immediately secure payment of the full $5 Million amount of any future judgment against them, which includes damage trebling and fees. I know that sounded great to Klipsch and their attorneys. Especially since they had a four day evidentiary hearing on their spoliation motion to get there.

* Somewhat sadly for Klipsch, however, as the third footnote explained, under the lower court’s opinion all of Klipsch’s fees and costs incurred were not awarded. There was another $300,000 or so that was not included, only because Klipsch could not produce proper credentials for one of the billing attorneys. Ouch. That is extremely rare and odd. Details are so very important.

The Second Circuit Court’s Rare Ruling on e-Discovery and Sanctions

The Klipsch opinion has language that will carry great weight, not only because it makes sense, but also because it is from a United States Court of Appeals panel. There are not that many appeals court opinions on sanctions or e-discovery so this is a rare and important opinion. It will certainly encourage more courts to do as the trial judge did here and sanction offending parties. It is also controlling law for all federal courts in its jurisdiction, which is Vermont, Connecticut and the all important New York.

In the rest of this blog I will let the language of the Klipsch opinion speak for itself with a few of my favorites selections. Klipsch Group, Inc. v. ePRO E-Commerce Ltd., 880 F. 3d 620 (2d Cir, 2018). The first quote from Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch’s opinion lays out the background.

In the course of defending against claims that it sold counterfeit products, defendant-appellant ePRO E-Commerce Limited (“ePRO”) engaged in persistent discovery misconduct: it failed to timely disclose the majority of the responsive documents in its possession, restricted a discovery vendor’s access to its electronic data, and failed to impose an adequate litigation hold even after the court directed it to do so, which omission allowed custodians of relevant electronic data to delete thousands of documents and significant quantities of data, sometimes permanently. As a result, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Vernon S. Broderick, J.) concluded that ePRO had willfully engaged in spoliation. It accordingly granted in substantial part plaintiff-appellee Klipsch Group, Inc.’s (“Klipsch”) motion for discovery sanctions, including a $2.7 million monetary sanction to compensate Klipsch for its corrective discovery efforts and a corresponding asset restraint in that amount, permissive and mandatory jury instructions, and an additional $2.3 million bond to preserve Klipsch’s ability to recover damages and fees at the end of the case. . . .

We find no error in the district court’s factual findings, and we conclude that the monetary sanctions it awarded properly compensated Klipsch for the corrective discovery efforts it undertook with court permission in response to ePRO’s misconduct. In particular, we emphasize that discovery sanctions should be commensurate with the costs unnecessarily created by the sanctionable behavior. A monetary sanction in the amount of the cost of discovery efforts that appeared to be reasonable to undertake ex ante does not become impermissibly punitive simply because those efforts did not ultimately uncover more significant spoliation and fraud, or increase the likely damages in the underlying case. The district court’s orders imposing sanctions *624 are accordingly AFFIRMED in all respects.

The next quote gives you a good glimpse into the degree of frustration that recalcitrant attorneys who excel in gamesmanship can engender, even in an appellate court panel located in New York City:

[T]he history of the case makes clear that the sanctions and fees awarded in this case were carefully limited to costs Klipsch incurred in direct response to ePRO’s misconduct. Klipsch obtained approval from the magistrate judge prior to each of its substantive efforts, and in each case, that approval was given only after ePRO had already squandered an opportunity to correct its own errors.

For example, ePRO’s failure to implement a litigation hold was first discovered in March 2013, during Klipsch’s first round of depositions with ePRO employees, but ePRO was not sanctioned at that time, nor was Klipsch given carte blanche to explore ePRO’s files. Instead, ePRO was permitted to hire its own discovery expert to correct the error, which resulted in the production of substantial additional discovery. Klipsch then spent approximately $550,000 on a second round of depositions occasioned by that late production.

Paul Klipsch

It is evident that the district court did not detect any abusive conduct on the part of Klipsch, such as the piling on of discovery demands and investigatory initiatives in order to burden its *633 adversary with wasteful expenses, motions practice, and sanctions. ePRO does not appear to contest the reasonableness of permitting Klipsch to take those remedial depositions, nor can it plausibly assert that Klipsch would have insisted on doing so even if ePRO’s initial production had been complete or timely. And only in March 2014, after ePRO had repeatedly shown itself to be an untrustworthy participant in the discovery process, did the magistrate judge determine that Klipsch was “fully justified” in seeking to undertake an independent forensic examination. Joint App. at 1187.

Because the costs for which Klipsch is being compensated were reasonably incurred in direct response to ePRO’s misconduct, we cannot conclude that the district court abused its discretion by requiring ePRO to pay monetary sanctions in that amount.[7]

The defendant ePro then tried the “proportionality card” arguing that the multi-million dollar punitive damages exceeded the amount at issue in the case. That did not work. The Second Circuit explained that is not how proportionality works in sanctions. It has no bearing to the value of the case itself, just the amount of additional reasonable costs incurred because of the unreasonable conduct to be sanctioned. One party should not be damaged by the unreasonable conduct of the other. The offended party, here Klipsch, should, in effect, be indemnified from all of the burden and expense incurred because of what the offending party did or did not do. They are the innocent party. Here is how the court put it.

In sum, we see nothing in ePRO’s proportionality arguments compelling us to conclude that the district court abused its discretion by awarding full compensation for efforts that were ex ante a reasonable response to ePRO’s own evasive conduct.[9] The proportionality that matters here is that the amount of the sanctions was plainly proportionate — indeed, it was exactly equivalent — to the costs ePRO inflicted on Klipsch in its reasonable efforts to remedy ePRO’s misconduct.

The Second Court was cognizant of the issues and problems concerning electronic discovery. They had been briefed on the potential for misuses of spoliation sanctions motions. Although this was not at all present in the Klipsch, Judge Lynch address this concern near the end of the opinion.

Nothing that we say in this opinion should be taken as condoning excessive and disproportionate discovery demands, countenancing the tactical use of discovery sanction motions to inflict gratuitous costs on adversaries, or derogating from the responsibility *636 of district courts to ensure that litigation proceeds in a responsible and cost-efficient manner. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 1 (directing that the Rules of Civil Procedure “should be construed, administered, and employed by the court and the parties to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action”) (emphasis added); Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1) (scope of discovery should be “proportional to the needs of the case, considering [inter alia] the amount in controversy”). If it turns out, as the district court has estimated, that the amount of actual damages in this case is modest in relation to the costs spent on the litigation, that would be a highly regrettable outcome.

But the question before the district court, and before us, is which party should be held responsible for those costs. ePRO does not ever contend that Klipsch’s initial discovery demands were unreasonable or disproportionate to the merits of the case. Nor does it seriously argue that the magistrate judge erred in allowing Klipsch to take the steps it took to remedy ePRO’s refusal to comply with those demands. The district court reasonably concluded, after a full and fair hearing, that it was ePRO’s noncompliance with its legal obligations that occasioned the excessive costs in this case, and we find no reason why ePRO should not therefore be required to pay them.

I leave you with a short video biography of Paul Klipch, a recognized audio engineer leader whom I have long admired.


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.

 

 

 


Proportionality Analysis Defeats Motion for Forensic Examination

May 28, 2018

It is rare of a judge to change their mind after making a decision. It is rarer still for a judge to celebrate doing so in a written opinion for the world to see. But that is exactly what Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole has done in his opinion dated May 17, 2018 in Motorola Sols., Inc v. Hytera Communications Corp., No. 17 C 1973 (N.D. Ill.).

This celebration is one reason that Judge Cole’s Order denying Motorola’s motion for forensic inspection is so remarkable. Another is that it begins with a quote, a rare occurrence in judicial orders, one that I always like. The quote celebrates the better late than never philosophy of changing your mind to follow a new understanding, a personal wisdom. The quote is by the late, great Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter. Felix served as a judge on the Supreme Court from 1939 to 1962.  Before that he was, among other things, a Harvard Law Professor and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Here is the quote with which Cole begins his order:

“Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.”

Henslee v. Union Planters Nat. Bank & Trust Co., 335 U.S. 595, 600, 69 S. Ct. 290, 93 L. Ed. 259, 1949-1 C.B. 223 (1949)

(Frankfurter, J., dissenting)

Another unusual thing about Judge Cole’s order, and the real reason I am writing about it, is that the wisdom that came to him was from the doctrine of proportionality and Rule 26(b)(1). This was the basis for Judge Cole to deny plaintiff’s motion for a forensic inspection of defendant’s computers, in China no less.

District Court Judge Ronald Norgle had previously allowed the parties until October 6, 2017, to conduct discovery on the statute of limitations defense only and stayed all other discovery. The parties had one month in which to take discovery on a very limited topic of fraudulent concealment, which is a type of tolling within the doctrine of equitable estoppel of the limitations defense. Nothing else. After all, Motorola has waited almost ten years before filing a trade-secret theft suit against a Chinese corporation for allegedly stealing its radio wave technology. As Judge Cole colorfully described the situation (citations to record removed in all quotes) with a reference to Hannibal:

While the inquiry should have been uncomplicated, it has become a long, drawn out, pitched battle — one, in a rhetorical sense, to rival the Punic Wars — albeit without the elephants and the Alps and the sheer drama.

After that, the parties exchanged motions to compel repeatedly. Deadlines were extended, from one month to several. Thousands of pages of memoranda and exhibits were filed. 1  And, again, this was all over the supposedly limited discovery on a limited topic that ought to have taken little time and effort. The very nature of what occurred tends to sustain the all too prevalent observation that discovery has become more important than the actual case. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 595, n.13, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007); A.H. Robins Co. v. Piccinin, 788 F.2d 994, 1013 (4th Cir. 1986).

1 The filings and orders in this case which, again, is only in the preliminary stage of determining whether Motorola’s filing is timely, already cover more than 7,500 pages. See also n. 5, infra.

Five months into this “limited” discovery process Motorola asked to conduct a forensic examination of the computers of “key Hytera witnesses who have been involved in the use of Motorola’s confidential information and any relevant Hytera servers … on which Hytera has stored Motorola documents,” all of which are located in China. Motorola said it wanted to “begin with forensic inspection of the computers” of seven Hytera employees. Judge Cole said this request reminded him of Winston Churchill’s famous quip: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.”

Flip Flopping Towards Wisdom

After several hearings Judge Cole was persuaded by the siren songs of plaintiff’s counsel from the well-known firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. They must have been very good orators and put on a compelling argument to support their motion. They convinced Judge Cole to allow them to begin a forensic examination process in China under elaborate Hague Convention procedures. Only after the hearings and oral decision to compel the inspection did Judge Cole realize the error of that decision. Judge Cole to his credit does not blame Kirkland and Ellis litigators for leading him astray. Following standard judicial protocol Judge Cole assumed full responsibility for the initial error:

Over the course of two lengthy hearings on March 21 and April 4, 2018, I tentatively concluded that forensic examination of Hytera’s computers would be appropriate, but only if the parties could arrive at a suitable protocol that would not, among other things, run afoul of Chinese law. As we discuss, infra at 5, that was a mistake. But the law frowns on relying on a blunder to gain an opportunistic advantage. Cf. Architectural Metal Systems, Inc. v. Consolidated Systems, Inc., 58 F.3d 1227, 1231 (7th Cir.1995); Market Street Associates; Packer Trading Co. v. CFTC, 972 F.2d 144, 150 (7th Cir 1992); Centex Construction v. James, 374 F.2d 921, 923 (8th Cir.1967). 2

2 We should not be understood as ascribing fault to plaintiff’s counsel. After all, in our adversary system, lawyers properly play a partisan role. Masias v. Secretary of Health and Human Svcs, 2009 U.S. Claims LEXIS 281, at *27 (Fed. Cl. 2009); Philips Medical Systems Intern. B.V. v. Bruetman, 8 F.3d 600, 606 (7th Cir.1993) (Posner, J.). See also Smith v. Robbins, 528 U.S. 259, 293, 120 S. Ct. 746, 145 L. Ed. 2d 756 (2000) (Souter, J., dissenting) (“a partisan scrutiny of the record and assessment of potential issues, goes to the irreducible core of the lawyer’s obligation to a litigant in an adversary system … .”). Mistakes are ultimately (and in most cases) the responsibility of the court.

Judge Cole went on to celebrate a jurists right to change their mind in order to get things right.

The scope of discovery that I was initially inclined to allow was, in the context of the present inquiry that had been narrowed by the district court to the limitations issue, overbroad. What is being sought goes beyond the issue of equitable tolling. In the end, Motorola’s counsel and I were talking about relevance to allegations in Motorola’s complaint. And so, well beyond the statute of limitations, by the end of the April 4 hearing, discovery was encompassing documents related to Motorola’s entire case.

As we have said, “all judges make mistakes,” Fujisawa Pharm. Co., 115 F.3d at 1339, and, when possible, it is best that judges put them right.

Proportionality Applied to Restrain Discovery

In the May 17, 2018 order Judge Cole found the wisdom to say no and forbid the forensic examination of the computers in China. He did so because he found that this discovery was “out of proportion with the needs of this case, as presently limited by the district court” and cited Rule 26 (b)(1), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Although I am sure that he heard extensive argument and evidence concerning the estimated costs and burdens imposed by the forensic exams, his decision did not focus on costs. Instead it focused on one of the other very important factors in 26(b)(1), “the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues.” Judge Cole realized that the computers in China could not possibly have information in them of any real relevance to equitable tolling of the statute of limitations defense.

At a minimum, even if relevant to the present limited issue, discovery of computers in China is not proportional to the importance of discovery in resolving the issues and the burden and expense of the proposed discovery manifestly outweighs its likely benefit to the very limited question of equitable tolling. Although the federal discovery rules are permissive, they are not, as Judge Moran wisely put it, “a ticket to an unlimited … exploration of every conceivable matter that captures an attorney’s interest.” Sapia v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chi., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73153, 2017 WL 2060344, at *2 (N.D. Ill. 2017); see also Leibovitch v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31713, 2018 WL 1072567, at *11 (N.D. Ill. 2018). “[J]udges should not hesitate to exercise appropriate control over the discovery process.” Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153, 177, 99 S. Ct. 1635, 60 L. Ed. 2d 115 (1979). Failure to exercise that control results in needless and enormous costs to the litigants and to the due administration of justice.

Judge Cole also understood that a forensic inspection is a drastic remedy that requires good cause not shown by plaintiff here:

The original idea here was for a month or so of discovery focused on the very limited issue of the statute of limitations. While it is rare for parties to complete discovery even by dates chosen by their counsel, there can be no dispute that things have already gone far beyond what was intended and what was necessary in the statute of limitations portion of this case, in terms of time and scope. Now, Motorola wants things to go very much further. Forensic examination is generally regarded as a drastic step even in general discovery. See, e.g.,John B. v. Goetz, 531 F.3d 448, 460 (6th Cir. 2008) (“mere skepticism that an opposing party has not produced all relevant information is not sufficient to warrant drastic electronic discovery measures.”). As the court said in In re Ford Motor Company, 345 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2003):

““In the absence of a strong showing that the responding party has somehow defaulted in this obligation, the court should not resort to extreme, expensive, or extraordinary means to guarantee compliance. Forensic inspection of computer hard drives is an expensive process, and adds to the burden of litigation for both parties, as an examination of a hard drive by an expert automatically triggers the retention of an expert by the responding party for the same purpose. Furthermore, examination of a hard drive inevitably results in the production of massive amounts of irrelevant, and perhaps privileged, information … . This court is therefore loathe to sanction intrusive examination of an opponent’s computer as a matter of course, or on the mere suspicion that the opponent may be withholding discoverable information.”

The Advisory Committee Notes to Rule 34 recognize that courts must use caution in evaluating requests to inspect an opposing party’s electronic devices or systems for ESI, in order to avoid unduly impinging on a party’s privacy interests:

Inspection or testing of certain types of electronically stored information or of a responding party’s electronic information system may raise issues of confidentiality or privacy. The addition of testing and sampling to Rule 34(a) with regard to documents and electronically stored information is not meant to create a routine right of direct access to a party’s electronic information system, although such access might be justified in some circumstances. Courts should guard against undue intrusiveness resulting from inspecting or testing such systems.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 34, Advisory Committee Notes—2006 Amendment (emphasis added). Likewise, the Sedona Principles urge general caution in this area:

Civil litigation should not be approached as if information systems were crime scenes that justify forensic investigation at every opportunity to identify and preserve every detail … . [M]aking forensic image backups of computers is only the first step of an expensive, complex, and difficult process of data analysis that can divert litigation into side issues and satellite disputes involving the interpretation of potentially ambiguous forensic evidence.

The Sedona Principles, supra, at 34, 47. 4

Conclusion

Judge Cole’s wrap up is wise and witty and something you may want to quote in many discovery disputes, especially the footnote:

Parties are entitled to a reasonable opportunity to investigate the relevant facts — and no more. Upjohn Company v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 390, 101 S. Ct. 677, 66 L. Ed. 2d 584 (1981); Vakharia v. Swedish Covenant Hosp., 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2712, at *2 (N.D. Ill. 1994) (Moran, J.). Motorola has already had that reasonable opportunity and far more. What was intended to be a month-long process of discovery on a very limited issue has turned into a protracted affair in which Motorola has received 700,000 documents — nearly 3 million pages — over a period of eight months. 5

5 A ream of paper is 500 sheets, which is 2 inches tall. Three million pages is 6,000 reams, meaning that 3 million pages of discovery, which is about 1,000 feet high or 100 stories high. By any measure, that is extraordinary.

Yet, apparently for Motorola, it’s not enough. It now wants a forensic inspection of several computers in China — and it warns that that is only the “beginning.” What should have been limited discovery on a “straightforward [issue has] spiral[ed] out of control.” Montanez v. Simon, 755 F.3d 547, 552 (7th Cir. 2014). The time has come to say: “enough is enough.” Walker v. Sheahan, 526 F.3d 973, 981 (7th Cir. 2008). Eight months of “limited,” single-issue discovery are now at an end. Motorola’s motion for forensic inspection is denied.

Enough is enough. To go further would have been a disproportionate burden, especially considering the very narrow issue allowed in discovery. Judge Cole at first made a mistake, and then he changed his mind and made it right. He is a wise judge. I wish there were more like him. Except of course if you change your mind to rule against me! <‘_’>


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