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.



 


e-Discovery and Poetry on a Rainy Night in Portugal

April 17, 2018

From time to time I like read poetry. Lately it has been the poetry of Billy Collins, a neighbor and famous friend. (He was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.) I have been reading his latest book recently, The Rain in Portugal. Billy’s comedic touches balance the heavy parts. Brilliant poet. I selected one poem from this book to write about here, The Five Spot, 1964. It has a couple of obvious e-discovery parallels. It also mentions a musician I had never heard of before, Roland Kirk, who was a genius at musical multi-tasking. Enjoy the poem and videos that follow. There is even a lesson here on e-discovery.

The Five Spot, 1964

There’s always a lesson to be learned
whether in a hotel bar
or over tea in a teahouse,
no matter which way it goes,
for you or against,
what you want to hear or what you don’t.

Seeing Roland Kirk, for example,
with two then three saxophones
in his mouth at once
and a kazoo, no less,
hanging from his neck at the ready.

Even in my youth I saw this
not as a lesson in keeping busy
with one thing or another,
but as a joyous impossible lesson
in how to do it all at once,

pleasing and displeasing yourself
with harmony here and discord there.
But what else did I know
as the waitress lit the candle
on my round table in the dark?
What did I know about anything?

Billy Collins

The famous musician in this poem is Rahsaan Roland Kirk (August 7, 1935[2] – December 5, 1977). Kirk was an American jazz multi-instrumentalist who played tenor saxophone, flute, and many other instruments. He was renowned for his onstage vitality, during which virtuoso improvisation was accompanied by comic banter, political ranting, and, as mentioned, the astounding ability to simultaneously play several musical instruments.

Here is a video of Roland Kirk with his intense multimodal approach to music.

One more Kirk video. What a character.

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The Law

There are a few statements in Billy Collins’ Five Spot poem that have obvious applications to legal discovery, such as “There’s always a lesson to be learnedno matter which way it goes, for you or against, what you want to hear or what you don’t.” We are all trained to follow the facts, the trails, wherever they may lead, pro or con.

I do not say either pro or con “my case” because it is not. It is my client’s case. Clients pay lawyers for their knowledge, skill and independent advice. Although lawyers like to hear evidence that supports their client’s positions and recollections, after all it makes their job easier, they also want to hear evidence that goes against their client. They want to hear all sides of a story and understand what it means. They look at everything to craft a reasonable story for judge and jury.

Almost all cases have good and bad evidence on both sides. There is usually some merit to each side’s positions. Experienced lawyers look for the truth and present it in the best light favorable for their client. The Rules of Procedure and duties to the court and client require this too.

Bottom line for all e-discovery professionals is that you learn the lessons taught by the parties notes and documents, all of the lessons, good and bad.

The poem calls this a “… joyous impossible lesson in how to do it all at once, pleasing and displeasing yourself with harmony here and discord there.” All lawyers know this place, this joyless lesson of discovering the holes in your client’s case. As far as the “doing it all at once ” phrase, this too is very familiar to any e-discovery professional. If it is done right, at the beginning of a case, the activity is fast and furious. Kind of like a Roland Kirk solo, but without Roland’s exuberance.

Everybody knows that the many tasks of e-discovery must be done quickly and pretty much all at once at the beginning of a case: preservation notices, witness interviews, ESI collection, processing and review. The list goes on and on. Yet, in spite of this knowledge, most everyone still treats e-discovery as if they had bags of time to do it. Which brings me to another Billy Collins poem that I like:

BAGS OF TIME

When the keeper of the inn
where we stayed in the Outer Hebrides
said we had bags of time to catch the ferry,
which we would reach by traversing the causeway
between this island and the one to the north,

I started wondering what a bag of time
might look like and how much one could hold.
Apparently, more than enough time for me
to wonder about such things,
I heard someone shouting from the back of my head.

Then the ferry arrived, silent across the water,
at the Lochmaddy Ferry Terminal,
and I was still thinking about the bags of time
as I inched the car clanging onto the slipway
then down into the hold for the vehicles.

Yet it wasn’t until I stood at the railing
of the upper deck with a view of the harbor
that I decided that a bag of time
should be the same color as the pale blue
hull of the lone sailboat anchored there.

And then we were in motion, drawing back
from the pier and turning toward the sea
as ferries had done for many bags of time,
I gathered from talking to an old deckhand,
who was decked out in a neon yellow safety vest,

and usually on schedule, he added,
unless the weather has something to say about it.

Conclusion

Take time out to relax and let yourself ponder the works of a poet. We have bags of time in our life for that. Poetry is liable to make you a better person and a better lawyer.

I leave you with two videos of poetry readings by Billy Collins, the first at the Obama White House. He is by far my favorite contemporary poet. Look for some of his poems on dogs and cats. They are especially good for any pet lovers like me.

One More Billy Collins video.

 


Guest Blog: “Follow the Money” and Metrics: A User’s Guide to Proportionality in the Age of e-Discovery

April 8, 2018

This is a guest blog by a friend and colleague, Philip Favro. Phil is a consultant for Driven, Inc. where he serves as a trusted advisor to organizations and their counsel on issues relating to the discovery process and information governance. Phil is also currently active in The Sedona Conference. He obtained permission from them to include a description of a recent event they sponsored in Nashville on Proportionality.

“Follow the Money” and Metrics: A User’s Guide to Proportionality in the Age of e-Discovery

Moviegoers and political junkies have flocked to theaters over the past few months to watch period-piece epics including Darkest Hour and The Post. While there is undoubted attraction (especially in today’s political climate) in watching the reenactment of genuine leadership and courageous deeds these movies portray, The Post should have particular interest for counsel and others involved in electronic discovery.

With its emphasis on investigation and fact-gathering; culling relevant information from marginally useful materials; and decision-making on how such information should be disclosed and presented to adversaries, The Post features key traits associated with sophisticated discovery counsel.

Not coincidentally, those same attributes were on display in another drama from the 1970s of which The Post viewers were reminded: All The President’s Men. That investigative journalism classic depicts Washington Post correspondents Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as dogged reporters determined to identify the culprits responsible for the Watergate Hotel break-in in June 1972.

A critical aspect of their work involved Woodward’s furtive meetings with Mark Felt, who served at that time as the deputy director of the FBI. Known only as “Deep Throat” (until Felt revealed himself in 2005), Felt provided cryptic yet key direction that aided the reporters’ investigation. One of Felt’s most significant tips (as portrayed in the movie) was his suggestion that Woodward investigate the cash contributions made to help reelect then President Richard Nixon in 1972. Played by iconic actor Hal Holbrook in All The President’s Men, Felt’s soft-spoken but serious demeanor underscored the importance of his repeated direction to Woodward to “just follow the money.” By following the money, the Washington Post reporters helped discover many of the nefarious tactics that eventually brought down the Nixon presidency.

Proportionality

The directive to “follow the money” applies with equal force to counsel responsible for handling discovery. This is particularly the case in 2018 since courts now expect counsel to address discovery consistent with proportionality standards. Those standards – as codified in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) – require counsel, clients, and the courts to consider various factors bearing on the discovery analysis. They include:

(1) the importance of the issues at stake in this action; (2) the amount in controversy; (3) the parties’ relative access to relevant information; (4) the parties’ resources; (5) the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues; and (6) whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

While all of the factors may be significant, monetary considerations – elements of which are found in both the “amount in controversy” and “burden or expense” factors – frequently predominate a proportionality analysis. As Ralph Losey (the owner, host, and principal author of this blog) has emphasized many times, “[t]he bottom line in e-discovery production is what it costs.” By following the money or, perhaps more appropriate for discovery, focusing on the money, counsel can drive an effective discovery process and obtain better results for the client.

As lawyers do so, they will find an increasingly sophisticated judiciary who expect counsel to approach discovery through the lens of proportionality. This certainly was the case in Oxbow Carbon & Minerals LLC v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, which has been prominently spotlighted in this blog. In Oxbow, the court applied the Rule 26(b)(1) proportionality factors to a disputed document request, holding that it was not unduly burdensome and that it properly targeted relevant information. While the court examined all of the Rule 26(b)(1) proportionality standards, money was the clearly determinative factor. The amount in controversy, coupled with the comparative costs of discovery – discovery completed and still to be undertaken, tipped the scales in favor of ordering plaintiffs to respond defendants’ document requests.

The Critical Role of Metrics

Essential to Oxbow’s holding were the metrics the parties shared with the court. Metrics – typically defined as a standard of measurement or (as used in business world) a method for evaluating performance – offer counsel ways to assess the “performance” of a particular document production. Metrics can measure the extent to which a production contains relevant materials, undisclosed privileged information, and even nonresponsive documents. Metrics can also estimate – as was the case in Oxbow – the resources (including time, manpower, and costs) a party may be forced to incur to comply with a discovery request.

Metrics enable a court to follow the money and properly balance the burdens of discovery against its benefits. Without metrics, a responding party could hardly expect to establish that a request is disproportionate and thereby prevail in motion practice. As Ralph observed in his post entitled Judge Facciola’s Successor, Judge Michael Harvey, Provides Excellent Proportionality Analysis in an Order to Compel:

Successful arguments on motions to compel require hard evidence. To meet your burden of proof you must present credible estimates of the costs of document review. This requires . . . reliable metrics and statistics concerning the ESI that the requesting party wants the responding party to review.

As discussed later on, other courts have also emphasized the critical role of metrics in evaluating the proportionality of a particular discovery request.

The Sedona Conference, Proportionality, and Metrics

For counsel who wish to better understand the role of metrics in discovery, the directive to “follow the money” will bring them to The Sedona Conference (“Sedona”). Sedona is the preeminent legal institution dedicated to advancing thoughtful reforms on important legal issues. While Sedona addresses matters ranging from patent litigation and trade secret misappropriation to data privacy and cross-border data protection, the organization is best known for its work on electronic discovery.

Renowned for its volunteer model and for attracting many of the best minds in the legal industry, Sedona prepares authoritative resources that are regularly relied on by judges, lawyers, and scholars. This is particularly the case with proportionality standards and how they should drive the determination of discovery issues.

Sedona published its first Commentary on Proportionality in Electronic Discovery (“Commentary” or “Proportionality Commentary”) in 2010 and a second version in 2013. Last spring, Sedona released a third iteration of the Commentary. Collaboratively prepared by a group of renowned judges and practitioners, the third version of the Commentary provides common sense direction on how metrics can help achieve proportional results in discovery:

Burden and expense should be supported by hard information and not by unsupported assertions. For example, if a party claims that a search would result in too many documents, the party should run the search and be prepared to provide the opposing party with the number of hits and any other applicable qualitative metrics. If the party claims that the search results in too many irrelevant hits, the party may consider providing a description or examples of irrelevant documents captured by the search.

Quantitative metrics in support of a burden and expense argument may include the projected volume of potentially responsive documents. It may also encompass the costs associated with processing, performing data analytics, and review, taking into consideration the anticipated rate of review and reviewer costs, based upon reasonable fees and expenses.

As the Commentary makes clear, metrics can provide insights regarding the effectiveness of search methodologies or the nature and extent of a party’s burden in responding to a particular discovery request. By sharing these metrics with litigation adversaries, counsel can informally address legitimate discovery questions or crystallize the issues for resolution by a court. Either way represents a more cost effective approach to discovery than the opacity of traditional meet and confers or motion practice.

Framing the Issues through Sedona’s TSCI Event

These issues were on display last month at Sedona’s TSCI conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The TSCI event typically provides attendees with an annual opportunity to stay current on developing trends in e-Discovery. The 2018 TSCI event remained consistent with that objective, spotlighting practice developments for counsel “from ‘eDiscovery 1.0’ to New and Evolving Legal Challenges.” Expertly chaired by Jerone “Jerry” English and Maura Grossman, TSCI featured sessions covering discovery and other issues relating to artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), mobile applications, data breaches, cross-border discovery, and the always engaging case law panel and judicial round-table.

One of the more practical sessions focused on the importance of using metrics, analytics, and sampling to achieve proportionality in discovery. Entitled Using Data Analytics and Metrics to Achieve Proportionality, the purpose of this session was to help attendees understand how counsel should present analytics, metrics, and sampled data to a court. The session featured a fantastic line-up of speakersGareth Evans, Maura Grossman, U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli, U.S. Magistrate Judge Leda Dunn Wettre – who were well situated to provide views on these topics. Audience members additionally offered insightful comments on the issues.[1]

The most important guidance the speakers and audience emphasized was the need for more complete disclosure of supporting metrics. Unless specific metrics are disclosed, neither adversaries nor the court can address issues as varied as the performance of particular search terms, the reasonableness of a production made using TAR or other search methodologies, or the burdens of a particular discovery request.

On the latter issue of substantiating arguments of undue burden, one particularly insightful comment offered during the session concisely summarized the interplay between metrics, proportionality, and cost: “Follow the money.” This admonition dovetailed nicely with the discussion of two recent cases during that session – Duffy v. Lawrence Memorial Hospital, No. 2:14-cv-2256-SAC-TJJ, 2017 WL 1277808 (D. Kan. Mar. 31, 2017) and Solo v. United Parcel Service Co., No. 14-cv-12719, 2017 WL 85832 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 10, 2017). Both of these cases spotlight how reliable metrics enable a court to follow the money and resolve discovery disputes consistent with proportionality standards.

Duffy v. Lawrence Memorial Hospital

In Duffy, the court modified a discovery order issued less than two months beforehand that granted plaintiff’s requests for various categories of emergency room patient records. In that first round of motion practice, defendant had argued that plaintiff’s requests were disproportionate and unduly burdensome. The court overruled those objections, explaining that defendant failed to provide any substantive metrics to support those objections:

Defendant objects to every document request as being unduly burdensome, but provides no facts to support the objection. Neither does Defendant provide evidence of the costs it would incur in responding to the requests.

In summary, defendant’s failure to share any meaningful metrics regarding the time, manpower, or costs it would incur to comply with plaintiff’s requests ultimately left its arguments bereft of any evidentiary support.

In the second round of motion practice, defendant adopted a different approach that yielded a more proportional result. Confronted by the staggering reality of the court’s production order and having learned how to properly use supporting metrics in motion practice, defendant moved for a protective order.

In contrast to its prior briefing, defendant shared specific metrics associated with the burdens of production. Those burdens involved the deployment of staff to individually review 15,574 electronic patient files so as to identify particular patient visit information. Such a process would be labor intensive and cost well over $230,000:

Defendant estimates it would take 7,787 worker hours to locate and produce responsive information for 15,574 patient records. If Defendant had ten employees working on the task, they would spend more than ninety-seven days working eight hours a day, at an estimated cost to Defendant of $196,933.23.

After aggregating the information, Defendant asserts it would need to redact patients’ personal confidential information . . . redaction would take ten reviewers fourteen days at a cost of $37,259.50. The process would include a quality control attorney reviewer who would spend two hours a day, and reviewers who would review 15 documents per hour for eight hours a day.

In sum . . . producing the information relevant to RFP Nos. 40, 41, 43, and 58 would take 8,982 hours of work and cost in excess of $230,000 if done by contract staff.

Simply put, defendant urged the court to follow the money. By substantiating its proportionality arguments with appropriate metrics, the court recognized its initial production order placed an undue burden on defendant.

As a result, the court adopted a modified order that instead allowed defendant to produce a random sample of 257 patient records. While advancing a number of justifications for its modified order, the court ultimately relied on the tripartite mandate from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1. The order would provide the parties to the litigation with a substantively better, more efficient, and less expensive method for producing relevant information.

Solo v. United Parcel Service

Solo v. United Parcel Service reached a result analogous to the Duffy holding, ordering that defendant produce only a sample of the information sought by plaintiff. In Solo, plaintiffs served an interrogatory that sought identification of shipment information relating to its putative class action claims (plaintiffs claimed that defendant overcharged certain customers for “shipments that had a declared value of over $300”). The interrogatory sought shipping record information that spanned a period of six years.

Defendant argued in response that the interrogatory was unduly burdensome and would impose a disproportionate production obligation on the company. Because most of the requested information was archived on backup tapes, defendant shared specific metrics regarding the “overwhelming” burdens associated with responding to the interrogatory:

UPS estimates that it would take at least six months just to restore the archived tapes as described above, at a cost of $120,000 in labor . . . that estimate does not include the time and expense of analyzing the data once extracted in order to answer Interrogatory No. 1, which would require extensive additional analysis of each account number and the manual review of contract language for individual shipper. Such a process would also require a substantial amount of time and resources on the part of UPS.

Based on the metrics defendant disclosed and given that plaintiffs’ claims had yet to be certified as a class action, the court found the interrogatory to be disproportionate. Following the money and drawing on the linked concepts of cooperation and proportionality from Rule 1, the court instead ordered that defendant produce a sample of the requested information from a six-month period. The court also directed the parties to meet and confer on developing an agreeable sampling methodology.

Conclusion

Duffy and Solo reinforce the critical interplay between metrics, proportionality, and money. Just like Oxbow, the responding parties from Duffy and Solo could hardly expect to substantiate arguments regarding undue burden and disproportionality without metrics. Indeed, the court in Duffy initially rejected such arguments when defendant failed to support them with actual information. However, by disclosing metrics with reasonable estimates of time, manpower, and costs, Duffy and Solo resulted in production orders more consistent with proportionality limitations.

All of which translated into substantial cost savings for the responding parties. Defendant in Duffy was facing a discovery bill of over $230,000 to review 15,574 patient files. Dividing the projected cost of the entire review process into the number of patient records – $230,000 ÷ 15,574 – reveals that defendant would pay approximately $15 to review an individual patient record. Under the modified production order, the new projected cost – $15 multiplied by 257 patient records – equals $3,855. Follow the money: the tactical use of metrics apparently saved the client over $225,000!

Duffy and Solo are consistent with and confirmed by Oxbow, the Proportionality Commentary, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These authoritative resources collectively teach that counsel who use metrics and focus on cost can drive an effective discovery process. Lawyers that do so will ultimately obtain better results for the client in discovery.

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[1] To encourage candid and robust debate during its events, Sedona has promulgated a nondisclosure rule. Known as “The Sedona Rule,” it proscribes attendees from identifying the speakers or audience members by name who share particular insights. It also forbids divulging the contents of particular brainstorming or drafting projects that have yet to be released for publication. The Sedona Rule otherwise allows for the anonymous disclosure of session content from its events.


Spoliated Schmalz: New Sanctions Case in Chicago That Passes-Over a Mandatory Adverse Inference

March 30, 2018

I am writing today, on Jewish Passover, regarding an opinion that AI found for me, namely a standing search of all of Pacer using Lex Machina. My AI assistant found a sanctions order for spoliation in an employment law case in Chicago. Schmalz v. Village Of North Riverside, et al, No. 1:2013cv08012 – (N.D. Ill., March 23, 2018). The opinion is a Report and Recommendation by U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Rowland, a rising star in the e-discovery world. Her writing and analysis of Rule 37(e) is excellent. I can assure you that, despite its name, it is not at all schmaltzy. The sanctions granted were good for the moving party, but could have been better, kind of like chicken soup without the matzo balls. Trust me, thanks to my wife, Molly Friedman, I am an expert on that culinary subject.

The lukewarm sanctions in Schmalz were entered against defendants for the inadvertent loss of fifty text messages when key custodian cell phones were not saved after suit was filed. There was no real dispute as to the spoliation, which Judge Rowland called gross negligence. The arguments were about the remedy, the sanctions, if any, to be entered for this spoliation.

The Plaintiff, Schmalz, asked for dispositive sanctions under Rule 37(e)(2), either striking the defense or an adverse inference instruction. Judge Rowland passed-over these harsh sanctions as over-kill. She found that was unnecessary to counteract the prejudice caused to the plaintiff by loss of the text messages. She reached this opinion based on her finding that intentional, or bad faith, destruction of evidence was not shown. Instead, the evidence proved that defendants failure to preserve a few cell phones within their control was gross-negligence, not bad faith. In other words, just doofuses, not bad guys. Judge Rowland did, however, enter sanctions, permitting the plaintiff to present evidence at trial concerning the negligent text message loss. The Order also allows plaintiff to argue to the jury that they should presume that the contents of these texts would be contrary to defense witnesses testimony. Judge Rowland also granted Plaintiff Schmalz a fee award.

At page six of the Schmalz opinion, Judge Rowland explains the background and how the spoliation was discovered by surprising deposition testimony of a key witness:

In his February 2016 deposition, Defendant Niemann revealed that he had “at least 50” text message communications before and after the election with Defendant Hermanek about the police department, who he would promote to the Commander position, why he did not want a lieutenant’s position, and about Plaintiff specifically.

Plaintiff issued a discovery request for the text messages identified in Defendant Neimann’s deposition. (Dkt. 168 at 6). Defendants answered that there were no texts to be produced because “neither defendant Hermanek nor defendant Niemann still possess their cell phones from that time period.” …

Defendants’ duty to preserve the text messages arose as early as August 2013 when they received a litigation hold letter. See (Dkt. 207-1). Further, Defendants admit that they failed to take any steps to preserve the text messages. See (Dkt. 179-2, at 2–3). Likewise, Defendants admit that the text messages have been lost and cannot be replaced by additional discovery as they have exhausted all efforts to retrieve the messages. See (Dkt. 179-2, at 2–3). Given that these predicate elements are met, the Court next determines whether Plaintiff is prejudiced from loss of the text messages. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e)(1).

Judge Rowland then goes on to explain her analysis at pages eight and nine of her opinion.

These text messages are certainly relevant as they involve private communications between the primary defendants and decision-makers in the case during a critical time period, and the alleged subject matter of the text messages involve issues highly pertinent to the underlying claim, including promotions in the police department and the Plaintiff specifically.

Defendants’ argument that Plaintiff is not prejudiced because “there are other means to obtain the contents of the conversations from the defendants, including prior oral discovery and potential trial testimony,” (Def.’s Resp., Dkt. 196 at 5), is unavailing. “A party has the right to prosecute its case in the way it deems fit based on all available relevant evidence.” Larson v. Bank One Corp., No. 00 C 2100, 2005 WL 4652509, at *14 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 18, 2005); see also Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495, 507, 67 S. Ct. 385, 392, 91 L. Ed. 451 (1947) (“Mutual knowledge of all the relevant facts gathered by both parties is essential to proper litigation.”). The content of text messages cannot be replaced simply by eliciting testimony from the Defendants, and by having Plaintiff accept that testimony rather than relying on the actual messages to use as they deem fit. Without the lost text messages, Plaintiff is deprived of the opportunity to know “the precise nature and frequency” of those pri-vate communications, which occurred during a critical time period. See Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, 270 F. Supp. 3d 656, 670 (S.D.N.Y. 2017) (finding prejudice when text messages were lost and “the precise nature and frequency of those communications cannot be verified”). Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has suffered prejudice as a result of the spoliation of highly relevant text messages. …

Upon a finding of prejudice, a court may order “measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e)(1). Under Subdivision (e)(1), the court has much discretion to fashion an appropriate sanction, and “[t]he range of such measures is quite broad if they are necessary for this purpose.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e), 2015 Amendment Advisory Committee Notes.

Judge Rowland then wraps up her analysis at page fifteen of the Schmalz opinion.

Because the Court finds that Defendants acted with gross negligence, which is insufficient to support a finding of intent as required under Rule 37(e)(2), the Court concludes that a lesser sanction under Rule 37(e)(1) is appropriate. … To address the prejudice resulting from Defendant’s spoliation of evidence, the Court recommends that the parties shall be allowed to present evidence to the jury regarding the destruction of the text messages and the likely relevance of the lost information; and that the jury shall be instructed that it may consider this information when making its decision. However, the jury shall not be given specific instructions on any presumption or inference based on the destruction of the text messages.

Conclusion

Do not be a caveman lawyer and forget the cell phones of key custodians. They may need to be preserved, depending on the facts. In Schmalz the cell phones contained key evidence. An interview of the witness at the beginning of the case should have revealed this important fact. The interview should have triggered appropriate preservation. That did not happen here. Judge Rowland found that defendant’s failure was a cave-man lawyer like mistake, grossly negligent and out of touch with 21st Century discovery. For that reason, what appears to have been an easily defendable case has become a nightmare. See Order of Judge Darrah in Schmalz dated October 28, 2016 ($60,000 settlement). The plaintiff can now put on a side-show at trial on cell phone negligence and missing messages. Although better to the defense than a mandatory adverse inference instruction, which is almost certainly a deathblow, this kind of testimony will distract from the otherwise questionable merits of the case.


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