Honey, I know, I know
I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out
For something new, that means you too.
I know, I know, it used to be good enough just to save the relevant emails and ESI on company computers. Not any more. Times are changing. Important business is now conducted by phone text and other messages. It’s time we all reach out and save something new, save the texts, save the phones. That directive applies to everyone, that means you too. Prince record company executives recently found that out the hard way in District Court in Minneapolis. Paisley Park Enters. v. Boxill, No. 0:17-cv-01212, (D. Minn., 3/5/19) (copy here: Prince_Discovery_Order).
United States Magistrate Judge Tony N. Leung sanctioned the record company defendant and its two top executives in a suit over the posthumous release of Prince’s “Deliverance” album. They were sanctioned because the plaintiff, the Prince Estate via Paisley Park, proved that the defendant executives intentionally destroyed text messages about the album. They denied bad intent and claim they did what they thought the law required, save the emails and office computer data. Defendants claimed they provided discovery from other sources of ESI, including their work computers, cooperated with a forensic data firm to ensure Plaintiffs obtained everything they sought, but, they further argue that Plaintiffs never asked to inspect their cell phones during this process. They claimed they did not know they also had to preserve their text messages.
One is reminded of the first verse to Purple Rain:
I never meant to cause you any sorrow
I never meant to cause you any pain
I only wanted to one time to see you laughing
I only wanted to see you
Laughing in the purple rain
Judge Tony Leung was not laughing, purple rain or not. He did not believe defendants’ good faith intent argument. He was no more impressed by their “times are changing,” “we didn’t know” argument than Prince was in Purple Rain. In today’s world preservation of email is not enough. If text messages are how people did business, which was the case in Paisley Park, then these messages must also be preserved. As Judge Leung put it:
In the contemporary world of communications, even leaving out the potential and reality of finding the modern-day litigation equivalent of a “smoking gun” in text messages, e-mails, and possibly other social media, the Court is baffled as to how Defendants can reasonably claim to believe that their text messages would be immune from discovery.
Perhaps what really got to the judge was that these record executives not only the deleted the texts, they wiped the phones and then they threw them away. This was all before suit was filed, but they knew full well at the time that the Estate was going to sue them for copyright violations. As Judge Leung explained (emphasis added): “An e-discovery lawyer for Plaintiffs’ law firm indicates that had Staley and Wilson not wiped and discarded their phones, it might have been possible to recover the deleted messages. (ECF No. 387, p. 2).” (Note: this is the first time I can recall this expression “e-discovery lawyer” being used in an opinion.)
Text Message Spoliation Law
Judge Leung provides a good summary of the law.
The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that parties take reasonable steps to preserve ESI that is relevant to litigation. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e). The Court may sanction a party for failure for failure to do so, provided that the lost ESI cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery. Id. Rule 37(e) makes two types of sanctions available to the Court. Under Rule 37(e)(1), if the adverse party has suffered prejudice from the spoliation of evidence, the Court may order whatever sanctions are necessary to cure the prejudice. But under Rule 37(e)(2), if the Court finds that the party “acted with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation,” the Court may order more severe sanctions, including a presumption that the lost information was unfavorable to the party or an instruction to the jury that it “may or must presume the information was unfavorable to the party.” The Court may also sanction a party for failing to obey a discovery order. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b). Sanctions available under Rule 37(b) include an order directing that certain designated facts be taken as established for purposes of the action, payment of reasonable expenses, and civil contempt of court.
There is no doubt that Staley and Wilson are the types of persons likely to have relevant information, given their status as principals of RMA and owners of Deliverance. Nor can there be any reasonable dispute as to the fact that their text messages were likely to contain information relevant to this litigation. In fact, Boxill and other third parties produced text messages that they sent to or received from Staley and Wilson. Neither party disputes that those text messages were relevant to this litigation. Thus, the RMA Defendants were required to take reasonable steps to preserve Staley and Wilson’s text messages.
The RMA Defendants did not do so. First, Staley and Wilson did not suspend the auto-erase function on their phones. Nor did they put in place a litigation hold to ensure that they preserved text messages. The principles of the “standard reasonableness framework” require a party to “suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and put in place a ‘litigation hold’ to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.” Steves and Sons, Inc. v. JELD-WEN, Inc., 327 F.R.D. 96, 108 (E.D. Va. 2018) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). It takes, at most, only a few minutes to disengage the auto-delete function on a cell phone. It is apparent, based on Staley’s affidavit, that he and Wilson could have taken advantage of relatively simple options to ensure that their text messages were backed up to cloud storage. (ECF No. 395, pp. 7-9). These processes would have cost the RMA Defendants little, particularly in comparison to the importance of the issues at stake and the amount in controversy here. Failure to follow the simple steps detailed above alone is sufficient to show that Defendants acted unreasonably.
But that is not all the RMA Defendants did and did not do. Most troubling of all, they wiped and destroyed their phones after Deliverance and RMA had been sued, and, in the second instance for Wilson, after the Court ordered the parties to preserve all relevant electronic information, after the parties had entered into an agreement regarding the preservation and production of ESI, and after Plaintiffs had sent Defendants a letter alerting them to the fact they needed to produce their text messages. As Plaintiffs note, had Staley and Wilson not destroyed their phones, it is possible that Plaintiffs might have been able to recover the missing text messages by use of the “cloud” function or through consultation with a software expert. But the content will never be known because of Staley and Wilson’s intentional acts. The RMA Defendants’ failure to even consider whether Staley and Wilson’s phones might have discoverable information before destroying them was completely unreasonable. This is even more egregious because litigation had already commenced.
It is obvious, based on text messages that other parties produced in this litigation, that Staley and Wilson used their personal cell phones to conduct the business of RMA and Deliverance. It is not Plaintiffs’ responsibility to question why RMA Defendants did not produce any text messages; in fact, it would be reasonable for Plaintiffs to assume that Defendants’ failure to do so was on account of the fact that no such text messages existed. This is because the RMA Defendants are the only ones who would know the extent that they used their personal cell phones for RMA and Deliverance business at the time they knew or should have reasonably known that litigation was not just possible, but likely, or after Plaintiffs filed suit or served their discovery requests.
Furthermore, the RMA Defendants do not get to select what evidence they want to produce, or from what sources. They must produce all responsive documents or seek relief from the court. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c) (outlining process for obtaining protective order).
Having concluded that the RMA Defendants did not take reasonable steps to preserve and in fact intended to destroy relevant ESI, the Court must next consider whether the lost ESI can be restored or replaced from any other source. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e).
While it is true that Plaintiffs have obtained text messages that Boxill and other parties sent to or received from Staley and Wilson, that does not mean that all responsive text messages have been recovered or that a complete record of those conversations is available. In particular, because Wilson and Staley wiped and destroyed their phones, Plaintiffs are unable to recover text messages that the two individuals sent only to each other. Nor can they recover text messages that Staley and Wilson sent to third parties to whom Plaintiff did not send Rule 45 subpoenas (likely because they were not aware that Wilson or Staley communicated with those persons). The RMA Defendants do not dispute that text messages sent between Staley and Wilson are no longer recoverable. . . .
At most, Plaintiffs now can obtain only “scattershot texts and [e-mails],” rather than “a complete record of defendants’ written communications from defendants themselves.” First Fin. Sec., Inc. v. Lee, No. 14 cv-1843, 2016 WL 881003 *5 (D. Minn. Mar. 8, 2016). The Court therefore finds that the missing text messages cannot be replaced or restored by other sources.
There is no doubt that Plaintiffs are prejudiced by the loss of the text messages. Prejudice exists when spoliation prohibits a party from presenting evidence that is relevant to its underlying case. Victor Stanley, 269 F.R.D. at 532. As set forth above, in the Court’s discussion regarding their ability to replace or restore the missing information, Plaintiffs are left with an incomplete record of the communications that Defendants had with both each other and third parties. Neither the Court nor Plaintiffs can know what ESI has been lost or how significant that ESI was to this litigation. The RMA Defendants’ claim that no prejudice has occurred is “wholly unconvincing,” given that “it is impossible to determine precisely what the destroyed documents contained or how severely the unavailability of these documents might have prejudiced [Plaintiffs’] ability to prove the claims set forth in [their] Complaint.” Telectron, Inc. v. Overhead Door Corp., 116 F.R.D. 107, 110 (S.D. Fl. 1987); see also Multifeeder Tech., Inc. v. British Confectionary Co. Ltd, No. 09-cv-1090, 2012 WL 4128385 *23 (D. Minn. Apr. 26, 2012) (finding prejudice because Court will never know what ESI was destroyed and because it was undisputed that destroying parties had access to relevant information), report and recommendation adopted in part and rejected in part by 2012 WL 4135848 (D. Minn. Sept. 18, 2012). Plaintiffs are now forced to go to already existing discovery and attempt to piece together what information might have been contained in those messages, thereby increasing their costs and expenses. Sanctions are therefore appropriate under Rule 37(e)(1).
Sanctions are also appropriate under Rule 37(e)(2) because the Court finds that the RMA Defendants acted with the intent to deprive Plaintiffs of the evidence. “Intent rarely is proved by direct evidence, and a district court has substantial leeway to determine intent through consideration of circumstantial evidence, witness credibility, motives of the witnesses in a particular case, and other factors.” Morris v. Union Pacific R.R., 373 F.3d 896, 901 (8th Cir. 2004). There need not be a “smoking gun” to prove intent. Auer v. City of Minot, 896 F.3d 854, 858 (8th Cir. 2018). But there must be evidence of “a serious and specific sort of culpability” regarding the loss of the relevant ESI. Id.
The Court can draw only one conclusion from this set of circumstances: that they acted with the intent to deprive Plaintiffs from using this information. Rule 37(e)(2) sanctions are particularly appropriate as to Wilson, RMA, and Deliverance for this reason as well.
The Court believes that Plaintiffs’ request for an order presuming the evidence destroyed was unfavorable to the RMA Defendants and/or for an adverse inference instruction may well be justified. But given the fact that discovery is still on-going, the record is not yet closed, and the case is still some time from trial, the Court believes it more appropriate to defer consideration of those sanctions to a later date, closer to trial. See Monarch Fire Protection Dist. v. Freedom Consulting & Auditing Servs., Inc., 644 F.3d 633, 639 (8th Cir. 2011) (holding that it is not an abuse of discretion to defer sanction considerations until trial). At that point, the trial judge will have the benefit of the entire record and supplemental briefing from the parties regarding the parameters of any such instruction or presumption.
The Court will, however, order the RMA Defendants to pay monetary sanctions pursuant to Rules 37(b), and 37(e) and the Court’s pretrial scheduling orders.
The Court will therefore order, pursuant to Rules 37(b)(2)(C), 37(e)(1), and 37(e)(2) and the Court’s pretrial scheduling orders, the RMA Defendants to pay reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees and costs, that Plaintiffs incurred as a result of the RMA Defendants’ misconduct. The Court will order Plaintiffs to file a submission with the Court detailing such expenses and allow the RMA Defendants the opportunity to respond to that submission. In addition, pursuant to Rule 37(e)(2) and the Court’s pretrial scheduling order, the Court will also order the RMA Defendants to pay into the Court a fine of $10,000. fn3 This amount is due within 90 days of the date of this Order.
Let’s close with the original music of Prince.