Disproportionate Keyword Search Demands Defeated by Metric Evidence of Burden

June 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________

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

__________

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

June 4, 2018

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

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

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

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

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

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

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

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

IT IS SO ORDERED.

DATED: June 4, 2018

/s/ Elizabeth A. Preston Deavers

ELIZABETH A. PRESTON DEAVERS

UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

 

 


Project Cost Estimation Is Key To Opposing ESI Discovery as Disproportionately Burdensome Under Rule 26(b)(1)

May 6, 2018

If you are opposing ESI discovery as over-burdensome under Rule 26(b)(1), then you MUST provide evidence of the economic burden of the requested review. You cannot just say it is over-burdensome. Even if it seems obvious, you must provide some metrics, some data, some hard evidence to back that up. That requires the ability to estimate the costs and burdens involved in a document review. In the old days, the nineties, almost every litigator could estimate the cost of a paper review. It was not a tough skill. But today, where large volumes of ESI are common, everything is much more complicated. Today you need an expert to accurately and reliably estimate the costs of various types of ESI reviews.

Requiring proof of burden is nothing new to the law, yet most lawyers today need outside help to do it, especially in large ESI projects. For example, consider the defense team of lawyers representing the City of Chicago and other defendants in a major civil rights case with lots of press, Mann v. City of Chicago, Nos. 15 CV 9197, 13 CV 4531, (N.D. Ill. Sept. 8, 2017); Chicago sued for ‘unconstitutional and torturous’ Homan Square police abuse (The Guardian, 10/19/15). They did not even attempt to estimate the costs of the review they opposed. They also failed or refused to hire an expert who could do that for them. Sine they had no evidence, not even an estimate, their argument under Rule 26(b)(1) failed miserably.

Mann v. City of Chicago: Case Background

The background of the case is interesting, but I won’t go into the fact details here; just enough to set up the discovery dispute. Plaintiffs in later consolidated cases sued the City of Chicago and the Chicago police alleging that they had been wrongfully arrested, detained and abused at “off the books” detention centers without access to an attorney. Aside from the salacious allegations, it does not look like the plaintiffs have a strong case. It looks like a fishing expedition to me, in more ways than one as I will explain. With this background, it seems to me that if defendants had made any real effort to prove burden here, they could have prevailed on this discovery dispute.

The parties agreed on the majority of custodians whose ESI would be searched, but, as usual, the plaintiffs’ wanted more custodians searched, including that of the mayor himself, Rahm Emanuel. The defendants did not want to include the mayor’s email in the review. They argued, without any real facts showing burden, that the Mayor’s email would be irrelevant (a dubious argument that seemed to be a throw-away) and too burdensome (their real argument).

Here is how Magistrate Judge Mary M. Rowland summarized the custodian dispute in her opinion:

Plaintiffs argue Mayor Emanuel and ten members of his senior staff, including current and former chiefs of staff and communications directors are relevant to Plaintiffs’ Monell claim. (Id. at 5).[2] The City responds that Plaintiffs’ request is burdensome, and that Plaintiffs have failed to provide any grounds to believe that the proposed custodians were involved with CPD’s policies and practices at Homan Square. (Dkt. 74 at 1, 6). The City proposes instead that it search the two members of the Mayor’s staff responsible for liasoning with the CPD and leave “the door open for additional custodians” depending on the results of that search. (Id. at 2, 4).[3]

Another Silly “Go Fish” Case

As further background, this is one of those negotiated keywords Go Fish cases where the attorneys involved all thought they had the magical powers to divine what words were used in relevant ESI. The list is not shared, but I bet it included wondrous words like “torture” and “off the books,” plus every plaintiff’s favorite “claim.”

The parties agreed that the defendants would only review for relevant evidence the ESI of the custodians that happened to have one or more of the keyword incantations they dreamed up. Under this still all to common practice the attorneys involved, none of whom appear to have any e-discovery search expertise, the majority of documents in the custody of the defense custodians would never be reviewed. They would not be reviewed because they did not happen to have a “magic word” in them. This kind of untested, keyword filtering agreement is irrational, archaic and not a best practice in any but small cases, but that is what the attorneys for both sides agreed to. They were convinced they could guess that words were used by police, city administrators and politicians in any relevant document. It is a common delusion facilitated by Google’s search of websites.

When will the legal profession grow up and stop playing Go Fish when it comes to a search for relevant legal evidence? I have been writing about this for years. Losey, R., Adventures in Electronic Discovery (West 2011); Child’s Game of ‘Go Fish’ is a Poor Model for e-Discovery Search. Guessing keywords does not work. It almost always fails in both precision and recall. The keyword hits docs are usually filled with junk and relevant docs often used unexpected language, not to mention abbreviations and spelling errors. If you do not at least test proposed keywords on a sample custodian, then your error rate will multiply. I saw a review recently where the precision rate on keywords was only six percent, and that is with superficial feedback, i.w. – unskilled testing. You never want to waste so much attorney time, even if you are reviewing at low rates. The ninety-four irrelevant docs to find six is an inefficient expensive approach. We try to improve precision without a significant loss of recall.

When I first wrote about Go Fish and keywords back in 2010 most everyone agreed with me, even if they disagreed on the significance, the meaning and what you should do about it. That started the proportionality debate in legal search. E-Discovery search expert Judges Peck and Scheindlin joined in the chorus of criticism of negotiated keywords. National Day Laborer Organizing Network v. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, 877 F.Supp.2d 87 (SDNY, 2012) (J. Scheindlin) (“As Judge Andrew Peck — one of this Court’s experts in e-discovery — recently put it: “In too many cases, however, the way lawyers choose keywords is the equivalent of the child’s game of `Go Fish’ … keyword searches usually are not very effective.” FN 113“); Losey, R., Poor Plaintiff’s Counsel, Can’t Even Find a CAR, Much Less Drive One (9/1/13). Don’t you love the quote within a quote. A rare gem in legal writing.

Judge Rowland’s Ruling

I have previously written about the author of the Mann v. City of Chicago opinion, Judge Mary Rowland. Spoliated Schmalz: New Sanctions Case in Chicago That Passes-Over a Mandatory Adverse Inference. She is a rising star in the e-discovery world. Judge Rowland found that the information sought from the additional custodians would be relevant. This disposed of the defendants first and weakest argument. Judge Rowland then held that Defendants did not meet the burden of proof “—failing to provide even an estimate—” and for that reason granted, in part, Plaintiffs’ motion to compel, including their request to add the Mayor. Judge Rowland reviewed all six of the proportionality factors under Rule 26(b)(1), including the importance of the issues at stake and the plaintiffs’ lack of access to the requested information.

On the relevance issue Judge Rowland held that, in addition to the agreed-upon staff liaisons, the Mayor and his “upper level staff” might also have relevant information in their email. As to the burden argument, Judge Rowland held that the City did not “offer any specifics or even a rough estimate about the burden.” Judge Rowland correctly rejected the City’s argument that they could not provide any such information because “it is impossible to determine how many emails there may be ‘unless the City actually runs the searches and collects the material.’” Instead, the court held that the defendants should have at least provided “an estimate of the burden.” Smart Judge. Here are her words:

The City argues that it will be “burdened with the time and expense of searching the email boxes of nine (9) additional custodians.” (Dkt. 74 at 5). The City does not offer any specifics or even a rough estimate about the burden. See Kleen Prods. LLC 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139632, at *48 (“[A] party must articulate and provide evidence of its burden. While a discovery request can be denied if the `burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit,’ Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C)(iii), a party objecting to discovery must specifically demonstrate how the request is burdensome.”) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

As the Seventh Circuit stated in Heraeus Kulzer, GmbH, v. Biomet, Inc., 633 F.3d 591, 598 (7th Cir. 2011):

[The party] could have given the district court an estimate of the number of documents that it would be required to provide Heraeus in order to comply with the request, the number of hours of work by lawyers and paralegals required, and the expense. A specific showing of burden is commonly required by district judges faced with objections to the scope of discovery . . . Rough estimates would have sufficed; none, rough or polished, was offered.

The City argues in its sur-reply that it is impossible to determine how many emails there may be “unless the City actually runs the searches and collects the material.” (Dkt. 78-1 at 4). Still, the City should have provided an estimate of the burden. The Court is not convinced by the City’s argument about the burden.

Judge Rowland also held that the City should have addressed the “other Rule 26 factors—the importance of the issues and of the discovery in resolving the issues, and the parties’ relative access to information and their resources.” She noted that these other factors: “weigh[ed] in favor of allowing discovery of more than just the two custodians proposed by the City.”  However, the court declined to compel the search of four proposed custodians based on their “short tenure” or the “time during which the person held the position,” concluding the requested searches were “not proportional to the needs of the case.”

Judge Rowland’s opinion notes with seeming surprise the failure of the City of Chicago to provide any argument at all on the five non-economic factors in Rule 26(b)(1). I do not fault them for that. Their arguments on these points were necessarily weak in this type of case, but a conciliatory gesture, a polite acknowledgement showing awareness, might have helped sweeten the vinegar. As it is, they came across as oblivious to the full requirements of the Rule.

What Chicago Should Have Done

What additional information should the defendants have provided to oppose the search and review of the additional nine custodians, including the Mayor’s email? Let’s start with the obvious. They should have shared the total document count and GB size of the nine custodians, and they should have broken that information down on a per-custodian basis. Then they should have estimated the costs to review that many emails and attachments.

The file count information should have been easy to ascertain from the City’s IT department. They know the PST sizes and can also determine, or at least provide a good estimate of the total document count. The problem they had with this obvious approach is that they wanted a keyword filter. They did not want to search all documents of the custodians, only the ones with keyword hits. Still, that just made the process slightly more difficult, not impossible.

Yes, it is true, as defendant’s alleged, that to ascertain this supporting information, they would have to run the searches and collect the material. So what? Their vendor or Chicago IT department should have helped them with that. It is not that difficult or expensive to do. No expensive lawyer time is required. It is just a computer process. Any computer technician could do it. Certainly any e-discovery vendor. The City could easily have gone ahead and done the silly keyword filtering and provide an actual file count. This would have provided the City some hard facts to support their burden argument. It should not be that expensive to do. Almost certainly the expense would have been less than this motion practice.

Alternatively, the City could have at least estimated the file count and other burden metrics. They could have made reasonable estimated based on their document review experience in the case so far. They had already reviewed uncontested custodians under their Go Fish structure, so they could have made projections based on past results. Estimates made by projections like this would probably have been sufficient in this case and was certainly better than the track they chose, not providing any information at all.

Another alternative, the one that would have produced the most persuasive evidence, would be to load the filtered ESI of at least a sample of the nine custodians, including the Mayor. Then begin the review, say for a couple of days, and see what that costs. Then project those costs for the rest of the review and rest of the custodians. By this gold standard approach you would not only have the metrics from the data itself — the file counts, page counts, GB size — but also metrics of the document review, what it costs.

You would need to do this on the Mayor’s email separately and argue this burden separately. The Mayor’s email would likely be much more expensive to review than any of the other custodians. It would take attorneys longer to review his documents. There would be more privileged materials to find and log and there would be more redactions. It is like reviewing a CEO’s email. If the attorneys for the City had at least begun some review of Emanuel’s email, they would have been able to provide extensive evidence on the cost and time burden to complete the review.

I suspect the Mayor was the real target here and the other eight custodians were of much less importance. The defense should have gauged their response accordingly. Instead, they did little or nothing to support their burdensome argument, even with the Mayor’s sensitive government email account.

We have a chance to learn from Chicago’s mistake. Always, at the very least, provide some kind of an estimate of the burden. The estimate should include as much information as possible, including time and costs. These estimates can, with time and knowledge, be quite accurate and should be used to set budgets, along with general historical knowledge of costs and expenses. The biggest problem now is a shortage of experts on how to properly estimate document review projects, specifically large ESI-only projects. I suggest you consult with such an cost-expert anytime you are faced with a disproportionate ESI review demands. You should do so before you make final decisions or reply in writing.

 Conclusion

Mann v. City of Chicago is one of those cases where we can learn from the mistakes of others. At least provide an estimate of costs in every dispute under Rule 26(b)(1). Learn to estimate the costs of document reviews. Either that or hire an expert who can do that for you, one that can provide testimony. Start with file counts and go from there. Always have some metrics to back-up your argument. Learn about your data. Learn what it will likely cost to review that data. Learn how to estimate the costs of document reviews. It will probably be a range. The best way to do that is by sampling. With sampling you at least start the document review and estimate total costs by projection of what it has actually cost to date. There are fewer speculative factors that way.

If you agree to part of the review requested, for instance to three out of ten custodians requested, then do that review and measure its costs. That creates the gold standard for metrics of burden under Rule 26(b)(1) and is, after all, required in any objections under Rule 34(b)(2)(B)&(C). See: Judge Peck Orders All Lawyers in NY to Follow the Rules when Objecting to Requests for Production, or Else ….

For more on cost burden estimation listen to my Ed-Talk on the subject, Proportional Document Review under the New Rules and the Art of Cost Estimation.

 


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.

____

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.

 


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.


%d bloggers like this: