eDiscovery Daily Blog

Alteration of Domain in Produced Emails Leads to Sanctions for Plaintiffs: eDiscovery Case Law

In CAT3, LLC v. Black Lineage, Inc., No. 14 Civ. 5511 (AT) (JCF) (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 12, 2016), New York Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV, ruling that emails produced by the plaintiffs were “intentionally altered”, ordered that the plaintiffs would be precluded from relying on their version of those emails to demonstrate their case and that the plaintiffs would bear the “costs, including reasonable attorney’s fees, incurred by the defendants in establishing the plaintiffs’ misconduct and in securing relief.”

Case Background

One of the key issues in this case regarding trademark infringement regarded similarity between the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ trademarks and whether the defendants developed their trademark (FLASHXHYPE) mark independently or after learning of the plaintiffs’ development of their trademark (SLAMXHYPE).  In a deposition of the defendant company’s president, communication between the defendant and plaintiff companies was provided (which had been produced as PDF images) that showed the plaintiffs’ employee’s address as having the email domain “@slamxhype.com.”  However, on cross examination, the deponent testified that the email he received was identical, except that it showed the plaintiffs’ employee’s address with the email domain “@ecko.com.”

The defendants’ counsel then sought to explore the discrepancy, and in May 2015, they demanded production of the plaintiffs’ emails in native form.  The plaintiffs did not initially respond and, ultimately, their attorneys withdrew and were replaced by new counsel.  In July 2015, the Court ordered the plaintiffs to comply with the defendants’ request and the plaintiffs produced a USB drive containing a PST file, a zip file, and several separate PDFs of relevant emails.

The defendants subjected that production to a forensic analysis which determined that there were two versions of each email message: a “top” level version and, behind each email message, a “near-duplicate copy of the message containing the identical message,” but with different email domains appearing for a number of the senders and recipients.  The underlying near-duplicate versions were the original emails, which had been deleted, albeit not without leaving a digital imprint.

Relying largely on the forensic analysis, the defendants then moved for sanctions consisting of some combination of dismissal of the complaint, imposition of an adverse inference, an order of preclusion, and assessment of attorneys’ fees and costs.

Judge’s Ruling

In considering the application of the amended Rule 37(e) to the situation, Judge Francis determined that “because the amendment is in some respects more lenient as to the sanctions that can be imposed for violation of the preservation obligation, there is no inequity in applying it.”

With regard to the plaintiffs’ claim that “there has been no destruction or loss of any evidence, and there certainly has not been both (i) loss of evidence AND (ii) “such evidence cannot be restored or replaced” as required by Rule 37, Judge Francis, citing Victor Stanley (the first case ever covered by this blog), stated “the plaintiffs argue that even if they are the ‘gang that couldn’t spoliate straight,’ they cannot be sanctioned because their misdeeds were discovered and the information recovered. They are incorrect.”  Elaborating, Judge Francis said that “it cannot be said that the information lost has been ‘restored or replaced’”, noting that “as the plaintiffs themselves suggest, the fact that there are near-duplicate emails showing different addresses casts doubt on the authenticity of both”.

Regarding the plaintiffs’ contention that the manipulation of the emails was unintentional and possibly due to the migration of the plaintiffs’ emails from one system to another, Judge Francis refuted that notion, stating that the “evidence supports the defendants’ allegation that the plaintiffs intentionally altered the emails at issue”.

With regard to relief, Judge Francis, while considering dismissal of the action or imposition of an adverse inference as possible sanctions, stated “such drastic sanctions are not mandatory”.  Therefore, he ordered a “two-fold remedy”, ordering that the plaintiffs would be “precluded from relying upon their version of the emails at issue to demonstrate notice to the defendants of use of the SLAMXHYPE mark” and that the plaintiffs would bear the “costs, including reasonable attorney’s fees, incurred by the defendants in establishing the plaintiffs’ misconduct and in securing relief.”

So, what do you think?  Were those sanctions warranted?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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