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Appellate Court Denies Sanctions for Routine Deletion of Text Messages – eDiscovery Case Law

In PTSI, Inc. v. Haley, No. 684 WDA 2012, 2013 Pa. Super. (Pa. Super. Ct. May 24, 2013), the appellate court denied a motion for spoliation sanctions where the defendants routinely deleted text messages and other data to “clean up” their personal electronic devices: the volume of messages and limited amount of phone storage made it difficult to retain all data and still use the phone for messaging.

Here, the plaintiff filed claims of conversion, breach of the duty of loyalty, and breach of fiduciary duty against its former at-will employees and their new competing business. The trial court dismissed all claims at summary judgment. It also denied PTSI’s motion seeking sanctions for spoliation, because the deletion of electronically stored information, including text messages, was not relevant to the summary judgment decision.

During discovery, PTSI filed a motion seeking sanctions based on its two former employees’ deletion of electronic records from their computers and phones, including text messages. The company claimed the information was “vital to the prosecution of this case” and could not be “feasibly reconstructed or retrieved without enormous time and expense to PTSI, if at all.”

Under Pennsylvania law, the court had to evaluate three factors to determine the appropriate sanction: “(1) the degree of fault of the party who altered or destroyed the evidence; (2) the degree of prejudice suffered by the opposing party; and (3) whether there is a lesser sanction that will avoid substantial unfairness to the opposing party and, where the offending party is seriously at fault, will serve to deter such conduct by others in the future.”

To determine the level of fault, the court considered the extent of the duty to preserve the evidence, based on whether litigation is foreseeable and whether the evidence might be prejudicial to the opposing party, and whether the evidence was destroyed in bad faith. The court also considered proportionality in making decisions, including five factors spelled out in the comments to the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure:

  • the nature and scope of the litigation, including the importance and complexity of the issues and the amounts at stake;
  • the relevance of electronically stored information and its importance to the court’s adjudication in the given case;
  • the cost, burden and delay that may be imposed on the parties to deal with electronically stored information;
  • the ease of producing electronically stored information and whether substantially similar information is available with less burden; and
  • any other factors relevant under the circumstances.

Here, the amount in controversy and the importance of the issues involving the data did not support awarding a discovery sanction. Moreover, PTSI could not show that its former employees’ “innocent clean up of personal electronic devices to allow them to function was unusual, unreasonable or improper under the circumstances.” Because the defendants “routinely deleted text messages, often on a daily basis, so as not to unduly encumber their iPhones” and because of “the volume of text messages that are frequently exchanged by cell phone users and the limited amount of storage on cell phones, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to save all text messages and to continue to use the phone for messaging.” Furthermore, the order of preservation was entered well after any relevant data would have already been created and deleted. In addition, similar information was available from other sources and custodians; the forensic examiner in the case unearthed more than 1,000 e-mails from the employees’ computers. Finally, any spoliation inference could not defeat the summary judgment motion.

The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s reasoning and found no abuse of discretion.

So, what do you think?  Should the sanctions have been granted?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case Summary Source: Applied Discovery (free subscription required).  For eDiscovery news and best practices, check out the Applied Discovery Blog here.

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