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Court Denies Motion for Sanctions Against Veterinary Hospital for Spoliation of ESI: eDiscovery Case Law

In Grove City Veterinary Service, LLC et. al. v. Charter Practices International, LLC, 13-02276 (Aug. 18, 2015), Oregon Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta concluded that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of showing they are entitled to sanctions for spoliation of evidence by deleting one of the veterinarian’s archived work emails.

Case Background

In this breach of contract case between veterinarians and a veterinary hospital, during discovery for this case, one of the plaintiffs was required to search for and produce emails stored in his email archive responsive to the defendant’s requests for production.  In August 2014, the plaintiff attempted to access old emails stored in his email archive, but was unable to locate more than one-hundred folders of archived emails.  Later that month, the plaintiff contacted the defendant’s IT department for help finding the “missing” emails.  A member of the defendant’s IT department requested a time when he could come and assist the plaintiff. In the plaintiff’s response, he disclosed that he sought the emails “[r]egarding a legal matter”. Because the plaintiff’s request was in furtherance of a legal matter, the IT department referred the issue to the defendant’s legal department, which refused further assistance and advised the plaintiffs that the defendant was not responsible for locating documents responsive to its own discovery requests (eventually, however, the plaintiff noted that “some,” but not all, of the missing folders had repopulated to his archive inbox).

Based on the defendant’s refusal to perform the search, the plaintiffs moved for spoliation.  The defendant denied it was responsible for “missing” emails, and in their response, requested an award of attorney fees because of the plaintiffs’ “unjustified” motion for sanctions.

Judge’s Ruling

Noting that a defendant “may be subject to sanctions, particularly dispositive sanctions, only if it committed ‘willful’ spoliation of evidence”, Judge Acosta stated: “Here, Plaintiffs do not establish that the emails were willfully destroyed by CPI, or even that the emails were destroyed at all.”

The plaintiffs relied on a report by its computer forensic analyst to request sanctions for spoliation, but Judge Acosta disputed the reliability of his report, noting that he “produces no evidence which shows CPI’s IT department remotely accessed Baltzell’s computer without permission or tampered with Baltzell’s archived emails in any way”, that he “fails to disclose that, during his analysis of Baltzell’s computer, the computer was not logged into the CPI’s servers where the archived emails are stored” (which meant he wouldn’t have been able to access the files anyway) and that an “excerpt of the activity log showed that CPI IT last remotely accessed Baltzell’s computer on July 2, 2014, well before Baltzell had difficultly(sic) finding the emails in question.”  In addition, the defendant produced evidence that the missing emails were accessible in the plaintiff’s email archive, but that they had been “dragged and dropped” into a folder not typically associated with archived emails.  Judge Acosta concluded that the “absence of the activity log in the record is telling and suggests Jorgensen found no direct evidence of knowing wrongdoing by CPI.”

As a result, Judge Acosta denied the plaintiff’s request for sanctions.  He also denied the defendant’s attorney fees, because “the court cannot conclude Plaintiffs motion was ‘unjustified.’”

So, what do you think?  Was this an open and shut case?  Should the defendant have been awarded attorney fees?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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