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Court Denies Plaintiff’s Request for Spoliation Sanctions, as Most Documents Destroyed Before Duty to Preserve: eDiscovery Case Law

In Giuliani v. Springfield Township, et al., Civil Action No. 10-7518 (E.D.Penn. June 9, 2015), Pennsylvania District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill, Jr. denied the plaintiffs’ motion for spoliation sanctions, finding that the duty to preserve began when the case was filed and finding that “plaintiffs have not shown that defendants had any ill motive or bad intent in failing to retain the documents which plaintiffs seek”.

Case Background

In this harassment and discrimination case, the plaintiff owned land within the defendant’s township and alleged that the defendant’s zoning decisions violated the plaintiff’s civil rights violations. In June 2009, the defendant withdrew its opposition to the plaintiffs’ application for use of the property and its Zoning Hearing Board granted the plaintiffs’ zoning appeal, ending the zoning dispute.   The plaintiff then filed this new complaint against the defendant in January 2011.

The plaintiffs contended that the defendants’ production had been deficient because defendants “provided a miniscule number [of emails] in response to Plaintiffs’ [discovery] request[s] – just 24 emails spanning a seventeen-year period of near-constant controversy.”  In response, the defendants noted that, during the time period relevant to this case, it did not generate large volumes of email and also cited it’s document retention policy, which stated that “e-mail messages and attachments that do not meet the definition of records and are not subject to litigation and other legal proceedings should be deleted immediately after they are read”.

The defendants also did not preserve data relating to the case until the case was filed in 2011, believing that all of the outstanding issues related to the plaintiffs’ land development applications had finally been resolved after the zoning dispute was resolved in 2009.  The plaintiffs disputed that interpretation of when the duty to preserve arose and also pointed out instances where the defendants failed to instruct key custodians to preserve data related to the case.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the beginning of the duty to preserve by the defendants, Judge O’Neill stated that “Plaintiffs’ arguments are not sufficient to meet their burden to show that defendants’ duty to preserve files related to other properties, emails or planning commission board minutes was triggered at any time prior to the commencement of this action. They have not set forth any reason why I should disbelieve ‘the Township’s assertion that it had absolutely no reason to anticipate litigation until it was served with the Complaint on January 7, 2011,’…and that in June 2009, ‘with the property being leased in its entirety to one tenant, the Township . . . believed that all disputes with the Giulianis had come to an end.’”

As for alleged preservation failures after the duty to preserve commenced, Judge O’Neill determined that “Plaintiffs have not met their burden to establish that defendants actually suppressed the evidence they seek. At most, defendants lost or deleted the evidence plaintiffs seek as the result of mere inadvertent negligence. Plaintiffs have not set forth any proof that defendants in fact failed to preserve emails, documents relating to other properties or Planning Commission Board Minutes at any time after January 7, 2011…Further plaintiffs have not shown that defendants had any ill motive or bad intent in failing to retain the documents which plaintiffs seek.”  As a result, Judge O’Neill denied the plaintiffs’ motion for spoliation sanctions.

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

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