eDiscovery Daily Blog

Court Grants Defendants’ Motion to Exclude Plaintiff’s Use of Spoliation Evidence: eDiscovery Case Law

In West v. Talton, No. 13-338 (M.D. Ga., Nov. 2, 2015), Georgia District Judge C. Ashley Royal granted the defendants’ Motion in Limine to exclude all evidence and argument regarding spoliation, reserving its ruling on the remaining issues in the Motion in Limine.

Case Background

In this employment discrimination case, during a deposition of defendants’ representatives in June 2014, the plaintiff discovered that the defendants failed to search and preserve some e-mail accounts as requested during discovery.  Based on this information, the Court granted the plaintiff’s motion to reopen discovery in September 2014. During the additional discovery period, the plaintiff discovered one individual defendant’s email account was deleted shortly after his resignation and backup tapes of the defendants’ server were written over as part of an automatic backup performed every six months which erased any backup of his email account.

Ultimately, the defendants were still able to retrieve the departed employee’s old computer and hire a third-party company to preserve and search the hard drive, from which they were eventually able to produce over a thousand documents and emails.  Nonetheless, the plaintiff sought a spoliation instruction to the jury regarding the deletion of emails, or in the alternative, an opportunity to present evidence of the defendants’ failure to preserve emails to the jury, claiming that he would have discovered more emails to support his claim had the defendants preserved the backup tapes and Holt’s email account.  The defendants argued that this evidence should be excluded because the emails were not deleted in bad faith, and they still retrieved the employee’s hard drive, which included the evidence the plaintiff requested.

Judge’s Ruling

After conducted a hearing to consider the arguments, Judge Royal stated:

“Based on the evidence presented during the hearing, it is not clear that Defendants’ failure to preserve Holt’s email account and the server’s backup tapes was a malicious act or done in bad faith. On the contrary, it appears Holt’s email was deleted pursuant to a routine procedure to delete an employee’s email account shortly after the employee left the Sheriff’s Department and to rewrite over the backup tapes of the server every six months. Plaintiff contends this procedure was more than just “mere negligence” because Defendants were on notice after receiving an EEOC complaint. However, even assuming Plaintiff’s contention is true, it is completely speculative Plaintiff was prejudiced by these events in any way. Defendants hired an outside company to restore Holt’s hard drive and recovered over 70,000 documents from the hard drive. The search terms used were broad and extensive and produced 1,205 hits. Indeed, Plaintiff received more information based on these search terms than what was originally requested during discovery. Further, the third-party company stated there was no evidence on the hard drive of any ‘mass destruction’ or ‘wiping.’”

Judge Royal rejected the plaintiff’s use of Woodward v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP as an analogous case, noting in that case, the plaintiff did not have other evidence to replace a lost video tape.  Stating that “[t]he Court finds the danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury outweighs the probative value of such evidence”, Judge Royal granted the defendants’ Motion in Limine to exclude all evidence and argument regarding spoliation.

So, what do you think?  Should the court have allowed for a spoliation instruction to the jury or was the defendant’s efforts to provide ESI for the departed employee sufficient?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.