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Court Rules to Limit Scope of Discovery, Noting that “Searching for ESI is only one discovery tool” – eDiscovery Case Law

In United States v. Univ. of Neb. at Kearney, 4:11CV3209 (D. Neb. Aug. 25, 2014), Nebraska Magistrate Judge Cheryl R. Zwart denied the government’s motion to compel discovery, finding that “ESI is neither the only nor the best and most economical discovery method for obtaining the information the government seeks” and stating that searching for ESI “should not be deemed a replacement for interrogatories, production requests, requests for admissions and depositions”.

This Fair Housing Act case involved a case brought about by the government with claims that students were prohibited or hindered from having “emotional assistance animals in university housing when such animals were needed to accommodate the requesting students’ mental disabilities.  Discovery has been a lengthy and disputed process since the parties filed a Stipulation and Order Regarding Discovery back in March of 2012.

The scope of ESI was a major part of the dispute. The defendants objected that the government’s search parameters were too expansive, and the cost of compliance would be unduly burdensome. The defendants explained that the cost of retrieval, review, and production would approach a million dollars, and provided an outline identifying the document “hits” and the estimated discovery costs.  The government served revised search terms on April 14, 2014. Although narrowed, the government’s search terms would still yield 51,131 responsive documents, and based on the defendants’ estimate, would require the defendants to expend an additional $155,574 to retrieve, review, and produce the responsive ESI.

To date, the defendants had paid $122,006 to third-party vendors for processing the government’s ESI requests and proposed the requests be narrowed to the “housing” or “residential” context. The defendants’ search terms would yield 10,997 responsive documents.  The Government did not want to limit the scope of discovery and recommended producing all the ESI subject to a clawback agreement for the Government to search the ESI. The Defendants argued such an agreement would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by disclosing student personal identifiable information without their notice and consent.

The court had ordered the parties to provide answers to specific questions regarding their efforts at resolving ESI as part of any motion to compel filed. The government’s responsive statement does not include information comparing the cost of its proposed document retrieval method and amount at issue in the case, any cost/benefit analysis of the discovery methods proposed, or a statement of who should bear those costs.

Judge Zwart stated that she “will not order the university to produce ESI without first reviewing the disclosure, even with the protection afforded under a clawback order. And if UNK must review the more than 51,000 documents requested by the government’s proposed ESI requests, the cost in both dollars and time exceeds the value to be gained by the government’s request.”

Illustrating the lack of proportionality in the government’s requests, Judge Zwart stated “Searching for ESI is only one discovery tool. It should not be deemed a replacement for interrogatories, production requests, requests for admissions and depositions, and it should not be ordered solely as a method to confirm the opposing party’s discovery is complete. For example, the government proposes search terms such as ‘document* w/25 policy.’ The broadly used words “document” and “policy” will no doubt retrieve documents the government wants to see, along with thousands of documents that have no bearing on this case. And to what end? Through other discovery means, the government has already received copies of UNK’s policies for the claims at issue.”

As a result, Judge Zwart stated that “the court is convinced ESI is neither the only nor the best and most economical discovery method for obtaining the information the government seeks. Standard document production requests, interrogatories, and depositions should suffice—and with far less cost and delay.”

So, what do you think?  Were the government’s requests overbroad or should they have been granted their motion to compel?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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