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Despite Missing and Scrambled Hard Drives, Court Denies Plaintiff’s Request for Sanctions – eDiscovery Case Law

In Anderson v. Sullivan, No. 1:07-cv-00111-SJM (W.D. Pa. 08/16/2013), a Pennsylvania court found “that no sanctions are warranted” despite the disappearance of one hard drive, “scrambling” of another hard drive and failure to produce several e-mails because the evidence was not relevant to the underlying claims and because there was no showing the defendants intentionally destroyed evidence.

In the underlying lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that she was retaliated against by officials employed by, or associated with, the Millcreek Township School District (“MTSD”) because she made several whistleblower reports against the District and its top administrators, including Dean Maynard (MTSD’s former Superintendent) for violation of her First Amendment rights and the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act.  In January of 2007, Maynard inadvertently sent an email to an MTSD teacher, instead of to the intended recipient.  The email allegedly revealed previously undisclosed personal relationships that Maynard had with two people he had recommended for employment with the District.  Maynard disclosed this letter to the School Board and an investigation ensued, where several computers were examined, including those of Maynard and the plaintiff.

As part of this examination, MTSD’s IT department removed the original hard drives from the targeted employees’ computers and replaced them with a new hard drive onto which the employee’s active files would be copied so that the laptop would function without interruption; however, the original hard drive from Maynard’s computer was lost.

When the new hard drive that was installed in Maynard’s computer was examined by Anderson’s expert in approximately June 2011, the expert discovered the hard drive was “scrambled” possibly by some type of wiping software.

At summary judgment, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s claims did not qualify as whistleblower reports under the PWA because they did not disclose any non-technical violation of law.  After her claims were dismissed on summary judgment, the plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions due to the disappearance of one hard drive, “scrambling” of a second hard drive, and withholding 44 pages of e-mails from a 10,000-page production to conceal that one of the hard drives was missing.  Although this court entered summary judgment in favor of all defendants, they retained jurisdiction to adjudicate the motion for sanctions.

Because the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed as a matter of law, the court found that sanctions were not warranted on either hard drive because they could not have contained relevant evidence.  The court also determined that there was a lack of evidence suggesting that evidence was intentionally destroyed.  With regard to the 44 pages of e-mails that were not produced, the court found there was nothing in the record to suggest they were intentionally withheld or even were relevant to the plaintiff’s claims.  So, the court denied the motion for sanctions.

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

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