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Discarding a Relevant Computer Results in Adverse Inference Sanctions, Not Default Judgment: eDiscovery Case Law

In Grady v. Brodersen, No. 13-cv-00752-REB-NYW (D.Colo. Mar. 23, 2015), Colorado Magistrate Judge Nina Y. Wang granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions against the defendant in part for failing to produce a computer that the defendant ultimately acknowledged that he discarded, but denied the plaintiff’s request for a default judgment sanction, opting for the less severe adverse inference instruction sanction.

Case Background

In this copyright infringement case filed in March 2013 due to publication of disputed images on the defendant’s web site, the District Court of Colorado entered a scheduling order on February 20, 2014, ordering Defendant to preserve all electronically stored information (ESI), including metadata, and to identify his relevant devices. A week later, on February 27, the defendant submitted his initial disclosures to the plaintiff, in which he acknowledged his computer equipment was relevant to this litigation, identified himself as custodian of the equipment, and represented that “a search through computer equipment for any discoverable material has [sic] and is ongoing. Defendant will supplement its response [sic] if necessary.”

But, on August 9, the defendant amended his initial disclosures “after discussion with lawyers regarding the whereabouts of the computer and request for additional information by Plaintiff”, stating that the computer he had owned and used during the relevant time period “died” prior to notice or anticipation of any legal action and was discarded in July 2013 (four months after the case was filed) because it was “broken”. He also stated that he had searched USB/Flash drives owned and controlled by him during the relevant time and found no relevant data. Subsequently, the defendant acknowledged in his deposition that he did not attempt to have the hard drive repaired before discarding the computer. On August 18, the plaintiff moved to compel, and the court granted the motion, ordering the defendant to produce his new computer hard drive for forensic inspection and copying.

Following the court’s order compelling the defendant to produce the new computer, the plaintiff’s forensic experts determined that the defendant began using that computer in November 2013, which was a few months after the defendant discarded the old computer and also discovered that the new computer had received a transfer of 10,091 images on January 19, 2014, nine days after the court recommended denying Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. The experts noted that the approximately 10,000 images had a range of file modification dates reaching as far as February 2011. The plaintiff filed the motion for sanctions in November 2014.

Citing the four factor test in Ehrenhaus v. Reynolds, 965 F.2d 916, 920 (10th Cir. 1992), the plaintiff argued that:

  1. The discarded computer was the only source of evidence relating to the alteration of his Copyrighted works, so it was “severely prejudicial” to him;
  2. The defendant interfered with the judicial process when he lied under oath on his initial 26(a)(1) disclosures;
  3. The defendant was highly culpable as he discarded the equipment after the commencement of litigation; and
  4. A court-issued warning of dismissal is not necessary where the violation is severe.

Judge’s Opinion

For the most part, Judge Wang agreed with the plaintiff, stating “I find that Mr. Brodersen despoiled relevant evidence that he had an obligation to preserve. I further find that Mr. Brodersen violated Rule 26(g) by not specifying in his Rule 26(a)(1) disclosures dated February 27, 2014 which computer equipment was in his custody and control.” She also ruled that “This court finds sufficient evidence in the record before it to demonstrate that Defendant acted intentionally and with bad faith in discarding the old computer.”

As for the appropriate sanction, however, Judge Wang did not agree with the plaintiff, stating “However, in heeding the direction of the Tenth Circuit to consider the efficacy of lesser sanctions, I find that an entry of default judgment is too severe. The dual objective of protecting a litigant’s right to obtain discoverable evidence and punishing the disobedient party to deter future violative conduct is met by imposing an adverse jury instruction regarding the despoiled evidence.” So, she granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions in part ordering the adverse inference instruction sanction as well awarding as the plaintiff’s reasonable attorney fees and costs incurred in pursuing the motion.

So, what do you think? Was the sanction severe enough? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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