eDiscovery Daily Blog

eDiscovery Case Law: No Sanctions for Scrubbing Computers Assumed to be Imaged


When scrubbing data from a computer drive related to litigation, it’s a good idea to make absolutely sure that there is another copy of that data, via backup or forensic image.  Don’t just take someone’s word for it.

In Federal Trade Commission v. First Universal Lending, LLC, No. 09-82322-CIV, (S.D. Fla. Feb. 17, 2011), the FTC investigated the defendants for their mortgage modification practices by alleging that defendants had violated the Federal Trade Commission Act and that defendants had acted in violation of the Telemarketing Sales Rule. For the duration of the investigation, the court appointed a temporary receiver who took control of defendants’ business premises.

During the discovery stage, the FTC wanted to preserve relevant data that was on defendants’ computers and servers by imaging them. When defendants’ were ask about the locations of all relevant computers and servers, they failed to reveal the location of servers with relevant data. As a result, these servers were not imaged and thus the data was not preserved. Due to misleading testimony by defendants, the receiver believed that all computers and servers had been imaged. Because of the incorrect belief that all of the relevant data had been preserved, the receiver permitted defendants to scrub the computers and sell them. It turned out that some of these were the ones that had not been imaged.

Defendants filed a motion to enjoin the prosecution and/or moved for dismissal of the case due to plaintiff’s spoliation of evidence. Defendants asserted that the FTC had either destroyed or caused to be destroyed computer evidence that would prove all of the defendants’ defenses.

The court found no basis for imposing sanctions against the FTC for the destruction of defendants’ computer system and denied defendants’ motion. The court established that it can impose an adverse inference against a party where the court finds that the party has engaged in spoliation of evidence. For this inference to be applicable there has to be a finding of bad faith. A court can make this finding through direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. If bad faith is based on circumstantial evidence, the following prerequisites must be present: (1) evidence once existed that could fairly be supposed to have been material to the proof or defense of a claim at issue in the case; (2) the spoliating party engaged in an affirmative act causing the evidence to be lost; (3) the spoliating party did so while it knew or should have known of its duty to preserve the evidence; and (4) the affirmative act causing the loss cannot be credibly explained as not involving bad faith by the reason proffered by the spoliator.

The court found that there was no direct evidence of bad faith. Further it pointed out that defendants failed to establish bad faith by circumstantial evidence, since the FTC had not destroyed the computer systems, but rather, the defendants did. The court went on to state, that even assuming, arguendo, that defendants destroyed the hard drives due to the receiver’s agent’s instruction, it did not change the fact that neither the receiver, nor the agent is the FTC.

Furthermore, the court went on that to the extent that defendants’ position could be construed to seek to attribute blame to the FTC for the receiver’s instruction to scrub the computers based on the FTCs misstatement, there was no malicious motive on the FTC’s investigator evident. This was at most negligent, and negligence is not sufficient for an adverse inference instruction as a sanction for spoliation.

Further, the defendants did not demonstrate that the absence of the missing data was fatal to their defense because it was established that alternative sources of information existed.

At last, the court emphasized that the FTC was under no obligation to preserve defendants’ evidence, especially considering the fact that the FTC never had control or dominion over the computers – the receiver did.

So, what do you think?  What are your procedures for ensuring data backup before destruction?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case Summary Source: eLessons Learned Blog.

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