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Finding Defendant’s Destruction of Documents to be “Planned, Repeated and Comprehensive”, Court Awards Judgment to Plaintiff – eDiscovery Case Law

In Regulatory Fundamentals Group v. Governance Risk Management Compliance, 13 Civ. 2493 (KBF) (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2014), New York District Judge Katherine B. Forrest granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions and ordered that judgment be entered for the defendant’s “planned, repeated, and comprehensive” destruction of highly-relevant documents.

Case Background

In this copyright infringement action, after the parties engaged in limited discovery, the defendant informed the plaintiff that it “might be missing certain emails.” The defendant later revealed that he had canceled his email account with a third-party vendor, which had hosted his corporate defendants’ websites and email domains.  After the plaintiff noticed the defendant for a deposition to investigate the cancellation and he failed to appear, the plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions alleging that the defendant had engaged in spoliation.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Forrest began her ruling this way:

“A party to a lawsuit may not destroy relevant evidence without consequence. The nature and magnitude of the consequence follows from the level of culpability. Was, for instance, the destruction of evidence inadvertent and the result of an oversight? Or was it the product of a plan?

The individual defendant in this lawsuit destroyed a large number of highly relevant documents — preventing plaintiff and any finder of fact from ever knowing the full truth of what occurred. Following discovery, lengthy briefing, and an evidentiary hearing, the Court has found that defendant’s destruction was planned, repeated, and comprehensive. It was malicious. This finding is particularly unfortunate in light of the plain fact that the spoliation has turned what was a straightforward commercial dispute into a far more serious issue.

The spoliator here — defendant Gregory V. Wood — is a graduate of Cornell Law School and a member of the bar of the State of New York. His conduct has resulted in entry of judgment against him.”

Judge Forrest noted that “to support the imposition of sanctions, ‘the innocent party must prove the following three elements: that the spoliating party (1) had control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it at the time of destruction or loss; (2) acted with a culpable state of mind upon destroying or losing the evidence; and that (3) the missing evidence is relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense.’”

Finding that all three elements were satisfied in this case caused Judge Forrest to issue the following analysis:

“RFG has clearly been prejudiced by Wood’s intentional spoliation. The Court has considered whether sanctions less severe than termination are warranted. For example, the Court has considered monetary sanctions or the imposition of an adverse inference. Neither would be sufficient under the circumstances. The lack of emails prevents RFG from proving the full extent or scope of Wood’s conduct.

Wood’s deletion of emails and his attempted cover-up put RFG in an untenable litigation position — the evidence of the scope of defendants’ alleged misconduct is gone forever. Any sanction short of a terminating sanction would fail to account for the prejudice or to sufficiently penalize Wood or deter others from engaging in such misconduct. Accordingly, the Court grants RFG’s request for a terminating sanction.”

So, what do you think?  Did the defendant’s actions justify the ultimate sanction?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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