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Motion to Compel Denied for Employees’ Personal Emails, Granted for Third Party Hosted Data: eDiscovery Case Law

In Matthew Enterprise, Inc. v. Chrysler Group, LLC, No. 13-cv-04236-BLF (N.D. Cal. Dec. 10, 2015), California Magistrate Judge Paul S. Grewal denied the defendant’s motion to compel production from personal email accounts of the plaintiff’s employees because the plaintiff did not have legal control of the emails.  However, he granted the defendant’s motion to compel production from the plaintiff’s customer communications database operated by a third party vendor, noting that the plaintiff did have control of that data, having already produced data from this source.

Case Background

In this price discrimination dispute between an auto manufacturer and its dealer, the defendant moved to compel the plaintiff to produce emails from the personal accounts of the plaintiff employees (because the plaintiff did not furnish all its employees with email accounts, many of them used their personal accounts for business purposes) and from the plaintiff’s customer communications database.  The plaintiff argued that the employee email accounts were outside its “possession, custody, or control,” so they were beyond the scope of party discovery. Similarly, because an outside vendor maintained and operated the plaintiff’s customer communications database, the plaintiff contended that those communications were also not discoverable. The defendant responded that the plaintiff still has control over its company information, whether it is stored in personal email accounts or in a vendor’s database.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the employees’ emails, Judge Grewal ruled:

“Chrysler has not carried this burden for the emails in personal accounts. Chrysler points to a Stevens Creek employee handbook that instructs employees to keep ‘internal information’ in the ‘sole possession’ of Stevens Creek, but this is not a contract and so does not create a legal right for Stevens Creek to take back any such information now stored in personal accounts.   And as Stevens Creek pointed out at the hearing on this motion, even if the court were to order that Stevens Creek collect emails from its employees’ personal accounts, Chrysler has not identified any authority under which Stevens Creek could force employees to turn them over. The Ninth Circuit has recognized that ‘[o]rdering a party to produce documents that it does not have the legal right to obtain will oftentimes be futile, precisely because the party has no certain way of getting those documents.’  That is the case here.  The motion to compel production from employees’ personal email accounts is DENIED.”

As for the customer communications database, Judge Grewal had a different ruling:

“The AVV database is different.  Although the contract that governs Stevens Creek’s relationship with AVV is not before the court, Stevens Creek clearly has access to information from the AVV database that Stevens Creek pays AVV to maintain.  In fact, Stevens Creek already did ‘go to AVV and ask them to do a special production generation’ of certain data, but the data produced was not from the relevant time period. Furthermore, days before the hearing on this motion – and weeks after the motion was filed – Stevens Creek asked AVV to produce the information that Chrysler seeks here. Stevens Creek argues that Chrysler should have to subpoena information from AVV directly, but the burden of a non-party subpoena is unnecessary when the information sought lies within Stevens Creek’s legal control. Chrysler’s motion with respect to the documents in the AVV database is GRANTED.”

So, what do you think?  Should an organization have legal control of the emails related to their business that are maintained in an employee’s personal email account?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.