eDiscovery Daily Blog

Our Nation’s Largest City is Not Immune to eDiscovery Sanctions: eDiscovery Case Law

In Stinson v. City of New York, 10 Civ. 4228 (RWS) (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 2, 2016), New York District Judge Robert W. Sweet granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs’ motion seeking sanctions for spoliation of evidence against the defendants for failure to issue a litigation hold, opting for a permissive inference rather than a mandatory adverse inference sanction against the defendants.

Case Background

In this civil rights class action against the City of New York, it was determined that the City did not issue any litigation hold until August 8, 2013, more than three years after the filing of the Complaint in this case and the litigation hold was not effectively communicated, and none of the officers who were named in the City’s initial disclosures acknowledged receiving it.

At the time of the litigation hold, the document destruction processes at the NYPD were governed by Operations Order 44, which specified the length of time the Department would be required to retain various categories of documents.  Order 44 authorized the destruction of most bureau chief memos after three years, police officers’ monthly performance reports after four years, and criminal court summonses after four years.  With regard to emails, the City’s 30(b)(6) witness stated that “although the NYPD did not have a specific policy with regards to the destruction of email communications, it did impose a hard size limit on officers’ inboxes, and that when officers hit that limit, ‘they delete.’”  The City also did not dispute that it had not made any effort to preserve or produce text messages between NYPD officers.

With regard to the defendants’ production, the Court noted that they produced fewer than 25 emails from key players, with no emails produced from the former Commissioner, the former Chief of the department, and three other key custodians. The defendants explained the lack of email production by contending that the “Police Department on the whole did not operate via email”, but that contention was countered by email communications with the city that the plaintiffs acquired from third parties.

Judge’s Ruling

Citing Chin v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Judge Sweet stated that:

“In order to merit an adverse inference, the party seeking sanctions must establish 1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed, 2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind, and 3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party’s claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.”

  • With regard to the defendants’ obligation, Judge Sweet rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ preservation requests were overbroad, stating “Plaintiffs’ putative overbroad demands do not excuse the City’s failure to issue a litigation hold, to properly supervise its implementation, or to suspend document retention policies that would foreseeably lead to the spoliation of evidence.”
  • With regard to the defendants’ culpable state of mind, Judge Sweet stated that “the City’s conduct shows a broad failure to take its preservation obligations seriously rather than any deliberate attempt to lie or mislead”, but noted that the “City’s conduct does, however, support a finding of gross negligence”.
  • With regard to the relevance of the destroyed documents, Judge Sweet determined that the “evidence adduced thus far indicates that at least some of the destroyed documents will be relevant to the Plaintiffs’ claims”, though he did note that the showing of relevance by the plaintiffs was “relatively limited”.

As sanctions for the defendants’ spoliation, the plaintiffs requested a set of sixteen adverse inferences touching on almost every aspect of their case, but Judge Sweet opted for a lesser level of sanctions, stating:

“Given the City’s lack of bad faith in its spoliation of evidence and the relatively limited showing of relevance made by the Plaintiffs, a permissive, rather than a mandatory adverse inference is warranted…A permissive inference will ensure that the City faces consequences for its failure to take its preservation obligations seriously, but will not result in an unwarranted windfall for the Plaintiffs. The jury will be instructed that the absence of documentary evidence does not in this case establish the absence of a summons quota policy.”

So, what do you think?  Was that a sufficient sanction for the defendants’ “gross negligence” in failing to issue a litigation hold?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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