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Plaintiff Granted Documents Withheld Due to Privilege, But Denied Expanded Search of Emails: eDiscovery Case Law

In Moore v. Lowe’s Home Ctrs., LLC, No. 14-1459 RJB (W.D.Wash. Feb. 19, 2016), Washington District Judge Robert J. Bryan ruled in favor of the plaintiff that documents and communications dated before the defendant anticipated litigation were not privileged work product and should be produced, but he ruled against the plaintiff in her request have the defendant perform additional searches on email to identify additional relevant documents.

Case Background

In this discrimination case, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel Production of Improperly Withheld Documents and Responses to Discovery Regarding Destruction of Plaintiff’s and Other Witnesses’ Email.  In her Motion to Compel, the plaintiff requested (among other things) for the Court to order the production of documents withheld on the basis of privilege and work product and compel additional searches for, and production of, emails responsive to the plaintiff’s discovery requests.

With regard to the documents withheld on the basis of privilege and work product, the defendant claimed that it properly withheld communications between non-attorneys because privilege extends to corporate employees for confidential communications with corporate attorneys and for confidential communications relating to legal advice from those attorneys.

As for the additional searches requested by the plaintiff (due in part to the emails in the plaintiff’s possession that were not uncovered in the defendant’s search), the plaintiff asserted that the defendant should demonstrate that it performed a diligent search, that the defendant should conduct additional searches using terms requested by the plaintiff and that these new searches be conducted without including Plaintiff’s first or last name, on the email accounts of each witness.

In response, the defendant argued they had reviewed 21,000 emails from 17 custodians at a cost of $48,074, that the relevant emails from 2012 were likely deleted and that a search using the 88 newly requested search terms (including annoy*, bull, click*, dad, date*, hand, rack, rod, box) in conjunction with removing Plaintiff’s name from the search would result in hundreds of thousands of irrelevant emails.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the documents withheld on the basis of privilege and work product, Judge Bryan ruled that “Defendant states that it anticipated litigation as of April 25, 2013…Therefore, documents created prior to that date are not work product. Similarly, investigative communications made before April 25, 2013, in relation to Plaintiff’s complaints and termination fall outside the realm of legal advice and are thus not privileged. Investigation into employee complaints or misconduct serves a predominantly HR function, especially if the investigation takes place before litigation is anticipated. Defendant has not provided sufficient information to distinguish its activities as legal in nature.”  As a result, the defendant was ordered to “produce documents and communications dated before April 25, 2013, relating to investigations into Plaintiff’s complaints and termination.”

With regard to the additional searches requested by the plaintiff, Judge Bryan stated:

“Plaintiff’s request for email searches is overly broad and not proportional to the case…While the additional search terms could possibly yield some relevant results, Plaintiff has not provided specifics about what Plaintiff reasonably expects such a search to show, and Plaintiff has not shown that this information could not be found through other means. For example, Plaintiff has not shown that she would be unable to uncover the same information by asking additional questions of witnesses already scheduled to be deposed. As to this discovery issue, Plaintiff’s motion should be denied.”

So, what do you think?  Should the parties have been ordered to meet and confer regarding the search terms?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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