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Court Declines to Sanction Defendant for Deletion of Former Employee’s Email Account: eDiscovery Case Law

Court Denies Defendant’s Motion to Overrule Plaintiff’s Objections to Discovery Requests

In Moore v. Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC, No. 14-01459 (W.D. Wash., June 24, 2016), Washington District Judge Robert J. Bryan denied without prejudice the plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions for Defendant’s Willful Spoliation of Evidence for deleting her email account after she was terminated, finding a lack of duty preserve or bad faith on the defendant’s part and minimal (if any) prejudice to the plaintiff.

Case Background

In this case involving allegations of unlawful employment practices by the defendant, the plaintiff (employed at the time by the defendant) emailed the defendant’s Human Resources department and other management about her concerns “on at least eleven occasions, articulating concerns about, inter alia, other employees ‘gang[ing] up’ on her, ‘glaring and…nonverbal harassment,’ and criticism of Plaintiff’s frequent restroom use during pregnancy”. At least on one occasion, one of the defendant’s employees sent correspondence to HR suggesting that the plaintiff might sue. The defendant ultimately terminated the plaintiff in February 2013 and the defendant’s “Legal Counsel was allegedly present for at least one meeting where Plaintiff’s termination was discussed.”

On April 25, 2013, the plaintiff’s attorney demanded that the defendant produce the plaintiff’s personnel file, which, according to the Court, formally placed the defendant on notice of potential litigation.  However, according to the defendant, the plaintiff’s email account was deleted on March 30, 2013 as part of a nightly-scheduled exchange task, which automatically deleted employees’ accounts on a certain date following their termination unless the defendant intervened, for example, when there was a Legal Hold.  The defendant allegedly limited its management and HR employees to 50MB of storage capacity in their inboxes, requiring employees to regularly clean out their inboxes manually or with automatic settings.  HR employees had deleted emails from the plaintiff that they acknowledged included emails that the plaintiff produced in discovery.  The plaintiff filed a Motion for Sanctions for Defendant’s Willful Spoliation of Evidence, requesting terminating sanctions.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Bryan stated that the “parties’ briefing focuses on four issues, which are the focus of the undersigned’s analysis: (1) Defendant’s duty to preserve; (2) whether Defendant acted willfully or in bad faith; >(3) prejudice to Plaintiff; and (4) the appropriate sanction.”  Taken in turn, Judge Bryan ruled that:

  1. “Based on the parties’ submissions, Defendant did not have a duty to preserve Plaintiff’s emails prior to their deletion. Most of Plaintiff’s emails to HR and management do not raise ‘potential claims,’ but rather raise Plaintiff’s concerns about workplace gossip and challenging relationships.”;
  2. “Defendant was not on notice of potential litigation and had no duty to preserve Plaintiff’s emails until April 25, 2013, so Defendant did not act in bad faith by deleting Plaintiff’s emails, especially where there is no evidence that Defendant deleted them in violation of Defendant’s Records Management Policy or its own consistent records practice.”;
  3. “Even if Defendant willfully violated its duty to preserve Plaintiff’s emails, Plaintiff suffers only minimal prejudice, if any. Plaintiff produced eleven emails that substantiate much of the factual basis for most of her claims.”; and
  4. “Because Plaintiff asks only for the sanction of default, a request the Court denies, other remedies need not be addressed.”

As a result, Judge Bryan denied without prejudice the plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions for Defendant’s Willful Spoliation of Evidence.

So, what do you think?  Should the duty to preserve have been earlier?  If so, would that have changed the result?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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