eDiscovery Daily Blog

Court Denies Plaintiff’s Request for Sanctions for Defendant’s Failure to Preserve Surveillance Video: eDiscovery Case Law

In Ball v. George Washington Univ., No. 17-cv-0507 (DLF) (D.D.C. Sept. 27, 2018), District of Columbia District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich, denied the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions for allegedly destroying two surveillance videos, stating: “Because Ball has not proven—even by a preponderance of the evidence—that GW permanently stored the Lafayette Hall surveillance footage, the Court need not conduct further inquiry under Rule 37(e).”

Case Background

In this case for wrongful termination, negligence and violations of rights, the defendant considered surveillance footage from two days (July 13 and 14, 2015) that showed the plaintiff entering and exiting buildings on campus, during its investigation preceding the termination of the plaintiff’s employment.  The defendant produced a July 13 video of the plaintiff in one building and produced screenshots of the July 14 surveillance footage from another building, Lafayette Hall, but it did not produce videos of Lafayette Hall for either July 13 or July 14, which reportedly showed the plaintiff entering and exiting at different times than he had indicated on his time sheet.

According to declarations, the surveillance footage was recorded on network video recorders that automatically delete old footage as the recorders become full. The video recorders that stored the July 13 and 14 Lafayette Hall footage at issue typically delete footage every 30 days (and sometimes as early as 14 days) after recording. Defendant police officers routinely permanently download surveillance footage for use in criminal investigations; however, they download surveillance footage for Human Resources (HR) investigations only upon an HR investigator’s request.

In this case, the parties disputed whether the footage at issue was downloaded: the plaintiff contended that the surveillance footage was permanently stored on CDs and given to a member of the defendant’s HR department (Claude Owens), and ultimately to the defendant’s in-house counsel, arguing that the videos’ alleged non-existence showed that the defendant’s in-house counsel destroyed or lost the videos. The defendant countered that the surveillance footage was not permanently stored but instead was automatically overwritten within 30 days (and possibly 14 days) of recording.  While Owens “thought he might have given the tape to ‘the lawyers’”, a detective with the defendant’s police force (Detective Robinson) stated in a declaration that he never downloaded the Lafayette Hall sixth floor footage and had only showed and sent screenshots to the HR employee.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Friedrich stated: “Although the evidence before the Court is unclear, the weight of the evidence tilts in favor of GW’s explanation. Robinson’s declaration, coupled with evidence that the envelope remained sealed until Romero opened it, supports a finding that the surveillance footage of Lafayette Hall was never downloaded from the video recorders. Robinson stated that he never downloaded the Lafayette Hall sixth floor footage…And Owens testified that neither he nor Wells ever opened the sealed envelope…To the extent that the deposition testimony of Wells and Owens provides any support for Ball’s theory, the evidence is speculative and inconclusive…Because Ball has not proven—even by a preponderance of the evidence—that GW permanently stored the Lafayette Hall surveillance footage, the Court need not conduct further inquiry under Rule 37(e).”

So, what do you think?  Should the defendant have preserved the video if it was used as evidence to terminate the plaintiff’s employment?  Please let us know if any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant.

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