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Even with Bad Communication and Unfulfilled Discovery Obligations, Sanctions Still Not Granted: eDiscovery Case Law

eDiscovery Case Week concludes today!  We had a great webcast on Wednesday where Tom O’Connor and I discussed key eDiscovery case law for the first half of 2018 – 22 cases in all!  Check it out! – Doug

In US v SuperValu, No. 11-3290 (C.D. Ill. July 12, 2018), Illinois District Judge Richard Mills ruled against sanctions requested by the defendants at this time, even though the relators didn’t “live up to their discovery obligations.”

Case Background

The relators filed this qui tam action alleging the defendants defrauded government healthcare programs by fraudulently reporting inflated Usual and Customary (U&C) pharmacy prices for prescriptions filled for government healthcare program beneficiaries.

In their first amended complaint, the relators claimed they each spoke individually with employees of certain of the defendants’ pharmacies. The defendants alleged the relators relied heavily on these alleged conversations to support their fraud allegation, and that the relators shredded contemporaneous notes of “supposed conversations” with the defendants’ employees. It was also charged that the relators intentionally deleted computer files concerning these conversations and threw away the computer on which the files were stored, thereby precluding examination of the relevant metadata.

On December 20, 2016, the defendants served interrogatories seeking details of the alleged conversations, and the relators identified 19 alleged conversations between employees of the parties. The defendants also requested production which sought, among other things, documents relating to certain phone calls. The relators produced no documents in response to the requests.

Subsequently, the relators’ counsel produced five documents which one of the relators’ employees confirmed were the notes that he made on his home computer concerning phone calls he allegedly made to various defendant pharmacies. He then testified he had no independent recollection of the substance of these calls. The computer on which he prepared the notes “quit working,” and he threw it away after the filing of this lawsuit, which “deleted everything [all documents he prepared on the computer related to this lawsuit] after [he] sent them to counsel.” A number of other notes were also prepared on the computer, and some of the handwritten notes or reports that were the basis for this information were shredded or destroyed.

The relators claimed the defendants made no effort to investigate the matters it addresses in its motion and did not speak to counsel for the relators before filing the motion. They also disputed the defendants’ allegations that “Notes not produced to date have been lost forever, and all metadata reflecting the timing of the creation and editing of even the summaries has likewise been lost and is non-recoverable.”

The relators claimed their counsel has electronic copies of all the notes discussed by defendants in its motion, with metadata, and some copies of Schutte’s handwritten notes. However, the defendants did not ask for these materials. The relators contended that even if certain handwritten notes were destroyed, all relevant information was preserved.

The relators also alleged that a number of these allegedly spoliated documents are protected by the work product doctrine and were not subject to discovery.  The defendants filed a motion for limited sanctions for spoliation of evidence.

Judge’s Ruling

After taking into consideration FRCP 26 and 37, as well as previous case law, Judge Mills ruled:

“In some respects, it appears that the parties are having communication problems. If the documents are simply paper or electronic records of statements made by employees of the defendants, the Court fails to see how such documents could possibly constitute the relators’ work product. Accordingly, those documents should have been turned over to the Defendants upon request, pursuant to Rule 26(b)(3)(C)(ii).”

Judge Mills continued: “The defendants will have an opportunity to question the relators about the alleged conversations, the circumstances under which any notes were prepared, and any other relevant matters, including the destruction of the computer and any metadata that may have been lost. If it comes to light that a party acted inappropriately or in bad faith, the Court will consider imposing sanctions at that time…Although it appears that the Relators may not have lived up to their obligations under the discovery rules, the Court does not believe that the sanctions requested by the Defendants are appropriate at this time.”

So, what do you think? Is this ruling within the correct interpretation of spoliation sanctions under Rule 37? Please share 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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