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Former Employee Sanctioned for Lying Under Oath, Destruction of ESI: eDiscovery Case Law

In Heggen v. Maxim Healthcare Servs., Inc., No. 1:16-cv-00440-TLS-SLC (N.D. Ind. April 27, 2018), Indiana Magistrate Judge Susan Collins ruled that the plaintiff’s destruction of requested cellphone recordings, as well as lying under oath, were sanctionable under FRCP Rule 37.

Case Background

The plaintiff filed the case against her former employer – a provider of temporary medical staffing, home health care, and wellness services – with claims of sexual harassment and retaliation. The plaintiff stated under oath that she chose to leave these employers “voluntarily” because the two clients with whom she worked were going into a nursing home.

However, the defendant pointed out that records show that the plaintiff was terminated after she refused to discuss a complaint that the plaintiff stole $300 from a client under her care, as well as mismanagement of the client’s financial assets. A discovery request to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development revealed that the plaintiff had worked for Interim Health Care immediately prior to joining the defendant, even though she responded to the first request for production with a different former employer, and then stated a second employer during her deposition. Based on the records from Interim, the defendant claimed that the circumstances of the plaintiff’s departure from Interim were “strikingly similar” to the plaintiff’s time at the defendant, including that a patient’s medications went missing – the plaintiff then tested positive for the missing medications on a drug test, and the plaintiff failed to return to work after the complaint.

The clearest contention that the defendant brought is that the plaintiff destroyed key evidence in at least three different ways and this, along with the other actions by the plaintiff, the defendant contended was grounds for a dismissal sanction. The plaintiff testified at her deposition that she made about seven recordings of unidentified defendant employees and said these recordings supported her claims against the defendant, she also testified that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) had the recordings, because she deleted the recordings from her cell phone since she “didn’t want them to have [her] phone lost and have them be out there.” She claimed she had emailed the recordings to the EEOC, but couldn’t find any copy of the emails transmitting the recordings. After sending the emails, she performed a factory reset of her phone (an older Apple model) that basically had “broke[n] down,” and that she was trying to get working again. The reset deleted all of the data stored on it, including the recordings.

She felt that emailing the recordings to EEOC was a form of preservation and “thought it was okay to get rid of them[.]” Copies of three of the recordings were found, and the plaintiff submitted transcripts of these recordings with her response brief, and she also provided a copy of the recordings and transcripts to the defendant. However, there was no explanation for the other missing recordings.

The defendant had sought the recordings from the plaintiff for months through traditional discovery and because it did not have the recordings when it deposed the plaintiff, it felt that resulted in prejudice against them. They also argued that there was a significant difference between original recordings and copies of recordings. What the plaintiff submitted appeared to be at least two different layers of recorded conversations: “an ongoing face-to-face interaction between individuals who are supposedly simultaneously listening to and participating in a different interaction by telephone, all recorded on top of each other.”  Also, because they were copies, there was no way to delve into the original metadata of the recordings. Further, while the original recordings were made on an iPhone, the files produced were in 3GP format, a format generally used by Android phones, raising even more questions.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Collins ruled that the defendant’s failure under oath to disclose Interim as a prior employer and for her destruction of the original cell phone recordings was sanctionable. But noted that a sanction for discovery abuse must be “a proportionate response to the circumstances.”

Judge Collins stated, “The draconian sanction of dismissal is not presently warranted here. Rather, the present circumstances warrant the imposition of lesser sanctions in the form of a monetary penalty—that is, ordering Heggen to pay the reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, that Maxim incurred in filing the motion to compel [See FRCP Rule 37]. The Court has no reason, at least at this juncture, to conclude that the imposition of this monetary penalty would be fruitless. The Court will also consider a spoliation instruction upon a pretrial motion by counsel should this case go to trial. The motion for sanctions is otherwise denied. Heggen is duly warned that any additional discovery transgressions may result in further sanctions against her, up to and including dismissal of this case.”

So, what do you think?  Was the ruling correct or was a sanction of dismissal warranted in this case?  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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