eDiscovery Daily Blog

Houston, We Have an Adverse Inference Finding: eDiscovery Case Law

In Hernandez, et al. v. City of Houston, No. 4:16-CV-3577 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 30, 2018), Texas District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, finding that the defendant “intentionally destroyed” evidence by wiping the hard drives of several custodians no longer employed by the City, determined “that entering an adverse inference finding is appropriate” against the defendant.

Case Background

In this case regarding alleged illegal detainment of the plaintiffs in City jail where each of the plaintiffs contends that he was held in the City’s jail for more than 48 hours without a judicial determination or a probable cause hearing, the Court entered an agreed ESI order in November 2017, which promoted cooperation between the parties (including agreement on search terms) and designated thirteen specific custodians, whose records the plaintiffs were seeking.  Weeks after the ESI Order, the defendant had still not supplemented missing metadata from an earlier production to bring the production into compliance with the Court’s Order and, after several meet and confers by phone, defendant’s counsel requested an in-person meeting.

On December 13, 2017, during that in-person meeting, the defendant represented that (i) it had not interviewed any of the custodians listed in the ESI Order, (ii) it had not collected documents from any of the custodians listed in the ESI Order and (iii) it had “wiped” the hard drives of six of those custodians no longer employed by the defendant.  At that meeting, the plaintiffs offered to provide names of vendors to help with document processing and review and offered to pay a substantial portion, if not all, of the costs that might be incurred. The defendant refused this offer and missed its December 15, 2017 deadline to certify document production was complete.

In January 2018, the defendant represented that it had collected 72,000 documents, but had yet to review them, despite the passage of the discovery deadline. By February 28, 2018, when the plaintiffs moved to compel production, the defendant had only produced 126 files from the Mayor’s office – all of which was unresponsive to the plaintiffs’ document requests.  In April 2018, the defendant claimed it had collected 2.6 million documents by running “word searches based on the ESI Protocol” and it would take 17,000 hours to review all of those documents.  Based on these representations, the plaintiffs agreed to provide a narrower set of search terms.  On April 10, 2018, the Court ordered the defendant to “produce all non-privileged documents responsive to the plaintiffs’ requests for production nos. 1-4, 8 and 9 in accordance with the Court’s November 8, 2017, ESI Order” and also notified the defendant that “[f]ailure to comply with this Order will result in sanctions, including but not limited to monetary sanctions and an adverse inference instruction”.

When the defendant ran the plaintiffs’ narrowed search terms, it retrieved 48,976 documents.  However, it then proceeded to unilaterally apply its own search terms, which retrieved 9,992 documents, which were reviewed for responsiveness.  The defendant produced only 368 responsive documents in response to the April 10 court order.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the wiped drives for the six custodians no longer employed by the defendant, Judge Hoyt stated: “Those hard drives contained ESI that should have been preserved by the City as soon as it anticipated litigation, and definitely after the instant lawsuit was filed. The City acknowledged its “clear obligation” to preserve all responsive documents after the litigation was pending. Yet the City failed to take reasonable steps to preserve the data on the hard drives and intentionally wiped the drives. The Court determines that the information on the hard drives cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery.”

Judge Hoyt also found that the defendant had “Made Misrepresentations to the Court About Its Flawed Discovery Process”, indicating that it: 1) “represented that it needed to review 2.6 million documents”, 2) “did not review the 78,702 documents generated by the plaintiff’s April 2018 search terms”, 3) “represented that it had issued a litigation hold” and 4) “obfuscated the status of the hard drives”.

As a result, Judge Hoyt ruled, as follows:

“Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2) provides that an order establishing contested facts as true is an appropriate remedy when a party violates a discovery order. See Rule 37(b)(2)(i)-(ii). This type remedy cures the violation without inflicting additional costs on the parties, and for that reason, the Court determines, in its discretion that entering an adverse inference finding is appropriate…

Therefore, the Court HOLDS that the following inference is appropriate based on the City’s conduct:

It is established that (a) throughout the class period, the City of Houston had a policy of not releasing warrantless arrestees who had not received neutral determinations of probable cause within the constitutionally required period of time; (b) throughout the class period, the City’s policymakers were aware of this policy; and (c) the City’s policymakers acted with deliberate indifference to the unconstitutional policy and the constitutional violations that resulted.”

So, what do you think?  Was the adverse inference sanction appropriate in this case?  Please let us know if any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Also, if you’re going to be in Houston on Thursday, September 27, just a reminder that I will be speaking at the second annual Legal Technology Showcase & Conference, hosted by the Women in eDiscovery (WiE), Houston Chapter, South Texas College of Law and the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists (ACEDS).  I’ll be part of the panel discussion AI and TAR for Legal: Use Cases for Discovery and Beyond at 3:00pm and CloudNine is also a Premier Platinum Sponsor for the event (as well as an Exhibitor, so you can come learn about us too).  Click here to register!

Sponsor: This blog is sponsored by CloudNine, which is a data and legal discovery technology company with proven expertise in simplifying and automating the discovery of data for audits, investigations, and litigation. Used by legal and business customers worldwide including more than 50 of the top 250 Am Law firms and many of the world’s leading corporations, CloudNine’s eDiscovery automation software and services help customers gain insight and intelligence on electronic data.

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