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Plaintiff’s Intentional Deletion of Emails to Competitors Leads to Order to Produce Gmail Account: eDiscovery Case Law

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

In Cohn et. al. v. Guaranteed Rate, Inc., No. 14-9369 (N.D. Ill., Dec. 8, 2016), Illinois District Judge John Robert Blakey granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion to compel discovery, for spoliation sanctions, and to extend the discovery deadline, finding that the defendant’s request for dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims and entry of default judgment or issuance of an adverse inference instruction was “not commensurate with the harm implicated here”, opting instead to require the plaintiff to provide full access to her Gmail account to the defendant.

Case Background

In this breach of contract case, the plaintiff was originally hired by the defendant in 2012, which also purchased the assets of the plaintiff’s company.  Part of the employment agreement executed by the plaintiff “expressly prohibited” her from using or disclosing confidential information or from soliciting employees or customers of the defendant.  By November 2013, the relationship between the parties had deteriorated, with the plaintiff referencing an expected lawsuit and indicating that she had retained counsel over perceived breaches of the agreement by the defendant; the plaintiff’s counsel also sent a letter to the defendant in February 2014 regarding those perceived breaches.  In turn, the defendant’s counsel sent letters to the plaintiff, also threatening litigation.  The plaintiff left the defendant’s employment in August 2014 and filed suit against the defendant in November 2014.

The defendant requested documents from the plaintiff (including emails from her Gmail and LinkedIn accounts) reflecting the plaintiff’s communications with any of the defendant’s competitors.  The plaintiff responded that, to the extent documents responsive to those requests existed, they would be produced; however, she did not produce a single message from her Gmail account with any of those competitors.

The plaintiff’s failure to produce this material forced the defendant to serve third party discovery requests on a number of its competitors, and those competitors’ document productions contained numerous messages to and from the plaintiff that she had never produced.  In conversations with one competitor, the plaintiff “ask[ed] that [they] turn to [her] gmail account” and she instructed the competitor to “Hide the info I sent was [sic] the max that my atty will allow—well actually more. I simply cannot put more in writing.”  The plaintiff also instructed her subordinate to begin communicating using their personal email addresses and to “delete our grate [Guaranteed Rate] emails to permanent tras[h].”

The defendant filed the present motion, requesting the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims, entry of default judgment, or the issuance of adverse inference instructions at trial. Alternatively, the defendant requested native production of the plaintiff’s entire Gmail account, production of her Gmail log-in and password credentials, production of her work and personal computers to enable pursuit of a forensic inspection, and issuance of an injunction preventing the plaintiff from altering, destroying, or modifying any evidence in any way.  The plaintiff, in responding, admitted that she “deleted the subject emails with third-parties from her personal Gmail account in November of 2013, April-June of 2014, and July of 2014.”

Judge’s Ruling

Relying on Federal Rule 37(e) and considering the plaintiff’s duty to preserve, Judge Blakey stated “The Court finds that Cohn had a duty to preserve her communications with GRI’s competitors by at least November 30, 2013. By that point Cohn was making explicit references to legal action against GRI and its officers, and she had retained the attorney who represents her in this lawsuit…She was also making overtures to certain of GRI’s competitors by that time…In light of those facts and her clear obligations under the APA and BMA, Cohn and her counsel should have been able to ‘foresee’ by November of 2013 that her communications with GRI’s competitors ‘would be material (and thus relevant) to a potential legal action.’”

Judge Blakey also referenced the plaintiff’s admission of email deletions as “an obvious breach of her duty”.  As for proof of harm suffered by the defendant, Judge Blakey indicated that the “prevailing rule is that bad faith destruction of a document relevant to proof of an issue at trial gives rise to a strong inference that production of the document would have been unfavorable to the party responsible for its destruction.”  And, Judge Blakey, referencing the plaintiff’s instructions to one of the competitors to “hide the info” she sent, ruled that the information was deleted in bad faith.

With regard to remedy, however, Judge Blakey ruled that “GRI’s request for the dismissal of Cohn’s claims and entry of default judgment is not commensurate with the harm implicated here”, ordering instead “that, at a minimum, GRI must be given full access to Cohn’s Gmail account.”  He also denied the defendant’s request for an adverse inference instruction without prejudice, hoping the production of Cohn’s full Gmail account will “obviate the need for such instructions”.

So, what do you think?  Did the court go far enough in its sanctions?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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