eDiscovery Daily Blog

It Took a While, But the Sedona Conference Has Finalized its Guide for “Possession, Custody, or Control” of ESI: eDiscovery Best Practices

A year ago in April (i.e. April 2015), The Sedona Conference® released a new public comment version of a guide designed to provide guidance to defining the phrase “possession, custody, or control” as it’s used in Federal Rules 34 and 45 (we covered it here).  Earlier this month, the final version of that guide was released.

As we noted then, Rule 34(a) and Rule 45(a) obligate a party responding to a document request or subpoena to produce “documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things” in that party’s possession, custody, or control.  But, the Rules are silent on what the phrase “possession, custody, or control” means and case law is inconsistent (across circuits and even within circuits at times).  And, determining whether ESI should be considered to be in a responding party’s “possession, custody, or control” has become more complex, with the growing popularity of technologies and trends such as social media and cloud computing.

So, The Sedona Conference Commentary on Rule 34 and Rule 45 Possession, Custody, or Control was created to provide practical, uniform and defensible guidelines regarding when a responding party should be deemed to have “possession, custody, or control” of documents and all forms of electronically stored information (ESI) subject to Rule 34 and Rule 45 requests for production.  A secondary purpose of the Commentary is to advocate abolishing use of the common-law “practical ability test” for purposes of determining Rule 34 and Rule 45 “control” of ESI, which has led to “inequitable” situations in which courts have held that a party has Rule 34 “control” of Documents and ESI even though the party did not have the actual ability to obtain the Documents and ESI.

The final 103 page PDF guide includes the following actual principles (minimally changed from the public comment version).  They are:

  • Principle 1: A responding party will be deemed to be in Rule 34 or Rule 45 “possession, custody, or control” of Documents and ESI when that party has actual possession or the legal right to obtain and produce the Documents and ESI on demand.
  • Principle 2: The party opposing the preservation or production of specifically requested Documents and ESI claimed to be outside its control, generally bears the burden of proving that it does not have actual possession or the legal right to obtain the requested Documents and ESI.
  • Principle 3(a): When a challenge is raised about whether a responding party has Rule 34 or Rule 45 “possession, custody, or control” over Documents and ESI, the Court should apply modified “business judgment rule” factors that, if met, would allow certain, rebuttable presumptions in favor of the responding party.
  • Principle 3(b): In order to overcome the presumptions of the modified business judgment rule, the requesting party bears the burden to show that the responding party’s decisions concerning the location, format, media, hosting, and access to Documents and ESI lacked a good faith basis and were not reasonably related to the responding party’s legitimate business interests.
  • Principle 4: Rule 34 and Rule 45 notions of “possession, custody, or control” should never be construed to override conflicting state or federal privacy or other statutory obligations, including foreign data protection laws.
  • Principle 5: If a party responding to a specifically tailored request for Documents or ESI (either prior to or during litigation), does not have actual possession or the legal right to obtain the Documents or ESI that are specifically requested by their adversary because they are in the “possession, custody, or control” of a third party, it should, in a reasonably timely manner, so notify the requesting party to enable the requesting party to obtain the Documents or ESI from the third party. If the responding party so notifies the requesting party, absent extraordinary circumstances, the responding party should not be sanctioned or otherwise held liable for the third party’s failure to preserve the Documents or ESI.

One change from the public comment version was to replace the word “trump” with “override”.  Hmmm, wonder why?  :o)

The remainder of the guide covers 1) the background that led to the new principles, including inconsistent interpretations of “possession, custody, or control” within the Rules, a deeper look at the “practical ability test” and effect of new technologies on the analysis and 2) a detailed look at each of the new principles with commentary.  They dropped the Appendix with case law where “possession, custody, or control” was at issue.

As usual, the Commentary is free and you can download it (both the Final and the Public Comment versions) here.

So, what do you think?  Will these new principles lead to a consistent application of “possession, custody, or control” within the courts?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine. eDiscovery Daily is made available by CloudNine solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Daily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.