eDiscovery Daily Blog
New York Supreme Court Sanctions Two Attorney Defendants for “Egregious Misconduct” in Spoliation of Data: eDiscovery Case Law
In HMS Holdings Corp. v. Arendt, et al., 2015 NY Slip Op 50750(U) (Sup. Ct., Albany County, May 19, 2015), the New York Supreme Court in Albany County ordered a mandatory adverse inference instruction so that the trier of fact could “draw the strongest possible adverse inference from defendants’ bad faith and intentional destruction, deletion and failure to produce relevant evidence”. The court also awarded attorney fees, and forwarded a copy of the order regarding Defendant Lange to the New York State Committee on Professional Standards for attorneys.
In this business litigation against the defendants who were former employees of the plaintiff, the parties to this case entered into a stipulation in September 2014 providing that defendants would forensically image all personal and work computers, flash or zip drives, and all mobile devices in their possession, custody or control. After the defendants provided the forensic images to the plaintiffs and their forensics expert for review, the plaintiffs’ expert alleged that defendants Curtin and Lange (both licensed attorneys) had intentionally and deliberately destroyed relevant electronically stored information. The instances of spoliation as alleged by the plaintiff’s expert were as follows:
- Curtin used the Secure Erase wiping software on his laptop six times in September 2014, after the litigation hold had gone into effect – he claimed that he did so to improve the performance of his laptop;
- Curtin also failed to produce a Toshiba hard drive (to which he was found to have copied a considerable volume of confidential defendant business materials the day before he terminated his employment with the defendant) claiming he could not find the drive;
- “Shadow Copies” on Lange’s laptop revealed that there were documents in a directory of Lange’s hard drive containing the term “HMS” that no longer were present on September 15, 2014, when the computer was produced for forensic imaging;
- Lange also failed to produce text messages from her iPhone 4, which she replaced in August 2014. She claimed that the store where she purchased it could not transfer data to her new phone; however, the plaintiff’s expert found data from her personal computer indicating that she had backed up her old iPhone to the computer after she purchased the new phone.
The plaintiffs requested sanctions against those defendants. In a Decision & Order dated March 2, 2015, the Court held as follows:
“Through the affidavit of its computer forensics expert and the documentary evidence submitted in support of the motion, HMS has made a prima facie showing that Curtin and Lange engaged in the spoliation of potentially relevant ESI with a culpable mental state during the pendency of this action.”
The court called for an evidentiary hearing, which was held on March 24, 2015, to hear the testimony of defendants and the parties’ computer experts.
Noting the options that Curtin had selected with the Secure Erase software (“Erase” instead of “First Aid”, “Most Secure” instead of “Fastest”), the Court stated that it “does not find Curtin’s explanation for his use of Secure Erase to be worthy of belief.” Also, noting that Curtin “failed to disclose the existence of the Toshiba drive in response to HMS’s interrogatories” and “acknowledged the existence of the drive only after being confronted with HMS’s forensic proof of the same”, the Court ruled that it “does not find his explanation for failing to produce the Toshiba external drive to be credible.”
As for files deleted from Lange’s hard drive, the Court found “that Lange was under a duty of preservation at all pertinent times with respect to the alleged spoliation of ESI” from the laptop and found it to be “intentional and willful”. And, with regard to the iPhone, the Court concluded “that Lange knowingly gave false testimony regarding the destruction and disposition of her iPhone 4” when she testified that she disposed of her old iPhone on August 8, 2014, but actually backed it up on August 15, 2014.
As a result, the Court ruled:
“Given the willful and deliberate nature of defendants’ misconduct, imposition of a mandatory presumption is warranted. The trier of fact should be permitted to draw the strongest possible adverse inference from defendants’ bad faith and intentional destruction, deletion and failure to produce relevant evidence Thus, the trier of fact should be instructed as a matter of law that defendants engaged in the intentional and willful destruction of evidence, advised of the extent of each defendant’s proven spoliation, and permitted to presume that the evidence spoliated by each defendant was relevant to this action, would have supported HMS’s claims against the defendant and been unfavorable to the defendant.”
The court also awarded attorney fees, and forwarded a copy of the order regarding Defendant Lange to the New York State Committee on Professional Standards for attorneys.
So, what do you think? Was that the right amount to award? Or should the judge have awarded a lesser amount? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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