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Plaintiff Sanctioned for Spoliation of Digital Evidence in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit – eDiscovery Case Law
In Calderon v. Corporacion Puertorrique a de Salud, No. 12-1006 (FAB) (D.P.R. Jan. 16, 2014), the plaintiff was found to have violated his duty to preserve evidence during the discovery phase of this sexual harassment lawsuit. Sanctions were imposed, though not to the extent requested by the defendants.
The discovery dispute began over the Electronically Stored Information (ESI) produced by the plaintiff, which were in the form of messages from his phone exchanged between the plaintiff and a particular identified email address belonging to an unknown person who was alleged to be the harasser. The plaintiff produced relevant messages to the defendants, but also admitted that some of the messages had been deleted from his phone. In response, the defendants filed a motion in limine that sought to have all of the messages excluded, and requesting that the case be dismissed.
While the motion in limine was still pending, the defendants received ESI from the plaintiff’s phone service provider, which contained the plaintiff’s phone and text messages spanning the time period relevant to the case. These records showed that at least 38 messages, including some from the alleged harasser and others that were “the numerous text messages that [plaintiff] sent in response” were not among those messages produced by the plaintiff to the defendants. Therefore, the defendants filed a supplemental motion based on the missing messages that asked to sanction the plaintiff by dismissing the case, since spoliation of evidence had occurred.
The plaintiff filed a motion to quash, with the argument that the defendants had subpoenaed the plaintiff’s service provider before the discovery deadline, and had not given adequate pre-service notice. Therefore, the plaintiff claimed that the subpoena which resulted in the discovery of missing messages should be quashed as procedurally defective. However, it was noted that had the defendants given notice of the subpoena and the plaintiff objected, the subpoena would not have been quashed. Further, the late disclosure of the defendants’ receipt of phone records was determined to be harmless to the plaintiff.
In considering the motions, District Judge Francisco A. Besosa found that spoliation had indeed occurred. This was based on discovery of the 38 messages the plaintiff had deleted, some of which had included photos that were also not produced by the plaintiff. Additionally, the plaintiff’s records revealed that he had “reasonably foresaw litigation and had a duty to preserve relevant evidence,” because the plaintiff had contacted his attorney via his phone prior to the point where he admitted to “forwarding some messages…so that he ‘would be able to print’ them.” Judge Besosa stated that this constituted “conscious abandonment of potentially useful evidence” and indicated that the plaintiff believed the deleted messages would not help his side of the case.
While spoliation had been found to occur, Judge Besosa declined to sanction the plaintiff by dismissing the case, citing that dismissal of an entire lawsuit as a sanction is generally reserved for extreme cases, as cited in Benitez-Garcia v. Gonzalez-Vega, 468 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2006), which stated: “[I]t has long been our rule that a case should not be dismissed with prejudice except when a plaintiff’s misconduct is particularly egregious or extreme.” Instead, Judge Besosa ruled that an adverse inference instruction to the jury was the most appropriate sanction for this case.
So, what do you think? Should the court consider quashing evidence that would not have been likely quashed during normal proceedings, if a party obtains such evidence outside of established processes? Are adverse inference instructions truly sufficient to exclude or caution against potential spoliation of evidence? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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