eDiscovery Daily Blog

Tired of the “Crap”, Court Sanctions Investors and Lawyers for Several Instances of Spoliation: eDiscovery Case Law

In Clear-View Technologies, Inc., v. Rasnick et al, 5:13-cv-02744-BLF (N.D. Cal. May 13, 2015), California Magistrate Judge Paul S. Grewal sanctioned the defendants $212,320 and also granted a permissive adverse jury instruction that allows the presumption that the defendants’ spoliated documents due to a series of “transgressions” by the defendants and their prior counsel.

You’ve got to love an order that begins this way:

“Deployment of ‘Crap Cleaner’ software—with a motion to compel pending. Lost media with relevant documents. False certification that document production was complete. Failure to take any steps to preserve or collect relevant documents for two years after discussing this very suit. Any one of these transgressions by {the defendants} and their prior counsel might justify sanctions. Taken together, there can be no doubt.”

This case arose from the defendants’ alleged conspiracy with certain former plaintiff’s employees to take over the plaintiff’s company or, failing that, to divert their personnel, intellectual property and investors to a competing enterprise to commercialize the plaintiff’s alcohol tracking product known as the “BarMaster”. As early as May 2011, the plaintiff threatened Defendants with litigation for interfering with the plaintiff’s operations, ultimately filing suit in June 2013.

After the plaintiff’s discovery requests yielded just 422 pages produced by the defendants (including no communications solely between defendants and virtually no communications between defendants and any “co-conspirator” identified in the plaintiff’s requests) the plaintiff moved to compel further production and in September 2014, the court granted the motion and ordered that “(i) Defendants appear by September 23 for depositions regarding ‘document preservation and production,’ and (ii) the parties meet and confer in order to submit to the court by September 30 ‘a plan to retain an independent consultant to do a limited forensic collection and analysis of the media associated with each named defendant.’”

During the depositions, the individual defendants admitted having deleted numerous emails and text messages, failing to preserve devices that potentially responsive data was stored on, failing to search key media and failing to use obvious search terms in the searches that they did perform. Meanwhile, in October 2014, per the parties’ joint agreement, the Court selected the a digital forensics firm (at the defendants’ expense) to perform a forensic analysis of Defendants’ media and email accounts, with the order calling for the defendants to produce over 40 specified electronic media and email accounts for forensic imaging.

The digital forensics firm ultimately found 2,593 relevant documents totaling 12,467 pages – over 12,000 pages more than the defendants had previously produced and also determined that “four separate system optimization and computer cleaning programs were run” (including CCleaner, aka “Crap Cleaner”) on one defendant’s laptop. These programs were loaded onto his laptop and executed on July 22, 2014 – just six days after the filing of the plaintiff’s motion – and resulted in the deletion of “over 50,000 files”. For that and other apparent instances of spoliation of data among the defendants, the plaintiff requested monetary sanctions, an adverse inference instruction and terminating sanctions.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to the duty to preserve, Judge Grewal stated that “Once upon a time, the federal courts debated exactly when the duty to preserve documents arises. No more. “The duty to preserve evidence begins when litigation is `pending or reasonably foreseeable.’”

Finding that the defendants “were on notice of foreseeable litigation well before spoliation occurred”, that their “spoliation occurred with the required culpable mindset” and that they “failed to produce thousands of documents that contained key terms that the parties designated as relevant to the litigation”, Judge Grewal ruled that “In sum, sanctions are warranted. The only question is what kind.”

Ultimately, Judge Grewal awarded “expenses and fees in this discovery dispute under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2)(C)” of $212,320 and granted the request for an adverse instruction that the unproduced material may be deemed to support the plaintiff’s contentions. He also ruled that “Defendants’ prior counsel also must be sanctioned for improperly certifying Defendants’ discovery responses, and for subsequently failing to intervene even after ‘obvious red flags’ arose, such as Defendants’ failure to produce incriminating documents CVT obtained from their third parties.” Also, based on information that the defendants had “stiffed on the bill” for the digital forensics firm, Judge Grewal ruled that “Defendants shall show cause why they should not face further sanctions for this failure.”

Judge Grewal, however, declined to recommend terminating sanctions “in light of public policy and the sufficiency of monetary sanctions and an adverse jury instruction”.

So, what do you think? Should the request for terminating sanctions have been granted? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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