Spoliation and Defensible Deletion: What’s the Difference?
Spoliation and Sanctions
Spoliation, the destruction or manipulation of ESI, has become a prevalent issue in e-discovery. As evidenced by Atalian US New England, LLC v. Navarro, spoliation is often done deliberately. In response to allegations of fraud, the defendant deleted mobile device data and replaced it with fabricated evidence. The judge sanctioned the company for intending to deprive the opposing counsel of relevant information. Negligence is another cause for spoliation. In McCoy v. Transdev Svc., Inc., Transdev faced default judgment for “inadvertently” deleting cell phone data. Though the content was unknown, the Court upheld its relevance, maintaining that it could have supported the opposition’s claims. Faulkner v. Aero Fulfillment Services demonstrates that spoliation can also be an accidental offense. Ms. Faulkner initially adhered to production requests and produced her LinkedIn data in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. But when the defendants asked for the evidence in a different format, Ms. Faulkner was unable to comply because she had deactivated her account. The court decided against sanctioning the plaintiff because she had followed the initial production request, and it was the counsel’s responsibility to inform her of preservation obligations.
Per Rule 37(e) of the Federal Rules of Procedure, sanctions for irreversibly deleting ESI include:
- Court involvement to remedy any prejudices suffered by the opposing counsel
- Court and jury presumptions that the lost information was unfavorable to the responsible party if the deletion was intentional
- Dismissal of the action or motion for default judgment
Defining Defensible Deletion
Unlike spoliation, defensible deletion involves the ongoing elimination of unneeded data to reduce the costs of storage and retention. Deletion is permissible by the Federal Rules of Procedure when the ESI isn’t being held for a legal, statutory, or business purpose. Legal teams should carefully design a deletion strategy so that they can decide what to keep, archive, and eliminate.
Things to Keep in Mind for Defensible Deletion
- Prepare a retention policy and schedule. Defensible deletion is a slow, meticulous process. Take your time, especially when handling large amounts of big data.
- Establish an inventory of legal preservation obligations. Within the inventory, identify which data types are currently under legal holds (or likely to be held). Proper documentation and classification of your data will simplify the retention process.
- Properly staff the deletion project with a range of experts in various fields.
 R. Thomas Dunn, “Intentional Deletion and Manipulation of Electronic Data Leads to Default Judgement,” JD Supra, August 12, 2021, https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/intentional-deletion-and-manipulation-8546367/
 Michael Berman, “Defendant Unsuccessfully Argued that Plaintiff Could Not Show That Data on Cell Phone That Defendant Destroyed Was Relevant,” E-Discovery LLC, August 18, 2021, http://www.ediscoveryllc.com/defendant-unsuccessfully-argued-that-plaintiff-could-not-show-that-data-on-cell-phone-that-defendant-destroyed-was-relevant/
 Brielle A. Basso, “In It for the Long Haul: The Duty to Preserve Social Media Accounts Is Not Terminated Upon an Initial Production,” Gibbons, June 30, 2020, https://www.gibbonslawalert.com/2020/06/30/in-it-for-the-long-haul-the-duty-to-preserve-social-media-accounts-is-not-terminated-upon-an-initial-production/
 “Rule 37. Failure to Make Disclosures or to Cooperate in Discovery; Sanction,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcp/rule_37
 “Defensible Deletion Strategy: Getting Rid of Your Unnecessary Data,” Special Counsel, November 16, 2019, https://blog.specialcounsel.com/ediscovery/defensible-data-deletion-strategy-basics/
 Andrew J. Peck, Jennifer M. Feldman, Leeanne Sara Mancari, Dennis Kiker, “Defensible deletion: The proof is in the planning,” DLA Piper, February 5, 2021, https://www.dlapiper.com/en/us/insights/publications/2021/02/defensible-deletion-the-proof-is-in-the-planning/