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“Angels Tread” — An E-Discovery Classic

by Dean Gonsowski on June 16th, 2008

christian-rock.jpgIn Judge Grimm’s recent opinion, Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc., 2008 WL 2221841 (D. Md. May 29, 2008), he does a lot to instill fear into foolhardy attorneys who attempt to structure their own keyword searches for e-discovery, again quoting Equity Analytics:

“[F]or lawyers and judges to dare opine that a certain search term or terms would be more likely to produce information than the terms that were used is truly to go where angels fear to tread.”

And, while I agree with this sentiment, the notion of angels treading sounds a bit like a Christian rock band. But, I digress… on to the significance of this opinion.

First of all, it comes from Chief United States Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm, a noted e-discovery jurist, who’s authored a number of significant opinions in this area, including Hobson and Thompson. Here, in Victor Stanley, he also gets the award for footnote of the decade: Footnote 10, which is so chockablock with relevant nuggets that I thought I’d dedicate an entire post to his riveting dicta.

Judge Grimm’s entire opinion is quite lengthy (43 pages) so a summary is dangerous, but the central issue in Victor Stanley revolved around whether the defendants, who’d inadvertently produced 165 privileged electronic documents, could get them back, in the absence of a valid clawback provision. The plaintiff’s contention was that defendants waived privilege because they failed to take reasonable precautions by performing a faulty review of text-searchable files that were part of defendants’ electronically stored information (ESI) production.

In order to evaluate the reasonableness of defendants’ privilege review methodology, Judge Grimm honed in on defendant’s use of keyword search techniques. Quoting In re Seroquel, O’Keefe and Equity Analytics, Grimm used the bulk of footnote 10 to expand on this core thesis:

(“[D]etermining whether a particular search methodology, such as keywords, will or will not be effective certainly requires knowledge beyond the ken of a lay person (and a lay lawyer) . . . .”);

And, while the implications of this expert oriented approach are controversial, this much should be eminently clear to practitioners (in cascading order of obviousness):

  • Legal Discovery, except in the most bizarre case, will always involve some measure of ESI.
  • ESI is proliferating both in types (blogs, databases, VOIP, IM, text messaging, etc.) and volume (multi-terabyte cases are now common).
  • Even the most basic search techniques (keyword, Boolean, etc.) are required to manage exploding data volumes. But, according to Judge Grimm, in order to have a keyword search pass judicial muster one of the following two scenarios must occur:
  1. Collaborative Search Approach: The parties, presumably as part of the meet and confer process must “confer with their opposing party in an effort to identify a mutually agreeable search and retrieval method. This minimizes cost because if the method is approved, there will be no dispute resolving its sufficiency, and doing it right the first time is always cheaper than doing it over if ordered to do so by the court.” I like to call this the “measure twice, cut once” method.Or, alternatively:
  2. Best Practices & Data Driven Search Approach: In order to have a defensible methodology in the absence of collaboration a party needs to:a) “be aware of literature describing the strengths and weaknesses of various methodologies, such as The Sedona Conference Best Practices,…. and select the one that they believe is most appropriate for its intended task.”b) And, if their selection is challenged, then they should expect to support their position with “affidavits or other equivalent information from persons with the requisite qualifications and experience, based on sufficient facts or data and using reliable principles or methodology.”c) Finally, they should do appropriate levels of data sampling and quality assurance to test core search assumptions.

Failure to adhere to this articulate standard is an invitation for disaster:

“Use of search and information retrieval methodology,…, requires the utmost care in selecting methodology that is appropriate for the task because the consequence of failing to do so, … , may be the disclosure of privileged/protected information to an adverse party, resulting in a determination by the court that the privilege/protection has been waived.”

So, while it’s not my intent to be overly dramatic, I think we are seeing a sea change in how search is performed in practice. It used to be de rigueur for attorneys to run solo with their search protocols. But, it’s not safe to take that path any longer. Now, counsel faces a fork in the road where they can either collaborate on their search protocols or be prepared to get called to the carpet if the opposition wants to make a fuss. This might turn out to be yet another “case within a case” situation similar to how the plaintiffs’ bar has made hay by arguing about spoliation in some instances where they didn’t have much on the merits. If that happens having a defensible process, and perhaps an expert and supporting statistics will go a long way towards preventing a catastrophic privilege waiver.

One Response to ““Angels Tread” — An E-Discovery Classic”

  1. e-discovery 2.0 » Blog Archive » e-discovery, electronic discovery, legal discovery, ediscovery, EDD Says:

    [...] top of mind is how this new Rule will impact the recent decisions on e-discovery search, including the Victor Stanley case authored by Chief Magistrate Judge Grimm.  Since FRE 502 contains a core [...]

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