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Archive for May, 2011

#Winning the Battle with Social Media and Electronic Discovery

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

It seems all too easy to poke fun at Charlie Sheen’s antics of late.  And, while they serve as cautionary tales in numerous contexts, his use of social media to launch his “tiger blood” fueled rampage against his former employer may mean that these rants may actually turn into evidence someday soon in his breach of contract action.  On one hand, his public meltdown was surely a high water mark for social media as a window into the real-time (can’t look away) train wreck that is now Mr. Sheen’s career.  After all, he now has over 3 million Twitter followers and for those who don’t expressly follow his now infamous rants (e.g.,“#winning”) other media outlets stand by to repost and re-tweet every scintillating (less than 140 character) proclamation.

For those who think that they’d prefer to have less Sheen in their daily diets, let’s use his 15 minutes of über-fame to examine the impact of social media on the traditionally email oriented electronic discovery process we’ve all come to know and love.  On balance, while the electronic discovery and regulatory issues are all fundamentally the same, the social media genre does genuinely pose a range of tactical and strategic challenges.

Accept Reality and Plan Accordingly

For many organizations, it’s easy to exhale as they’ve finally reigned in some of the email chaos during the 2000s.  But, this small victory in the larger information management war has been eclipsed by new challenges posed by social media.  The problem isn’t just that the types (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) are increasing at a mind numbing speed, but the volumes of accumulated data (1 billion tweets per week) is also proliferating wildly.  A recent article published under the Sedona Conference’s aegis, The Impact of the Internet and Social Media on Records and Information Management: Unexpected Bedfellows Highlight the Need for Effective Information Management –Now More than Ever points out:

“Most commentators agree that, if social networks in the workplace are inevitable, corporations must resign themselves to the inevitable and prepare accordingly. …

To combat these risks, companies must understand the interactions between IT and legal and how they intersect in the world of Records and Information Management. Companies must also employ a cross-discipline approach to issues in order to properly address access rights, digital security, Records and Information Management policies and programs, short and long-term data storage strategies, audit processes, enforcement protocols, incident and litigation response plans, and employee education programs.”

The authors correctly state: “[h]ard decisions need to be made, and resources committed, but an ounce of current prevention now may certainly outweigh the inevitable pound of information loss.”  This “pound” is most often paid out by organizations in response to electronic discovery costs, which are axiomatically linked to the amount of electronically stored information (ESI) a company needs to collect, process, review and produce for the matter at hand.

So, like the first stage in the Kübler-Ross grief process (denial), organizations need to accept the reality of social media, understand the implications (cost, risk, information security challenges, etc.) and start to plan accordingly.  Yet, the denial seems to be ever-present.  In a recent survey by the Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM) it was shockingly noted that “[w]ritten policies for social media are non-existent,” with 85 percent of industry professionals admitting that “no written policies existed within their organizations regarding the preservation of data for any of the wildly popular social networking sites.”

Deploy the Right Information Governance Policies

Step one in this challenging task is to reign in the authorized/unauthorized use of social media.  This likely doesn’t equate to the wholesale prohibition of all social media (which would be nearly impossible to enforce).  Instead, the goal should be to define what is permissible via policies and procedures, and that in turn should be used to identify expectations of reasonable corporate conduct.  This effort should inherently recognize that there are legitimate business purposes (ideally with defined corporate objectives), as well as individualized usages (that nevertheless may still be supportive of company goals) for the use of social media.  In all instances it will be important to calculate the benefits of the social media activity (increased collaboration, real-time communication, ubiquity, etc.) with the risks (lack of information control, reduced productivity, etc.).

Organizations may also consider which of their own social media forays constitute a business record and whether or not they should be proactively archiving/capturing/preserving such ESI to create a robust document trail if social media ever becomes a factor in litigation.  Unfortunately, as with a number of other quickly developing paradigms such as cloud computing, there’s often a “ready, fire, aim” approach where the legal, risk and compliance ramifications aren’t well thought out prior to deployment.

Social Media Use Cases Proliferate

In just the past few months there have been numerous instances where social media has taken center stage in the electronic discovery and compliance realms.  Here are just a few recent examples:

  • Facebook – In what’s been called the Facebook firing case, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) jumped in to chastise an employer for allegedly firing an employee due to a Facebook post (where she allegedly called her boss a “mental patient”).  The NLRB said that policy was in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to discuss “the terms and conditions of their employment with others.”
  • LinkedIn – In a recent breach of contract action, an employer claimed it had evidence of improper solicitation of its employees through the LinkedIn connections of one of the defendants.

Electronic Discovery Costs Rise in Concert with Social Media

While “ESI is ESI” to some extent, there are tactical challenges with conducting electronic discovery of social media.  Using the EDRM model as a guide, the first main hurdle will be Identification.  In this stage, the challenge will be to identify (ideally through data maps and corporate policies) the instances of social media that are being legitimately used within an enterprise.  This process is typically linked to key players, versus searching the entire data universe for specific key terms.

Once this thorny issue is confronted, the even bigger challenge involves determining how to manage the risk-laden Preservation process.  Here, the highly dynamic nature of social media stands in contrast with its email counterpart, which in many ways was designed to be used in a linear, threaded format.   The preservation of social media has two main challenges.  The first one is access since the information may be private or semi-private.  In this setting, the recent case of Romano v. Steelcase Inc. (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2010) shed light on some of the privacy issues:

“[W]hen Plaintiff created her Facebook and MySpace accounts, she consented to the fact that her personal information would be shared with others, notwithstanding her privacy settings. … Since Plaintiff knew that her information may become publicly available, she cannot now claim that she had a reasonable expectation of privacy. As recently set forth by commentators regarding privacy and social networking sites, given the millions of users, ‘[i]n this environment, privacy is no longer grounded in reasonable expectations, but rather in some theoretical protocol better known as wishful thinking.’”

Assuming the privacy issue can be overcome, the next issue is encountered during the Collection phase, since it will be hard to actually preserve social media in situ because the content is dynamic and at the whim of the user and the applicable site.  Aside from a few recent developments like Facebook’s “Download Your Information” feature and the library of Congress’ decision to archive all tweets since March, 2006, most social media ESI is fleeting and hard to collect.  The current brute force methodology is to simply take screenshots of the relevant blog, tweet or status update.  The challenge with this approach isn’t necessarily with admissibility (see below).  Instead, this static modus operandi makes it nearly impossible to utilize analytical tools to search and review the social media content.  Assuming the use cases and volumes continue to proliferate at current speeds (which is a safe bet), then leveraging analytical tools becomes that much more important in the effort to control costs.

Over time, enterprises will attempt to funnel users into corporate social media platforms that have governance abilities built in, particularly export functionality that will permit more advanced search and analytics from purpose-built e-discovery applications.  But, for now, the herding cats exercise will continue as the corporate community tries to keep up with the faster moving user base.

Admissibility is an Open Question

Not to be forgotten, the core underpinning to a successful collection of social media content is the ESI’s admissibility, since the ability to use data in court is the sine qua non for conducting the electronic discovery process in the first place.  In the seminal case on the admissibility topic, Lorraine v. Markel Am. Ins. Co., (2007), United States Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm noted that “[v]ery little has been written, however, about what is required to insure that ESI obtained during discovery is admissible into evidence at trial.”  He went on to note that “[t]his is unfortunate, because considering the significant costs associated with discovery of ESI, it makes little sense to go to all the bother and expense to get electronic information only to have it excluded from evidence or rejected from consideration during summary judgment because the proponent cannot lay a sufficient foundation to get it admitted.”

While it’s difficult to quickly summarize the authentication requirements for social media, it is an important aspect that can be achieved a number of ways (pursuant to FRCP 901, which only provides illustrations).  The most likely course would be to utilize the “personal knowledge” approach, which permits authentication by testimony “that a matter is what it is claimed to be.”   Other approaches, such as utilizing metadata (which works well for more static ESI) will be less applicable for social media since it is more ephemeral.

Conclusion

Many have proclaimed that social media will soon render email obsolete as the primary form of corporate communication.  While this remains to be seen, social media is quickly elbowing its way into the electronic discovery conversation and this new kid on the block needs to be taken seriously, or the unwary practitioner may unwittingly find out (via tweet) that their case has been dismissed because of spoliation.

Clearwell Signs Agreement To Be Acquired By Symantec

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

I am thrilled to announce that Clearwell has signed an agreement to be acquired by Symantec for $410 million ($390 million, net of our cash balance of $20 million). By bringing together Clearwell’s market leading e-discovery platform with Symantec’s market-leading archiving solution, we are uniquely positioned to provide customers with the next generation of information management solutions.

The e-discovery software industry has matured rapidly in the 6 years since Clearwell was founded. As electronic information has become a key part of all litigation, regulatory inquiries, and internal investigations, companies have had no choice but to adopt e-discovery software to keep their costs down. Some have done so by bringing e-discovery in-house; others prefer to work with law firms and litigation support companies who provide cloud-based solutions. Either way, e-discovery software has become widely adopted by corporations, government agencies, and law firms around the world.

Clearwell has been a major beneficiary of these trends. Our annual sales have grown rapidly to over $50 million, and the company has been profitable since 2009. Today, we have over 400 customers and 75 partners in 14 different countries.

Many of these customers are using Clearwell together with Symantec Enterprise Vault in a single integrated workflow, and they have often requested that we couple our products more tightly to better serve their information management needs. That’s what led us to partner with Symantec for the past several years and ultimately led to this transaction. Over time, we see corporations and government agencies increasingly seeking information management solutions that encompass both e-discovery and archiving, making the combination of Clearwell with Enterprise Vault incredibly compelling.

In the near term, we expect very little to change for our existing customers. The product will continue to be sold on a standalone basis and supported by the Clearwell team. We remain committed to serving law firms and litigation support partners, who are absolutely critical to our success in more ways than we can describe.

This is an exciting time for the e-discovery industry. Last week, Gartner published its first ever Magic Quadrant For eDiscovery Software. Today, Symantec and Clearwell join forces to deliver a seamless, integrated archiving and e-discovery management workflow, benefitting all our customers. You can find more information about the acquisition at: http://www.symantec.com/clearwell.  There are exciting times ahead.

IBM’s Watson: Can It Be Used for E-Discovery?

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

As the buzz around Watson and its foray into human-like (actually super-human) performance subsides, it may be time to take stock of what all the fuss was about. After all, we’re all used to computers doing better than humans in many things and even take its superior store of knowledge for granted. And, on the surface, we get answers to questions on pretty much anything from a simple Google or Bing search. So, what really is the big deal and is it even relevant in the context of electronic discovery?

For those not clued in on this, Watson is a brainchild of a four-year effort from 20-25 researchers at IBM, to build a computing engine that would successfully compete at champions-level at the popular quiz show, Jeopardy. Although it blundered on a couple of answers, it competed very well, with a wide margin of victory. Several industry experts that learned of it and watched the show have lauded this as an accomplishment at the same scale or even better than the IBM Deep Blue beating Chess Grand Champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997. So, let’s examine if this is indeed worthy of the accolades it has gotten.

Behind Watson is an impressive piece of hardware – a series of 90 IBM Power 750 nodes, adding to 16TB of memory and 2,880 Power7 processor cores delivering a staggering 80 teraflops of peak performance.  All the hardware is highly inter-connected with ability to work on problems in parallel, but still marching to a final result in three seconds or less – just fast enough to beat the human buzzer. Some highlights of the computing infrastructure from the hardware architect, Dr. James Fan, at IBM indicate that the three-second timeframe meant the entire corpus of 200 million pages was loaded into memory. Also, with several processors simultaneously working on pieces of the problem, they place very high I/O requirements. The hardware supports a multi-processing OS, with virtualization, in a workload optimized system. The software drives the hardware using thousands of dense threads, with each thread of execution processing a large chunk of work with minimal context switch. Also, given the large number of cores, each thread is optimally allocated to a core. Branded as DeepQA, the software executes a series of complex algorithms in order to solve a very specific problem: winning on Jeopardy.

First, the Jeopardy game provides categories of clues. Some categories help in understanding the clue, while others are simply misleading to a computer. Next, the clue is revealed and one needs to determine what the clue is really asking, since many clues do not ask for a factoid with a direct question, but rather is a composition of multiple sub-clues, each related to another in some linguistic, semantic, syntactic, temporal or other forms of connection. The decomposition of clues and figuring the relationships is a challenge even for humans. Finally, after one understands the clue, you then have to hone in on an answer with some level of confidence, within a three-second window, and must activate the answer buzzer ahead of the rest of the competitors. Besides individual clues, one has to also devise an overall game strategy for selecting the next category, selecting a clue within that category, how much to wager on the Double Jeopardy and the Final Jeopardy. Overall, the game is a complex amalgamation of knowledge, language analysis, gaming strategy and speed of recall of answers.

The software architecture of the DeepQA system is documented in a paper published in AI Magazine. The team built several components to address each area of the problem, with many independent algorithms in each component.  There are lots of complicated technical details, but the final outcome is a human-like response.

A question on that anyone who examines its inner workings has is whether the system is really natural language processing, or statistical language analysis, or machine learning or some sort of ad-hoc program, which doesn’t fit any traditional area of analytics. It does appear to be an combination of several techniques, which may mirror exactly how humans go about solving these clues. We seem to have a large collection of knowledge, initially unconnected but the category, the clue, the hypothesis all appear to generate word and concept associations and a fuzzy evaluation of confidence measures which all converge into a confidence with which a competitor answers a question. It is the replication of these processes by algorithms that makes it truly an astounding achievement.

Given the success of DeepQA’s performance, a natural question is whether it has any practical value for helping us solve day-to-day problems. More specifically, can it cope with the information overload and the challenges of e-discovery posed by that mass of information?  Use within e-discovery context has been explored by several authors, most notably, Robert C. Weber of IBM and Nick Brestoff in recent Law.com articles. Their analysis is based on the ability to explore vast volumes of knowledge. But really, what DeepQA tackled is something more significant – the inherent ambiguity in human spoken and written communication. Our natural instincts are to employ subtle nuances, indirect references, implicit assumptions, and incomplete sentences. We tend to leverage prior and surrounding context in most of our communications. It’s just the natural way of communications, since doing so is actually very effective. We assume establishing context is redundant, unproductive and unnecessary as it tends to make communication repetitive. By not employing a rigid structure in how we write, we are able to bring to bear concise exchanges that span a large volume of information.

If the last two decades is an indicator, the nature of communication is getting less formal, with emails, instant messages, tweets, and blog posts replacing well-crafted formal letters and memos. And, forcing individuals to communicate using rigid, unambiguous text in order for it to be processed by computers easily would mean a huge change in behavior in how people communicate. Any action that contemplates such a change in behavior across billions of people is simply not going to occur. What this means is that the burden for automated analysis using computing algorithms is even greater. This is what makes the discovery of relevant content in the context of e-discovery a very hard problem, one that is worthy of the sort of technological prowess employed by DeepQA team.

Given that our appetite for producing information is ever-increasing, while its discoverability is getting harder, taking the work of DeepQA and adapting it to solve e-discovery needs has the potential to make significant improvements in how we tackle the search, review and analytical aspects of e-discovery.  DeepQA took an easily articulated goal of answering at least 60% of the clues with 85% precision in order to reach champion levels. That was sufficient to win the game. Note that there was never an attempt to get 100% of all clues, with 100% confidence. In the realm of e-discovery, we would be looking at taking a very general production request such as the TREC 2009 Topic 201 “All documents or communications that describe, discuss, refer to, report on, or relate to the Company’s engagement in structured commodity transactions known as prepay transactions.” and use just such a simple articulation of the request to produce relevant documents. It is the core algorithms of machine learning, multiple scoring methods, managing relevance and confidence levels along with traditional information retrieval methods that form the ingredients of the new frontier of automated e-discovery. Beyond e-discovery, application of DeepQA algorithms for business analytics also has significant potential, where fact and evidence-based decision making using unstructured data is likely the norm. DeepQA’s very public Jeopardy challenge has shown that the ingredients needed for enabling such problem solving is well within the realm of possibility.

Electronic Discovery Cases You Must Know

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

I was at Sedona midyear meeting last week and during Ken Withers’ excellent discussion of recent e-discovery case law, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, there are so many cases coming out now each week it’s hard to stay above the fray and mine for useful nuggets. The task is a bit Sisyphean, so folks like Ken (who keep a rolling index of cases) are particularly helpful. Next, I was struck by how hot Pension Committee still is, even after almost a year and a half. Certainly, this ongoing spotlight wasn’t an accident, and it’s almost certain that Judge Scheindlin is pleased by the ongoing debate.

I frequently get questions from enterprise clients regarding which cases they should know about, and so I put together an EDRM oriented (left to right) list for folks who just can’t get to all the latest cases. While it’s not an annual roundup per se, I do think it’s a bit more functional for busy electronic discovery professionals who need to stay current. So, here’s the buzz index of cases arranged by topic:

Preservation: The Legal Hold Gold Standard

Case: Pension Committee of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan, et al., v. Banc of America Securities, LLC, et al. (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: The dispute focused on claims by a group of investors who brought an action to recover losses of $550 million dollars stemming from the liquidation of two British Virgin Islands based hedge funds. Unlike many typical e-discovery disputes, this instant action focused on the conduct of the plaintiffs as they attempted to deal with the often murky landscape of electronically stored information (ESI) preservation, collection and production. Judge Scheindlin goes out of her way to crystallize duties and identify the type of conduct that can cause an e-discovery breach. “After a discovery duty is well established, the failure to adhere to contemporary standards can be considered gross negligence. Thus, after the final relevant Zubulake opinion in July, 2004, the following failures support a finding of gross negligence, when the duty to preserve has attached:

  • to issue a written litigation hold;
  • to identify all of the key players and to ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved;
  • to cease the deletion of email or to preserve the records of former employees that are in a party’s possession, custody, or control;
  • and to preserve backup tapes when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”

Why it’s (still) important: First of all, Pension Committee is written by Judge Scheindlin, who is the most famous electronic discovery jurist on the planet. Next, since she’s in the Southern District of New York, it means that folks even in other jurisdiction that aren’t bound by her opinions still must take heed given the fact that New York is home to so many multinational organizations. Finally, her opinion is the clearest (even if disputed) articulation regarding the standard of care for the issuance of legal holds and the duty to preserve ESI. She attempts to categorically define conduct that is grossly negligent and therefore susceptible to extreme sanctions, including spoliation inferences and terminating sanctions. Fortunately, she recognizes the numerous challenges associated with electronic discovery. And, so as to blend in a healthy dose of reality Judge Scheindlin also said: “In an era where vast amounts of electronic information is available for review, discovery in certain cases has become increasingly complex and expensive. Courts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection.”

In the end, Pension Committee, was the case of the year in 2010 and even in 2011 it’s generating an unprecedented level of retrospectives (here and here). It may be because Judge Scheindlin’s relatively bright line standard has created so much debate, but in the end the Pension Committee discussion will likely continue for the foreseeable future (perhaps only ending when/if the culpability rules are amended to create a unified national standard).

Preservation: Why Preserve in Place is Risky?

Case: Wilson v. Thorn Energy, LLC, (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: In Wilson, the defendant corporation identified a flash drive that contained relevant ESI, but rather than copying that data safely to a centralized evidence repository, the defendant’s employee chose to hold on to the drive, putting it instead into a desk drawer. When the files were requested for review and production, the files could not be read from the drive. The defendant’s employee attempted to recover the ESI contained on it, but those efforts failed. Granting plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, the court ordered that defendants would be precluded from offering evidence at trial concerning the data contained on the discarded drive.

Why it’s important: In today’s e-discovery world, many organizations are instituting hold processes via manual solutions and then waiting weeks or months to ultimately collect the ESI. Wilson shows the danger of simply preserving data and makes the argument that you should either “collect to preserve” or collect very shortly after the litigation hold notice goes out. While focusing on a certain media type (flash drive), this analysis can be extended to any digital system containing ESI that inherently has some set failure rates or can be imagined to fail without express, conscious action (due to loss, theft, recycling, etc.).

Identification & Collection: “Manual” Collections Come Under Fire

Case: Green v. Blitz U.S.A. (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011)

Summary: In this case, Plaintiff sought to re-open her lawsuit despite prior settlement upon learning that defendant had failed to produce relevant documents. Finding that defendant had committed discovery abuses, including failing to disclose relevant evidence and failing to issue a litigation hold, the court ordered defendant to pay plaintiff $250,000, to provide a copy of the court’s order to plaintiffs “in every lawsuit proceeding against it” for the past two years and to file the court’s order in every case that defendant is involved in for the next 5 years. It was revealed that the employee “solely responsible for searching for and collecting documents relevant to litigation” issued no litigation hold, conducted no electronic word searches for emails, and made no effort to speak with defendant’s IT department regarding how to search for electronic documents.

Why it’s important: Green is the latest in a line of cases [See also Ford Motor Co. v. Edgewood Properties Inc., 257 F.R.D. 418 (D.N.J. 2009) and Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell, Inc., 621 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Utah 2009) ] that have been highly critical of manual (or self) collection efforts by the individual custodians. Historically, if the custodians were monitored/supervised enough by counsel, this manual collection process was largely deemed defensible, but it looks like this behavior is simply too risky for any conservative enterprise. The better practice is to leverage the custodians to point out where relevant ESI might exist and utilize software tools to conduct broad collections from key players. While it’s not necessary to use IT tools to collect data immediately for all custodians who have received a litigation hold notice, it’s probably unreasonable to not quickly collect ESI (via formal, IT based methods) from at least some subset of key players. The main point is that this isn’t an all or nothing calculation. Costs, risks and benefits should all be carefully evaluated and documented, in case there’s a downstream challenge.

Analysis & Review: Failure to Test Keywords and Sample

Case: Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Felman Prod., Inc., (S.D. W. Va., 2010).

Summary: In this case the court examined the reasonableness of plaintiff’s precautions to prevent disclosure of email, which was inadvertently produced by the plaintiff amidst “a massive disclosure of e-discovery.” The Mt. Hawley court applied the five-factor test established in Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc. (D. Md. 2008) and found that the producing party had not taken reasonable steps during discovery. In particular, the court was unwilling to find that the inadvertent production of 377 privileged documents was “solely attributable” to a technological glitch and instead found that plaintiff and counsel “failed to perform critical quality control sampling to determine whether their production was appropriate and neither over inclusive nor under-inclusive.” This finding meant that their attorney client privilege was waived as to the subject documents.

Why it’s important: Mt. Hawley demonstrates why sampling and keyword search term formulation is critically important to any defensible discovery effort. In many instances where “blind” keyword strategies are used, the producing party is taking on an undue risk, in essence flirting with the “3rd rail” of electronic discovery (inadvertent production). Blind keyword searching (followed by brute force review and production) is sadly still a very common practice today. My hope is that cases like Mt. Hawley will force the blissfully ignorant practicioners to take stock of their risky practices and get with contemporary best practices like ECA, sampling, iterative search and the like.

Conclusion

Simply by creating such a list, I’m sure to leave off cases other folks think are more buzz worthy. But, for me, having a few good legal chestnuts is better than trying to boil the ocean and synthesize all the available case law. If you have any comments I’d be eager to hear (good, bad or indifferent).

I was at Sedona midyear meeting last week and during Ken Withers’ excellent discussion of recent e-discovery case law, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, there are so many cases coming out now each week it’s hard to stay above the fray and mine for useful nuggets. The task is a bit Sisyphean, so folks like Ken (who keep a rolling index of cases) are particularly helpful. Next, I was struck by how hot Pension Committee still is, even after almost a year and a half. Certainly, this ongoing spotlight wasn’t an accident, and it’s almost certain that Judge Scheindlin is pleased by the ongoing debate.

I frequently get questions from enterprise clients regarding which cases they should know about, and so I put together an EDRM oriented (left to right) list for folks who just can’t get to all the latest cases. While it’s not an annual roundup per se, I do think it’s a bit more functional for busy electronic discovery professionals who need to stay current. So, here’s the buzz index of cases arranged by topic:

Preservation: The Legal Hold Gold Standard

Case: Pension Committee of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan, et al., v. Banc of America Securities, LLC, et al. (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: The dispute focused on claims by a group of investors who brought an action to recover losses of $550 million dollars stemming from the liquidation of two British Virgin Islands based hedge funds. Unlike many typical e-discovery disputes, this instant action focused on the conduct of the plaintiffs as they attempted to deal with the often murky landscape of electronically stored information (ESI) preservation, collection and production. Judge Scheindlin goes out of her way to crystallize duties and identify the type of conduct that can cause an e-discovery breach. “After a discovery duty is well established, the failure to adhere to contemporary standards can be considered gross negligence. Thus, after the final relevant Zubulake opinion in July, 2004, the following failures support a finding of gross negligence, when the duty to preserve has attached:

· to issue a written litigation hold;

· to identify all of the key players and to ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved;

· to cease the deletion of email or to preserve the records of former employees that are in a party’s possession, custody, or control;

· and to preserve backup tapes when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”

Why it’s (still) important: First of all, Pension Committee is written by Judge Scheindlin, who is the most famous electronic discovery jurist on the planet. Next, since she’s in the Southern District of New York, it means that folks even in other jurisdiction that aren’t bound by her opinions still must take heed given the fact that New York is home to so many multinational organizations. Finally, her opinion is the clearest (even if disputed) articulation regarding the standard of care for the issuance of legal holds and the duty to preserve ESI. She attempts to categorically define conduct that is grossly negligent and therefore susceptible to extreme sanctions, including spoliation inferences and terminating sanctions. Fortunately, she recognizes the numerous challenges associated with electronic discovery. And, so as to blend in a healthy dose of reality Judge Scheindlin also said: “In an era where vast amounts of electronic information is available for review, discovery in certain cases has become increasingly complex and expensive. Courts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection.”

In the end, Pension Committee, was the case of the year in 2010 and even in 2011 it’s generating an unprecedented level of retrospectives (here and here). It may be because Judge Scheindlin’s relatively bright line standard has created so much debate, but in the end the Pension Committee discussion will likely continue for the foreseeable future (perhaps only ending when/if the culpability rules are amended to create a unified national standard).

Preservation: Why Preserve in Place is Risky?

Case: Wilson v. Thorn Energy, LLC, (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: In Wilson, the defendant corporation identified a flash drive that contained relevant ESI, but rather than copying that data safely to a centralized evidence repository, the defendant’s employee chose to hold on to the drive, putting it instead into a desk drawer. When the files were requested for review and production, the files could not be read from the drive. The defendant’s employee attempted to recover the ESI contained on it, but those efforts failed. Granting plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, the court ordered that defendants would be precluded from offering evidence at trial concerning the data contained on the discarded drive.

Why it’s important: In today’s e-discovery world, many organizations are instituting hold processes via manual solutions and then waiting weeks or months to ultimately collect the ESI. Wilson shows the danger of simply preserving data and makes the argument that you should either “collect to preserve” or collect very shortly after the litigation hold notice goes out. While focusing on a certain media type (flash drive), this analysis can be extended to any digital system containing ESI that inherently has some set failure rates or can be imagined to fail without express, conscious action (due to loss, theft, recycling, etc.).

Identification & Collection: “Manual” Collections Come Under Fire

Case: Green v. Blitz U.S.A. (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011)

Summary: In this case, Plaintiff sought to re-open her lawsuit despite prior settlement upon learning that defendant had failed to produce relevant documents. Finding that defendant had committed discovery abuses, including failing to disclose relevant evidence and failing to issue a litigation hold, the court ordered defendant to pay plaintiff $250,000, to provide a copy of the court’s order to plaintiffs “in every lawsuit proceeding against it” for the past two years and to file the court’s order in every case that defendant is involved in for the next 5 years. It was revealed that the employee “solely responsible for searching for and collecting documents relevant to litigation” issued no litigation hold, conducted no electronic word searches for emails, and made no effort to speak with defendant’s IT department regarding how to search for electronic documents.

Why it’s important: Green is the latest in a line of cases [See also Ford Motor Co. v. Edgewood Properties Inc., 257 F.R.D. 418 (D.N.J. 2009) and Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell, Inc., 621 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Utah 2009) ] that have been highly critical of manual (or self) collection efforts by the individual custodians. Historically, if the custodians were monitored/supervised enough by counsel, this manual collection process was largely deemed defensible, but it looks like this behavior is simply too risky for any conservative enterprise. The better practice is to leverage the custodians to point out where relevant ESI might exist and utilize software tools to conduct broad collections from key players. While it’s not necessary to use IT tools to collect data immediately for all custodians who have received a litigation hold notice, it’s probably unreasonable to not quickly collect ESI (via formal, IT based methods) from at least some subset of key players. The main point is that this isn’t an all or nothing calculation. Costs, risks and benefits should all be carefully evaluated and documented, in case there’s a downstream challenge.

Analysis & Review: Failure to Test Keywords and Sample

Case: Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Felman Prod., Inc., (S.D. W. Va., 2010).

Summary: In this case the court examined the reasonableness of plaintiff’s precautions to prevent disclosure of email, which was inadvertently produced by the plaintiff amidst “a massive disclosure of e-discovery.” The Mt. Hawley court applied the five-factor test established in Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc. (D. Md. 2008) and found that the producing party had not taken reasonable steps during discovery. In particular, the court was unwilling to find that the inadvertent production of 377 privileged documents was “solely attributable” to a technological glitch and instead found that plaintiff and counsel “failed to perform critical quality control sampling to determine whether their production was appropriate and neither over inclusive nor under-inclusive.” This finding meant that their attorney client privilege was waived as to the subject documents.

Why it’s important: Mt. Hawley demonstrates why sampling and keyword search term formulation is critically important to any defensible discovery effort. In many instances where “blind” keyword strategies are used, the producing party is taking on an undue risk, in essence flirting with the “3rd rail” of electronic discovery (inadvertent p

I was at Sedona midyear meeting last week and during Ken Withers’ excellent discussion of recent e-discovery case law, a few thoughts occurred to me. First, there are so many cases coming out now each week it’s hard to stay above the fray and mine for useful nuggets. The task is a bit Sisyphean, so folks like Ken (who keep a rolling index of cases) are particularly helpful. Next, I was struck by how hot Pension Committee still is, even after almost a year and a half. Certainly, this ongoing spotlight wasn’t an accident, and it’s almost certain that Judge Scheindlin is pleased by the ongoing debate.

I frequently get questions from enterprise clients regarding which cases they should know about, and so I put together an EDRM oriented (left to right) list for folks who just can’t get to all the latest cases. While it’s not an annual roundup per se, I do think it’s a bit more functional for busy electronic discovery professionals who need to stay current. So, here’s the buzz index of cases arranged by topic:

Preservation: The Legal Hold Gold Standard

Case: Pension Committee of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan, et al., v. Banc of America Securities, LLC, et al. (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: The dispute focused on claims by a group of investors who brought an action to recover losses of $550 million dollars stemming from the liquidation of two British Virgin Islands based hedge funds. Unlike many typical e-discovery disputes, this instant action focused on the conduct of the plaintiffs as they attempted to deal with the often murky landscape of electronically stored information (ESI) preservation, collection and production. Judge Scheindlin goes out of her way to crystallize duties and identify the type of conduct that can cause an e-discovery breach. “After a discovery duty is well established, the failure to adhere to contemporary standards can be considered gross negligence. Thus, after the final relevant Zubulake opinion in July, 2004, the following failures support a finding of gross negligence, when the duty to preserve has attached:

  • to issue a written litigation hold;
  • to identify all of the key players and to ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved;
  • to cease the deletion of email or to preserve the records of former employees that are in a party’s possession, custody, or control;
  • and to preserve backup tapes when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”

Why it’s (still) important: First of all, Pension Committee is written by Judge Scheindlin, who is the most famous electronic discovery jurist on the planet. Next, since she’s in the Southern District of New York, it means that folks even in other jurisdiction that aren’t bound by her opinions still must take heed given the fact that New York is home to so many multinational organizations. Finally, her opinion is the clearest (even if disputed) articulation regarding the standard of care for the issuance of legal holds and the duty to preserve ESI. She attempts to categorically define conduct that is grossly negligent and therefore susceptible to extreme sanctions, including spoliation inferences and terminating sanctions. Fortunately, she recognizes the numerous challenges associated with electronic discovery. And, so as to blend in a healthy dose of reality Judge Scheindlin also said: “In an era where vast amounts of electronic information is available for review, discovery in certain cases has become increasingly complex and expensive. Courts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection.”

In the end, Pension Committee, was the case of the year in 2010 and even in 2011 it’s generating an unprecedented level of retrospectives (here and here). It may be because Judge Scheindlin’s relatively bright line standard has created so much debate, but in the end the Pension Committee discussion will likely continue for the foreseeable future (perhaps only ending when/if the culpability rules are amended to create a unified national standard).

Preservation: Why Preserve in Place is Risky?

Case: Wilson v. Thorn Energy, LLC, (S.D.N.Y. 2010).

Summary: In Wilson, the defendant corporation identified a flash drive that contained relevant ESI, but rather than copying that data safely to a centralized evidence repository, the defendant’s employee chose to hold on to the drive, putting it instead into a desk drawer. When the files were requested for review and production, the files could not be read from the drive. The defendant’s employee attempted to recover the ESI contained on it, but those efforts failed. Granting plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions, the court ordered that defendants would be precluded from offering evidence at trial concerning the data contained on the discarded drive.

Why it’s important: In today’s e-discovery world, many organizations are instituting hold processes via manual solutions and then waiting weeks or months to ultimately collect the ESI. Wilson shows the danger of simply preserving data and makes the argument that you should either “collect to preserve” or collect very shortly after the litigation hold notice goes out. While focusing on a certain media type (flash drive), this analysis can be extended to any digital system containing ESI that inherently has some set failure rates or can be imagined to fail without express, conscious action (due to loss, theft, recycling, etc.).

Identification & Collection: “Manual” Collections Come Under Fire

Case: Green v. Blitz U.S.A. (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011)

Summary: In this case, Plaintiff sought to re-open her lawsuit despite prior settlement upon learning that defendant had failed to produce relevant documents. Finding that defendant had committed discovery abuses, including failing to disclose relevant evidence and failing to issue a litigation hold, the court ordered defendant to pay plaintiff $250,000, to provide a copy of the court’s order to plaintiffs “in every lawsuit proceeding against it” for the past two years and to file the court’s order in every case that defendant is involved in for the next 5 years. It was revealed that the employee “solely responsible for searching for and collecting documents relevant to litigation” issued no litigation hold, conducted no electronic word searches for emails, and made no effort to speak with defendant’s IT department regarding how to search for electronic documents.

Why it’s important: Green is the latest in a line of cases [See also Ford Motor Co. v. Edgewood Properties Inc., 257 F.R.D. 418 (D.N.J. 2009) and Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell, Inc., 621 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Utah 2009) ] that have been highly critical of manual (or self) collection efforts by the individual custodians. Historically, if the custodians were monitored/supervised enough by counsel, this manual collection process was largely deemed defensible, but it looks like this behavior is simply too risky for any conservative enterprise. The better practice is to leverage the custodians to point out where relevant ESI might exist and utilize software tools to conduct broad collections from key players. While it’s not necessary to use IT tools to collect data immediately for all custodians who have received a litigation hold notice, it’s probably unreasonable to not quickly collect ESI (via formal, IT based methods) from at least some subset of key players. The main point is that this isn’t an all or nothing calculation. Costs, risks and benefits should all be carefully evaluated and documented, in case there’s a downstream challenge.

Analysis & Review: Failure to Test Keywords and Sample

Case: Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Felman Prod., Inc., (S.D. W. Va., 2010).

Summary: In this case the court examined the reasonableness of plaintiff’s precautions to prevent disclosure of email, which was inadvertently produced by the plaintiff amidst “a massive disclosure of e-discovery.” The Mt. Hawley court applied the five-factor test established in Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc. (D. Md. 2008) and found that the producing party had not taken reasonable steps during discovery. In particular, the court was unwilling to find that the inadvertent production of 377 privileged documents was “solely attributable” to a technological glitch and instead found that plaintiff and counsel “failed to perform critical quality control sampling to determine whether their production was appropriate and neither over inclusive nor under-inclusive.” This finding meant that their attorney client privilege was waived as to the subject documents.

Why it’s important: Mt. Hawley demonstrates why sampling and keyword search term formulation is critically important to any defensible discovery effort. In many instances where “blind” keyword strategies are used, the producing party is taking on an undue risk, in essence flirting with the “3rd rail” of electronic discovery (inadvertent production). Blind keyword searching (followed by brute force review and production) is sadly still a very common practice today. My hope is that cases like Mt. Hawley will force the blissfully ignorant practicioners to take stock of their risky practices and get with contemporary best practices like ECA, sampling, iterative search and the like.

Conclusion

Simply by creating such a list, I’m sure to leave off cases other folks think are more buzz worthy. But, for me, having a few good legal chestnuts is better than trying to boil the ocean and synthesize all the available case law. If you have any comments I’d be eager to hear (good, bad or indifferent).

roduction). Blind keyword searching (followed by brute force review and production) is sadly still a very common practice today. My hope is that cases like Mt. Hawley will force the blissfully ignorant practicioners to take stock of their risky practices and get with contemporary best practices like ECA, sampling, iterative search and the like.

Conclusion

Simply by creating such a list, I’m sure to leave off cases other folks think are more buzz worthy. But, for me, having a few good legal chestnuts is better than trying to boil the ocean and synthesize all the available case law. If you have any comments I’d be eager to hear (good, bad or indifferent).