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Dallas “Mini-Conference” Explores Big Electronic Discovery Issues – Future Still Blurry

by Matthew Nelson on September 14th, 2011

We’ve all heard the phrase that “everything is bigger in Texas” and the little “mini-conference” held in Dallas, TX last Friday was no exception.  The Discovery Subcommittee held a small, one-day conference to tackle some big issues related to preservation and sanctions that could ultimately lead to amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rules).

The Subcommittee’s primary purpose was to discuss “preservation and sanctions issues” by using the following topics as guidelines:

  • The nature and scope of the current “problem”
  • The role of technology
  • Possible solutions to the problem

Counsel from large companies like Google, General Electric, and Exxon Mobil participated side by side with outside counsel from both plaintiffs’ and defense bar to discuss what some characterized as a lack of clear direction in the current Rules.  Government lawyers, academics, and federal judges including Judges David Campbell (D. Az.), Shira Scheindlin (S.D.N.Y.), Paul Grimm (D. Md.), John Facciola (D.D.C.), Lee Rosenthal (S.D. Tx.), Michael Mosman (D. Ore.), and Nan Nolan (N. D. Ill.) helped round out the field to make for a lively discussion with multiple perspectives represented.  The following summary highlights some of the key viewpoints and areas of contention debated throughout the day.[1]

The nature and scope of the problem

An underlying theme throughout the day was whether or not preservation and sanctions challenges warrant amending the Rules.  Not surprisingly, counsel for large organizations that commonly bear the brunt of large and frequent document requests lobbied for rule amendments that provide more certainty around when the duty to preserve evidence is triggered, the scope of that duty, and how sanctions are applied.

In support of this position, some corporate attorneys argued that the lack of certainty in the current Rules unfairly requires organizations to err on the side of preserving evidence early and broadly to avoid the risk of sanctions.  Since preserving evidence can be extremely expensive and the duty may be triggered before litigation even begins, they argue that changes to the Rules are necessary.  One corporate attorney framed the issue by providing specific details about costs associated with preserving data for different cases.  He explained that in one situation, his organization has spent more than $5 million to locate, collect, preserve, and maintain data for an ongoing matter even though a complaint has never been filed.  He went on to explain the dilemma by stating: “not preserving asks us to take a chance with our reputation.”

In response, a few attendees questioned how preservation related expenses could spiral so high even before attorney review.  Others pointed out that if the current Rules were better utilized, specifically the meet-and-confer provisions of Rule 26(f), then many preservation challenges could be minimized.  Supporters of better Rule 26(f) engagement complained that counsel for large organizations often refuse to discuss preservation related issues and thereby fuel problems related to the scope of preservation themselves.   Others suggested that if organizations enforced better information management policies instead of keeping “everything forever”, then the magnitude of the problem could be reduced.

Technology

The Subcommittee members generally agreed that the evolution of technology has led to massive data growth which creates new electronic data challenges.  Electronically stored information (ESI) is often duplicative, typically resides in many different technology systems, and can be difficult to locate on a case by case basis.  There was some thoughtful discussion about how data archiving and cloud computing technology are important tools for helping organizations manage these information problems more effectively.  Another commentator acknowledged that although “predictive coding” may be helpful for “reviewing” data, it requires significant human involvement and simply does not solve the problem at hand.

Surprisingly, aside from the comments above, the technology discussion focused mainly on the issue of what constitutes “possession, custody or control” under Rule 34 in today’s environment of social media, cloud computing, and mobile devices.  Unfortunately, there was no discussion of either the role legal technology solutions play in minimizing risk and cost or of the impact the current Rules have on public policy.  For example, the Subcommittee did not address whether organizations that invest in technology in order to automate their internal data management and electronic discovery process should be afforded more protection under Rule 26(b)(2)(B) (“not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost”) than organizations that choose not to invest in technology.  If an organization’s technology investment (or lack thereof) is not a factor, does Rule 26(b)(2)(B) have the unintended effect of stifling meaningful legal technology investment by some organizations?  Similarly, do advancements in legal technology diminish the need for a Rule amendment that, at its core, is geared toward reducing costs?  In my opinion, the manner in which organizations are using technology today is an important factor that warrants deeper discussion and a subject I intend to address in a future publication soon.  Stay tuned.

Possible solutions

Discussion about possible solutions to the problem revealed more about the contrasting viewpoints in the room.  Notably, the Department of Justice representatives and those typically aligned with the plaintiffs’ bar tended to lobby for better adherence to the framework contained in the existing Rules in lieu of drafting new Rules.  These folks generally appeared to fall into the “No New Rule” or “Not Yet” camp, and cited the relative newness of the 2006 Rule Amendments and the fact that only about one percent of federal cases involve sanctions in support of their position that Rule amendments are premature or not needed.  Along the same lines, many called for further study and evaluation of the issues through organizations such as The Sedona Conference and the 7th Circuit Electronic Discovery Pilot Program.  Others referenced the importance of looking to evolving case law for more guidance before moving forward with Rule amendments.

In stark contrast, those on the other side of the aisle that typically represent large organizations, lobbied for bright line rules or at least “guideposts” to provide more certainty regarding preservation.  For example, one participant suggested that the duty to preserve evidence should begin when a complaint is served.  Another suggested that the duty should be triggered when a potential litigant is “reasonably certain to be a party to litigation” – a standard that is arguably narrower than the commonly applied “reasonably anticipates litigation” standard articulated in Judge Scheindlin’s frequently cited Zubulake v. UBS Warburg line of decisions.

Those calling for more certainty regarding triggering events also provided recommendations for addressing the scope of the preservation duty and the application of sanctions.  A suggestion to incorporate language that presumptively limits the number of custodians (10) and documents (by age) met resistance on the grounds that trying to apply a one-size-fits-all rule fails to acknowledge that the facts and circumstances of every case are different and so too are the litigants.  Similarly, recommendations to limit sanctions for evidence spoliation to situations where a litigant’s conduct is “intentional” or “willful” were met with a chilly reception by those favoring better adherence to the current Rules.

Conclusion

Time did not permit comprehensive discussion and analysis of every perspective, but the mini-conference highlighted the complexity surrounding preservation and sanctions issues and revealed some polarized viewpoints about how to solve those issues.  Perhaps one glimmer of consensus was the acknowledgement that “pre-litigation” obligations to preserve evidence before service of a complaint is often challenging for large organizations.  However, whether this and other issues should be addressed through better education, more stringent enforcement of existing rules, or by modifying the existing rules to include more “guideposts” remains unsettled.

What do you think?  Please respond to the poll, above right, to let us know whether you think amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) is necessary to address some of the preservation and sanctions issues discussed above.

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[1] A more exhaustive list of participants and sample questions was incorporated into the Federal Rules Advisory Committee’s June 29, 2011 memorandum announcing the mini-conference.  Similarly, the events leading up to the mini-conference are described in more detail as part of my previous postings on the same subject.

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