Much of the writing in the eDiscovery community focuses on the consequences of a party failing to adequately accomplish one of the nine boxes of the Electronic Discovery Reference Model. Breaking news posts frequently report on how spoliation and sanctions are typically issued for failure to suspend auto-deletion or to properly circulate a written litigation hold notices. This begs the question, aside from becoming perfectly adept in all nine boxes of the EDRM, how else can an organization protect themselves from discovery wars and sanctions?
One way is explore the possibilities Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has to offer. While there is no substitute for the proper implementation of information governance processes, technology, and the people who manage them; there are alternative and creative ways to minimize exposure. This is not to say that ESI is less discoverable in ADR, but it is to say with the proper agreements in place, the way ESI is handled in the event of a dispute can be addressed proactively. That is because although parties are free to use the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in ADR proceedings, they are not constricted by them. In other words, ADR proceedings can provide parties with the flexibility to negotiate and tailor their own discovery rules to address the specific matter and issues at hand.
Arbitration is a practical and preferred way to resolve disputes because it is quick, relatively inexpensive and commonly binding. With enough foresight, parties can preemptively limit the scope of discovery in their agreements to ensure the just and speedy resolution of a matter. Practitioners who are well versed in electronic discovery will be the best positioned to counsel clients in the formation of their agreements upfront, obviating protracted discovery. While a similar type of agreement can be reached and protection can be achieved with the Meet and Confer Conference in civil litigation, ADR offers a more private forum giving the parties more contractual power and less unwanted surprises.
For example, JAMS includes this phrase in one of their model recommendations:
JAMS recognizes that there is significant potential for dealing with time and other limitations on discovery in the arbitration clauses of commercial contracts. An advantage of such drafting is that it is much easier for parties to agree on such limitations before a dispute has arisen. A drawback, however, is the difficulty of rationally providing for how best to arbitrate a dispute that has not yet surfaced. Thus, the use of such clauses may be most productive in circumstances in which parties have a good idea from the outset as to the nature and scope of disputes that might thereafter arise.
Thus, arbitration is an attractive option for symmetrical litigation where the merits of the case are high stakes and neither party wants to delve into a discovery war. A fair amount of early case assessment would be necessary as well, so parties have a full appreciation about what they are agreeing to include or not include in the way of ESI. Absent a provision to use specific rules (American Arbitration Association or Federal Arbitration Act), the agreement between parties is the determining factor as to how extensive the scope of discovery will be.
In Mitsubishi Motors v. Soler Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 625 (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that the “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements’…is at bottom a policy guaranteeing the enforcement of private contractual agreements. As such, assuming an equal bargaining position or, at least an informed judgment, courts will enforce stipulations regarding discovery, given the policy of enforcing arbitration agreements by their terms.” Please also see an excellent explanation of Discovery in Arbitration by Joseph L. Forstadt for more information.
Cooperation amongst litigants in discovery has long been a principle of the revered Sedona Conference. ADR practitioners facing complex discovery questions are looking to Sedona’s Cooperation Proclamation for guidance with an eye toward negotiation by educating themselves on ways to further minimize distractions and costs in discovery. An example of one such event is at The Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution at UC Hastings, where they are conducting a mock Meet and Confer on May 16, 2013. The event highlights the need for all practitioners, whether it be the 26 (f) conference for litigation or the preliminary hearing in the case of arbitration, to assess electronic discovery issues with the same weight they do claims and damages early on in the dispute.
It is also very important that arbitrators, especially given the power they have over a matter, to understand the consequences of their rulings. Discovery is typically under the sole control of the arbitrator in a dispute, and only in very select circumstances can relief be granted by the court. An arbitrator that knows nothing about eDiscovery could miss something material and affect the entire outcome adversely. For parties that have identified and addressed these issues proactively, there is more protection and certainty in arbitration. Typically, the primary focus of an arbitrator is enforcing the contract between parties, not to be an eDiscovery expert.
It is also important to caution against revoking rights to discovery by entering into mutual agreements to unreasonably limit discovery. This approach is somewhat reminiscent of the days when lawyers would agree not to conduct discovery, because neither knew how. Now, while efficiency and cost savings are a priority, we must guard against a potential similar paradigm emerging as we may know too much about how to shield relevant ESI.
As we look to the future, especially for serial litigants, one can imagine a perfect world in arbitration for predictive coding. In the Federal courts, we have seen over the past two years or so an emergence of the use of predictive coding technologies. However, even when the parties agree, which they don’t always, they still struggle with achieving a meeting of the minds on the protocol. These disputes have at times overshadowed the advantage of using predictive coding because discovery disputes and attorney’s fees have overtaken any savings. In ADR there is a real opportunity for similarly situated parties to agree via contract, upfront on tools, methodologies and scope. Once these contracts are in place, both parties are bound to the same rules and a just and speedy resolution of a matter can take place.