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Lessons Learned for 2012: Spotlighting the Top eDiscovery Cases from 2011

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

The New Year has now dawned and with it, the certainty that 2012 will bring new developments to the world of eDiscovery.  Last month, we spotlighted some eDiscovery trends for 2012 that we feel certain will occur in the near term.  To understand how these trends will play out, it is instructive to review some of the top eDiscovery cases from 2011.  These decisions provide a roadmap of best practices that the courts promulgated last year.  They also spotlight the expectations that courts will likely have for organizations in 2012 and beyond.

Issuing a Timely and Comprehensive Litigation Hold

Case: E.I. du Pont de Nemours v. Kolon Industries (E.D. Va. July 21, 2011)

Summary: The court issued a stiff rebuke against defendant Kolon Industries for failing to issue a timely and proper litigation hold.  That rebuke came in the form of an instruction to the jury that Kolon executives and employees destroyed key evidence after the company’s preservation duty was triggered.  The jury responded by returning a stunning $919 million verdict for DuPont.

The spoliation at issue occurred when several Kolon executives and employees deleted thousands emails and other records relevant to DuPont’s trade secret claims.  The court laid the blame for this destruction on the company’s attorneys and executives, reasoning they could have prevented the spoliation through an effective litigation hold process.  At issue were three hold notices circulated to the key players and data sources.  The notices were all deficient in some manner.  They were either too limited in their distribution, ineffective since they were prepared in English for Korean-speaking employees, or too late to prevent or otherwise ameliorate the spoliation.

The Lessons for 2012: The DuPont case underscores the importance of issuing a timely and comprehensive litigation hold notice.  As DuPont teaches, organizations should identify what key players and data sources may have relevant information.  A comprehensive notice should then be prepared to communicate the precise hold instructions in an intelligible fashion.  Finally, the hold should be circulated immediately to prevent data loss.

Organizations should also consider deploying the latest technologies to help effectuate this process.  This includes an eDiscovery platform that enables automated legal hold acknowledgements.  Such technology will allow custodians to be promptly and properly apprised of litigation and thereby retain information that might otherwise have been discarded.

Another Must-Read Case: Haraburda v. Arcelor Mittal U.S.A., Inc. (D. Ind. June 28, 2011)

Suspending Document Retention Policies

Case: Viramontes v. U.S. Bancorp (N.D. Ill. Jan. 27, 2011)

Summary: The defendant bank defeated a sanctions motion because it modified aspects of its email retention policy once it was aware litigation was reasonably foreseeable.  The bank implemented a retention policy that kept emails for 90 days, after which the emails were overwritten and destroyed.  The bank also promulgated a course of action whereby the retention policy would be promptly suspended on the occurrence of litigation or other triggering event.  This way, the bank could establish the reasonableness of its policy in litigation.  Because the bank followed that procedure in good faith, it was protected from court sanctions under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(e) “safe harbor.”

The Lesson for 2012: As Viramontes shows, an organization can be prepared for eDiscovery disputes by timely suspending aspects of its document retention policies.  By modifying retention policies when so required, an organization can develop a defensible retention procedure and be protected from court sanctions under Rule 37(e).

Coupling those procedures with archiving software will only enhance an organization’s eDiscovery preparations.  Effective archiving software will have a litigation hold mechanism, which enables an organization to suspend automated retention rules.  This will better ensure that data subject to a preservation duty is actually retained.

Another Must-Read Case: Micron Technology, Inc. v. Rambus Inc., 645 F.3d 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2011)

Managing the Document Collection Process

Case: Northington v. H & M International (N.D.Ill. Jan. 12, 2011)

Summary: The court issued an adverse inference jury instruction against a company that destroyed relevant emails and other data.  The spoliation occurred in large part because legal and IT were not involved in the collection process.  For example, counsel was not actively engaged in the critical steps of preservation, identification or collection of electronically stored information (ESI).  Nor was IT brought into the picture until 15 months after the preservation duty was triggered. By that time, rank and file employees – some of whom were accused by the plaintiff of harassment – stepped into this vacuum and conducted the collection process without meaningful oversight.  Predictably, key documents were never found and the court had little choice but to promise to inform the jury that the company destroyed evidence.

The Lesson for 2012: An organization does not have to suffer the same fate as the company in the Northington case.  It can take charge of its data during litigation through cooperative governance between legal and IT.  After issuing a timely and effective litigation hold, legal should typically involve IT in the collection process.  Legal should rely on IT to help identify all data sources – servers, systems and custodians – that likely contain relevant information.  IT will also be instrumental in preserving and collecting that data for subsequent review and analysis by legal.  By working together in a top-down fashion, organizations can better ensure that their eDiscovery process is defensible and not fatally flawed.

Another Must-Read Case: Green v. Blitz U.S.A., Inc. (E.D. Tex. Mar. 1, 2011)

Using Proportionality to Dictate the Scope of Permissible Discovery

Case: DCG Systems v. Checkpoint Technologies (N.D. Ca. Nov. 2, 2011)

The court adopted the new Model Order on E-Discovery in Patent Cases recently promulgated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  The model order incorporates principles of proportionality to reduce the production of email in patent litigation.  In adopting the order, the court explained that email productions should be scaled back since email is infrequently introduced as evidence at trial.  As a result, email production requests will be restricted to five search terms and may only span a defined set of five custodians.  Furthermore, email discovery in DCG Systems will wait until after the parties complete discovery on the “core documentation” concerning the patent, the accused product and prior art.

The Lesson for 2012: Courts seem to be slowly moving toward a system that incorporates proportionality as the touchstone for eDiscovery.  This is occurring beyond the field of patent litigation, as evidenced by other recent cases.  Even the State of Utah has gotten in on the act, revising its version of Rule 26 to require that all discovery meet the standards of proportionality.  While there are undoubtedly deviations from this trend (e.g., Pippins v. KPMG (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 7, 2011)), the clear lesson is that discovery should comply with the cost cutting mandate of Federal Rule 1.

Another Must-Read Case: Omni Laboratories Inc. v. Eden Energy Ltd [2011] EWHC 2169 (TCC) (29 July 2011)

Leveraging eDiscovery Technologies for Search and Review

Case: Oracle America v. Google (N.D. Ca. Oct. 20, 2011)

The court ordered Google to produce an email that it previously withheld on attorney client privilege grounds.  While the email’s focus on business negotiations vitiated Google’s claim of privilege, that claim was also undermined by Google’s production of eight earlier drafts of the email.  The drafts were produced because they did not contain addressees or the heading “attorney client privilege,” which the sender later inserted into the final email draft.  Because those details were absent from the earlier drafts, Google’s “electronic scanning mechanisms did not catch those drafts before production.”

The Lesson for 2012: Organizations need to leverage next generation, robust technology to support the document production process in discovery.  Tools such as email analytical software, which can isolate drafts and offer to remove them from production, are needed to address complex production issues.  Other technological capabilities, such as Near Duplicate Identification, can also help identify draft materials and marry them up with finals that have been marked as privileged.  Last but not least, technology assisted review has the potential of enabling one lawyer to efficiently complete the work that previously took thousands of hours.  Finding the budget and doing the research to obtain the right tools for the enterprise should be a priority for organizations in 2012.

Another Must-Read Case: J-M Manufacturing v. McDermott, Will & Emery (CA Super. Jun. 2, 2011)

Conclusion

There were any number of other significant cases from 2011 that could have made this list.  We invite you to share your favorites in the comments section or contact us directly with your feedback.

For more on the cases discussed above, watch this video:

Manual Collections of ESI in Electronic Discovery Come under Fire

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Jason R. Baron was a keynote speaker at a recent electronic discovery summit and he mentioned an electronic data discovery topic that “ought to be blogged about.”  So, with that kind of softball I had to take a swing, particularly because it’s been a topic we (at e-discovery 2.0) have been discussing lately.

The genesis of this blog (per Jason) is the recent “skepticism” evidenced by the bench regarding the defensibility of custodian based collections.  ARMA has a good piece on this very topic, entitled “Is ‘Manual’ Collection of ESI Defensible?”  The core notion is that the tried and true practice of custodian based ESI collection is now under fire by courts, which appear to be looking at this practice with an increasing level of distrust.

“While it is common for companies to use automated data-collection software and hardware, some corporate litigants opt for more informal, “manual” collection methods (i.e., searches performed by individual records custodians) when responding to ESI requests. Companies may choose the manual collection of ESI to reduce costs, particularly if they have limited levels of litigation or lower risk levels posed by the litigation itself.”

While there’s no dispute that the “automated” collection methods available in litigation software referenced above have a number of features that make this approach more efficient, the question is whether a “manual” (i.e., custodian based) collection process is somehow less defensible.  If this is truly the case, then many midsized companies without the budget to purchase such e-discovery applications will inherently be found deficient – which is a daunting notion.

Take the recent case of Ford Motor Co. v. Edgewood Properties Inc., 257 F.R.D. 418 (D.N.J. 2009) where the dispute arose out of the demolition of a Ford assembly plant in New Jersey.  Ford and Edgewood entered into a contract whereby Ford agreed to provide 50,000 cubic yards of concrete to Edgewood in exchange for Edgewood removing it from the site.  When the concrete turned out to be contaminated, the dispute started in earnest.

The crux of Edgewood’s complaint was that it was unhappy with Ford’s production and somehow suspected that the dearth of documents was due to the electronic data collection process.  Edgewood sought to “’confirm the adequacy of Ford’s manual document collection process’ by using a third-party vendor to perform keyword searches on documents not in the existing repository of ESI, but instead, documents within the possession of certain Ford custodians.”

To reconcile the dispute the court looked to the Sedona Conference’s work in the area:

“In The Sedona Conference Best Practices Commentary on the Use of Search and Information Retrieval Methods in E-Discovery, Practice Point 1 states that “[i]n many settings involving electronically stored information, reliance solely on a manual search process for the purpose of finding responsive documents may be infeasible or unwarranted. In such cases, the use of automated search methods should be viewed as reasonable, valuable, and even necessary.”(emphasis added). Once again, the Court confronts this peculiar situation insofar as Edgewood has a point that the document collection method used by Ford is not necessarily contemplated under the Sedona Principles, but that agreement by the parties at the outset as to the mode of collection would have been the proper and efficacious course of action.  However, “[a]bsen[t] agreement, a [responding] party has the presumption, under Sedona Principle 6, that it is in the best position to choose an appropriate method of searching and culling data.”

Accordingly, the court found that the lack of agreement coupled with Ford being in the best position to make a call about the methodology, was a deciding factor in generally upholding Ford’s manual collection process.

“It would be improvident at this juncture to grant Edgewood the relief it seeks when it has not shown any indicia of bad faith on the part of Ford. To countenance such a holding would unreasonably put the shoe on the other foot and require a producing party to go to herculean and costly lengths (especially in a document-heavy case such as this) in the face of mere accusation to rebut a claim of withholding. This scenario is not contemplated by the Federal Rules.”

While Ford wasn’t penalized for its manual collection, this practice has come under fire in several other opinions.  In the highly controversial case of Phillip M. Adams & Assoc., LLC v. Dell, Inc., 621 F. Supp. 2d 1173 (D. Utah 2009) custodian based collection/preservation policies were similarly under fire.

“ASUS’ practices invite the abuse of rights of others, because the practices tend toward loss of data. The practices place operations-level employees in the position of deciding what information is relevant to the enterprise and its data retention needs. ASUS alone bears responsibility for the absence of evidence it would be expected to possess. While Adams has not shown ASUS mounted a destructive effort aimed at evidence affecting Adams or at evidence of ASUS’ wrongful use of intellectual property, it is clear that ASUS’ lack of a retention policy and irresponsible data retention practices are responsible for the loss of significant data.”

Adams was in fact cited by Judge Scheindlin in her latest opus Pension Comm. of the Univ. of Montreal Pension Plan v. Banc of America Sec. LLC, No. 05 Civ. 9016, 2010 U.S. Dist. Lexis 4546, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2010), where she found fault with the Plaintiff’s reliance on manual collections:

“This instruction does not meet the standard for a litigation hold. It does not direct employees to preserve all relevant records–both paper and electronic-nor does it create a mechanism for collecting the preserved records so that they can be searched by someone other than the employee.  Rather, the directive places total reliance on the employee to search and select what that employee believed to be responsive records without any supervision from Counsel.

From the foregoing, it’s probably too early to call the skepticism over manual collection a trend per se.  Certainly, lobbing a preservation notice over the proverbial wall to custodians without the requisite level of supervision is a recipe for disaster.  Education (about the matter and the required tasks), compliance (with the preservation instructions) and ongoing monitoring (to ensure that compliance continues over time) are all critical responsibilities that must be thoughtfully undertaken by counsel for a defensible ediscovery process.

The question then becomes, is the problem here really about the “manual” collection efforts by the custodians or more simply the fact that they aren’t supervised with the requisite degree of care?  If this is the case, which I’d opine that it is, then “properly executed” manual collections should be fine (i.e., defensible).

But, as Ford indicates, if your company is going to rely upon a manual collection modus operandi, then it may be advisable to let the opposition in on the use of this tactic.  This approach may be mandated by local rule or it may just be the type of transparent cooperation that’s all the rage these days.

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