The news surrounding the eDiscovery industry is trending positive for organizations. Instances where companies have been sanctioned for alleged failures to preserve or produce electronically stored information (ESI) seem to be dropping. This is confirmed by various court opinions from 2012, together with reports from key industry players. In addition, the Civil Rules Advisory Committee is close to releasing for public comment draft amendments to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e) that might impact the sanctions equation. If enacted, the proposed changes could reduce the threat of sanctions relating to pre-litigation destruction of ESI.
Against this backdrop, organizations scored another sanctions victory this month as an Albany, New York-based federal court refused to impose sanctions on an enterprise for its so-called eDiscovery “shortcomings.” In Research Foundation of State University of New York v. Nektar Therapeutics, the defendant had sought an adverse inference instruction and monetary sanctions against the research foundation arm of the State University of New York for its alleged “grossly negligent” failure to preserve documents. The defendant argued that such punishment was justified given the foundation’s alleged failures to implement a timely litigation hold, to maintain “relevant backup-tape data” and to “suspend its auto-delete practices.”
The court, however, did not accept the defendant’s sweeping allegations of discovery misconduct. Instead, the court found that the foundation’s preservation efforts passed legal muster. Among other things, the foundation had issued timely hold instructions, preserved relevant backup tapes and acted to prevent the deletion of custodial data. Significantly, the court then explained that it would not get wrapped around the proverbial axel due to some isolated “shortcomings” with the foundation’s preservation efforts:
While there may have been some shortcomings in [the foundation’s] document retention protocol, it was, at most, negligent in its effort to preserve evidence related to this litigation.
Moreover, sanctions were not appropriate since the defendant had not established that relevant evidence had been destroyed. In what ultimately amounted to a “no-harm, no-foul” approach, the court observed that the “spoliation motion fails, then, on the ‘inability [of the defendant] to adduce evidence suggesting the existence, let alone destruction, of relevant documents.’”
The Research Foundation case is important for at least three reasons. First, the court’s reluctance to issue sanctions for mere preservation “shortcomings” is consistent with the general discovery principle that a party’s efforts need not be perfect. Instead of trying to reach a mythical benchmark of infallibility, Research Foundation confirms that a party’s preservation efforts need only satisfy the standards of reasonableness and proportionality.
The second lesson from Research Foundation flows naturally from the first: the misperception that courts acquiesce to knee-jerk sanctions motions. With the judiciary gaining a better understanding of the digital age nuances associated with the preservation and production of ESI, courts are less likely to go along with gotcha sanctions requests. This is particularly the case where sanctions are sought against companies that have an effective information governance plan in place.
This, in turn, gives rise to the third and final take-home from Research Foundation. Given the cooling judicial climate toward sanctions and the efforts being taken by the advisory committee to alleviate preservation burdens, the time is ripe for organizations to implement a defensible deletion strategy. Such a comprehensive approach, which aims to reduce the storage costs and legal risks associated with the retention of ESI, stands to benefit companies that can justify deletion decisions based on reasonable information retention practices. Like the foundation in Research Foundation, organizations that have done so have been successful in avoiding court sanctions while at the same time eliminating ESI that has little or no business value.