Whether involved in class action defense, truck accident litigation, or cargo loss and damage claims, a recent order from a New York federal court will likely impact transportation litigation going forward.
Six years ago, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, of the Southern District of New York authored the Zubulake decision. The Zubulake decision provided the basis for current law and rules regarding the discovery of electronically stored information (“ESI”). Recently, Judge Scheindlin has issued another decision involving ESI that will likely be looked to by other courts when addressing similar issues: The Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan, et al., v. Banc of America Securities, et al., 05-civ-9016, (S.D. N.Y. January 10, 2010)(as corrected on January 15, 2010)(collectively, the “Order”).
In her order entitled “Zubulake Revisited: Six Years Later,” Judge Scheindlin found that – although the case did not present any egregious examples of purposeful destruction of documents – the plaintiffs failed to timely institute written litigation holds and were careless and indifferent in their preservation and collection of documents after the duty of preservation arose. Judge Scheindlin sanctioned the Plaintiffs, with an instruction to the jury allowing the jury to assume missing documents were bad for Plaintiffs, requiring Plaintiffs to pay certain attorney’s fees and costs to Defendant, and ordering Defendant to search backup tapes for additional information.
This case is interesting because most cases addressing discovery of ESI, particularly those awarding sanctions, involve egregious behavior. The facts of this case, however, are much more pedestrian – a party that didn’t instruct all persons with electronic documents relating to a matter in litigation to preserve all those documents with a formal litigation hold letter; gathering relevant documents was largely left to operational employees without supervision; together with other factors that led the court to describe the party’s ignorance and indifference towards discovery (including the search for and preservation of electronic documents).
Courts have previously held that failure to instruct relevant employees to preserve documents constituted gross negligence. Likewise, courts have previously held issuing a litigation hold memorandum and delegating the task of identifying relevant documents to operational level employees is not enough.
However, this court clarifies that instructions to employees to provide the company’s counsel with relevant documents via phone, e-mail, a memorandum, and in a monthly litigation update are not sufficient to satisfy the duties of preservation and production – since the employees were not instructed to preserve all relevant documents and there was little supervision over the preservation and collection.
The concepts forming the basis for the Order are not novel or new. But because these concepts were used to justify an award of sanctions where there was no intent to destroy documents or other shocking behavior, and because the author of modern law on this subject spends 87 pages laying out the rules that justify these sanctions, it is increasingly likely other courts will follow suit.