“Zubulake Revisited: Six Years Later” — Excerpts from Judge Scheindlin’s Major New Electronic Spoliation Sanctions Decision
Titled “Zubulake Revisited: Six Years Later,” Judge Scheindlin’s new decision in Pension Comm. of Univ. of Montreal, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4546 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2010) (amended opinion) explores critical spoliation sanctions issues, including important procedural nuances. Key excerpts:
In an era where vast amounts of electronic information is available for review, discovery in certain cases has become increasingly complex and expensive. Courts cannot and do not expect that any party can meet a standard of perfection. Nonetheless, the courts have a right to expect that litigants and counsel will take the necessary steps to ensure that relevant records are preserved when litigation is reasonably anticipated, and that such records are collected, reviewed, and produced to the opposing party. As discussed six years ago in the Zubulake opinions, when this does not happen, the integrity of the judicial process is harmed and the courts are required to fashion a remedy. Once again, I have been compelled to closely review the discovery efforts of parties in a litigation, and once again have found that those efforts were flawed. As famously noted, "[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." By now, it should be abundantly clear that the duty to preserve means what it says and that a failure to preserve records — paper or electronic — and to search in the right places for those records, will inevitably result in the spoliation of evidence. ***
II. AN ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK AND APPLICABLE LAW
From the outset, it is important to recognize what this case involves and what it does not. This case does not present any egregious examples of litigants purposefully destroying evidence. This is a case where plaintiffs failed to timely institute written litigation holds and engaged in careless and indifferent collection efforts after the duty to preserve arose. As a result, there can be little doubt that some documents were lost or destroyed.
The question, then, is whether plaintiffs' conduct requires this Court to impose a sanction for the spoliation of evidence. To answer this question, there are several concepts that must be carefully reviewed and analyzed. The first is plaintiffs' level of culpability — that is, was their conduct of discovery acceptable or was it negligent, grossly negligent, or willful. The second is the interplay between the duty to preserve evidence and the spoliation of evidence. The third is which party should bear the burden of proving that evidence has been lost or destroyed and the consequences resulting from that loss. And the fourth is the appropriate remedy for the harm caused by the spoliation.
A. Defining Negligence, Gross Negligence, and Willfulness in the Discovery Context
While many treatises and cases routinely define negligence, gross negligence, and willfulness in the context of tortious conduct, I have found no clear definition of these terms in the context of discovery misconduct. It is apparent to me that these terms simply describe a continuum. Conduct is either acceptable or unacceptable. Once it is unacceptable the only question is how bad is the conduct. That is a judgment call that must be made by a court reviewing the conduct through the backward lens known as hindsight. It is also a call that cannot be measured with exactitude and might be called differently by a different judge. That said, it is well established that negligence involves unreasonable conduct in that it creates a risk of harm to others, but willfulness involves intentional or reckless conduct that is so unreasonable that harm is highly likely to occur.
It is useful to begin with standard definitions of each term and then to explore the conduct, in the discovery context, that causes certain conduct to fall in one category or another.
[Negligence] is conduct "which falls below the standard established by for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm." [Negligence] is caused by heedlessness or inadvertence, by which the negligent party is unaware of the results which may follow from [its] act. But it may also arise where the negligent party has considered the possible consequences carefully, and has exercised [its] own best judgment.
[Footnote] 10 Prosser & Keeton on Torts § 31 at 169 (5th ed. 1984) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 282) (citations omitted).
The standard of acceptable conduct is determined through experience. In the discovery context, the standards have been set by years of judicial decisions analyzing allegations of misconduct and reaching a determination as to what a party must do to meet its obligation to participate meaningfully and fairly in the discovery phase of a judicial proceeding. A failure to conform to this standard is negligent even if it results from a pure heart and an empty head.
"Gross negligence has been described as a failure to exercise even that care which a careless person would use." According to a leading treatise — Prosser & Keeton on Torts — most courts find that gross negligence is something more than negligence "and differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, and not in kind."
The same treatise groups willful, wanton, and reckless into one category that requires "that the actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow, and which thus is usually accompanied by a conscious indifference to the consequences."
Applying these terms in the discovery context is the next task. Proceeding chronologically, the first step in any discovery effort is the preservation of relevant information. A failure to preserve evidence resulting in the loss or destruction of relevant information is surely negligent, and, depending on the circumstances, may be grossly negligent or willful. For example, the intentional destruction of relevant records, either paper or electronic, after the duty to preserve has attached, is willful. Possibly after October, 2003, when Zubulake IV was issued, and definitely after July, 2004, when the final relevant Zubulake opinion was issued, the failure to issue a written litigation hold constitutes gross negligence because that failure is likely to result in the destruction of relevant information.
14 [Gross Negligence.] See Treppel v. Biovail, 249 F.R.D. 111, 121 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (collecting cases); Doe v. Norwalk Cmty. Coll. , 248 F.R.D. 372, 380 (D. Conn. 2007) (finding gross negligence where there was "no evidence that the defendants did anything to stop the routine destruction of the backup tapes after [their] obligation to preserve arose"); Pastorello v. City of New York, No. 95 Civ. 470, 2003 WL 1740606, at *11-*12 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 1, 2003) (concluding that loss of data due to unfamiliarity with record-keeping policy by employee responsible for preserving document was grossly negligent).
15 [Intentionality.] See, e.g., Gutman v. Klein, No. 03 Civ. 1570, 2008 WL 5084182 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 2, 2008) (adopting finding of the Magistrate Judge that spoliator acted in bad faith by intentionally deleting computer files).
16 See Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC ("Zubulake IV"), 220 F.R.D. 212 (S.D.N.Y. 2003).
17 See Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC ("Zubulake V"), 229 F.R.D. 422 (S.D.N.Y. 2004).
18 [Negligence vs. Gross Negligence.] Compare Adorno v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J. , 258 F.R.D. 217, 228-29 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (holding that defendants were only negligent where they instituted some form of a litigation hold — albeit limited in scope — when the duty to preserve arose in 2001); with Treppel, 249 F.R.D. at 121 (holding that the failure to preserve backup tapes after December 2003 was sufficient to constitute gross negligence or recklessness); In re NTL, Inc. Sec. Litig., 244 F.R.D. 179, 198-99 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) ("[T]he Court finds that [the] utter failure to preserve documents and ESI [electronically stored information] relevant to plaintiffs' allegations in this case . . . to be at least grossly negligent.") (collecting cases).
The next step in the discovery process is collection and review. Once again, depending on the extent of the failure to collect evidence, or the sloppiness of the review, the resulting loss or destruction of evidence is surely negligent, and, depending on the circumstances may be grossly negligent or willful. For example, the failure to collect records — either paper or electronic — from key players constitutes gross negligence or willfulness as does the destruction of email or certain backup tapes after the duty to preserve has attached. By contrast, the failure to obtain records from all employees (some of whom may have had only a passing encounter with the issues in the litigation), as opposed to key players, likely constitutes negligence as opposed to a higher degree of culpability. Similarly, the failure to take all appropriate measures to preserve ESI likely falls in the negligence category. These examples are not meant as a definitive list. Each case will turn on its own facts and the varieties of efforts and failures is infinite. I have drawn the examples above from this case and others. Recent cases have also addressed the failure to collect information from the files of former employees that remain in a party's possession, custody, or control after the duty to preserve has attached (gross negligence) or the failure to assess the accuracy and validity of selected search terms (negligence). [Citations omitted.]
B. The Duty to Preserve and Spoliation
Spoliation refers to the destruction or material alteration of evidence or to the failure to preserve property for another's use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation. The right to impose sanctions for spoliation arises from a court's inherent power to control the judicial process and litigation, but the power is limited to that necessary to redress conduct "which abuses the judicial process." The policy underlying this inherent power of the courts is the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process in order to retain confidence that the process works to uncover the truth. . . . The courts must protect the integrity of the judicial process because, "[a]s soon as the process falters . . . the people are then justified in abandoning support for the system."
The common law duty to preserve evidence relevant to litigation is well recognized. The case law makes crystal clear that the breach of the duty to preserve, and the resulting spoliation of evidence, may result in the imposition of sanctions by a court because the court has the obligation to ensure that the judicial process is not abused.
It is well established that the duty to preserve evidence arises when a party reasonably anticipates litigation. "'[O]nce a party reasonably anticipates litigation, it must suspend its routine document retention/destruction policy and put in place a 'litigation hold' to ensure the preservation of relevant documents.'" A plaintiff's duty is more often triggered before litigation commences, in large part because plaintiffs control the timing of litigation.
[Footnote] 27 See Innis Arden Golf Club v. Pitney Bowes, Inc. , 257 F.R.D. 334, 340 (D. Conn. 2009) (concluding that a duty to preserve arose when plaintiff retained counsel in connection with potential legal action but had not yet identified responsible parties); Cyntegra, Inc. v. Idexx Labs., Inc. , No. 06 Civ. 4170, 2007 WL 5193736, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 21, 2007) (stating that because plaintiffs control when litigation begins, they "must necessarily anticipate litigation before the complaint is filed"); Indemnity Ins. Co. of N. Am. v. Liberty Corp., No. 96 Civ. 6675, 1998 WL 363834, at *4 n.3 (S.D.N.Y. June 29, 1998) (holding that "the following factors demonstrate that plaintiff was on notice that a lawsuit was likely so as to trigger a duty to preserve the evidence: (1) the sheer magnitude of the losses; (2) that plaintiff attempted to document the damage through photographs and reports; and (3) that it immediately brought in counsel as well as experts to assess the damage and attempt to ascertain its likely causes in anticipation of litigation").
C. Burdens of Proof
The third preliminary matter that must be analyzed is what can be done when documents are no longer available. This is not an easy question. It is often impossible to know what lost documents would have contained. At best, their content can be inferred from existing documents or recalled during depositions.
[Footnote] 28 [Inferring Loss of Evidence.] See, e.g., Connor v. Sun Trust Bank, 546 F. Supp. 2d 1360, 1376-77 (N.D. Ga. 2008) (holding that the nonproduction of a relevant email that must have been deleted no more than ten days prior to the case being filed tended to indicate that other relevant emails were not produced); Treppel, 249 F.R.D. at 123 (noting that the existence of emails produced by other custodians "does suggest that additional relevant discoverable materials may be present on [defendant employee's] laptop that were neither preserved by him nor backed up in 2005. While almost all of the e-mails were created before the obligation to preserve arose, this does not rule out the possibility that other relevant e-mails may have been deleted from [defendant employee's] laptop after that date").
But this is not always possible. Who then should bear the burden of establishing the relevance of evidence that can no longer be found? And, an even more difficult question is who should be required to prove that the absence of the missing material has caused prejudice to the innocent party.
The burden of proof question differs depending on the severity of the sanction. For less severe sanctions — such as fines and cost-shifting — the inquiry focuses more on the conduct of the spoliating party than on whether documents were lost, and, if so, whether those documents were relevant and resulted in prejudice to the innocent party. As explained more thoroughly below, for more severe sanctions -- such as dismissal, preclusion, or the imposition of an adverse inference -- the court must consider, in addition to the conduct of the spoliating party, whether any missing evidence was relevant and whether the innocent party has suffered prejudice as a result of the loss of evidence.
On the question of what is "relevant," the Second Circuit has provided the following guidance:
[O]ur cases make clear that "relevant" in this context means something more than sufficiently probative to satisfy Rule 401 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rather, the party seeking an adverse inference must adduce sufficient evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that "the destroyed or unavailable evidence would have been of the nature alleged by the party affected by its destruction."
It is not enough for the innocent party to show that the destroyed evidence would have been responsive to a document request. The innocent party must also show that the evidence would have been helpful in proving its claims or defenses — i.e., that the innocent party is prejudiced without that evidence. Proof of relevance does not necessarily equal proof of prejudice.
In short, the innocent party must prove the following three elements: that the spoliating party (1) had control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it at the time of destruction or loss; (2) acted with a culpable state of mind upon destroying or losing the evidence; and that (3) the missing evidence is relevant to the innocent party's claim or defense.
Relevance and prejudice may be presumed when the spoliating party acted in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner. "Where a party destroys evidence in bad faith, that bad faith alone is sufficient circumstantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude that the missing evidence was unfavorable to that party." Although many courts in this district presume relevance where there is a finding of gross negligence, application of the presumption is not required. However, when the spoliating party was merely negligent, the innocent party must prove both relevance and prejudice in order to justify the imposition of a severe sanction. The innocent party may do so by "adduc[ing] sufficient evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that 'the destroyed [or unavailable] evidence would have been of the nature alleged by the party affected by its destruction.'" "In other words, the [innocent party] must present extrinsic evidence tending to show that the destroyed e-mails would have been favorable to [its] case." "Courts must take care not to 'hold the prejudiced party to too strict a standard of proof regarding the likely contents of the destroyed [or unavailable] evidence,' because doing so 'would . . . allow parties who have . . . destroyed evidence to profit from that destruction.'"
[Footnote] 32 [Whether Gross Negligence Justifies Presumption of Prejudice Is Fact-Specific.] See [Residential Funding] ("[A] showing of gross negligence in the destruction or untimely production of evidence will in some circumstances suffice, standing alone, to support a finding that the evidence was unfavorable to the grossly negligent party.") (emphasis added); Treppel, 249 F.R.D. at 121-22 ("While it is true that under certain circumstances 'a showing of gross negligence in the destruction or untimely production of evidence' will support [a relevance] inference, the circumstances here do not warrant such a finding, as the defendants' conduct 'does not rise to the egregious level seen in cases where relevance is determined as a matter of law.") (quoting Residential Funding, 306 F.3d at 109 and Toussie v. County of Suffolk, No. 01 Civ. 6716, 2007 WL 4565160, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2007)); Zubulake IV, 220 F.R.D. at 221 ("[B]ecause UBS's spoliation was negligent and possibly reckless, but not willful, Zubulake must demonstrate that a reasonable trier of fact could find that the missing e-mails would support her claims."). Cf. In re NTL, Inc. Sec. Litig., 244 F.R.D. at 200 (holding that movant was not required to submit extrinsic proof of relevance where movant had established gross negligence).
No matter what level of culpability is found, any presumption is rebuttable and the spoliating party should have the opportunity to demonstrate that the innocent party has not been prejudiced by the absence of the missing information. If the spoliating party offers proof that there has been no prejudice, the innocent party, of course, may offer evidence to counter that proof. While requiring the innocent party to demonstrate the relevance of information that it can never review may seem unfair, the party seeking relief has some obligation to make a showing of relevance and eventually prejudice, lest litigation become a "gotcha" game rather than a full and fair opportunity to air the merits of a dispute. If a presumption of relevance and prejudice were awarded to every party who can show that an adversary failed to produce any document, even if such failure is completely inadvertent, the incentive to find such error and capitalize on it would be overwhelming. This would not be a good thing.
To ensure that no party's task is too onerous or too lenient, I am employing the following burden shifting test: When the spoliating party's conduct is sufficiently egregious to justify a court's imposition of a presumption of relevance and prejudice, or when the spoliating party's conduct warrants permitting the jury to make such a presumption, the burden then shifts to the spoliating party to rebut that presumption. The spoliating party can do so, for example, by demonstrating that the innocent party had access to the evidence alleged to have been destroyed or that the evidence would not support the innocent party's claims or defenses. If the spoliating party demonstrates to a court's satisfaction that there could not have been any prejudice to the innocent party, then no jury instruction will be warranted, although a lesser sanction might still be required.
The remaining question is what remedy should the court impose. "The determination of an appropriate sanction for spoliation, if any, is confined to the sound discretion of the trial judge and is assessed on a case-by-case basis." Where the breach of a discovery obligation is the non-production of evidence, a court has broad discretion to determine the appropriate sanction. Appropriate sanctions should "(1) deter the parties from engaging in spoliation; (2) place the risk of an erroneous judgment on the party who wrongfully created the risk; and (3) restore 'the prejudiced party to the same position [it] would have been in absent the wrongful destruction of evidence by the opposing party.'"
It is well accepted that a court should always impose the least harsh sanction that can provide an adequate remedy. The choices include — from least harsh to most harsh — further discovery [See, e.g., Treppel, 249 F.R.D. at 123-24 (ordering additional discovery, including forensic search of adversary's computer)], cost-shifting [See, e.g., Green (Fine Paintings) v. McClendon, No. 08 Civ. 8496, 2009 WL 2496275, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2009) (awarding monetary sanctions to the movant)], fines [See, e.g., United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 327 F. Supp. 2d 21, 25 (D.D.C. 2004) (ordering defendant to pay $ 2.75 million in fines)], special jury instructions [See, e.g., Arista Records LLC v. Usenet.com, Inc., 608 F. Supp. 2d 409, 443-44 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (ordering an adverse inference instruction as a sanction for defendants' spoliation of evidence)], preclusion [See, e.g., Brown v. Coleman, No. 07 Civ. 1345, 2009 WL 2877602, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 8, 2009) (precluding certain evidence from being introduced at trial)], and the entry of default judgment or dismissal (terminating sanctions) [See, e.g., Gutman, 2008 WL 5084182, at *2 (granting a default judgment for defendants' intentional destruction of evidence)]. The selection of the appropriate remedy is a delicate matter requiring a great deal of time and attention by a court.
The Citco Defendants request dismissal — the most extreme sanction. However, a terminating sanction is justified in only the most egregious cases [See West, 167 F.3d at 779 ("Because dismissal is a 'drastic remedy,' it 'should be imposed only in extreme circumstances, usually after consideration of alternative, less drastic sanctions.") (quoting John B. Hull, Inc. v. Waterbury Petroleum Prods., Inc., 845 F.2d 1172, 1176 (2d Cir. 1988))], such as where a party has engaged in perjury, tampering with evidence, or intentionally destroying evidence by burning, shredding, or wiping out computer hard drives [See, e.g., Gutman, 2008 WL 5084182 (granting default judgment where court-appointed digital forensic expert had determined that defendants had tampered with a computer to permanently delete files and conceal the chronology of the deletions); McMunn v. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Ctr., 191 F. Supp. 2d 440, 446-62 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (dismissing plaintiff's claims for intentionally and in bad faith lying during depositions, destroying potentially critical evidence which could have harmed her case, repeatedly lying and misleading defendant to prevent the deposition of key witnesses, editing certain tapes before turning them over to defendant so that they would provide stronger evidence in plaintiff's favor, and engaging in a sham transaction to unfairly bolster her claim); Miller v. Time-Warner Commc'ns , No. 97 Civ. 7286, 1999 WL 739528, at *2-*4 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 22, 1999) (granting dismissal where plaintiff deliberately erased a harmful handwritten notation and committed perjury in pre-trial proceedings)]. As described below, there is no evidence of such misconduct in this case.
Instead, the appropriate sanction here is some form of an adverse inference instruction that is intended to alleviate the harm suffered by the Citco Defendants. Like many other sanctions, an adverse inference instruction can take many forms, again ranging in degrees of harshness. The harshness of the instruction should be determined based on the nature of the spoliating party's conduct — the more egregious the conduct, the more harsh the instruction.
In its most harsh form, when a spoliating party has acted willfully or in bad faith, a jury can be instructed that certain facts are deemed admitted and must be accepted as true. At the next level, when a spoliating party has acted willfully or recklessly, a court may impose a mandatory presumption. Even a mandatory presumption, however, is considered to be rebuttable.
49 See, e.g., Smith v. Kmart Corp., 177 F.3d 19, 29 n.4 (1st Cir. 1999) ("[I]t it a permissible sanction to instruct a jury to accept certain facts as true."). See also Coleman (Parent) Holdings, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc., No. CA 03-5049, 2005 WL 674885, at *10 (Fla. Cir. Ct. Mar. 23, 2005) (ordering that portions of plaintiff's amended complaint be read to the jury and then instructing the jury "that those facts are deemed established for all purposes in this action"), rev'd on other grounds, 955 So. 2d 1124 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007).
50 See, e.g., West, 167 F.3d at 780 ("[T]he trial judge could (1) instruct the jury to presume that the exemplar tire was overinflated; (2) instruct the jury to presume that the tire mounting machine and air compressor malfunctioned; and (3) preclude [plaintiff] from offering evidence on these issues."); Knowlton v. Teltrust Phones, Inc., 189 F.3d 1177, 1182 (10th Cir. 1999) ("[Y]ou must presume that the evidence which Teltrust Phones, Inc. would not provide would have weighed against Teltrust Phones, Inc. and in favor of Knowlton.") (emphasis added).
51 See Knowlton, 189 F.3d at 1184 ("Because the sanction [of the mandatory presumption] was not a default, however, the presumption was rebuttable.").
The least harsh instruction permits (but does not require) a jury to presume that the lost evidence is both relevant and favorable to the innocent party. If it makes this presumption, the spoliating party's rebuttal evidence must then be considered by the jury, which must then decide whether to draw an adverse inference against the spoliating party. This sanction still benefits the innocent party in that it allows the jury to consider both the misconduct of the spoliating party as well as proof of prejudice to the innocent party. Such a charge should be termed a "spoliation charge" to distinguish it from a charge where the a jury is directed to presume, albeit still subject to rebuttal, that the missing evidence would have been favorable to the innocent party, and from a charge where the jury is directed to deem certain facts admitted.
Monetary sanctions are also appropriate in this case. "Monetary sanctions are appropriate 'to punish the offending party for its actions [and] to deter the litigant's conduct, sending the message that egregious conduct will not be tolerated.'" Awarding monetary sanctions "serves the remedial purpose of compensating [the movant] for the reasonable costs it incurred in bringing [a motion for sanctions]." This sanction is imposed in order to compensate the Citco Defendants for reviewing the declarations, conducting the additional depositions, and bringing this motion.
Three final notes. First, I stress that at the end of the day the judgment call of whether to award sanctions is inherently subjective. A court has a "gut reaction" based on years of experience as to whether a litigant has complied with its discovery obligations and how hard it worked to comply. Second, while it would be helpful to develop a list of relevant criteria a court should review in evaluating discovery conduct, these inquiries are inherently fact intensive and must be reviewed case by case. Nonetheless, I offer the following guidance.
After a discovery duty is well established, the failure to adhere to contemporary standards can be considered gross negligence. Thus, after the final relevant Zubulake opinion in July, 2004, the following failures support a finding of gross negligence, when the duty to preserve has attached: to issue a written litigation hold; to identify all of the key players and to ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved; to cease the deletion of email or to preserve the records of former employees that are in a party's possession, custody, or control; and to preserve backup tapes when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.
Finally, I note the risk that sanctions motions, which are very, very time consuming, distracting, and expensive for the parties and the court, will be increasingly sought by litigants. This, too, is not a good thing. For this reason alone, the most careful consideration should be given before a court finds that a party has violated its duty to comply with discovery obligations and deserves to be sanctioned. Likewise, parties need to anticipate and undertake document preservation with the most serious and thorough care, if for no other reason than to avoid the detour of sanctions.
[Footnote 56] I, together with two of my law clerks, have spent an inordinate amount of time on this motion. We estimate that collectively we have spent close to three hundred hours resolving this motion. I note, in passing, that our blended hourly rate is approximately thirty dollars per hour (!) well below that of the most inexperienced paralegal, let alone lawyer, appearing in this case. My point is only that sanctions motions, and the behavior that caused them to be made, divert court time from other important duties — namely deciding cases on the merits.
Share this article: