Spoliation — Range of Sanctions Available Depending on Culpability — Bad Faith Not Prerequisite to Adverse Inference Instruction in Sixth Circuit — Meaning of Abuse of Discretion

Ross v. Am. Red Cross, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 1827 (6th Cir. Jan. 27, 2014):

We review a district court's decision not to impose spoliation sanctions for abuse of discretion, "'[g]iving great deference to the district court's credibility determinations and findings of fact.'" Adkins v. Wolever, 692 F.3d 499, 503 (6th Cir. 2012) (quoting Beaven v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 622 F.3d 540, 554 (6th Cir. 2010)).  A district court abuses its discretion "'when it commits a clear error of judgment, such as applying the incorrect legal standard, misapplying the correct legal standard, or relying upon clearly erroneous findings of fact.'" Id. (quoting Jones v. Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 617 F.3d 843, 850 (6th Cir. 2010)).

Spoliation is "the intentional destruction of evidence that is presumed to be unfavorable to the party responsible for its destruction." United States v. Copeland, 321 F.3d 582, 597 (6th Cir. 2003). A district court has inherent power "to craft proper sanctions for spoliated evidence." Adkins v. Wolever, 554 F.3d 650, 651 (6th Cir. 2009) (en banc). "Because failures to produce relevant evidence fall 'along a continuum of fault--ranging from innocence through the degrees of negligence to intentionality,' the severity of a sanction may, depending on the circumstances of the case, correspond to the party's fault." Id. at 652-53 (quoting Welsh v. United States, 844 F.2d 1239, 1246 (6th Cir. 1988), overruled on other grounds by Adkins, 554 F.3d 650). A district court may "impose many different kinds of sanctions for spoliated evidence, including dismissing a case, granting summary judgment, or instructing a jury that it may infer a fact based on lost or destroyed evidence." Id. at 653.

An adverse inference instruction "is appropriate if the Defendants 'knew the evidence was relevant to some issue at trial and . . . [their culpable] conduct resulted in its loss or destruction.'" Beaven, 622 F.3d at 553 (quoting Hodge v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 360 F.3d 446, 450 (4th Cir. 2004)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

   [A] party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense.

Id. (quoting Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 107 (2d Cir. 2002)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "The test prescribed in Beaven is conjunctive; thus, so long as the district court did not err in determining that [the party seeking an adverse inference instruction] had not satisfied at least one of the prongs, its determination that a spoliation sanction was not warranted should not be upset." Adkins, 692 F.3d at 504.

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