Commercial Litigation and Arbitration

Spoliation — Impact on Summary Judgment — Routine Practice of Destruction May Show No Bad Faith — Failure of Anyone to View Video before Automatically Recording over It Corroborative of No Bad Faith

Schreane v. Beemon, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 13859 (5th Cir. July 21, 2014):

Schreane sought to compel the government to turn over surveillance video footage from the prison, which Schreane argued would show that while guarding Schreane's unit Beemon had willfully violated the policy against allowing inmates to enter units to which they were not assigned. The government turned over footage of the May 1, 2008 assault on Schreane but provided no further video. As the government and the prison's electronics technician explained, the prison's cameras automatically record over surveillance video after a period of fifteen to thirty days unless a prison official identifies specific footage relating to an incident warranting investigation. Other than the assault, investigators had not sought to preserve any surveillance footage. Schreane argued that he was entitled to an evidentiary inference of spoliation because the destruction of the missing footage indicated that it was harmful to Beemon. The magistrate judge, however, denied Schreane's spoliation claim.


I. Spoliation Claim

"Under the spoliation doctrine, a jury may draw an adverse inference that a party who intentionally destroys important evidence in bad faith did so because the contents of those documents were unfavorable to that party." Whitt v. Stephens Cnty., 529 F.3d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). An adverse inference of spoliation can be relevant on summary judgment. See Byrnie v. Cromwell, Bd. of Educ., 243 F.3d 93, 107 (2d Cir. 2001) ("In borderline cases, an inference of spoliation, in combination with some (not insubstantial) evidence for the plaintiff's cause of action, can allow the plaintiff to survive summary judgment." (internal quotation marks omitted)). "The Fifth Circuit permits an adverse inference against the destroyer of evidence only upon a showing of 'bad faith' or 'bad conduct.'" Condrey v. SunTrust Bank of Ga., 431 F.3d 191, 203 (5th Cir. 2005). The defendant's adherence to standard operating procedures in destroying the evidence, however, may counter a contention of bad faith conduct. See Vick v. Tex. Emp't Comm'n, 514 F.2d 734, 737 (5th Cir. 1975). We review the district court's decision whether to permit an evidentiary inference of spoliation for abuse of discretion. King v. Ill. Cent. R.R., 337 F.3d 550, 553, 555 (5th Cir. 2003).

In this case, there is no dispute that the surveillance tape that Schreane wanted was erased. In response to Schreane's request for the footage leading up to the day of his attack, the government produced all that remained: the few minutes of Schreane's assault on May 1, 2008. The government also provided the affidavit of an electronics technician at the prison, Derrick Cox, who described the prison's general policy of automatically recording over surveillance video that has not been marked for investigation within fifteen to thirty days of its recording. Cf. id. at 556 (noting that defendant's compliance with a federal preservation regulation, after which "the records are destroyed as a part of routine file maintenance," "further demonstrat[ed] that [the defendant] lacked a 'bad faith' motive for [the records']  [*12] destruction").

Schreane claims that Beemon or some other prison official purposefully destroyed the footage in bad faith because it would have shown damning evidence of Beemon allowing inmates assigned to other units to enter Schreane's unit and generally ignoring her duties. Beyond this accusation, however, Schreane offers no evidence that anyone who knew of his objections to Beemon's conduct (Beemon, Townsend, or Keffer) was involved in the decision to record over the tape. In fact, there is no indication that any prison official even viewed the footage because, as Cox explained, it "is not live-monitored 24-hours a day." Cf. Bracey v. Grondin, 712 F.3d 1012, 1015, 1019-20 (7th Cir. 2013) (affirming the district court's finding of no spoliation when prison surveillance cameras erased footage three days after an incident, pursuant to standard procedure, and the plaintiff offered no proof that any officials viewed the footage in question prior to its erasure). Schreane has therefore failed to make the requisite showing of bad faith to be entitled to a spoliation inference. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Schreane's spoliation claim.

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