Documents Kept in the . . . Irregular Course of Business?

In yet another example of why records managers should be coordinating with legal on storage of documents, the U.S. Federal Court of Claims has held that documents archived in a manner other than the regular course of business do not comply with Rule 34 of the FRCP. 

In Ak-Chin Indian Community v. United States, 85 Fed. Cl. 397 (2009), documents stored in a different filing system than they were kept prior to transfer to storage were held not to have been kept in the ordinary course of business.  In that case, the plaintiffs were suing the government and wanted to get their hands on responsive documents kept in a bunch of boxes at the American Indian Records Repository (AIRR).  The boxes were indexed using an off-the-shelf commercial software package that "captures information about the source, files, and documents in [each] box [which information is subsequently] entered into the . . . database."  Id. at 398.  People digging around the database for, say, documents responsive to discovery requests, could run queries to search for them.  Id.  So, when served with discovery requests, the government turned to its handy database, ran a few queries to find the boxes that likely contained responsive documents, and sent the database query results along to the plaintiffs.  Id. at 399.  The plaintiffs filed a motion to compel, arguing that this didn't constitute a production of responsive documents organized and labeled by category of request as required by Rule 34 of the Rules of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  Id. 

Under Rule 34, "[a] party must produce documents as they are kept in the ordinary course of business or must organize and label them to correspond to the categories in the request."  Id. (quoting RCFC 34(b)(2)(E)(i)).  The Ak-Chin court held that the documents at the AIRR were not maintained in the ordinary course of business under Rule 34, because prior to transfer to the facility, they were reorganized from the filing system of the local agency offices to conform with the AIRR filing system (not wholly surprising, considering that AIRR was a records repository and records are not always in tip-top shape, organizationally-speaking, when they are first unearthed from the mess that makes up most people's filing cabinets). Id.  The court explained that "documents in storage are no longer in the usual course of business, they are kept in the usual course of storage," such that the only option under Rule 34 was to label and categorize the documents.  Id. at 400.  For documents transported to storage to still be kept in the ordinary course of business, the court said, the documents must be stored in the same way they were kept.  Id. The court was also concerned that the filing system at AIRR did not permit a meaningful review if the plaintiff was dissatisfied with the production.  Id. at 401.  Because only the boxes were indexed, not the specific documents in the boxes, the government was out of luck.  Id.

Take home message? Know just how your documents are arranged in storage in relation to how they're kept before they're retired to archives, boxes, and closets or you may incur additional costs to produce them.

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