Making Sense of Third-Party Discovery

It would be so nice if something made sense for a change!

- Alice, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll
 

What happens when, out of nowhere, the “other side” in a litigation matter wants electronic information during discovery not from you, but from a third-party who has worked directly with your company? Yikes! What about all that confidential information you provided them, never imagining that anyone else would have access to such electronic information? Alternatively, what if those third parties have purged their files and no longer have the requested information? Is there a duty to maintain electronic documentation which is out of your immediate control? 

The issue was addressed by United States Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm in his decision Goodman v. Praxair Servs., Inc., 2009 WL 1955805 (D. Md. July 7, 2009), where the Plaintiff asked that consultants to Praxair Services turn over their electronic documents in discovery.  The Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants violated their duty to preserve evidence when they failed to implement a litigation hold on the third party, resulting in a significant loss of data, including the contents of hard drives and emails relevant to the dispute at issue.

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The Ringmaster or the Clown? Dealing with the E-Discovery Elephant in the Room

It is rare to find one of those shared tenets that defy all cultural, geographic, and chronological boundaries -- some fundamental underpinning of life found everywhere from the days of the caveman to the modern age. One we can all agree on, however, is that a professional's worth is and always has been commensurate with his or her experience. The senior dragon slayer of King Arthur's round table received a shinier suit of armor than the new guy. The master caveman's time and worth rose above the apprentice's. And in present day law firm culture, the value of the Associate is often dwarfed by that of the Senior Partner in the cozy corner office.

Electronic discovery, however, has turned this fundamental dynamic on its head. In most areas of the law, change is effected in small increments, opinion by opinion and statute by statute. Sage senior lawyers add to their existing knowledge by keeping up on recent developments -- no fundamental change in thinking is required. Electronic discovery, however, has forced a radical, qualitative change in almost every aspect of how discovery is conducted. Heck, an entire Federal Rule of Civil Procedure was rewritten to account for it. And the dreaded "it" -- that virtual elephant in the room -- is everywhere. As Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York observed in an interview, "We used to say there's e-discovery as if it was a subset of all discovery. But now there's no other discovery."

This ever-expanding nature of e-discovery is carving out a unique dynamic in the three-ring circus that is the Law Firm and the in-house legal department. In short, the problem is that the two parts of the equation needed to master e-discovery (expertise in discovery law and procedure, and expertise in electronic media) are currently located in two separate circus rings: the Ringmaster's and the Clown's.
 

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Litigation Holds Can Be "Tire"some, But Hang In There!

"It ain't over 'till it's over."  Yogi Berra was talking about baseball, but the quote applies just as well to lawsuits.  It is no secret that litigation can be a very protracted process, and, when a party is subject to a litigation hold, it seems that much longer. 

One question that lawyers get with some frequency is "how long do we have to maintain this hold?"  The answer is that it depends.  One touchstone, though, is that the hold should remain in effect until all deadlines for appeal or further review have expired.

In a recent Louisiana case, Pipes v. UPS, UPS was hit with a motion for sanctions due to alleged spoliation of evidence.  One of its drivers was involved in an accident.  After the accident, UPS fired the driver and he filed a grievance protesting his termination.  He argued that the accident was not his fault, but rather was caused by a faulty tire on his delivery van.  His grievance was denied at all stages, and his firing was upheld.  Following the end of the grievance process, van maintenance records were destroyed, and the allegedly faulty tire was released to a vendor.

However, the fired driver then sued both UPS (for firing him) and his union (for inadequate representation) in federal court.  When he discovered that the maintenance records and tire were gone, he brought a motion for sanctions.  UPS's managers testified that they thought they could put the matter behind them when the grievance was decided, and so had gotten rid of the evidence.  The court ultimately declined to sanction UPS because the driver's claim lacked merit, and the tire and maintenance records were ultimately only slightly relevant to his claims.

As demonstrated by this case, it is imperative that litigation holds remain in place until appeal or review opportunities have passed.  This is a tricky issue where, as here, the avenue for appeal may be novel (one of UPS's managers testified that he had never seen a grievance decision appealed).  It is important that the person managing the hold make sure that all key players are on the same page about when the hold may be released, and that attorneys keep their clients informed about the possible avenues and timelines for appeal.

The Governator Signs Electronic Discovery Act Into Law

Apparently taking a break from figuring out where the money will come from to run California, The Governator signed into law the Electronic Discovery Act (“EDA”) on June 29th, joining the ranks of approximately twenty other states in adopting specific rules designed to manage e-discovery. Like most of these other states, California’s EDA is substantially based on the 2006 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

According to Eric Sinrod, writing in The FindLaw Technology Blog, “The new California rules, which represent the culmination of several years of negotiations, appear to work a compromise between plaintiff trial attorneys who sought in depth access to electronic records and corporate defense counsel who desired safeguards for data that they believe is too burdensome and costly to produce.” 

A significant difference between the Federal Rules and the EDA is the inclusion in the EDA of a safe harbor that does not sanction a party or attorney who fails to produce electronically stored information that has been lost, damaged, altered or overwritten, if it was done as a result of the routine, good faith operation of an electronic system.


Additionally, according to Sinrod, the Act directs that “electronically stored information should be provided in the form ordinarily maintained or in a reasonably usable form; a party may object to the production of electronically stored information on burden or inaccessibility grounds, but that party bears the burden of proving that objection, and a court still may require production upon a showing of good cause by the demanding party; and the Act is applicable to third parties pursuant to subpoenas, although one can expect potentially less e-discovery burdens being placed on third parties as opposed to parties in a case.”

 

Based upon the current legislative trend, it should be anticipated that eventually all of the states will soon have similar laws in place to address the evolving issues associated with electronically stored information.

The Wi$dom of Collaborative E-Discovery (Especially in Smaller Cases)

Sometimes it seems like it all comes down to money, doesn't it?  Especially now, so many of us are looking for ways to work - and litigate - smarter, leaner, and cheaper.  Fortunately, some of the finest legal minds are hard at work on solutions to costly e-discovery conundrums, and, luckily, many valuable resources are just a (free!) mouse-click away.

So much of what we know about the outlines of E-Discovery law comes from multi-million dollar, bet-the-company litigation between corporate behemoths.  But what about the everyday family law or small business disputes that are the bread and butter for most attorneys across the country?  How do you get the information you need and protect your client from sanctions without spending more on e-discovery than the case is worth?

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Coming Soon to a Wisconsin Courtroom Near You?

It looks like Wisconsin will soon join a number of states (roughly half of the country) who have amended or adopted rules of civil procedure to include specific provisions regarding discovery of electronically stored information. 

After considering the issue for several months, the Wisconsin Judicial Council filed a petition with the state Supreme Court proposing amendments to the state statutes that provide the rules of civil procedure. 

In general, the proposed amendments are consistent with, and based on the 2006 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding electronic discovery.  For example, the proposed amendments:

  1. Encourage the parties to discuss electronically stored information early in the discovery process;
  2. Address the format in which electronically stored information should be produced;
  3. Limit the information that must be produced to reasonably accessible information; and
  4. Contain a safe harbor provision to protect a party who destroys information in good faith according to a routine records retention policy.

Despite these general similarities, the proposed amendments differ from their federal counterparts in three important respects. Unlike their federal counterparts, the proposed amendments:

  1. Provide a definition for "electronically stored information" that is "intended to be broad enough to cover all current types of computer based information yet flexible enough to encompass future changes and technological developments." 
  2. Do not require the parties to discuss electronically stored information at a discovery conference because Wisconsin does not require a discovery conference.  Instead, the proposed amendments "encourage the courts to address the management of electronic discovery early by adding electronically stored information to the list of items that can be addressed by scheduling order, although it is not required."
  3. Do not contain a claw-back procedure to protect parties who inadvertently produce privileged or protected information. According to the Judicial Council, "waiver of privilege is more properly addressed under the rules of evidence, including the attorney client privilege and the work product doctrine, than in the discovery rules."  

The Supreme Court is expected to hear public comment on the proposed amendments soon, but the hearing date has not yet been scheduled.  Stay tuned!

Google to the (E-Discovery) Rescue?

Recently I came across a doubleclick.com digital marketing piece touting Google's latest search technology, Google Search Appliance 6.0. The inviting web ad promised:  "Google brings Findability to Enterprise Search".

The list of oohs and aahs includes:

  • Dynamic Scalability to thousands, millions, even billions of documents.
  • Linking multiple search engines (federated searches) separated across departments or geographies to provide a unified set of results.
  • Syndicated searches of up to 30 million documents.
  • Fine-tuning relevancy by using latest technologies in search algorithm and search result ranking.
  • Customizable security.
  • User-centric search enhancements such as "User-Added Results" and "Query Suggestions."

While the new Google Search Appliance (GSA) represents another hopeful step towards the Holy Grail of Search, it is also a potential antidote to the current state of e-discovery -- at least from a strategic perspective.  The cost of litigation appears to be at a breaking point where containment hinges on effective ESI searches and collaborative e-discovery maneuvers.  Although Google's search technology may be primarily designed for Intra/Extranet implementations, GSA could also serve to reduce litigation costs by helping lawyers cull through exabytes of electronically stored information.

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