Google Docs Ready for (Legal) Primetime?

Today's predominant word processors are Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. MS Word is also offered as a web-based application or Saas (Software-as-a-Service).  However, there is a newer type of document collaboration, where numerous people have access to the same document so that they can all contribute and monitor changes made by others.  These types of applications are becoming more common.  For example, Google has begun to offer its own Google Word Processor called "Google Docs" -- which allows users to share and collaborate on documents. 

What does it matter which type you use in your business?  Here's one comparison between the Google and Microsoft web products.  But there's much more when it comes to the battle between WORD v. GOOGLE DOCS.

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Compliance Officer Found Liable for Failing to Preserve Data

A recent ruling of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) should serve as a yet another reminder of the importance of adequately preserving electronically stored data.

On July 2, 2010, the SEC ruled that vFinance Investments Inc., a Florida based broker dealer, violated securities laws by failing to preserve and produce electronic communications requested by the SEC as required by Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. In re vFinance Investments Inc., SEC, Admin. Proc. File No. 3-12918, 7/2/10.

 

In addition, as another example of the growing trend of blaming corporate executives for e-discovery failures, the SEC held that the firm’s former chief compliance officer, Richard Campanella, was liable for willfully aiding and abetting vFinance’s violations. The SEC sustained an administrative law judge’s decision censuring the Campanella and assessing penalties of $100,000 and $30,000 against the firm and Campanella, respectively. The SEC also barred Campanella from the industry for two years.

 

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Digital Voicemail in E-Discovery -- or Dealing with Cerberus, the Three-Headed Dog from Hell

You have one new voice message. First message: Monday, 4:45pm --

I must have just missed you, Vice President Joe.
It's Mike van Dyke, your CEO.
Remember that complicated widget invention --
Our best-seller you copied from the Widget Convention?
The one in your job interview that you mentioned,
And stole from your last boss for withholding your pension?

Well, they've sued us for patent infringement and such,
And theft of trade secrets -- it's really too much.
So I need you to shred all the documentation:
The tech drawings you stole; design specifications.
And that memo you wrote, before everything,
Saying that they had a patent, worth copying.

And yes, it goes without saying, too, Joe --
Please immediately delete this voicemail also.

End of new messages.

A lawyer who finds a copy of this voicemail buried in the other side's electronic document production will immediately splurge on champagne and party hats. And who can blame him? But here's the question: would this message be captured in the net of responsive material, or would it slip through the cracks? The answer may depend less on the skill of document retrieval experts, and more on how your company (or client's) voicemail system works.

It's old news that voicemail systems have graduated from analog to digital. Now, while the self-contained answering machine is still around, the digital era has also ushered in various types of integrated systems. The most complex, like the famed mythological dog Cerberus guarding the gates of Hell to prevent the dead who cross the river Styx from escaping, have three heads: the company telephone system, e-mail system, and computer system. And while a message on a self-contained machine can be difficult for a company -- let's call it Hades, Inc. -- to track and easy for an individual employee to get rid of, life with Cerberus is akin to life in the underworld: there is no escape, and nowhere to hide.
 

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In Tough Economic Times, Make the Case

Michelangelo is arguably the greatest artist of our time. However, many successful records managers will tell you that they use comparable skills to maintain an effective record retention program because implementation and compliance is more of an art than a science.

Corporate attorneys frequently counsel clients that it is riskier to have a retention program that is not followed than not having one at all, and in tough economic times, retention programs are sometimes cut as cost saving mechanisms. As corporate counsel, we can offer our clients practical information to prevent this outcome by preparing them to communicate the business case for maintaining the program.

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Tax-exempt organizations - the IRS wants you to think about record retention policies

Commenting on tax forms, Albert Einstein once said, "This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher."

Einstein might appreciate the latest changes in filing for tax-exempt organizations. In an attempt to foster transparency and ease the filing organization's administrative burden, the IRS recently redesigned the Form 990 (the annual information return that most tax-exempt organizations are required to file). The redesign asks a variety of questions regarding the filing organization's governance, including the question, "Does the organization have a written document retention and destruction policy?"

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Tee Up Your Document Retention Policy -or End Up in the Woods

In a widely reported anecdote, pop singer Christina Aguilera was once introduced to golfing superstar Tiger Woods, one of the most recognized people on Earth. “Christina, I love your music,” Woods declared. “I have all your CDs...” “Sorry, I don’t follow tennis,” Aguilera said, “so I don’t know much about you.”

 

Unfortunately, ignorance is no excuse when it comes to compliance with record-retention policies and apathy will result in serious trouble.   The legal and regulatory risks associated with noncompliance include costly penalties, court sanctions, and adverse judgments.  In addition to these compliance risks, companies must also consider potential financial and strategic risks. According to Rich Bailey in “Leveraging Enterprise Records Management” in the Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance Journal, a recent survey found that “roughly 50 percent of respondents said they are less than confident that, if challenged in court, their organization could demonstrate that their electronic information is accurate, accessible, and trustworthy. Only now are organizations realizing the complexity and compliance requirements associated with e-records, including electronic documents, data, e-mail and instant messages. Another survey by CFO.com found more than one-third of top-level executives say their companies don’t have a disciplined way to deal with electronic discovery issues.”

 

ONE THIRD! That’s a lot of executives who are at serious risk of consequences due to their shortcomings in preparedness in dealing with electronic discovery issues. If your company has not already evaluated adopting a document retention policy, adopted a policy or, worse yet, is not following its existing document retention policy, get on the ball or you may end up being like another golfer, Harry Tofcano, who said, “I’m hitting the woods just great, but I’m having a terrible time getting out of them.”

Big Trouble in the Big Easy

Hurricane Katrina was the storm of the century down in the Ninth Ward, but in downtown New Orleans, a different kind of storm is brewing. Just in time for the February 24th Mardi Gras celebration, the party in City Hall has come to an abrupt halt, and the Krewe of Nagin has brought Trouble to River City. 

The city’s records retention policy and state public records law requires that all email and public records must be preserved. In fact, under the "enforcement" section of the Nagin administration's recommendations for preserving e-mail, the city's technology office suggested that "any employee found to have violated this policy might be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment." Moreover, violations of the state law requiring the emails to be kept for three years is punishable by as long as five years in prison and fines up to $5,000.

Can you say “Uh-oh?” On February 19, 2009, Frank Donze reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2009/02/email_deletions_violate_nagins.html, that the Mayor’s office has disregarded its own policy, by deleting six months of the Mayor’s own emails, totaling over 1,500. The Nagin administration's only comment came from the city attorney, Penya Moses-Fields, who blamed the destruction of e-mail on "server storage and capacity problems, which have temporarily limited the city's capabilities to retain employee e-mails for any extended period of time."

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Keep Your Documents Close and Your Flash Drives Closer

In 1969, when Mario Puzo published his novel “The Godfather,” his line “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns” became highly quoted and recognized because of the innate truth it contained: it’s easier to rob a company through information than through violence.

He could not have imagined that, just forty years later, enough information to take over, bring down, or steal from a company could be contained on a device the size of a pack of gum. Flash drives have made it possible for corporate espionage to reach new heights, and for any disgruntled employee - from the receptionist to the president of the company - to succumb to temptation, download and walk away with the company’s data in a format so small that it can be hung on a keychain. If not accounted for in a document retention policy, flash drives present a significant risk of comprising the integrity and negating the purpose of a document retention plan. 

In a posting called “Deter the Use of Flash Drives to Avoid Corporate Espionage” by James Koopman on the DCIG website, Koopman says,

The portability and high capacity of flash drives is creating headaches for many companies. The Net is swarming with stories of the ill-use, illegal activities, and security concerns as more and more of these devices are lost and stolen or used to steal sensitive information.

The site links to reports on the theft or loss of flash drives containing information as diverse as military secrets, patient data, and confidential child welfare cases, all because the drives are convenient, easy to use, take up no space, are inexpensive and easily obtainable in any electronics store.

 

What all this means to legal departments, of course, is that flash drives have to be accounted for when complying with record retention policies, and in planning electronic document production for litigation purposes. In some environments - the Pentagon being a notable example ("Pentagon Bans Flash Drives"), flash drives have been outlawed entirely due to security concerns.  

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Use Caution When Doing Your Spring Cleaning!

 

Although we're in the middle of winter, and the Midwest had -40 degree wind chills last week, this is the time for you to think about spring cleaning. I don't mean scrubbing floors or washing windows. Now is the time to develop a record retention policy and a litigation hold policy and then begin appropriately "cleaning house."  Micron Technology, Inc. v. Rambus, Inc., 2009 WL 54887 (D. Del. Jan. 9, 2009) shows us why it is so very important to have a litigation hold policy in place before starting that spring cleaning.

Rambus was a microchip technology company that became concerned about possible patent infringements by microchip manufacturers. It sought counsel regarding possible litigation, and counsel developed a litigation strategy. During this time, Rambus also designed and implemented a record retention policy, then held a series of "Shred Days" where many expired records were destroyed.

Micron sought a declaratory judgment from the court that its designs did not infringe on Rambus' patent.  The court held a separate trial on whether Rambus' wholesale destruction of documents pursuant to its document retention policy constituted spoliation of evidence and the appropriate sanction to be imposed on Rambus if in fact spoliation had occurred.  

In analyzing the spoliation issue, the court found that Rambus had a duty to preserve its documents once litigation became reasonably foreseeable.  According to the court,

Rambus knew or should have known, that a general implementation of the policy was inappropriate because the documents destroyed would become material at some point in the future.  Therefore, a duty to preserve potentially relevant information arose in December 1998 and any documents purged from that time forward are deemed to have been intentionally destroyed, i.e. destroyed in bad faith. 

Because Rambus' bad faith was so clear and convincing and because Rambus destroyed innumerable documents relating to all aspects of Rambus' business, the court determined that the very integrity of the litigation process had been impugned.  The court found that neither adverse jury instructions nor the preclusion of evidence nor the imposition of fees and costs on Rambus could cure the damage done by the massive document destruction.  Instead, the court delivered the ultimate sanction of all, it declared Rambus' patents involved in the lawsuit unenforceable. 

The moral of the story?  Companies must exercise extreme caution in implementing document retention policies and must strongly consider whether a "litigation hold" needs to be placed on some documents, even in cases where litigation has not been officially commenced yet.  Consequently, when you get that itch to do some spring cleaning, plan ahead so that you can protect your intellectual property and your business.

Saving Your Company's Bucks and Hide...

Did you know that, before paper money was used, Americans used animal hides, or buckskins, for money?  This is the origin of the slang term "bucks." If you want to help your company keep more of their “bucks” as well as their “hide” in 2009, urge them to review and comply with their existing document retention policy.

Jerome Wendt on the StorageChannel.com’s blog revisited some lessons from the past, which remain relevant for the new year. Wendt’s blog discussed the 2002 case of Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. Fluor Daniel, Inc. (2002 WL 246439, E.D. La. Feb. 19, 2002). Fluor Daniel had an email retention policy that allowed them to erase backup tapes after 45 days, but neglected to follow their own policy…resulting in the unintended preservation of 93 backup tapes, some of which contained damaging information. The Court ordered Fluor Daniel to produce email from one of these backup tapes. Fluor Daniel could have avoided an unfavorable court decision and the costs associated with producing certain incriminating evidence had it only complied with its own document retention policy. 

The beginning of a new year should be seized as an opportunity to ensure that your company is complying with its existing document retention policy.  This is an excellent first step to saving more than a few bucks and protecting your hide as well. 

Walk the Line

There is a thin line when attempting to distinguish between personal records and corporate records. Some would argue that there is no line at all because it is very difficult to sustain a claim that documents prepared in connection with employment are "personal."  The distinction between personal records and corporate records is legally significant because the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination can be used to protect personal records.  Because the Fifth Amendment can only be asserted by individuals, corporate records are typically compelled to be produced in response to a subpoena.

The risk to corporate clients is significant when employees maintain records outside of normal record keeping procedures. This issue often arises when employees improperly assume that a record is "personal" because it contains some personal content. Common examples include employee calendars or address books that contain personal information. 

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Not Just Another "Auld Lang Syne"

On New Year's Eve, we typically gather in a glitter-and-confetti whirl to toast the New Year with champagne…or maybe you're a stay-by-the-fire-and-watch-Times Square type. Whatever your preference to usher in the New Year, you may be interested to know that the singing of the Scottish folk song "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight is not as traditional as you believed - it did not come to yearly use until 1929, when Guy Lombardo's orchestra played it at midnight at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City, then released a record of it and continued playing it every New Year's Eve afterward.

By the same token, a century from now law firms will no doubt wonder at our tizzy in getting used to electronic document discovery instead of our "traditional" means of producing documents via hard copy. But for now, clinging to the old ways and not making sure that document retention policies are not only up to date but adhered to is costing our clients a mint. As reported by Sheri Qualters in The National Law Journal on December 17, 2008, Kroll Ontrack analyzed 138 reported cases from January to October 2008 and reported that ONE QUARTER of the reported electronic discovery opinions in that period resulted in sanctions issues, while 13 percent addressed preservation and spoliation, 12 percent involved computer forensics protocols and experts, 11 percent, admissibility, and 7 percent, privilege considerations. In one case in the Northern District of California, defendants were sanctioned to the tune of more than a quarter million dollars. Keithley v. The Home Store.Com Inc., No. 3:03-cv-04447 (N.D. Calif., Aug. 12, 2008). That buys a LOT of champagne!

 

It's clear that doing things the way they were done in "old times past" - the literal translation of Auld Lang Syne - will get legal clients in trouble with the Court and could result in heavy financial sanctions. The Court has no "cup of kindness" when it comes to electronic discovery issues. So this New Year, no matter your celebratory preference, resolve to pay attention to your document retention and e-discovery policies, or if you do not have such policies, it's a New Year - a great time to implement a formal policy.

Making A Records Retention Policy and Checking It Twice

 

'Twas two weeks before Christmas and a few things were stirring in Seneca County, Ohio. The Big Guy in the red suit wasn't the only one deciding who has been naughty or nice. On December 9, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in a 7-0 decision (State ex rel. Toledo Blade Co. v. Seneca County Board of Commissioners, 2008 WL 5157133, Dec. 10, 2008) that the Seneca County Board of Commissioners had been naughty and compelled them to make reasonable efforts to recover and provide the Toledo Blade newspaper with emails that had been deleted in violation of the County's records retention policy and disposition schedule.

The fact that these emails had been deleted did not relieve the County from its obligation to produce this information because deleted computer files are still discoverable. Many times this information is recovered by a forensic analysis of the computer, which can be a very costly process. The County’s failure to maintain the requested emails in accordance with the applicable schedule for records retention and disposition was one of the factors cited by the Court in determining to impose the expense of the forensic recovery of the deleted emails on the County.

Much like Santa's list, records retention policies should be rechecked to ensure compliance.

 

 

Don't Forget the Website!

A corporation's website is often one of a corporation's most visible assets and as a result, websites are often given high priority by corporate marketing and public relations departments.  Websites should be paid the same attention when a corporation institutes a litigation hold.  Unfortunately, when a litigation hold has been instituted, forgetting about your website can be a dangerous oversight. 

In the recent case, Arteria Property Pty Ltd. v. Universal Funding V.T.O., Inc., (2008 WL 4513696, October 1, 2008), the District Court for the District of New Jersey held that websites should be treated the same as other electronic files and sanctioned the defendant corporation for failing to maintain the content on its website once litigation was reasonably anticipated. In Arteria, the plaintiff requested in discovery electronic snapshots or paper copies of the defendant corporation’s website. The defendant corporation failed to produce this information.  There was no dispute that the website was in existence at a time when it was at least reasonable that the corporation would be sued. As a result, the court found that the failure to produce the website constituted spoliation of evidence and imposed sanctions on the defendant corporation. 

The moral of this story?  Your litigation hold policy should have a mechanism in place to insure that your corporation's website, as an electronic document, is preserved in the same manner as other electronic data subject to a litigation hold.  

The Corporate "Know It All"

Our mothers always told us that “no one likes a know-it-all.” However, in today’s litigation environment, where electronic discovery and authentication of data have become important and too often dangerous, a know-it-all is exactly what companies facing litigation need. As Jonathan Sablone points out in his article, “Not Your Father’s Keeper Deposition”, litigators are now routinely using Rule 30(b)(6) depositions as a tool to authenticate data, determine whether another party has met its discovery burden and “to hijack entire cases”. See “Not Your Father’s Keeper Deposition."  As a result, as Sablone accurately points out, the choice of the designated 30(b)(6) witness in the context of electronic and e-discovery is a decision that should be taken very seriously. The failure to do so can not only lead to unnecessary time and expense but, more importantly, can potentially endanger a party’s case. 

Rule 30(b)(6) depositions allow an attorney to notice the deposition of an entity and the burden then shifts to the entity to designate one or more persons to testify on its behalf about the matters at issue. An entity can designate one person or it can designate multiple people and specify the matters upon which each person will testify. With matters relating to electronic records and e-discovery, savvy companies will take the time and expend the effort required to designate one or more witnesses who can testify about the relevant matters in a manner that is to the company’s advantage. This may be one “know-it-all” or several, each of whom is the “know-it-all” about a particular subject. Rule 30(b)(6) requires the witness to testify about information known or reasonably available to the organization. In other words, first hand knowledge of a matter is not required. This means that the company “know-it-all” can be prepped, thereby allowing a company to designate a person or persons that will make a “good witness.”