Florida Supreme Court Juices Up E-Discovery Requirements

On July 5, 2012, the Florida Supreme Court adopted seven amendments to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure (“Fla. R. Civ. P. ___”). See In re Amendments to the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure -- Electronic Discovery, ____ So.3d ____, 2012 Fla. LEXIS 1318 (Fla. July 5, 2012). These amendments are largely modeled on the 2006 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (namely, Rules 16, 26, 33, 34, 37 and 45), and are designed to encourage harmonization with federal decisions. Specifically, the seven amended rules consist of Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.200 (Pretrial Procedure); 1.201 (Complex Litigation); 1.280 (General Provisions Governing Discovery); 1.340 (Interrogatories to Parties); 1.350 (Production of Documents and Things and Entry Upon Land for Inspection and Other Purposes); 1.380 (Failure to Make Discovery; Sanctions); and 1.410 (Subpoena).

However, while the amendments parallel the changes to Federal Rules, some contain subtle variances from their federal counterparts, that arguably operate to make the Florida rules broader and more malleable than their federal counterparts.

Some of the important provisions, and a comparison to their federal counterparts, can be summarized as follows:

1.    No requirement to "meet and confer" in Florida. The “meet and confer” provisions of Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(f) are not adopted by the Florida rules. While this development might be seen as a surprising omission, Florida Rule 1.200, applicable to all Florida court divisions, provides for the a Case Management Conference to be convened by order of the Court or by a party merely serving a notice setting the conference. More importantly Rule 1.2000 specifically sets out electronic discovery matters to be discussed at the Case Management Conference, telling the parties to:

  • "consider the possibility of obtaining admissions of fact and voluntary exchange of documents and electronically stored information, and stipulations regarding authenticity of documents and electronically stored information;"
     
  • "consider the need for advance rulings from the court on the admissibility of documents and electronically stored information;"
     
  • "discuss as to electronically stored information, the possibility of agreements from the parties regarding the extent to which such evidence should be preserved, the form in which such evidence should be produced, and whether discovery of such information should be conducted in phases or limited to particular individuals, time periods, or sources;"

Additionally in cases deemed Complex Litigation, Florida Rule 1.201 has been amended to specifically require discussion during the Case Management Conference of "the possibility of obtaining agreements among the parties regarding the extent to which such electronically stored information should be preserved, the form in which such information should be produced, and whether discovery of such information should be conducted in phases or limited to particular individuals, time periods, or sources[.]"

Florida's approach thus provides flexibility to accommodate the wide variety of cases in Florida courts of general jurisdiction while providing greater guidance than found in Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(g) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 16.

2.  Pre-litigation duty to preserve remains in question. Rule 1.380 adopts, verbatim, the well-known (though seldom used by courts) Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(e) safe harbor, under which sanctions cannot be awarded against a party who failed to produce ESI lost as a result of "good faith operation." The Florida Committee Note also obliquely references the duty to preserve . . . however, it does so without resolving whether there is actually a pre-litigation duty in Florida. Under federal law, a duty to preserve arises when there is "reasonable anticipation" of litigation, though the exact scope of this phrase remains to be tied down. The Florida Committee is silent as to whether any duty exists, and has left the issue to the courts to determine on a case by case basis rather than drawing any hard lines. Chances are, Florida courts will come down in line with the federal "reasonable anticipation" standard.  But there is current Florida law that appears to hold that a duty to preserve arises only by statute, contract, or a request for production. Regardless of what happens on this front, however, the intentional destruction of evidence to thwart the administration of justice (either before or during litigation) does give rises to spoliation claims under Florida law.

3.   ESI to be produced as "ordinarily maintained" or "reasonably usable form." Rule 1.280 further authorizes discovery of ESI, and Rule 1.350 treats ESI as a type of document whose production must be in the form ordinarily maintained, or else in a reasonable form. The important change in Rule 1.350 is that the producing party must specify before production and in the written response to the request for production what production format will be used. The requesting party can specify a format, and if the producing party objects or a format is not specified, the producing party must state the format of production it intends to use.

The great utility of this structure is that disputes as to format will surface early for judicial resolution.   While the amendment does not define "reasonably usable," this will vary from case to case depending on cost and utility issues. The amended Rule 1.350 does, however, make clear that the producing party may produce as "ordinarily maintained" -- it need not take any extraordinary steps to enhance the utility of the production form by (for example) converting paper into searchable OCR text. But note that because the amended Rule does not require production in "native," only in a "reasonably usable," format, native production may or may not be the right format for the case.

4.  Motions to compel inaccessible ESI permitted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(2)(B) contains a presumptive exclusion of ESI production from inaccessible materials such as backup tapes. Amended Rule 1.280(d)(1) authorizes objections to the discovery of ESI from such inaccessible sources, requiring the objecting party to demonstrate "undue burden and cost." Even upon a showing of undue burden and cost, however, the Court may still order production on a showing of good cause, although it must consider appropriate conditions and limitations on such discovery including cost shifting. 

The amended Rule 1.280(d)(2) also specifically makes proportional considerations applicable "in determining any motion involving discovery of electronically stored information." The proportionality factors courts should consider (such as the expense, the time commitment, and potential usefulness the material, and so on) are helpfully listed in Rule 1.280(d)(2) as well. These factors track Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C).

5.   ESI can be used to answer interrogatories. Rule 1.340 authorizes producing ESI in lieu of interrogatory answers. In doing so it spells out the form of production instead of leaving it open, as does Fed.R.Civ.P. 33.

6.   Litigation holds are not mentioned. The Florida Committee Note does not mention litigation holds, but states that in determining “good faith” the court may consider any steps taken to comply with preservation obligations. Cf. W. Hamilton, Florida Moving to Adopt Federally-Inspired E-discovery Rules (Sept. 20, 2011) (arguing that “traditional Florida spoliation remedies are in play when a party intentionally destroys relevant information to thwart the judicial process – whether before or during litigation”); Michael D. Starks, Deconstructing Damages for Destruction of Evidence, 80-AUG Fla. B. J. 36 (July/August 2006) (noting that both sanctions and tort damages are available under Florida law, although "the first-party spoliation tort" has since been destroyed). 

7.  Inadvertent production. Effective January 2011, Florida adopted Rule 1.285 to govern the responsibilities of parties upon post-production claims of inadvertent production of privileged material. This rule is analogous to Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(5)(B)'s "claw-back" provision, but broader and more comprehensive. Like the federal version, however, Florida leaves the issue of waiver to a separate proceeding.

 

In sum, Florida has enacted a nuanced and powerful set of e-discovery rules that provide excellent direction and authority for the management of e-discovery. The new Florida amendments are to take effect in September 2012.
 

Florida Moving to Adopt Federally-Inspired E-Discovery Rules

Florida is hurdling toward the adoption of new civil procedure rules that address the discovery of electronically stored information (ESI) in the Florida state courts.

The Florida Civil Rules Electronic Discovery Sub-Committee, initially under the leadership of Lawrence Kolin and now Kevin Johnson, recommended rule changes addressing e-discovery after years of study. The full Rules Committee voted at The Bar’s Annual Meeting in June to accept the Sub-Committee's proposed rules with minor editorial changes sent the e-discovery rules to the Supreme Court on an expedited “out-of-cycle” track, which would avoid an additional two-year wait for the 2013 regular cycle rules changes. On July 29, 2011, The Bar’s Board of Governor’s accepted the recommendations, including expedited review and voted to have The Bar’s legal counsel submit the proposed rules to the Supreme Court.  After publication in The Bar News and the opportunity for comment, the Supreme Court will be able to consider the rules as early as this fall.

For the most part, the recommended rule changes track the federal 2006 rule changes with a few exceptions. The Sub-Committee’s wisdom in tracking the federal rules is important for a number of reasons.

  • First, the adoption of parallel e-discovery rules will provide Florida state courts with the abundant guidance found in federal case law. While the decisions of the federal courts interpreting the federal rules are not binding on Florida judges, federal decisions will have a dramatic persuasive impact on Florida cases. Practitioners will be able to refer to federal court case and cases in states where rules patterned on federal law have been enacted, which avoids re-inventing a substantial body of important case law.
  • Second, national corporations and businesses litigating disputes in Florida will now find consistency between federal and state court decision.
  • Third, the adoption of Florida e-discovery rules that closely track the federal rules will minimize forum shopping between federal and state courts, at least with respect to handling ESI. Soon Florida and federal courts will be aligned regarding, among other things, the principle of proportionality that has become critically important in managing electronic discovery. Litigants will no longer need to be concerned that the Florida concept of “undue burden” under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(c) is less encompassing than the proportionality requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(B) and (C). The new Florida e-discovery rules will give Florida judges a clear directive to effectively manage the discovery of voluminous ESI that threatens to eclipse the value of any case whether or not the digital data is "reasonably accessible." Florida judges have principally resolved discovery objections on the basis of relevance: with few exceptions, if the information is “relevant” it must be produced if requested. Now, however, under the soon to be adopted Florida e- discovery rules, the sheer volume of relevant digital data relative to the “value” of a case may be a sufficient foundation to invoke e-discovery management tools such as staging, sampling and other methods that control the volume of digital data subject to preservation, search and review.

The proposed Florida e-discovery rules differ from the Federal rules in one important respect. The new proposed Florida rules will not require an early Federal Rule 26(f) type “meet and confer” conference regarding electronic discovery. Florida courts of general jurisdiction handle all sorts of matters –family, probate, landlord tenant, foreclosure—and the Sub-Committee reasoned that a mandatory Rule 26(f) conference may not be productive in all cases and could create a burden in low value cases or where routine procedures are already in place. However, what burden is it to place a call to the opposition and ask if electronic discovery will be part of the case?  Digital data will play some role in almost all cases—even the smallest—and a preliminary dialogue is the best method to avoid disputes, if not disasters, down the road. Fortunately, this “omission” is not as serious as it may seem. Circuit courts in three of Florida’s major urban areas have established “business courts” for more significant commercial cases. These courts in Miami, Orlando and Tampa have local rules already requiring early judicial conferences and meetings with counsel, and often clients, that can address e-discovery issues. See e.g. http://www.fljud13.org/JudicialDirectory/RichardANielsen/ProceduresPreferences.aspx

Additionally, in cases deemed "complex", Florida has a special rule that mandates Rule 26(f) type conferences. Fla. R.Civ. P. 1.201. And finally the Sub-Committee noted that any party in any case can make a motion and request a preliminary e-discovery conference with the Court and the opposition. In sum, the Sub-Committee wisely decided to recommend the important rule changes where agreement could be reached rather than derailing the entire process due a lack support from all Bar segments. The new Florida e-discovery rules are a significant advance that will catapult Florida in to the ranks of those states with progressive e-discovery rules.

Beyond “meet and confer” differences, litigators should also be forewarned of claims of significant differences regarding preservation in Florida and Federal courts. The idea that preservation is not mandated in Florida when litigation is reasonably anticipated derives from some Florida decisions that broadly recite, mostly in dicta, that preservation is only required when mandated by contract, statute, or a request for production. In this regard, Florida e-discovery preservation jurisprudence appears to lag behind Federal courts and other state courts. See e.g. Gayer v. Rind Line Construction & Electric, Inc., 970 So.2d, 424,426 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007); Royal Sunalliance v. Lauderdale Marine Center, 877 So.2nd 843 (Fla. 4th DCA 2004). However, reliance on this general and fact specific precedent to conclude that a duty to preserve only arises in Florida from a contract, statute (e.g. medical records), or a request for production is ill-advised. In our recently published LexisNexis® Practice Guide Florida Electronic Discovery and Evidence, my co-author, former Florida state court judge Ralph Artigliere, and I argue this view is both mistaken and dangerous. Although Florida law has been slow to address the pre-litigation triggers requiring the preservation of electronically stored information, common law preservation duties are not absent in Florida. Traditional Florida spoliation remedies are in play when a party intentionally destroys relevant information to thwart the judicial process--whether before or during litigation. Further, we believe that as Florida case law slowly develops it will adopt what the Federal case law has established: the fragile and ephemeral name of digital data and the auto-deletion features of computer devices and computer networks require affirmative efforts to halt such deletion when litigation is reasonable anticipated. Just as Florida has come into alignment with Federal rules relating to proportionality, Florida courts will also align themselves with federal precedent on preservation.

In short:  any litigator in the Sunshine State advising clients that the deletion of relevant electronically stored need not be suspended when litigation is reasonably anticipated, is inviting the proverbial e-discovery train wreck.