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.