Court Grants Lesser Sanctions Against Defendant for Various Discovery Issues: eDiscovery Case Law

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In New Mexico Oncology v. Presbyterian Healthcare Servs. No. 1:12-cv-00526 MV/GBW (D.N.M. Aug. 16, 2017), New Mexico Magistrate Judge Gregory B. Wormuth, detailing numerous defendant discovery deficiencies alleged by the plaintiff, ruled that the “harsh sanctions of default judgment or an adverse jury instruction” requested by the plaintiff “are not warranted” and instead opted to require the defendant to pay plaintiff costs related to activities resulting from defendants’ over-designation of documents as privileged and recommended that the defendants be ordered to pay the plaintiff 75% of the costs associated with its Motion for Sanctions including all fees paid to expert witnesses to prepare reports and testify at the motion hearing.

Case Background

In this case, the plaintiff, detailing numerous alleged defendant discovery deficiencies, filed a Motion for Sanctions, requesting that the Court sanction the defendants by ordering default judgment against them, or, alternatively that the Court sanction the defendants by ordering an adverse jury instruction.  The allegations included:

  • Defendants failed to issue a proper litigation hold. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants’ original May 2012 litigation hold was inadequate because (1) it did not account for the “email jail,” a function which required that employees delete or archive emails when they run out of inbox space; (2) it covered only thirty-five employees and improperly excluded several key witnesses; (3) it allowed employees to determine which emails were irrelevant to the lawsuit and could be deleted; and (4) it did not apply to Defendants’ Live Exchange Server (a.k.a., the Transport Dumpster) and therefore did not preserve documents deleted by individual employees.
  • Defendants intentionally deleted discoverable emails received or sent by Dr. Dava Gerard. The two primary pillars of the plaintiff’s case for intentional deletion were: (1) the data found within the “free space” of the Gerard PST file (the PST file was 2 GB in size, but only 128 MB of materials were readable by native software when opened), and (2) data was found in the unallocated space on the hard drive on which the Gerard PST file was saved.
  • Defendants used privilege designations for the purpose of concealing documents and information. After the defendants produced their original privilege and redaction logs, the plaintiff objected to 2,831 of the 4,143 entries to which Defendants included in the logs.  The defendants conducted a re-review and produced 1,095 documents which were originally listed on the privilege log and 864 documents which were originally listed on the redaction log.  The plaintiff then objected to all 1,312 remaining listings on the privilege and redaction logs, stating that it no longer had confidence in Defendants’ privilege designations, leading to a second re-review, which led to an additional 861 documents produced.  The plaintiff then filed a Motion to Compel and for Sanctions against Defendants, which included a request “that the Court appoint a Special Master to conduct an independent in camera review” of the remaining records withheld and redacted – that review led to 197 additional documents ordered to be produced.

The plaintiff also complained that the defendants failed to produce usable billing and claims data in a timely manner, produced ESI for the wrong custodian named Mike West and did not properly collect hard copy documents in discovery.  As Frank Costanza would say at the Airing of Grievances during Festivus, “I got a lot of problems with you people”.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Wormuth, reviewing the allegations in considerable detail, determined the following:

  • Improper litigation hold: Judge Wormuth acknowledged that “Without question, Plaintiff points out some imperfections with the litigation hold and its implementation” and he detailed several of those. However, he also explained that “Plaintiff failed to establish that these imperfections were a result of bad faith or that they resulted in the spoliation of evidence.”
  • Intentional deletion of emails: Noting that “the conclusion that data residing in the PST’s free space is only the result of deletion rests on the assumption that the export was conducted via the ‘client-side’ method, rather than the alternative ‘server-side’ method”, Judge Wormuth cited a lack of evidence that the collection specialist used a clean hard drive to conduct the collection and pointed to the presence of export logs to determine that the exports were conducted via the “server-side” method and concluded that “Plaintiff has not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendants intentionally deleted emails that should have been disclosed.”
  • Privilege designations: Judge Wormuth agreed with the Special Master’s report that the defendants “did not act in bad faith”. But, he did state “this does not mean that Defendants are free from blame. It is clear that Defendants over-designated documents as privileged, and that even their re-reviews were insufficient to fix their own errors. As a result, Plaintiff was required to repeatedly assert objections until the Special Master ultimately resolved the issue.”

As for the other issues, Judge Wormuth ruled that the “Plaintiff can demonstrate no prejudice resulting from any such delays” in receiving the billing and claims data, that the “collection of documents from the wrong Mike West was an inadvertent error and not done in bad faith” and that, because of the plaintiff’s failure to request that the Court allow additional depositions of the employees associated with the hard copy documents, “more severe sanctions are not warranted”.

Ultimately, Judge Wormuth ruled that the “harsh sanctions of default judgment or an adverse jury instruction” requested by the plaintiff “are not warranted” and instead opted to require the defendant to pay plaintiff costs related to activities resulting from defendants’ over-designation of documents as privileged and recommended that the defendants be ordered to pay the plaintiff 75% of the costs associated with its Motion for Sanctions including all fees paid to expert witnesses to prepare reports and testify at the motion hearing.

So, what do you think?  Was that an appropriate level of sanctions for the various discovery issues? 

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