Court Issues Adverse Inference Sanction for Failing to Preserve Non Party’s Text Messages: eDiscovery Case Law

by CloudNine
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This is a case from earlier this year that we never got around to covering.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 40 years since the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash that took the life of lead singer and guitarist Ronnie Van Zant and five other people.  To read a retrospective on one of rock music’s most notable airplane disasters, here’s a terrific article from Rolling Stone.  To check out case law that relates to use of the band’s name – less dramatic, but still interesting (at least to some of us), read below.

In Ronnie Van Zant, Inc. v. Pyle, No. 17 Civ. 3360 (RWS) (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 28, 2017), New York District Judge Robert W. Sweet, among other rulings, issued an adverse inference sanction against one of the defendants for its failure to preserve text messages in the possession of a non-party, finding that defendant had control of the non-party’s text messages, given that he was contracted by the defendant and provided documents and gave a deposition during discovery.

Case Background

In this dispute over alleged violation of a Consent Order (which controlled the circumstances under which surviving band members could use the name Lynyrd Skynyrd) and efforts by Cleopatra Records to make a film about the crash (working with Artimus Pyle, the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd and a survivor of the 1977 crash, who was a signatory “under protest” to the Consent Order), the plaintiffs initially sent a cease and desist letter and ultimately filed suit against Pyle and Cleopatra alleging violation of the Consent Order.

Several weeks after the suit was filed and after filming of the disputed movie, Jared Cohn (who had been hired by Cleopatra as the director and screenwriter, but was a non-party to the litigation), switched cell phone providers and acquired a new phone.  Some data, such as pictures, were transferred while other data, such as text messages (including those exchanged with Pyle) was not transferred and was lost.  As a result, the plaintiffs sought an adverse inference sanction against Cleopatra for failure to preserve the text messages.

In response to the plaintiffs’ motion, Cleopatra argued that it could not be sanctioned for a non-party’s actions and that the phone was not within its control, that the plaintiffs’ had not issued a valid subpoena and that the plaintiffs had not shown prejudice because they could have acquired the text messages from Pyle and because Defendants have produced a large number of other documents, rendering the missing messages cumulative.

Judge’s Ruling

With regard to Cleopatra’s argument regarding lack of control over the text messages, Judge Sweet stated: “Here, while Cohn is a non-party, his text messages were, practically speaking, under Cleopatra’s control. Cohn was contracted by Cleopatra to work on the Film, and the evidence has establishes that he worked closely with Cleopatra for over the past year. Over the course of the instant litigation, Cohn has participated by providing documents and took a deposition sought by Plaintiffs during discovery…As has been found relevant in other cases determining the relationship between a party and non-parties, Cohn also has a financial interest in the outcome of this litigation, since he is entitled to a percentage of the Film’s net receipts, which would be zero should Plaintiffs prevail…In sum, while determining practical control is not an exact science, ‘common sense’ indicates that Cohn’s texts with Pyle were within Cleopatra’s control, and in the face of pending litigation over Pyle’s role in the Film, should have been preserved.”

Judge Sweet also rejected the argument that a subpoena was required, noting “what the rules require is independent of a proper subpoena and simply that the lost information ‘should have been preserved,’ and there has been no dispute that the missing texts would have been relevant to the instant matter.”  He also rejected the lack of prejudice argument, indicating that, of the evidence already produced by Cleopatra, “none speak directly to an important piece of this puzzle that would have been covered by the texts: the quality of interaction between Pyle, the Consent Order’s signatory, and Cohn, the principal writer and singular director of the Film, a relationship that evidence established was principally developed through text messages.”  In granting the motion for adverse inference sanction, Judge Sweet noted that Cohn’s actions of retaining his pictures but not his text messages “evince the kind of deliberate behavior that sanctions are intended to prevent and weigh in favor of an adverse inference.”

So, what do you think?  Should the defendant have been sanctioned for the actions of a non-party? 

[View source.]

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