Plaintiff Sanctioned for Preserving Only Scanned Copy of Journal and Destroying the Original: eDiscovery Case Law

by CloudNine

In Mitcham v. Americold Logistics, LLC, No. 17-cv-00808-WJM-NYW (D. Colo. Sept. 20, 2017), Colorado Magistrate Judge Nina Y. Wang granted (in part) the defendant’s motion for sanctions for the plaintiff’s delay in producing a copy of a journal she kept while employed by the defendant and for her failure to produce the original copy of the journal by granting leave to re-open the plaintiff’s deposition for an additional two hours to examine the plaintiff about the journal and associated fees and expenses, but denied the defendant’s request for fees and expenses associated with the filing of the instant Motion and denied the defendant’s request for an adverse inference instruction.

Case Background

In this case in which the plaintiff claimed discrimination and improper termination for filing a formal complaint with a Human Resources hotline, the defendant requested (among other discovery requests) any “handwritten note, recorded communications, calendars, journals, diaries, logs, and the like” that related to the matter, but the plaintiff responded on two occasions that she had produced all such documents.  However, at the plaintiff’s deposition on July 13, 2017, she disclosed that she kept a “journal” to document all conversations she had regarding this matter so that she could recall those conversations in the future should the need present itself.  She also testified that she scanned the original copy of the journal and submitted it to her attorney, and then she shredded the original copy and acknowledged that it had not been previously produced.  The plaintiff then produced a scanned copy of the journal two days later, after the completion of her deposition.

About a month later, in August, the defendant filed an instant Motion seeking fees and expenses incurred by having to re-depose the plaintiff and for filing the instant Motion, as well as an adverse inference instruction sanction against the plaintiff.

Judge’s Ruling

Noting that “both Plaintiff and her counsel certified under Rule 26(g) that Plaintiff’s initial disclosures and responses were complete and accurate; however, a ‘minimal inquiry’ by Plaintiff’s counsel would have revealed the existence of the journal and required its production”, Judge Wang stated that “Ms. Mitcham’s failure to disclose the notebook in a timely fashion as part of her Initial Disclosures or in response to written discovery was not substantially justified. Indeed, Ms. Mitcham offers no, and this court cannot itself ascertain, a plausible explanation that Plaintiff was unaware of the notebook or its relevance to this instant action….it appears that Ms. Mitcham was withholding information (whether intentionally or not) that has hindered the progress of discovery”.

With regard to producing a scanned copy of her journal instead of the original, Judge Wang stated: “Plaintiff argues that her shredding the original journal does not constitute destruction, because she ‘kept a journal in the ordinary course of business and transferred it to computerized form as a matter of routine.’…Plaintiff continues that this satisfies the requirements of Rule 34(b)(2)(E), and that she timely supplemented her incomplete discovery responses with the scanned journal…These arguments are unavailing. Plaintiff’s original journal does not constitute electronically stored information; thus, Rule 34(b)(2)(E) is inapplicable. And, as mentioned above, a Rule 26 violation occurred.”

Judge Wang also determined that the plaintiff “abdicated” her duty to preserve by shredding the original, stating “It is clear that Plaintiff retained counsel the day after her termination and that, at this point, had not yet destroyed her original journal. Though Plaintiff stresses the fact that the scanned copy is just as good as the original, I respectfully disagree. First and foremost, there is no way for this court or the Parties to independently confirm that the scanned copy includes all the pages of the original journal. There is also no opportunity for the court or the Parties to determine from the handwriting, the ink, or otherwise if there are timing differences as to when certain entries were written. Therefore, this court concludes that the destruction of the original was unreasonable under the circumstances, because Ms. Mitcham retained counsel prior to shredding the original, and then scanned and sent a copy of the original to Mr. Olsen {her counsel} at his behest.”

As a result, Judge Wang granted (in part) the defendant’s motion for sanctions by granting leave to re-open the plaintiff’s deposition for an additional two hours to examine the plaintiff about the journal and associated fees and expenses, but denied the defendant’s request for fees and expenses associated with the filing of the instant Motion and denied the defendant’s request for an adverse inference instruction, determining that such a sanction is “not warranted at this time”.

So, what do you think?  Should parties be sanctioned for failing to preserve original copies of documents or should the requesting party bear the burden of showing that the copy is not complete? 

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