Plaintiff Sanctioned for Spoliation of Evidence in His Case Against Taylor Swift: eDiscovery Case Law

by CloudNine

In Mueller v. Swift, No. 15-cv-1974-WJM-KLM (D. Colo. July 19, 2017), Colorado District Judge William J. Martinez ruled that “Plaintiff’s loss or destruction of the complete recording of the June 3, 2013 conversation [between the plaintiff and his supervisors] constitutes sanctionable spoliation of evidence”, but rejected the defendants’ request to make a finding of bad faith and to give the jury an adverse inference instruction, opting instead for permitting the defendants to cross-examine the plaintiff in front of the jury regarding the record of his spoliation of evidence.

Case Background

In this case against the defendants for tortious interference with the plaintiff’s employment contract and one defendant’s counterclaims for the torts of assault and battery over a well-publicized claim of inappropriate touching, the plaintiff met with his superiors at the radio station where he worked on June 3, 2013 to discuss the defendant’s claim of inappropriate touching. Unbeknownst to the supervisors at the time, the plaintiff made an audio recording of their conversation.  The following day, the plaintiff was terminated from his employment by one of the supervisors, who explained that one reason for the plaintiff’s termination was because he perceived Plaintiff had “changed his story that it couldn’t have occurred, then that it was incidental.”

At some point thereafter, well after having first contacted an attorney regarding potential legal action, the plaintiff edited the audio recording of the conversation, and then sent only “clips” of the entire audio file to his attorney.  According to his testimony, the plaintiff edited the audio file on his laptop computer, on which he also retained a full copy of the original audio file(s).  However, he claimed that he spilled coffee on the keyboard of his laptop and was given “a new machine” by the Apple Store and he didn’t retain the hard drive from the old laptop.  The plaintiff also kept an external hard drive “to store audio files and documents”, and the complete audio recording was saved on this drive, but he indicated that, at some point, it “stopped working.”  At his deposition, the plaintiff testified that he “may have kept” this hard drive, but that because it was “useless” he “[didn’t] know if I discarded it because it was junk”. As a result, the complete audio file was never produced and the defendants moved for a Court-imposed sanction for spoliation of evidence, and for the Court to give the jury an adverse inference instruction at trial, to direct the jury “that the entirety of the June 3, 2013 audio recording would have been unfavorable to Plaintiff.”

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Martinez ruled that the plaintiff had a duty to preserve the recording, that the recording was “relevant to numerous disputed facts and issues” in the case, that the defendants were prejudiced by the loss of evidence and that the degree of culpability warrants a sanction.  While declining to make a finding that the plaintiff acted in bad faith, Judge Martinez indicated that the “spoliation falls higher up on the ‘continuum of fault’” than mere negligence”, noting that it was “troubling” that the plaintiff also threw out his cell phone, months after the litigation was filed, noting “it may have been the device that he originally used to record the June 3, 2013 conversation”.

As a result, Judge Martinez concluded that “Plaintiff’s loss or destruction of the complete recording of the June 3, 2013 conversation constitutes sanctionable spoliation of evidence”, but, determining that the defendants’ request for an adverse inference instruction sanction “would be unduly harsh in the circumstances of this case”, deciding instead to permit the defendants to cross-examine the plaintiff in front of the jury regarding the record of his spoliation of evidence.

So, what do you think?  Was that an appropriate sanction given the lack of finding of bad faith?

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