In BankDirect Capital Fin., LLC v. Capital Premium Fin., Inc., No. 15 C 10340 (N.D. Ill. April 4, 2018), Illinois Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Cole recommended that the court follow the decision in Cahill v. Dart and “allow the appropriate evidence to be presented to the jury” to enable it to determine the “impact, if any, the non-production of the challenged emails has on the merits of the parties’ claims”.  If the court was not inclined to let the matter go to the jury, Judge Cole recommended that the court give a permissive spoliation instruction to the jury informing them of the destruction of the requested emails and that they could consider the deletion of the emails to be evidence in considering claims and counter-claims of the parties.

Case Background

In this case regarding breach of a marketing collaboration agreement between the parties and a counter-claim against the owner of the plaintiff, alleging the marketing agreement was negotiated in bad faith, the defendant raised concerns that the plaintiff had produced no emails from Fall 2010 through November 2011 (the period in which the parties were negotiating their Agreement).  The plaintiff indicated that it changed servers in November 2011 and no longer had possession of any emails prior to then.  In response to the suggestion that the loss of the pre-November 2011 emails might have been deliberate, the plaintiff claimed that the server change was “years before any party could have foreseen litigation”.  Though the parties agreed to a declaration by an employee of the plaintiff regarding this, the plaintiff never provided one.

In May 2017, the defendant served a notice for the deposition of a corporate representative of the plaintiff to cover a number of topics related to the missing emails, but the parties continued to dispute the production of a plaintiff witness before finally agreeing to depose an employee of the bank owner company of the plaintiff.  He testified that the new email archive system was not fully installed at the plaintiff’s organization until July 2012, that five years of emails were kept at the time and that emails were kept until automatically deleted once they aged five years.  This meant that emails going back to November 2010 were in existence and obtainable as of November 2015 when the Complaint was filed, not purged when the plaintiff changed servers.

In addition, the President and CEO of the plaintiff admitted he maintained a separate electronic or computerized “folder” for emails regarding the agreement, this folder would have contained all the communications related to it as of July 2012 when the migration to the new archive was complete and he knew of no reason why he would have deleted them.  Acknowledging that he was “personally responsible for putting in place a litigation hold”, he also admitted that neither he nor anyone else at the plaintiff or its owner company ordered the suspension of the automatic deletion of archived emails until at least October of 2016, nearly a year after the defendant filed suit, noting that he didn’t think there were any bad emails, so their deletion wasn’t problematic.  The chain of events led to the defendant filing a Motion for Spoliation Sanctions seeking the entry of a default judgment or, alternatively, an adverse inference sanction against the plaintiff.

Judge’s Ruling

In providing his recommendation, Judge Cole stated that the plaintiff CEO testimony “is simply not credible”.  Continuing, he said, “No reasonable, successful businessman would be so naive as to think that prior, positive exchanges of emails with one’s present accuser had no capacity to help prove that Capital’s charges were baseless and pretextual.”

Summing up his observations, Judge Cole stated that “there can be no serious doubt that the now unavailable emails ought to have been preserved, and that BankDirect, despite its admitted knowledge that documents were not to be destroyed, intentionally chose not to take reasonable (and quite easy) steps to preserve them.”  As a result, Judge Cole offered the following recommendation:

“Accordingly, it is recommended that the court follow Cahill and, as a matter of its inherent discretion, allow the appropriate evidence to be presented to the jury, which, under proper instructions, will determine the reasons for the non-production and the impact, if any, the non-production of the challenged emails has on the merits of the parties’ claims. Alternatively, if the court is not inclined to let the matter go to the jury, it is recommended that the court give a permissive spoliation instruction to the jury informing them of the destruction of the requested emails and that they could consider the deletion “of the emails to be evidence (not conclusive of course)” in considering BankDirect’s claim and Capital’s counterclaim.”

So, what do you think?  Should the judge have recommended a default judgment sanction in this case?

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