In Saulsberry v. Savannah River Remediation, LLC, No.: 1:16-cv-02792-JMC (D.S.C. Sep. 19, 2019), South Carolina District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs denied without prejudice the defendant’s Motion in Limine to Bar Plaintiff from Making Adverse Comments Regarding Defendant’s Failure to Produce Certain Records, finding that defendant “has not demonstrated that the contents of the missing Lash Investigative File would necessarily replicate, but not add to, the information provided in the record.”

Case Background

In this Title VII and § 1981 disparate treatment action filed by the plaintiff, she had previously made an internal EEO Complaint in 2013 which allegedly arose from her participation in the 2012 investigation of Robert Lash after which she contended that she was “targeted by her managers and treated differently”.  During discovery, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel the contents of the Lash Investigation, but the defendant admitted that it never produced the Lash Investigative File and also admitted that, although there was a physical Lash Investigative File, it submitted written discovery responses stating that no notes or other documentary evidence existed regarding the [Lash] investigation.

However, two deposed witnesses suggested that “documentary evidence which should be in hard copy of the [Lash] Investigative File” and the plaintiff indicated that she had provided some documents from the file to the EEO Director, as part of her internal EEO claim in September of 2013.  Nonetheless, the defendant was unable to locate the file.  The plaintiff contended that the Lash Investigative File was relevant to several of her remaining claims, while the defendant claimed that the file was no longer relevant to any remaining claim and filed a motion to have the court to bar the plaintiff’s ability to elicit testimony regarding the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the file, contending the issue of “’why’ [Saulsberry] was included in the WFR is no longer relevant” to the claims before the court.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Childs stated: “While the court agrees that the disappearance of the Lash Investigative File is relevant to the WFR claims which are no longer before the court, the court does not necessarily agree that the Lash Investigative File is not also relevant to the claims presently before the court.”  The plaintiff had argued that her remaining race and retaliation claims relate to her participation in the Lash investigation and also contended that evidence of her ‘protected activity’ (that prohibited her from being rehired for a position) was in the Lash File.  As a result, Judge Childs stated: “This court, therefore, shall not, at this time, prohibit Saulsberry from introducing evidence, or eliciting testimony regarding the Lash File and the circumstances surrounding its disappearance.”

With regard to the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff should be “precluded from seeking an adverse inference charge regarding the lost file”, Judge Childs stated: “The court has a similar view on this issue… SRR has not demonstrated that the contents of the missing Lash Investigative File would necessarily replicate, but not add to, the information provided in the record. Further, ‘Even if a court determines not to exclude secondary evidence, it may still permit the jury to draw unfavorable inferences against the party responsible for the loss or destruction of the original evidence.’ Vodusek, 71 F.3d at 156.”  As a result, in denying the defendant’s motion, Judge Childs stated “the court declines to substantively exclude, at this time, all references to the disappearance of the Lash Investigative File or indefinitely preclude Saulsbury from making a showing that an adverse inference instruction based on its disappearance is warranted. Moreover, SRR has not addressed or demonstrated what, if any, prejudice would result if its motion is denied.”

So, what do you think?  Should parties be able to bar opposing parties for commenting about lost records in court proceedings? 

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