Every environmental litigator understands the duty to preserve documents. Before a complaint is filed, a plaintiff must preserve documents relevant to the claims about to be advanced. If a defendant reasonably anticipates litigation, the defendant must undertake reasonable efforts to preserve documents that are relevant to the impending lawsuit. Once a complaint is served, a defendant must preserve documents relevant to the claims alleged.
In the electronic world, especially on a prelitigation basis, it is doubly important to identify custodians with relevant documents (“key players”) since with a keystroke, they have the ability to delete responsive electronically stored information. Aluminum Corp. v. Alcoa, Inc., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66642 (M.D. La. July 19, 2006) illustrates the risk. Alcoa sent a cost-recovery demand to Consolidated Aluminum in 2002 and promptly put a litigation hold on the electronic documents of four Alcoa employees involved with a remedial investigation and cleanup. In 2003, Consolidated filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to be absolved of liability. In 2005, Consolidated propounded discovery that prompted Alcoa to expand its key player list by eleven more names. It was not until this expansion that Alcoa suspended its janitorial email deletion policy and backup tape maintenance policy which at Alcoa meant that email older than about seven months was no longer available unless it had been archived by the individual user. The magistrate judge imposed a monetary sanction on Alcoa—in effect determining that Alcoa should have identified these additional individuals as key players in 2002. 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66642, *36.
If a duty to preserve is violated, and documents are lost as a result, sanctions may result. What sanction will depend upon the level of culpability of the “spoliating” party—negligence, gross negligence, or bad faith--and the amount of prejudice to the “innocent” party by the loss of information relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense. But what is the difference between “negligence” and “gross negligence”? Who has the burden of proof in establishing the culpability of the conduct or the existence of prejudice? May a court presume prejudice depending upon the level of culpability? If so, is such a presumption rebuttable?
Much like she did in the five Zubulake v. UBS Warburg decisions, Judge Shira Scheindlin has written another blockbuster decision answering all of these questions. The Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan et al. v. Banc of America Securities, LLC et al., Civ. 9016 (January 15, 2010). In her amended opinion and order, (the original opinion was issued January 11, 2010 and appears at 2010 WL 93124), Judge Scheindlin defined gross negligence by reference to misfeasance following the attachment of a duty to preserve. She held that a finding of gross negligence will accompany the failure to
- issue “a written litigation hold,”
- “identify key players” and to “ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved,”
- “cease the deletion of email” or “preserve the records of former employees that are in a party's possession, custody, or control,” and
- preserve backup tapes “when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those key players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”
In contrast, the failure to obtain records from all employees, as opposed to key players, or to take all appropriate measures to preserve electronically stored information in most cases “likely” will fall into the “negligence” category, unless the facts, on a case-by-case basis, demonstrate otherwise, she held.
The burden of proof, the court said, is on the innocent party to show that the spoliating party had (1) control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it at the time of its loss and (2) acted with a culpable state of mind, and that (3) the missing evidence is relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense. Relevance is presumed when bad faith exists. Some courts presume relevance when “gross negligence” has been found, but Judge Scheindlin held that this presumption is “not required.” If only negligence has been found, the innocent party must prove relevance and prejudice. Irrespective of the level of culpability, “any presumption is rebuttable.”
The slip opinion is 85 pages in length and rather than summarizing it further here, I urge readers to review it. In the end, Judge Scheindlin decided that relevant information was lost and the innocent party (here a defendant) was prejudiced. She decided to give an adverse inference instruction that itself represents two illuminating single-spaced pages of the opinion, along with monetary sanctions (including attorneys’ fees for deposing certain declarants and bringing the sanctions motion).
Pension Committee begins with the byline, “Zubulake Revisited: Six Years Later.” This time, there will be no debate over how to pronounce Pension Committee. And, in the years to come, Pension Committee is sure to be cited just as often as Zubulake has been.