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Court Denies Further Sanctions, Including Shifting of Burden of Proof Based on Coleman Decision

Posted in CASE SUMMARIES

Jinks-Umstead v. England, 2005 WL 3312947 (D.D.C. Dec. 7, 2005) In this matter, a previous decision from which was summarized here, Lavonne Jinks-Umstead alleged that the United States Navy discriminated against her based on her race when it failed to provide her with adequate staff assistance. A jury verdict was granted in favor of Defendant, but a new trial was ordered based on Defendant’s pre-trial failure to produce Work in Progress (“WIP”) reports and the erroneous admission into evidence of certain emails. The new trial is scheduled to begin on January 18, 2006. In this memorandum opinion, Judge Kessler addressed pending motions. Defendant argued that the jury verdict should be reinstated because additional discovery does not support Plaintiff’s claim. However, the Court found that documents submitted do not clearly demonstrate that staffing was adequate and that Plaintiff was not, therefore, a victim of discrimination. Further, the Court found that determining what the documents prove is a job for the jury. Defendant’s motion to reinstate the jury verdict was denied. Remaining motions addressed (1) whether the jury should be instructed to draw an adverse inference based on discovery abuse by Defendant prior to and during the trial and alleged abuse thereafter, (2) whether the jury should be informed about the discovery abuse prior to and during the trial, as well as alleged subsequent abuse, and (3) whether Defendant should be precluded from presenting testimony that purportedly relates to documents that were not produced by Defendant. The Court refused to issue an adverse inference jury instruction as it found no evidence that Defendant demonstrated the requisite “evil intent, bad faith, or willfulness.” Plaintiff had been given the opportunity to obtain all relevant information which she was denied at the first trial. Plaintiff also sought to shift the burden of proof such that Defendant would have to prove that Plaintiff had not been subject to discrimination or retaliation. Plaintiff relied upon the decision in Coleman Holdings, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. 2005 WL 679071 (Fla.Cir.Ct. Mar. 1, 2005) for this argument, but the Court did not find that decision applicable given that the “willful and gross abuse” of discovery obligations in Coleman was very different from what happened here. The Court concluded that informing the jury of previous discovery abuse would not be justified, noting (1) there is no evidence of willful, bad faith, or intentional action by Defendant, (2) it would be extremely prejudicial and Defendant has already suffered sanction, and (3) this case is about discrimination and retaliation, and will not be made into a trial about discovery. Plaintiff argued that the Best Evidence Rule should prevent the Navy from putting on testimony relating to documents that it failed to produce. In particular, Plaintiff sought to exclude testimony regarding downsizing of the Navy, a reorganization at the Carderock Division where she worked, or a reduction of hires in the 1102, 1105, or 1106 job series. The Court held that this would be a misapplication of the rule, which applies to evidence offered to prove the contents of a document but would not prohibit testimony regarding some fact merely because that fact can be supported by written documentation.