Zubulake V: Court Grants Adverse Inference Instruction and Outlines Counsel’s Role in Locating, Preserving and Producing Relevant Evidence

Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, LLC, 229 F.R.D. 422 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (“Zubulake V”)

In this fifth written opinion in this employment litigation, the court concluded that UBS had failed to take all necessary steps to guarantee that relevant data was both preserved and produced, and granted the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions. Specifically, the court ruled that the jury would be given an adverse inference instruction with respect to deleted emails, that UBS pay the costs of any depositions or re-depositions required by its late production of email, and that UBS reimburse plaintiff for the costs of the motion.

In reaching its decision to impose sanctions on UBS, the court discussed in great detail counsel’s role in ensuring relevant information is identified, preserved, and produced. Given the breadth and depth of the court’s commentary on this subject, relevant passages are quoted at length below:

A party’s discovery obligations do not end with the implementation of a “litigation hold” – to the contrary, that’s only the beginning. Counsel must oversee compliance with the litigation hold, monitoring the party’s efforts to retain and produce the relevant documents. Proper communication between a party and her lawyer will ensure (1) that all relevant information (or at least all sources of relevant information) is discovered, (2) that relevant information is retained on a continuing basis; and (3) that relevant non-privileged material is produced to the opposing party.

1. Counsel’s Duty to Locate Relevant Information

Once a “litigation hold” is in place, a party and her counsel must make certain that all sources of potentially relevant information are identified and placed “on hold,” to the extent required in Zubulake IV. To do this, counsel must become fully familiar with her client’s document retention policies, as well as the client’s data retention architecture.. This will invariably involve speaking with information technology personnel, who can explain system-wide backup procedures and the actual (as opposed to theoretical) implementation of the firm’s recycling policy. It will also involve communicating with the “key players” in the litigation, in order to understand how they stored information. In this case, for example, some UBS employees created separate computer files pertaining to Zubulake, while others printed out relevant e-mails and retained them in hard copy only. Unless counsel interviews each employee, it is impossible to determine whether all potential sources of information have been inspected. . . .

To the extent that it may not be feasible for counsel to speak with every key player, given the size of a company or the scope of the lawsuit, counsel must be more creative. It may be possible to run a system-wide keyword search; counsel could then preserve a copy of each “hit.” Although this sounds burdensome, it need not be. Counsel does not have to review these documents, only see that they are retained. For example, counsel could create a broad list of search terms, run a search for a limited time frame, and then segregate responsive documents. When the opposing party propounds its document requests, the parties could negotiate a list of search terms to be used in identifying responsive documents, and counsel would only be obliged to review documents that came up as “hits” on the second, more restrictive search. The initial broad cut merely guarantees that relevant documents are not lost.

In short, it is not sufficient to notify all employees of a litigation hold and expect that the party will then retain and produce all relevant information. Counsel must take affirmative steps to monitor compliance so that all sources of discoverable information are identified and searched. This is not to say that counsel will necessarily succeed in locating all such sources, or that the later discovery of new sources is evidence of a lack of effort. But counsel and client must take some reasonable steps to see that sources of relevant information are located.

2. Counsel’s Continuing Duty to Ensure Preservation

Once a party and her counsel have identified all of the sources of potentially relevant information, they are under a duty to retain that information (as per Zubulake IV) and to produce information responsive to the opposing party’s requests. Rule 26 creates a “duty to supplement” those responses. Although the Rule 26 duty to supplement is nominally the party’s, it really falls on counsel. As the Advisory Committee explains,

Although the party signs the answers, it is his lawyer who understands their significance and bears the responsibility to bring answers up to date. In a complex case all sorts of information reaches the party, who little understands its bearing on answers previously given to interrogatories. In practice, therefore, the lawyer under a continuing burden must periodically recheck all interrogatories and canvass all new information.

To ameliorate this burden, the Rules impose a continuing duty to supplement responses to discovery requests only when “a party[,] or more frequently his lawyer, obtains actual knowledge that a prior response is incorrect. This exception does not impose a duty to check the accuracy of prior responses, but it prevents knowing concealment by a party or attorney.”
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The continuing duty to supplement disclosures strongly suggests that parties also have a duty to make sure that discoverable information is not lost. Indeed, the notion of a “duty to preserve” connotes an ongoing obligation. Obviously, if information is lost or destroyed, it has not been preserved.

The tricky question is what that continuing duty entails. What must a lawyer do to make certain that relevant information–especially electronic information – is being retained? Is it sufficient if she periodically re-sends her initial “litigation hold” instructions? What if she communicates with the party’s information technology personnel? Must she make occasional on-site inspections?

Above all, the requirement must be reasonable. A lawyer cannot be obliged to monitor her client like a parent watching a child. At some point, the client must bear responsibility for a failure to preserve. At the same time, counsel is more conscious of the contours of the preservation obligation; a party cannot reasonably be trusted to receive the “litigation hold” instruction once and to fully comply with it without the active supervision of counsel.

There are thus a number of steps that counsel should take to ensure compliance with the preservation obligation. While these precautions may not be enough (or may be too much) in some cases, they are designed to promote the continued preservation of potentially relevant information in the typical case.

First, counsel must issue a “litigation hold” at the outset of litigation or whenever litigation is reasonably anticipated. The litigation hold should be periodically re-issued so that new employees are aware of it, and so that it is fresh in the minds of all employees.

Second, counsel should communicate directly with the “key players” in the litigation, i.e., the people identified in a party’s initial disclosure and any subsequent supplementation thereto. Because these “key players” are the “employees likely to have relevant information,” it is particularly important that the preservation duty be communicated clearly to them. As with the litigation hold, the key players should be periodically reminded that the preservation duty is still in place.

Finally, counsel should instruct all employees to produce electronic copies of their relevant active files. Counsel must also make sure that all backup media which the party is required to retain is identified and stored in a safe place. In cases involving a small number of relevant backup tapes, counsel might be advised to take physical possession of backup tapes. In other cases, it might make sense for relevant backup tapes to be segregated and placed in storage. Regardless of what particular arrangement counsel chooses to employ, the point is to separate relevant backup tapes from others. One of the primary reasons that electronic data is lost is ineffective communication with information technology personnel. By taking possession of, or otherwise safeguarding, all potentially relevant backup tapes, counsel eliminates the possibility that such tapes will be inadvertently recycled.

2004 WL 1620866, at *7-10 (footnotes omitted).

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