Court Does Not Find E-mail Envelope Bereft of Substance Subject to Preservation Duty

Holt v. Northwestern Mut. Life Ins. Co., 2005 WL 3262420 (W.D. Mich. Nov. 30, 2005)

Dr. Steven Holt (“Holt”) purchased several disability insurance policies from Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (“Northwestern”) while working as an emergency room physician. He made a claim for payment, which was denied, and thus filed suit. In a motion to compel discovery and award sanctions, Holt asserted that Northwestern had committed discovery violations including the spoliation of email.

John Brooks, one of Northwestern’s representatives, testified that his investigative report had been transmitted to Northwestern via email. This email was never produced, and Holt asserted that he is therefore entitled to an adverse inference jury instruction.

Mr. Loxton of Northwestern testified that if the email had contained any substantive information, a copy would have been added to the claim file and thus produced in discovery. He also indicated that substantive information was not usually found in email itself, but instead in memorandums that were within the emails. The emails themselves functioned as envelopes and were thus not placed in the claim file or otherwise produced.

The Magistrate relied on Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC., 220 F.R.D. 212 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) in finding that Northwestern is not required to “preserve every document or item pertaining in any way to Plaintiff’s claim.”

As courts have recognized, a corporation is not required to preserve “every shred of paper, every e-mail or electronic document, and every backup tape” because to require such would “cripple large corporations … that are almost always involved in litigation.” Zubulake, 220 F.R.D. at 217. Instead, Defedant’s duty to preserve extends only to such material which it knew (or reasonably should have known) was relevant to Plantiff’s claims. Id. The evidence before the Court indicates that the e-mail in question was nothing more than an “e-mail envelope” which facilitated the transmission of the substantive report which has been produced to Plaintiff. There is no evidence that this e-mail contained any substantive information.

The Court also found that even if the failure to produce the email was improper, Holt would not be entitled to the relief sought because “he has not presented any evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the contents of the e-mail would be favorable to Plaintiff.”

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