Archive: July 13, 2007

Government’s “Reckless Disregard” of Preservation Duty Warrants Spoliation Sanctions
Court Declines to Order Municipality to Issue Litigation Hold

Government’s “Reckless Disregard” of Preservation Duty Warrants Spoliation Sanctions

United Med. Supply Co., Inc. v. United States, 77 Fed. Cl. 257 (2007)

In this decision, the United States Court of Federal Claims imposed sanctions against the United States based upon its “reckless disregard of its duty to preserve relevant evidence.”  The court opened its lengthy opinion and order with the following passage:

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Aside perhaps from perjury, no act serves to threaten the integrity of the judicial process more than the spoliation of evidence.  Our adversarial process is designed to tolerate human failings – erring judges can be reversed, uncooperative counsel can be shepherded, and recalcitrant witnesses compelled to testify.  But, when critical documents go missing, judges and litigants alike descend into a world of ad hocery and half measures – and our civil justice system suffers.

To guard against this, each party in litigation is solemnly bound to preserve potentially relevant evidence.  In this government contract case, defendant violated that duty not once or twice—but repeatedly, over many years, and in sundry ways, leading to the destruction of many admittedly relevant documents.  Most disturbingly, some of these documents were destroyed even after the court conducted its first spoliation hearing.  While defendant apologizes profusely for what it claims is the “negligence” of some of its employees and for making repeated misstatements to the court as to the steps that were being taken to prevent spoliation, it, nonetheless, asseverates that the court should not—indeed, cannot—impose spoliation sanctions because defendant did not proceed in bad faith.  While defendant may be wrong in asserting that it acted in good faith, it most certainly is wrong in thinking that it can recklessly disregard its obligations to preserve evidence without legal consequence.

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Court Declines to Order Municipality to Issue Litigation Hold

Valdez v. Town of Brookhaven, 2007 WL 1988792 (E.D.N.Y. July 5, 2007)

In this discrimination case, the court decided a number of discovery issues, including plaintiffs’ request that the defendants be directed to send out a litigation hold to the relevant Town employees to preserve records.  Denying the request, the court provided a brief explanation:

[T]he plaintiffs request that the court direct defense counsel to send out a litigation hold to the relevant Town employees to preserve records as well as to conduct a good faith investigation into what documents (electronic or otherwise) may have already been destroyed.  The apparent basis for this request is a conversation during which defense counsel reportedly advised that the "Town has a history of terrible record keeping."  Defense counsel denies any such conversation occurred.  The law is clear that there is an obligation to preserve evidence "when the party has notice that the evidence is relevant to litigation or when a party should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation", see Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 216 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (citing Fujitsu Ltd. v. Federal Express Corp., 247 F.3d 423, 436 (2d Cir. 2001); Kronish v. United States, 150 F.3d 112, 126 (2d Cir. 1998)).  To the extent, however, plaintiffs seek a preservation order that request is denied.  Preservation orders are burdensome and expensive and in the absence of a clear need should not be lightly entered.  See, e.g., Treppel v. Biovail Corp., 233 F.R.D. 363, 370-71 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).

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