Finding No Duty To Preserve, Court Denies Motion for Sanctions

Huggins v. Prince George’s Cnty, 750 F. Supp. 2d 549 (D. Md. 2010)

In this litigation arising from a dispute between plaintiff, a landowner, and the County regarding the plaintiff’s use of her land, the court found that the defendant was not subject to sanctions for the destruction of a former employee’s email pursuant to County policy where no duty to preserve existed at the time of their destruction.

Plaintiff operated an automobile wholesaling facility on her property.  In October 2002, the Department of Environmental Resources cited plaintiff alleging that she was conducting certain activities without a permit.  Efforts to resolve the violations ensued.  In September 2004 plaintiff filed a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) lawsuit against the County.  In July 2006, that lawsuit settled.  The settlement agreement expressly stated that plaintiff did not waive the right to file future actions unrelated to the MPIA issues.  Meanwhile, her permitting and use dispute with the County continued and her property was eventually padlocked.  In March 2007 plaintiff filed suit alleging violations of her substantive due process rights, among other things.

In the course of discovery, plaintiff sought production of emails and a paper file from Alfonso Cornish, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Governmental Operations and Environmental Services, Office of the County Executive.  The County informed her that Cornish was no longer with the County and that his email account had been deleted from the archives on or about September 16, 2007 in accordance with County policy.  Likewise the requested paper file could not be located.  Plaintiff’s motion for sanctions was denied by the Magistrate Judge but the County was fined $2000 “as a reprimand for their time-wasting behavior” where the County was “not forthcoming about the status of the emails but was not guilty of spoliation.”  Plaintiff objected and sought to modify the order.

Taking up the issue, the District Court first noted plaintiff’s failure to seek discovery holds with regards to Cornish in either the MPIA or the present lawsuit and that while Cornish had been aware of the actions taken by the County toward the plaintiff (namely padlocking her property), the individuals making those decisions “had independent authority to do so without Cornish.”

Turning to its analysis, the court identified what one party must prove to obtain spoliation sanctions against another, namely that the accused party had control of the evidence and a duty to preserve, that the destruction or loss was accomplished with a “culpable state of mind,” and that the evidence was relevant to the claims or defenses of the requesting party.

Regarding the duty to preserve, the court stated that a duty to preserve could arise prior to the filing of litigation and relied on precedent to clarify that “the point at which litigation becomes probable does not necessarily correspond with when a party anticipated or should have reasonably anticipated [litigation].”  The court went on to state that “[t]he clear weight of Fourth Circuit precedent places the point of the obligation’s creation somewhere between knowledge of the dispute and direct, specific threats of litigation.”

Plaintiff argued that the County was provided notice the pendency of a suit and the obligation to preserve by the clause in the MPIA settlement agreement stating that plaintiff did not waive the right to file future actions.  The Magistrate Judge disagreed and found that the preservation obligation was triggered upon the filing of the current action in March 2007 – eight months after the settlement and more than a year after the end of Cornish’s employment with the County.  Because Cornish’s email account was destroyed six months after his departure, pursuant to County policy and before the filing of the present lawsuit, there was no violation of the duty to preserve.  Regarding the paper file, the Magistrate Judge likewise determined there had been no spoliation.  The District Court agreed and declined to modify the findings of the Magistrate Judge.

As to the issue of culpability, the Magistrate Judge determined (and the District Court Judge agreed) that there could be no culpability absent a duty to preserve.  Finally, regarding the relevance of the evidence at issue, the Magistrate Judge found the loss of evidence was de minimis in light of the fact that Cornish’s participation in padlocking plaintiff’s property was “only on the periphery”.  Again, the District Court agreed.

The court concluded:

All of the above listed elements must be proven to merit a finding of spoliation.  SADISCO has failed to prove any of the three.  As Judge Connelly properly determined, there was no duty to preserve documents at the time that Cornish’s emails were deleted.  Additionally, SADISCO did not prove culpability because their gross negligence theory cannot stand without a pre-existing duty to preserve.  Finally, Judge Connelly properly determined that while Mr. Cornish’s documents are certainly relevant to some possible inquiries, the damage in their loss is de minimis in light of all available evidence.

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