Zubulake revisited: Shifting standards in e-discovery

Failure to issue a litigation hold may not always be gross negligence

Since its inception, the rule forged by Judge Shira Scheindlin in the Zubulake v. UBS Warburg and Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan v. Banc of America Securities decisions—that the failure to implement a written litigation hold is gross negligence per se—has been the “gold standard” in e-discovery. However, in light of recent case law departures from Zubulake, that standard might be changing in 2013 and beyond.

Litigation holds 101

While the American concept of the litigation hold (also known as legal hold) received a passing reference in the advisory notes to the 2006 Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) amendments, it was not until Zubulake, and later, Pension Committee, that courts connected the legal hold to the spoliation sanction framework.

Generally, sanctions are warranted when a party with control over discoverable information and under a duty to preserve acted with a culpable state of mind when destroying or losing relevant information. Once a party has established spoliation, a court must assess which sanction (ranging from further discovery to dismissal) aligns with the culpability of the spoliating party and the prejudice caused.

In Pension Committee, the court held that failing to issue a litigation hold is gross negligence per se. The court found that not only can relevance and prejudice be presumed when a spoliating party is grossly negligent, but that an adverse inference instruction was the appropriate sanction in that case.

Departures from Zubulake

In 2012, in Chin v. Port Auth. of New York & New Jersey, 11 plaintiff employees sued the defendant employer for alleged civil rights violations. In discovery, the plaintiffs learned that the defendant failed to implement a document retention policy, which resulted in the spoliation of at least 32 folders used to make promotion decisions from August 1999 to August 2002. The plaintiffs also learned that the defendant failed to issue a litigation hold regarding the promotion folders at any point between 2001 and 2007, and thus argued that this inaction amounted to gross negligence. However, the court rejected the argument that a failure to institute a litigation hold automatically constitutes gross negligence per se, contrary to the rule of Zubulake.

Instead, the court ruled in favor of a case-by-case approach, in which failure to preserve documents is one of multiple factors in the determination of whether to issue sanctions. In the end, the court upheld the district court’s conclusion that an adverse inference instruction was inappropriate in light of the limited role of the destroyed folders in the promotion process, as well as the plaintiffs’ ample evidence regarding their relative qualifications when compared with the officers who were actually promoted.

What does it all mean?

Chin established that, depending on the facts, if a party acts reasonably and in good faith to preserve documents, it may be off the hook for severe sanctions. However, many commentators have argued that this does not change best practices—that parties should still issue a written litigation hold in accordance with Pension Committee.

For large organizations that touch many jurisdictions (many of which still follow Zubulake), corporate counsel should not disband their litigation hold systems just yet—in fact, they probably do not want ever to disband them. The litigation hold is an incredible powerful and defensible means to preservation. Large organizations often must track many custodians storing potentially relevant information on complicated IT systems. Corporations derive substantial benefits from being able to maintain holds, as well as being able to internally track multiple simultaneous preservation obligations.

It is worth noting, however, that not every case, or company, is the same. Should a tight-knit company of a few employees in a non-complex litigation have to issue a written legal hold in order to be safe from sanctions? As case law in 2013 develops, perhaps litigants in these types of cases will take a second look at the role of the litigation hold.

A breath of “reasonable” fresh air

On the topic of preservation, case law developments are not the only item on the horizon for 2013. The discovery subcommittee tasked with developing potential FRCP rule changes has been scrutinizing the preservation topic. In one possible version amending FRCP 37, the drafters adopted a factor-based approach to determining culpability. While one factor looks at the reasonableness of a party’s efforts to preserve the information, “including the use of a litigation hold,” another factor includes the proportionality of the preservation efforts to any anticipated or ongoing litigation.” On Nov. 2, 2012, when the Advisory Committee voted to adopt the subcommittee’s proposal, a common opinion was that even this minor reference to the litigation hold should be omitted or reverted to the commentary to underscore the factor-based nature of draft Rule 37. As we continue down the road to Federal Rule amendments, it is becoming clear that the gold standard of Zubulake may be shifting in the coming year.

Contributing Author

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Michele Lange

Michele C.S. Lange is the director of thought leadership and industry relations for Kroll Ontrack. In this role, she regularly writes and speaks on topics...

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