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New Guidelines for Preservation of Electronically Stored Information Released; Federal Court Rules that Metadata Subject to FOIA

February 11, 2011

In an effort to advise parties to a litigation, the Delaware Court of Chancery released last month its Guidelines for Preservation of Electronically Stored Information. The publication of the Guidelines is timely in light of a decision released late last month in Victor Stanley, Inc. v. Creative Pipe, Inc., Civil No. MJG-06-2662 (D. Md. Jan. 24, 2011), where defendants were ordered to pay over $1 million in sanctions for the willful loss and destruction of electronically stored information (ESI).

As a preliminary matter, the Guidelines advise litigants to take all reasonable steps to preserve ESI that is potentially relevant to a litigation and within their possession, custody or control.  This requires the parties and counsel to "develop and oversee a preservation process." Key to the preservation process is identifying potentially relevant sources of ESI, i.e. custodians and devices, and enacting a litigation hold. Although there is no single definition among the State and Federal Courts for a litigation hold, the Guidelines advise that, at the least, it entails developing well-written instructions for the preservation of ESI that are then distributed to all custodians of potentially relevant ESI.

Just as important is the timing of the litigation hold.  Various courts have found that the duty to preserve potentially relevant documents occurs once litigation is "reasonably anticipated," not once litigation has commenced. As a result, the Guidelines recommend that, to the extent a litigation hold has not been disseminated before litigation has commenced, counsel should instruct their clients to do so quickly and "to take reasonable steps to act in good faith and with a sense of urgency to avoid the loss, corruption or deletion of potentially relevant ESI." While the Guidelines note that this may not be sufficient to avoid the imposition of sanctions if potentially relevant ESI is lost or destroyed, the Chancery Court "will consider the good-faith preservation efforts of a party and its counsel."

Counsel is well-advised to reference the Guidelines in light of the significant increase in the number of motions and awards for e-discovery sanctions. See Dan H. Willoughby, Jr. et al., Sanctions for E-Discovery Violations: By the Numbers, 60 Duke L.J. 789 (2010). In fact, in the past six years, there have been over five cases where sanctions exceeded $5 million, with one leading the pack at $8.8 million. See id. at 814-15.

As noted above, defendants in Victor Stanley were recently ordered to pay over $1 million in sanctions for the willful loss and destruction of ESI. See also Sanctionable Conduct Involving E-Discovery, Bracewell & Giuliani Legal Advisory, dated Sept. 28, 2010. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm found defendants' acts of spoliation to be so "extraordinary" as to treat them as contempt, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2)(A)(vii). As such, failure to pay the ordered amount within 30 days will subject the owner of the defendant corporation to up to two years of jail time. Not surprisingly, one of the many actions cited by the court that defendants failed to take: enforcing a litigation hold.

In other e-discovery developments, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York, and author of the instructive Zubalake series of opinions, ruled this week that metadata is "an integral or intrinsic part of an electronic record," and, consequently, part of the public record that must be produced by the Government in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Nat'l Day Laborer Org. Network v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, 10 Civ. 3488 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 7, 2011). Although the issue had been addressed by several state courts, this was a matter of first impression for a Federal Court. 

Noting that different types of metadata are inherent to different types of electronic records, Judge Scheindlin determined that "metadata maintained by the agency as a part of an electronic record is presumptively producible under FOIA, unless the agency demonstrates that such metadata is not 'readily producible.'" (Emphasis in original). She further determined that the onus is on the requesting part to specifically request the metadata. However, Judge Scheindlin found that it was "no longer acceptable" for a party to produce "a significant collection of static images of ESI without accompanying load files." Citing to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 34 as a source that should inform FOIA productions, Judge Scheindlin's ruling will likely carry equal weight in the context of civil discovery.