Commercial Litigation: Courts are taking a hard line in requiring litigants to preserve evidence. It is only logical that given the increased use of technology in our lives, courts are taking an active role in sanctioning litigants for destroying electronically stored data. The problem arises because electronically stored data can be voluminous and often erased by a mere click of a button. Sometimes evidence is destroyed by companies who routinely erase data. However, it can be difficult to determine whether documents were destroyed in the ordinary course of business or in an effort to avoid presentation in a lawsuit. For this reason, simply asserting that the destruction of electronic documents was routine might not avoid court sanctions.
The problem becomes more burdensome since many litigants are not aware of some of these rather elaborate court rules regarding discovery and yet the litigants are still required to follow the rules. And the consequences of failing to abide by electronic discovery rules may be harsh. Sanctions may include requiring a litigant to pay an adversary’s attorney’s fees, preclusion of evidence and/or striking a litigant’s pleadings, the latter two of which could certainly prejudice a litigant in his case.
Even more troubling are situations where discovery is destroyed prior to the filing of a lawsuit. A potential litigant should be aware that courts can impose sanctions for failing to comply with the litigant’s discovery obligations even if the destruction of the documents happened prior to the commencement of the litigation.
Accordingly, there are some steps that can be taken to help minimize the risk of sanctions. First, we generally recommend that all businesses have a document retention policy, that it has prepared with its attorney. This should outline what can be destroyed and when. Moreover, businesses should always be prepared for a situation where litigation is commenced or threatened. At that point, the attorney for the claimant may create what is called a “litigation hold.” During that time, there is usually a moratorium placed on any destruction of emails, documents and other materials in the possession of the business. In such event, the “hold” would likely interrupt the destruction that may have transpired in the ordinary course of business under the document destruction policy.
In short, it is important to consult an attorney sooner rather than later when a lawsuit is brought or threatened. In addition to evaluating the claim, defenses and potential counterclaims, you need an attorney to advise you as to the type of information that should be preserved and the amount of time that preservation should last.
© 2008 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC