Counsel’s Failure to be Meaningfully Involved with Client’s Discovery Collection Costs Client One Half Million Dollars in Discovery Sanctions
October 26, 2016
On October 4, 2016, District Judge Jon S. Tigar issued an opinion every federal court practitioner should read (Rodman v Safeway, Inc., [11-cv-03003] [N.D. Ca.] [JST]). The decision serves as an important reminder that counsel has an obligation to assist their client when identifying and collecting electronic documents responsive to discovery demands. Indeed, it is not sufficient or defensible to have a non-IT savvy individual search electronic media for responsive materials and to do so without meaningful oversight and involvement of counsel.
The Rodman case is a certified class action for breach of contract. Defendant, Safeway, Inc. (“Safeway”), entered with customers an online contract that determined pricing and delivery fees associated with online grocery shopping. The essence of the allegations before the Court were that Safeway breached the contract by charging prices on Safeway.com that were materially different than those charged (for the same items) in the physical store from which the groceries were selected and delivered.
After multiple summary judgment motions, one issue remained for trial: whether class members who registered for the delivery service prior to 2006 agreed to the same contract as class members who registered after 2006? As a result of this remaining issue, class representative Rodman requested documents showing the terms and conditions and registration process in effect from 2001 through 2005 (“Special Terms”). On March 9, 2015, Safeway responded to this discovery demand advising that it did not have access to the Special Terms and subsequently reported (on April 7, 2015) that it could not locate any documents responsive to this request.
Seven days before trial, Safeway produced 10 highly responsive documents related to Safeway’s Special Terms. These documents were found on a “legacy” hard drive and were found by Safeway’s Director of Marketing – Steve Guthrie – when he was prepping for the trial (more than 5 months after discovery closed). Guthrie – who was designated to testify concerning all steps taken to locate documents and persons knowledgeable about the pre-2006 processes and Special Terms, previously testified that he had searched the legacy hard drive using “key word searches” and did not locate any responsive documents.
Given the highly relevant nature of the documents produced, the Court continued trial for two months and permitted Plaintiff to take additional discovery. Eventually, a judgment was entered against Safeway. That judgment is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit.
On April 6, 2016, however, and as is relevant to this blog, Rodman filed a motion for discovery sanctions. Judge Tigar’s decision, granting in part and denying in part the sanction motion, entered on October 4, 2016, imposed a sanction in the amount of $516,484.00 against Safeway.
LEGAL STANDARD FOR DISCOVERY
In reaching its decision, the Court began by reciting the standard under FRCP 26(g) – that a “signing attorney [must] certify that a reasonable inquiry has been made with respect to the factual and legal basis for any discovery request or response.” The Court further found that when an attorney makes a certification that violates this rule and does so without “substantial justification,” the Court “must impose an appropriate sanction on the signer, the party on whose behalf the signer was acting, or both.” (Rule 26(g)(3)). (emphasis added).
Plaintiff moved for sanctions based upon Safeway’s false statement that no documents responsive to his demand for the pre ’06 Special Terms existed. Safeway responded that sanctions were not warranted because it made a reasonable inquiry into the basis for its response, including interviewing individuals, and searching the legacy drive for documents. Safeway argued these steps were comprehensive and thus reasonable.
The Court disagreed and concluded that Safeway’s initial search of the legacy drive was unreasonable for at least three reasons.
First, the Court found “there [was] no indication that Safeway’s counsel guided or monitored Mr. Guthrie’s search of the legacy drive in any significant way.” Rather, counsel relied on Guthrie’s own determination and seems not to have questioned the thoroughness of Guthrie’s search. The Court found this “lack of guidance and oversight sufficient to “support” a finding of unreasonableness.”
Second, because there is no evidence that Guthrie had any experience in conducting searches of large document repositories, such as the approximately 300 GB legacy drive, the search was unreasonable. Indeed, the Court found that Safeway’s counsel could have, but failed to, request a member of Safeway’s IT department (or anyone else familiar with modern e-discovery) conduct the search.
Third, the evidence indicates the search was objectively unreasonable. For example, this was not the case of Safeway being asked to locate the proverbial needle in a haystack. Rather, many of the electronic file folders (now known to contain the responsive documents) had names like, “Special Terms,” and “OldSiteDesign” – names that should have signaled to anyone conducting an adequate search that the folder was likely target rich. Instead, Mr. Guthrie searched for the key words only in a file’s name (rather than in the body of, or content of the file or folder). This too, shows counsel failed to guide, monitor or inform what Guthrie did.
Clearly if we are to internalize any lesson from this decision it is the obligation of counsel to actively participate in the discovery process. We cannot allow our client(s)/clients’ employees to collect responsive information in a vacuum. Rather, we must actively participate in the process and we must secure the expertise of individuals steeped in modern e-discovery when we or client lacks the expertise. In fashioning the one half-million dollar sanction, the Court found it telling that a substantial part of the legal work Plaintiff sought the cost of performing (additional discovery, unnecessary trial preparation.) would have been avoided had a reasonable search – meaningfully informed by counsel – been conducted on the legacy drive.