eDiscovery Case Law: No Sanctions Ordered for Failure to Preserve Backups

By: Doug Austin

A sanctions motion has been dismissed by the U.S. District Court of Texas in a recent case involving electronic backups and email records, on the grounds that there was no duty to preserve backup tapes and no bad faith in overwriting records.

The plaintiffs in Ajay Gaalla, et al v. Citizens Medical Center, et al, No. V-10-14, 2011 WL 2115670 (S.D. Tex. May 27, 2011) had made a motion for sanctions against the defendant for alleged damage to backup tapes, including emails and other electronic documentation. On May 27, the court denied the motion for sanctions against the defendant, although new instructions on maintaining copies of disaster recovery files have been imposed in this case.

  • Plaintiffs presented the argument that the “recycling” or overwriting of disaster recovery backup tapes by the defendant, performed on a 7- or 14-day cycle after the lawsuit was filed, represented spoliation. Accordingly, the plaintiffs requested the maximum sanctions against the defendant for “failure to preserve the backup tapes.”
  • Preservation of backup tapes was not previously been discussed in this case until this motion for sanctions on grounds of data spoliation, but plaintiffs alleged that the failure to preserve backups, coupled with the failure to take snapshots of particular email accounts and “evidence that certain CMC employees had deleted emails from their account at some point in the past”, warranted harsh sanctions.
  • The defendants argued that they had no duty to preserve backups of records, since disaster recovery systems are “rarely” backed up after litigation has begun. They also presented “snapshots” taken of email accounts to demonstrate that there was no intent to destroy information and that attempts had been made to record all relevant evidence.
  • The court referred to the ruling in Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. (S.D.N.Y. 2003), which states: “[A] litigation hold does not apply to inaccessible backup tapes (e.g., those typically maintained solely for the purpose of disaster recovery), which may continue to be recycled on the schedule set forth in the company’s policy.” Under this standard, the court found that the defendant was within its rights to overwrite the existing backups as often as such maintenance was normally scheduled.
  • The court also ruled that, with no prior discussion of the backup tapes and “in the context of this case,” there was no cause for sanctions against the defendant, lacking evidence that the defendant acted in bad faith in recycling the tapes used to make the recovery backups.
  • However, the court did order additional discovery efforts to be undertaken in the form of “disaster recovery first of the month” email files to be preserved in their current state and that plaintiffs’ expert be allowed to search them (at defendant’s expense) as well as a “journaling” process to retain email accounts of key parties in the case.

So, what do you think? Do parties have an obligation to maintain copies of all backup tapes for litigation? Please share any comments you might have, or let us know if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

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About the Bloggers

Brad Jenkins

Brad Jenkins, President and CEO of CloudNine Discovery, has over 20 years of experience leading customer focused companies in the litigation support arena. Brad has authored many articles on litigation support issues, and has spoken before national audiences on document management practices and solutions.

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Doug Austin

Doug Austin, Professional Services Manager for CloudNine Discovery, has over 20 years experience providing legal technology consulting and technical project management services to numerous commercial and government clients. Doug has also authored several articles on eDiscovery best practices.

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Jane Gennarelli

Jane Gennarelli is a principal of Magellan’s Law Corporation and has been assisting litigators in effectively handling discovery materials for over 30 years. She authored the company’s Best Practices in a Box™ content product and assists firms in applying technology to document handling tasks. She is a known expert and often does webinars and presentations for litigation support professionals around the country. Jane can be reached by email at jane@litigationbestpractices.com.

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