eDiscovery Case Law: No Sanctions When You Can’t Prove Evidence Was Destroyed

By: Doug Austin

In Omogbehin v. Cino, No. 11-2223, 2012 U.S. App. (3d Cir. June 20, 2012), the plaintiff claimed that the District Court erred in denying his motion for spoliation sanctions and appealed to the US Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but lost as the appellate court upheld the rulings by the district judge and magistrate judge.

In this employment discrimination case, the plaintiff (Stephen Omogbehin) filed a motion for adverse inference jury instructions with the belief that the defendants destroyed or suppressed certain eMails during discovery. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, he not only failed to demonstrate evidence of spoliation, he also could not even prove that the alleged eMails existed. Two of the defendants claimed no such eMails existed, with support from their IT experts, who explained that all eMails from the relevant time frame had been produced.

Four-Prong Test

The appellate court upheld the rulings by the district judge and magistrate judge, who had used the four-prong test to determine whether spoliation occurred, requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate that “[1] the evidence was in the party’s control; [2] the evidence is relevant to the claims or defenses in the case; [3] there has been actual suppression or withholding of evidence; and, [4] the duty to preserve the evidence was reasonably foreseeable to the party.” Only after establishing that spoliation occurred, would a separate analysis be conducted to determine whether sanctions are appropriate. To obtain an adverse inference instruction, a party must show “there has been an actual suppression or withholding of the evidence.”

The Magistrate Judge denied Omogbehin's motion because he had failed to show that the emails were actually sent or received, let alone that that any spoliation occurred, much less that it was done intentionally.  The District Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge, concluding that Omogbehin had not satisfied his burden of establishing facts from which the court could "at least infer that the evidence existed in the first place."

The appellate court noted that the defendants “produced the information and documents that Omogbehin requested; that they did not contain what he had hoped or expected is not sufficient to satisfy his burden. He must provide some proof that what he seeks actually existed, but failed to do so.”

Compare to Zubulake

This is an interesting contrast to the Zubulake case, which was also an employment discrimination case.  In that case, Laura Zubulake preserved and produced her own copies of emails that the defendants failed to produce (at least initially) which led to the court’s decision to order discovery from backup tapes that led to additional productions of relevant emails.  Due to the fact that tapes from some key individuals were missing and that the other tapes had led to discovery of additional relevant emails, the court ultimately concluded that the destruction of those tapes resulted in spoliation of relevant evidence.  Zubulake was able to prove a pattern of spoliation that Omogbehin was unable to prove.

So, what do you think?  Have you ever pursued, or been forced to defendant against, spoliation sanctions?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case Summary Source: Applied Discovery (free subscription required).  For eDiscovery news and best practices, check out the Applied Discovery blog here.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views held by CloudNine Discovery. eDiscoveryDaily is made available by CloudNine Discovery solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscoveryDaily should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.

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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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