You have heard this one before. Changes to the Federal Rules are in the works that could alleviate the eDiscovery burdens of organizations. Greeting this news with skepticism would probably be justified. After all, many feel that the last set of amendments failed to meet the hype of streamlining the discovery process to make litigation costs more reasonable. Others, while not declaring the revised Rules a failure, nonetheless believe that the amendments have been doomed by the lack of adherence among counsel and the courts. Regardless of the differing perspectives, there seems to be agreement on both sides that the Rules have spawned more collateral disputes than ever before about the preservation and collection of ESI.
What is different this time is that the latest set of proposed amendments could offer a genuine opportunity for organizations to slash the costs of document preservation and collection. Chief among these changes would be a revised Rule 37(e). The current iteration of this rule is designed to protect companies from court sanctions when the programmed operation of their computer systems automatically destroys ESI. Nevertheless, the rule has largely proved ineffective as a national standard because it did not apply to pre-litigation information destruction activities. As a result, courts often bypassed the rule’s protections to punish companies who negligently, though not nefariously, destroyed documents before a lawsuit was filed.
The current proposal to amend Rule 37(e) (see page 127) would substantially broaden the existing protection against sanctions. The proposal would shield an organization’s pre-litigation destruction of information from sanctions except where that destruction was “willful or in bad faith and caused substantial prejudice in the litigation” or “irreparably deprived a party of any meaningful opportunity to present a claim or defense.”
In making a determination on this issue, courts would be forced to examine the enterprise’s information retention protocols through more than just the lens of litigation. Instead, they would have to consider the nature and motives behind a company’s decision-making process. Such factors include:
The extent to which the party was on notice that litigation was likely
The reasonableness and proportionality of the party’s efforts to preserve the information
The nature and scope of any request received to preserve information
Whether the party sought timely judicial guidance regarding any preservation disputes
By seeking to punish only nefarious conduct and by ensuring that the analysis includes a broad range of considerations, organizations could finally have a fighting chance to reduce the costs and risks of preservation.
Despite the promise this proposal holds, there is concern among some of the eDiscovery cognoscenti that provisions in the draft proposal to amend Rule 37(e) could water down its intended protections. Robert Owen, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP and a leading eDiscovery thought leader, has recently authored an insightful articlethat spotlights some of these issues. Among other things, Owen points out that the “irreparably deprived” provision could end up diluting the “bad faith” standard. This could ultimately provide activist jurists with an opportunity to re-introduce a negligence standard through the backdoor, which would be a troubling development for clients, counsel and the courts.
These issues and others confirm the difficulty of establishing national standards to address the factual complexities of many eDiscovery issues. They also point to the difficult path that the Civil Rules Advisory Committee still must travel before a draft of Rule 37(e) can be finalized for public comment. Even assuming that stage can be reached after the next rules committee meeting in April 2013, additional changes could still be forthcoming to address the concerns of other constituencies. Stay tuned; the debate over revisions to Rule 37(e) and its impact on organizations’ defensible deletion efforts is far from over.