No spoliation sanctions for deletion of email where CD copies had been made

Bakhtiari v. Lutz, — F.3d —-, 2007 WL 3377215 (8th Cir. November 15, 2007)

Not too many e-discovery (or any type of discovery) disputes get to the federal courts of appeal. But we have a recent decision from the Eighth Circuit that addressed the topic of “spoliation” when emails had been deleted.

A party in litigation is guilty of spoliation when the court finds that he or she “intentionally destroyed evidence with a desire to suppress the truth.” Greyhound Lines, Inc. v. Wade, 485 F.3d 1032, 1035 (8th Cir. 2007). Plaintiff Bakhtiari filed suit against the University of Missouri-Rolla and a number of administrators there, alleging Title VII and civil rights violations. He had been terminated from his position as a teaching assistant in the chemistry department.

Soon after Bakhtiari was terminated, but before he filed suit, the university’s IT staff backed up the contents of his email account onto two CDs. The university then allowed the messages to be deleted as part of “automated systems maintenance.” It turned over a copy of the CDs to Bakhtiari, but he claimed that large portions of data were missing.

At the trial court level, Bakhtiari claimed that the university should be sanctioned for spoliation for deleting the email messages from the server. The court denied this motion, however, and Bakhtiari sought review with the Eighth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the motion.

The appellate court held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the IT staff had taken appropriate steps to backup the data, and that Bakhtiari may himself have been responsible for the missing portions. Moreover, there was credible evidence that third parties had access to the account before the backups were made, and that Bakhtiari had asked that portions be deleted. Bakhtiari had failed to demonstrate, the court held, that the university acted with a “desire to suppress the truth.”