Category Archives: Electronic Discovery

Subpoena to university in P2P case must give time to notify parents

UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Doe, No. 08-3999, 2008 WL 4104207 (N.D.Cal. September 4, 2008)

Plaintiff record companies, using Media Sentry, found the IP address of a John Doe file-sharing defendant, and filed suit against Doe in federal court for copyright infringement. As in any case where a defendant is known only by his or her IP address, the record companies needed some discovery to ascertain the name and physical address matching that IP address. But the federal rules of procedure say that without a court order, a party cannot seek discovery until the parties have conferred pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f).

So the record companies sought the court order allowing them to issue a subpoena to Doe’s Internet service provider prior to the 26(f) conference. The court granted the order, but with a caveat.

The evidence showed that Doe was a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act at 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, a college generally cannot disclose “any personally identifiable information in education records other than directory information.” There’s an exception to that rule when the college is answering a lawfully issued subpoena, provided that “parents and the students are notified of all such … subpoenas in advance of the compliance therewith by the educational institution or agency.”

The court granted the record companies’ motion for leave to serve the subpoena prior to the Rule 26(f) conference, but required that the subpoena’s return date “be reasonably calculated to permit the University to notify John Doe and John Doe’s parents if it chooses prior to responding to the subpoena.”

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.”

Parties must use neutral forensics examiner in file-sharing case

Case highlights important privacy interests in electronic discovery dispute.

From Ray Beckerman, we learn of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas’s decision on a motion to compel discovery filed by the recording industry against an accused file-sharer. While the defendant will have to submit her hard drive for forensic examination to see whether she had any copyrighted sound recordings stored on it, she will not have to turn it over to the recording industry’s forensic expert.

Instead, seeking to “balance the legitimate interests of both sides,” the court ordered the parties to select a neutral computer forensics expert to conduct the inspection. Such an approach, the court found, would protect the disclosure of the defendant’s personal information, such as personal correspondence, household financial matters, school homework, and perhaps attorney-client privileged information.

Although in theory this sounds like a reasonable approach to protect the confidentiality of the defendant’s information, one could be troubled by a particular part of the court’s decision. The order states that “the Plaintiffs shall have the right to suggest hard drive search methodologies to the neutral expert and the expert shall make every effort to utilize those methodologies.”

But there is nothing in the order giving the defendant the right or opportunity to object to those methodologies. With an obligation to “make every effort” to comply with the suggestions of the plaintiffs, just how neutral is that forensic examiner really going to be?

Sony BMG Music Entertainment et al. v. Arellanes, No. 05-CV-328 (E.D. Tex., October 27, 2006).

Evidence-destroying defendant severely sanctioned in P2P file-sharing case

In the case of Arista Records v. Tschirhart, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas has shown little mercy on a defendant accused by record companies of illegal file-sharing.

Knowing that a court order was in place requiring her to turn over her hard drive to be copied, the defendant allegedly used “wiping” software in an attempt to destroy all evidence of her illegal P2P file sharing. In response, the plaintiff record companies moved, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b), for the most severe form of sanctions against the defendant – entry of default against her. The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion, and provided them with 30 days to submit a proposed order spelling out their damages.

Given that the record companies’ expert opined that the defendant had downloaded over 200 sound recordings during 2005, those requested damages will probably be substantial. Statutory damages under the Copyright Act can go as high as $150,000 per work infringed, in the most egregious cases.

In reaching its decision to enter default against the defendant, the court exercised its inherent power to do so, making a note of its obligation to act with “restraint and discretion.” It found that the defendant had acted in bad faith. That bad faith was exacerbated – and the default was further warranted – by the fact that the defendant herself was responsible for the destruction of evidence, that the deletion of the files destroyed the strongest evidence relevant to the plaintiff’s infringement claims, and that less drastic sanctions would not be appropriate.

Not only was the sanction intended to dissuade the plaintiff from destroying evidence in the future, it was intended to make an example out of her. Merely awarding the plaintiffs their attorney’s fees or giving the jury an adverse inference instruction at trial would not have been enough to remedy the situation. Given the defendant’s “blatant contempt” for the court and a “fundamental disregard for the judicial process,” only default would be an adequate punishment and deterrent to others considering similar conduct.

[Hat tip to Techdirt for posting on this case.]

Arista Records, LLC, v. Tschirhart, No. 05-372 (W.D. Tex., August 23, 2006).

Florida appellate court issues ruling on electronic discovery

Administrative law judge’s discovery order permitting “access to literally everything” on petitioner’s computer did not adequately protect against disclosure of confidential and privileged information.

After being suspended from his job as a school teacher, petitioner Menke was placed under investigation for alleged misconduct. In a formal proceeding against Menke before Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings, the school board sought discovery of all of the computers in Menke’s household. The board requested that its retained computer expert be allowed to inspect Menke’s computers in a laboratory, so that it could search for improper instant messages.

Menke objected to the discovery request on the grounds that such a wholesale inspection of his computers would violate his Fifth Amendment right and his right of privacy, and would reveal privileged communications with his wife, attorneys, accountants, clergy, or doctors.

Over Menke’s objections, the administrative law judge granted the motion to compel production of the computers for inspection. Menke sought review with the Florida appellate court, which quashed the discovery order.

The appellate court looked to the only other Florida appellate court decision relating to electronic discovery, Strasser v. Yalamanchi, 669 So.2d 1142 (Fla.App.1996), noting that the relevant rules of procedure were broad enough to encompass requests to examine computer hard drives, but only in limited and strictly controlled circumstances. The court concluded that permitting unlimited access to everything on a computer would constitute irreparable harm, because it would expose confidential and privileged information to the opposing party.

The court continued by noting that in cases where there is a need for access to electronically stored information, searching for such data should first be done by the party responding to the discovery request, unless there is evidence of data destruction designed to prevent the discovery of relevant evidence.

In this case, there was no evidence of any destruction of evidence or thwarting of discovery. The court sent the matter back to the administrative body, allowing the school board to request that Menke produce relevant, non-privileged, information. In the court’s words, Menke was not required to provide unfettered access to the entire “electronic filing cabinet” that was his computers.

Menke v. Broward County School Bd., — So.2d —-, 2005 WL 2373923 (Fla.App., Sep 28, 2005).

Presence of encryption software relevant evidence in criminal conviction

Anyone who tracks court decisions related to the Internet knows that criminal cases involving improper conduct with a minor are quite common, and generally have little or no legal significance. A recent decision of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in the case of State v. Levie, however, is worth noting in that the decision affirmed a controversial evidentiary ruling. The trial court judge had allowed into evidence the mere fact that the defendant had the encryption software PGP installed on his computer. The judge had determined that the presence of the software was relevant evidence to show that the defendant had engaged in improper conduct with a minor.

The decision is puzzling for a couple of different reasons. The forensic report prepared by the police revealed that nothing on the defendant’s computer had been encrypted. Furthermore, the police officer who prepared the forensic report admitted that PGP “may be included on every Macintosh that comes out today.” Given the evidence of widespread use of PGP and the lack of any evidence to show the defendant had used the encryption software in connection with any crime, one is left to wonder why the court would find it, as it stated, “at least somewhat relevant.”

Apparently, the court believed that the mere ability to conceal wrongdoing showed an actual intent to commit a crime. But such a conclusion is troubling. How is the mere presence of PGP on the defendant’s computer any different than him having a lock on his front door? Would the court have drawn the same conclusion regarding relevancy if the defendant was on trial for something less heinous, say, securities fraud?

[More coverage here.]

State v. Levie, 2005 Minn. App. LEXIS 476 (May 3, 2005).