Tag Archives: forensics

Court shifts half of cost of forensic search to producing party in ediscovery case

[This is a post by Jonathan Rogers. Jon is a licensed attorney in California, with a focus on technology and entertainment law. You can reach him by email at jon@jonarogers.com or follow him on Twitter at @jonarogers.]

IWOI, LLC v. Monaco Coach Corporation, N.D. Ill. May 24, 2011

Plaintiff sued claiming breach of warranty and violations of certain state laws against consumer fraud stemming the sale of a motor coach. Plaintiff sought permission to search defendants’ hard drives to locate critical email which appeared to be missing from the original discovery production. Defendants contended that the email was not “reasonably accessible” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(2)(B) and, therefore, they were under no obligation to produce it.

The court specified that the burden was on the party responding to discovery to identify whether there may be materials responsive to discovery requests that are stored on its system, but because of burden or cost are not reasonably accessible. However, that party cannot simply provide documents which are easily obtained and then assert that they have produced everything that is responsive to the request. If other relevant and responsive documents exist (or may exist), the party must say so and then say why those documents cannot or should not be produced.

Here, the defendants submitted only materials that were quickly accessible on employees’ desktops and made no effort to look further, even when they became aware that there was a possibility that there may be missing documents. A forensic expert asserted that he found the critical email in two separate locations on the computer network: on a local hard drive in an orphaned, but not deleted, storage file and also on a network hard drive that had been manually backed up. The expert concluded that a native Microsoft windows search of defendants’ computers would have uncovered the email and could be undertaken by an individual with no advanced computer knowledge.

The Court did not find the failure to produce the document to be a deliberate act by defendants, but that the document could have been found with minimal effort. It recognized that plaintiff (and the court) expended additional time and effort and incurred significant additional expenses searching for this document. Therefore, the court shifted half of the cost of the electronic discovery search to defendants.

Emails sent through Yahoo account using work computer protected under attorney-client privilege

The New Jersey supreme court has held that emails an employee sent to her lawyer using her company-issued computer and a personal Yahoo account are protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, Inc., — A.2d —, 2010 WL 1189458 (N.J. March 30, 2010)

The New Jersey courts have a reputation of being protective of “informational privacy.” See, e.g., State v. Reid. A recent decision concerning employee privacy in personal emails adds to that reputation.

Plaintiff-employee used a work-issued laptop to access her Yahoo email account, through which she communicated with her lawyer about her lawsuit against the employer. During the discovery phase of that employment discrimination lawsuit, the employer used computer forensics to recover those Yahoo emails that had been copied to the computer’s temporary internet files folder.

Counsel for plaintiff demanded that the employer turn over the recovered emails, arguing that the communications were protected by the attorney-client privilege. When the employer agreed to turn them over but not discontinue use of the information garnered from them, plaintiff sought relief from the court.

The trial court denied relief and plaintiff sought review with the appellate court. That court reversed, and the employer sought review with the state’s supreme court. The supreme court upheld the appellate court’s decision, holding that the employee had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the communications.

The employer relied on a broadly-written company policy through which the employer reserved the right to review and access “all matters on the company’s media systems and services at any time.” But the court rejected those arguments.

Framework for the analysis

The supreme court considered two aspects in its analysis: (1) the adequacy of the notice provided by the company policy, and (2) the important public policy concerns raised by the attorney-client privilege.

As for the adequacy of the notice provided by the policy, the court found that because the policy did not address the use of password-protected personal email accounts, the policy was “not entirely clear.” As for the importance of the attorney-client privilege, the court lavished it with almost-sacred verbal accoutrements, calling it a “venerable privilege . . . enshrined in history and practice.”

“Intrusion upon seclusion” as source for standard

The court noted that the analysis for a reasonable expectation of privacy in dealings between two private parties was a bit different than the analysis in a Fourth Amendment case. The common law source for the standard in this context is with the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion.” Under New Jersey law, that tort is committed when one intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, in a manner that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person. (This language comes from the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652B.)

In this situation, the court found that plaintiff had both a subjective and objective expectation that the messages would be private. Supporting her subjective belief was the fact that she used a private email account that was password protected, instead of her work email account. And she did not store her password on the computer. Her belief was objectively reasonable given the absence of any discussion about private email accounts in the company policy.

Plaintiff’s expectation of privacy was also bolstered by the fact that the email messages were not illegal, nor would they impact the performance of the employer’s computer system. And they bore all the “hallmarks” of attorney-client communications.

For all these reasons, not the least of which the priority of the courts “to keep private the very type of conversations that took place here,” the court found that the conversations were protected by the attorney-client privilege.