Beck v. Access E Forms, LP
In this Fair Labor Standards Act claim, the court denied sanctions despite the plaintiff’s deletion of emails and other evidence.
Sidney Beck, the plaintiff, alleged that during her employment with Access eForms, LP, she routinely worked overtime without full compensation. Beck submitted her resignation on October 31, 2016, with November 14 as her last day of work.
On November 8, 2016, she made a 16-minute call to her eventual attorneys.
Two days later, she deleted “thousands of Access emails and chats”; Access asserted that these would have shown her hours. Several days after that, Beck deleted files from her work laptop before returning it.
Beck stated that she “accidentally deleted a number of” emails when she attempted to move them to her personal account.
Access moved for sanctions, claiming that Beck spoliated electronically stored information (ESI). Worse, it claimed, she did so “with the intention of … depriving [Access] of evidence” for use in this lawsuit.
The court first looked to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37. However, although Access’s motion cited Rule 37(e), governing the failure to preserve ESI, the court cited only Rule 37(b)(2). That subsection authorizes sanctions for a party’s noncompliance with a court’s discovery orders. Further, the court opined, the rule permits sanctions only for “willful” or “bad faith” conduct.
The court then turned to the law of spoliation to determine when Beck was obligated to preserve evidence. Access claimed that the duty attached on November 8, when she spoke with the attorneys she hired for this claim. The court found this conclusion “speculative,” believing that Beck may not yet have decided to file a lawsuit.
Interestingly, the court concluded that even if Beck were under a duty to preserve, sanctions were not available here. Rather, it said, it “must make a specific finding that [Beck] acted in bad faith to impose sanctions.” The court fully accepted Beck’s explanation that the deletions were accidental. It found no evidence of purposeful or targeted deletions. It thus concluded that the record was “devoid of any evidence of bad faith” on her part.
The court then made an observation that undercut its own analysis. It noted that “copies of deleted emails and chats were likely available from other sources” on Access’s systems. Spoliation occurs only when evidence is lost and cannot be “restored or replaced” by other means. Therefore, were the court considering Rule 37(e), this finding would mean that no spoliation occurred at all.
The court also expressed its skepticism about the likely relevance of any deleted emails or chats. It concluded that there was “little or no” evidence indicating that any lost ESI would “exonerate” Access from Beck’s claims. The court stated that even if it did impose “a spoliation inference,” that inference “would not substantially bolster” Access’s claim.
Therefore, the court denied the motion for sanctions. In an order issued the same day, it awarded final judgment to Beck in the amount of $24,914.
Takeaways on Proving Spoliation
Courts can get away with loosely explaining their rationale; litigants cannot. When faced with what you believe to be spoliation, be sure to close off every other argument. Here, the court — even under its strained analysis — was unconvinced that any evidence was truly lost. If you can, demonstrate exactly why lost evidence cannot be restored or replaced. Explain why you believe the lost evidence was likely relevant. And, of course, don’t fall prey to an “accidental” deletion yourself; work with a trusted partner to ensure that your efforts at preservation don’t backfire.