eDiscovery Case Law: No Sanctions For Spoliation With No Bad Faith
September 14, 2012
In Sherman v. Rinchem Co., No. 11-2932, 2012 U.S. App. (8th Cir. Aug. 6, 2012), the plaintiff in a defamation case against his former employer appealed the district court’s denial of both his summary judgment motion and request for an adverse inference jury instruction. The district court had decided the case under Minnesota law, which “provides that ‘even when a breach of the duty to preserve evidence is not done in bad faith, the district court must attempt to remedy any prejudice that occurs as a result of the destruction of the evidence.’” In contrast, as the Eighth Circuit pointed out, in this case where the parties had diversity, and a question remained as to whether state or federal spoliation laws were applicable, federal law requires “a finding of intentional destruction indicating a desire to suppress the truth” in order to impose sanctions.
The plaintiff was fired from his employer after he allegedly lied during the employer’s investigation of complaints about his behavior. As part of the investigation, the plaintiff was interviewed by the employer’s human resources director, where the director took notes. The plaintiff argued that he requested the employer provide him with the notes because he believed they were critical to his case. However, the human resources director claimed she lost the notes, but she did not destroy them.
Arguing that the employer’s loss of the notes amounted to spoliation of evidence, the plaintiff “contended that the district court should grant his motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, give an adverse-inference instruction to the jury for spoliation of evidence.” The court, however, found that at most the employer’s actions were negligent, not in bad faith, and therefore would not support the sanctions sought by the plaintiff. In the course of speaking to the plaintiff and his counsel on the record, the plaintiff’s counsel conceded that it did appear the employer’s actions were non-intentional and amounted only to negligence. The district court ultimately denied the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment without prejudice, offering that he could return and seek another remedy short of summary judgment or an adverse inference instruction.
First, the Eighth Circuit found that in diversity actions, “federal law applies to the imposition of sanctions for the spoliation of evidence” in this case because “a direct conflict exists between federal law and Minnesota law.” Therefore, for spoliation sanctions to be applicable, the court had to find bad faith. Furthermore, the record reflected—and the plaintiff conceded—there had been no bad faith on the part of the employer.
Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and request for an adverse inference instruction.
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