[UPDATE] Self-Collection Prohibited in Delaware

UPDATE:

A colleague recently spoke to Vice Chancellor Laster about this opinion, and the Vice Chancellor reportedly said, "No self-collection in my Court."  I'm not sure that statement addresses my distinction between collection and review, but it does reinforce the Vice Chancellor's opposition to unsupervised custodian document collection.

Also, below is the presentation I made for use in briefing this case for the Herrmann Technology Inn of Court:

 

ORIGINAL POST:

Recently, Vice Chancellor Laster gave some of us a jolt with a bench ruling on a discovery dispute in Roffe v. Eagle Rock Energy GP, et al., C.A. No. 5258-VCL (Del. Ch. Apr. 8, 2010). The ruling addresses the issue of client self-collection and a lawyer's oversight duties.

The Association of Corporate Counsel's (AAC) website carried a summary of the ruling authored by Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP that stated:

Vice Chancellor Laster ruled from the bench that confirmatory discovery—like formal discovery—requires the defendant’s attorney to be physically present during the collection of electronically stored information from his/her client; self collection by the client is not permitted.

Well-known eDiscovery expert, Kevin Brady of Connolly Bove in Delaware, explained that the ruling:

[P]ointed out that lawyers have an affirmative duty to be actively engaged in the collection process to the point that a lawyer should meet in person with the client to physically review his or her electronic information repositories wherever they may be located (including, if necessary, personal computers if that is where relevant information is stored).

I think Kevin's summary is much closer to the mark, and I'll explain why in a minute. First, the language causing concern is on lines 12-19 on page 10 of the attached transcript and reads as follows:

[Y]ou do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system... There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly... we don't rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court.

The AAC article suggests there are two things implicated by this, and other supportive, language in the ruling: (1) client self-collection is not allowed, and (2) an attorney must be present during data collection. I think that interpretation assumes the worst and goes too far.

On the issue of self-collection, when the Court says not to "rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system" and "we don't rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive," I believe the Court refers specifically to the practice of a client acting as document reviewer and sole arbiter of responsiveness. That is well understood to be a bad practice, so there is nothing shocking about this pronouncement.

I do not think the Court, in this ruling, has said that client bulk self-collection is impermissible. I see nothing in this ruling that would prohibit a client from gathering a mass of potentially responsive documents, e.g. full email accounts for all custodians, with guidance from counsel and turning them over to counsel for review. Counsel must review all potentially responsive documents and make final responsiveness determinations.

On the issue of requiring counsel's physical presence during collection, I again think the AAC article's interpretation of the Court's ruling goes too far. The AAC article seems to rely on the word "goes" in the Court's statement that "[t]here needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly" for the proposition that counsel must 'go' and be physically present for collection. I think we get the spirit of the Court's statement by removing the 'go' part: "[t]here needs to be a lawyer who... makes sure the collection is done properly." That is well understood to be a best, if not required, practice, so there is nothing shocking about this pronouncement either.

To be fair, there are other references in the ruling to lawyers 'getting on a plane' to get data, but these suggestions seem to be case specific.  In this case, Plaintiff was supposed to be conducting confirmatory discovery on three board directors but only collected from two.  The third was a Mr. Smith. So the Vice Chancellor suggests that someone get on a plane to go get Mr. Smith's documents ("And you certainly need to put somebody on a plane to go out and see Mr. Smith." page 10, line 20; "So the question for me would be, one, how fast can you do this right? And that means not only the e-mails from Mr. Smith. As I say, somebody should have been on a plane a long time ago to go through his e-mails. And if he chose to use his personal computer, well, that was his bad choice. All right? And if he has it mixed in other stuff that he gets, 150 e-mails a day, or whatever, that was his bad choice. That makes it all the more essential that a lawyer get on a plane, and go and sit down with Mr. Smith, and go through his e-mail and make sure that what is produced is -- what is responsive is appropriately produced." page 12, lines 1-13). This seems to be a specific issue with Mr. Smith in this particular case requiring the physical presence of counsel to ensure collection of, perhaps, an unwilling participant.

I think my reading of this transcript aligns with Kevin Brady's in that lawyers need to be engaged in the discovery process and may need to be physically present during data collection. If, however, my interpretation is wrong and a lawyer is required to be present during collection that may only be conducted by a vendor, the cost of discovery in Delaware may be on the rise.

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Ralph Losey - June 29, 2010 6:54 AM

Agree. That must be the intent, otherwise you're right, the fees will skyrocket. Thanks for sharing about this interesting case.

Dominic Jaar - July 2, 2010 10:47 AM

I truly hope that what was meant is that "lawyers need to be engaged in the discovery process". Otherwise, there will be a fine line between being a lawyer and a fact witness in Delaware.

On another note, this quote "[Y]ou do not rely on a defendant to search their own e-mail system... There needs to be a lawyer who goes and makes sure the collection is done properly... we don't rely on people who are defendants to decide what documents are responsive, at least not in this Court." makes absolutely no sense! Is this to say that in Delaware, lawyers have been reviewing all of their corporate clients' paper whenever they were being sued or was it normal, at a certain point in time, to rely on the client to provide the boxes of paper that most probably contained potentially relevant information?

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