[UPDATE] In Defense of Genger, Part II

UPDATE:

I hate to say I told you so, but...wait, no I don't.

Yesterday, the Delaware Supreme Court issued its opinion in this matter affirming the Court of Chancery's spoliation finding. The Court held the spoliation finding proper, because Genger took affirmative steps to overwrite unallocated space, saying:

We do not read the Court of Chancery’s Spoliation Opinion to hold that as a matter of routine document-retention procedures, a computer hard drive’s unallocated free space must always be preserved. The trial court rested its spoliation and contempt findings on more specific and narrow factual grounds—that Genger, despite knowing he had a duty to preserve documents, intentionally took affirmative actions to destroy several relevant documents on his work computer. These actions prevented the Trump Group from recovering those deleted documents for use in the Section 225…

Compare with my statements below that

The [Court of Chancery] opinion in this case does not require preservation of all unallocated space in every case. Genger was sanctioned because he took affirmative steps to overwrite unallocated space, in violation of the Court's order... [T]here is nothing in this opinion that creates any requirement to preserve unallocated space. Rather, the opinion only says you shouldn't go out of your way to destroy it.

I feel quite vindicated in my defense, considering there were some persons and organizations of import in the eDiscovery community lined up on the other side. Obviously, reasonable minds can disagree, especially in interpreting court decisions. Ultimately, I am thankful that the Supreme Court's decision should allay any fears created by certain interpretations of the Court of Chancery's spoliation decision.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-03-11 13:20:45):

I had almost given up on writing this post considering how long it has been since I posted In Defense of Genger, Part I and (more importantly) how long it has been since the publication of the posts I am taking issue with.  However, the ongoing confusion about this case has prompted me to action. 

If you have read Part I, you are familiar with the Court of Chancery's decision in TR Investors LLC v. Genger, C.A. 3994-VCS (December 9, 2009) and with the allegations made by Leonard Deutchman, General Counsel at LDiscovery LLC, in a two-part post hosted by Law.com. <!--You also understand why there's a picture of Austin Powers.--> For those who are not familiar, Mr. Deutchman asserts that the Court got the decision wrong because it (1) does not understand the technology involved (Part 1) and (2) does not understand the law of eDiscovery (Part 2).

It's sufficient to say that I respectfully disagree with Mr. Deutchman on both charges. Rebutting his posts was a fun, interesting exercise for me, but it didn't seem terribly important. I saw it as an esoteric debate between eDiscovery geeks. That has changed, because, today, a prominent media outlet has published a post that elevates the confusion about this opinion and will cause unnecessary fear among corporate counsel.

The latest case of hand-wringing and confusion over this decision comes to us from none other than Forbes by way of Daniel Fisher's post "Delaware Ruling Would Require Massive Data Backups."  Mr. Fisher opens his post stating that:

A little-noticed decision by a Delaware court has the potential to impose huge costs on companies unless it is reversed, computer-security experts say...[e]xperts say retaining such data would be prohibitively expensive since the unallocated space is essentially a trash bin that is altered each time a key is tapped.

<!--Scary, huh?-->

Despite the fact that Mr. Fisher twice refers to "experts" (plural) as the source for these hyper-ventilations, his lone identified source for the post is Daniel Garrie, a lawyer and managing director at Focused Solution Recourse Delivery Group LLC , a computer consulting firm in Seattle. <!--Garrie and Deutchman are both lawyers with eDiscovery vendors. Is there anything to that?--> Mr. Fisher's post continues:

“It’s almost impossible for large companies with massive amounts of equipment to comply,” said Garrie... “I don’t even know if it’s possible,” said Garrie. “I mean, anything’s possible with enough money,” but companies would have to take bit-level images of their hard drives on a regular basis and store them somewhere, to be retrieved each time they are sued. That means all the time for most large companies. The costs would be “exponentially larger,” than current electronic discovery measures. “Several large global companies,” clients he declined to name, “have expressed concern.”

Let me clear up the confusion: The opinion in this case does not require preservation of all unallocated space in every case. Genger was sanctioned because he took affirmative steps to overwrite unallocated space, in violation of the Court's order and without first telling anyone. The routine, passive overwriting of unallocated space was NOT the cause for any sanctions here, so there is nothing in this opinion that creates any requirement to preserve unallocated space. Rather, the opinion only says you shouldn't go out of your way to destroy it. Big, BIG difference. <!--If there are doubts about the Court of Chancery's understanding of eDiscovery, please see their recently released "Guidelines for Preservation of Electronically Stored Information" that clearly embraces the principles of cooperation, reasonableness, and proportionality.-->

To Mr. Garrie's credit, he is consistent—he is co-author of an article in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property that makes the same mistaken arguments, and he filed a brief with the Delaware Supreme Court arguing for reversal of the Genger opinion. I obviously disagree with Mr. Garrie's opinions on this matter, but I am here to help, so I say:

Mr. Garrie, for the “[s]everal large global companies [that] have expressed concern,” please send them a link to this post and tell them not to worry.

I don't actually expect Mr. Garrie will do that, but perhaps some of his clients will stumble upon this post, in which case here is my advice to them:

If you act cooperatively and transparently, you will be fine. If you find yourself in a similar position to Mr. Genger's, share your concerns with opposing counsel and the court before you do anything. Don't take matters into your own hands and violate a court order by wiping a hard drive in the middle of the night—it's bad form and will only get you in trouble.

Stayed tuned for the decision of the Delaware Supreme Court—I may have a lot of words to eat...

<!--Thanks to flickr user cliff1066™ for the Austin Powers pic.-->

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Brendan Carew - March 11, 2011 4:01 PM

Well said Chris. Totally agree with your stance on this. Cooperation and transparency are key.

Daniel Fisher - March 29, 2011 10:33 AM

Experts plural does include independent experts I asked about the challenge of preserving unallocated space. I am not a lawyer, but would you really advise your clients not to worry about "passive" overwriting? Can't a skilled attorney for the other side turn "passive" into an effective plea for sanctions?

Chris Spizzirri - March 31, 2011 9:24 AM

Mr. Fisher,

Yes, I would really advise my clients not to worry about "passive" overwriting, unless it was a rare case where unallocated space was truly at issue. In that case, I would advise my client to do any forensic imaging required by the specific case. Either way, there's no reason to worry.

No, a skilled attorney for the other side cannot turn passive overwriting into a successful plea for sanctions, if things have been handled properly. That is, if the parties have been discussing eDiscovery early and often as they should, the other side would have had ample opportunity to raise the issue. If they raised the issue early, the parties should have resolved it one way or another, well before a spoliation motion. If the other side did not previously raise the issue, then their spoliation claim will not be timely--if a party has a concern about an eDiscovery issue, they are obligated to raise it so something can be done, not sit on their hands then cry foul late in the game.

I don't disagree that preserving unallocated space can present a challenge, especially as the number of machines requiring it increases. The question is: Does the Genger case require the preservation of unallocated space in all cases? I believe the answer is no. The Court of Chancery's recent Guidelines for Preservation of ESI (http://courts.delaware.gov/forms/download.aspx?id=50988) make clear the Court expects parties to conduct reasonable, proportional preservation efforts in all cases, but the Court has not dictated the form of those efforts.

I appreciate your comments and have updated my post to reflect the fact that you consulted multiple sources for your post.

Chris

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