Sloppy e-discovery can cost you millions

Sloppy e-discovery can cost you millions

New ground rules from a legal standpoint

Lawsuits are a fact of life for organizations today. Recent surveys show that the average U.S. company faces 305 suits at any one time; that number jumps to 556 for companies with US$1 billion or more in revenue.

With each lawsuit comes the obligation for discovery -- production of evidence for presentation to the other side in a legal dispute. In the past, this evidence consisted primarily of paper records, such as contracts, bills of sale, printed correspondence and so on. However, with the rise of the New Data Center, 95 percent of all business communications now are created and stored electronically. That places the focus on e-discovery: finding and managing electronically stored information (ESI).

"It makes sense," says Gregg Davis, CIO at Webcor Builders, a construction firm in San Mateo, Calif. "Before five years ago, we never allowed change orders or changes in price or scope to happen through e-mail; everything was signed and faxed and kept on paper. But now, everything we do is e-mail. It's our primary tool for business documentation. Now 90 percent of everything we do here is done electronically."

That puts a heavy burden on IT, says Browning Marean, partner at DLA Piper, a global law firm. "If it's digital and it's relevant, it's discoverable. So it all has to be found, preserved and examined," he says. "And IT plays a key role in that because it is the keeper of the information -- it knows where and how information is stored, and IT is the one that has to find and present it."

New ground rules

In the U.S. court system, the onus of ESI discovery took on new weight on Dec. 1, 2006, when amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) went into effect. The new rules, which govern suits filed in federal court, specifically outline an organization's rights and obligations in e-discovery. The FRCP amendments apply to all organizations, public or private.

"With the amendments to the FRCP, the courts are saying, 'We know the technology exists to do this stuff. We want to see you take some reasonable steps to put processes and technologies together to do e-discovery. And if you don't, we're really going to hold you accountable for it,'" says Barry Murphy, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

He cites the recent case of Morgan Stanley vs. Ronald Perelman, in which Perelman charged the investment firm with duping him into believing Sunbeam -- for which Perelman was accepting stock in a buyout offer -- was financially successful. Morgan Stanley was hit with a $1.57 billion jury verdict, which hinged primarily on the company's lax e-discovery procedures. "The courts are saying that there's no plea to ignorance here. The rules are there to be followed," he says.

In a nutshell, the new rules require opposing parties to discuss e-discovery issues within 120 days of a lawsuit's filing. This means each party's legal team needs to be versed on its client's IT infrastructure; how, where and for how long data is kept; and how the company plans to provide discoverable information.

The rules also address a legal concept called the litigation hold: At the first sign that a company reasonably can expect to be a party to a suit, even before a suit is filed, it must implement a litigation hold. That is, it immediately must put a stop to any automated or regular purging of relevant ESI. It also must be able to prove, via an audit trail or similar means, that data relevant to the suit has been preserved unaltered.

Several companies have gotten into serious trouble for forgetting to turn off automatic-deletion features in their e-mail systems, and therefore losing potentially relevant documents, says Arthur Smith, a partner in the dispute-resolution practice group at Husch & Eppenger. "That loss of relevant information is known as spoliation. It's not just a matter of saving it, but also saving it without alteration, without changing the file-creation date or the last-read date on a document. It's a high standard," he says.

If the opposing side can prove the litigation hold was not implemented properly, the result can be devastating. "You go straight to damages, and the issue of whether or not what's alleged transpired never gets to the jury," says Richard Davis, director of litigation risk management at Constantine & Aborn Advisory Services. "That's the worst possible scenario."

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