Montana Supreme Court Rules on Electronic Evidence Spoliation in Employment Discrimination Case
As electronic data issues are now commonplace in civil litigation, more state trial and appellate courts are ruling on eDiscovery disputes. In Cartwright v. Scheels All Sports, No. DA 12-0299 (Mont. 2013), the Montana Supreme Court reviewed a case where a plaintiff alleged wrongful termination against defendant, his former employer. A jury trial found in favor of the defendant employer. Upon appeal, plaintiff asserted that the trial court erred on several issues, including the court’s denial of plaintiff’s motion for sanctions for alleged discovery abuses and destruction of email evidence.
By way of background, the plaintiff worked for defendant beginning in 1996 but allegedly had an affair with a coworker in early 2007. In August 2007, the manager confronted plaintiff, and they had a heated exchange which led to his termination. The defendant had a long-standing policy that once the IT department learns an employee no longer works for the company, the email account is deleted. The old emails are put into queue for 30 days, after which time the emails are deleted.
After the plaintiff employee was terminated, he filed for unemployment in the fall of 2007. He won his contested unemployment claim and the subsequent appeal. He later filed suit in civil court for wrongful termination in August of 2008, a year later, and was informed that his emails had been permanently deleted in January 2008. As stated above, he lost his case at trial, and the trial judge denied his motion for sanctions for the deleted emails.
The Montana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that sanctions were not warranted for the alleged spoliation in this case. The Court noted that since the emails were deleted in the regular course of business in January 2008, after the unemployment issue was over, defendant did not have any notice that a wrongful termination lawsuit would be filed eight months later. Additionally, the employer did not actively conceal anything or engage in other misconduct. Finally, the court notes that plaintiff did not allege the emails would have produced any “smoking gun.”
“The evidence was that the records were discarded pursuant to Scheel’s pre-existing and routine practice and that Scheel had no knowledge of potential litigation prior to destruction.” The Montana Supreme Court held that the trial court did not err when it declined to issue spoliation sanctions.