NYC Fined Spoliation Sanctions for Gross Negligence in Failure to Preserve ESI
The Southern District of New York recently imposed spoliation sanctions after holding that New York City negligently destroyed documents in a civil rights case. In Stinson et. al. v. City of New York et. al., Case No. 10-4228 (S.D. N.Y., Jan. 2, 2016), Plaintiffs sued Defendants NYC, various NYPD officers, and a former NYPD commissioner in 2010 for allegedly issuing summonses without probable cause. Defendants, however, failed to issue a litigation hold until 2013 and, pursuant to its document preservation policies, destroyed certain records that would have been relevant in the case, including emails and text messages between officers. Defendants did produce some items, but less than 25 emails between important persons in the case. Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Sanctions.
The court granted the Motion, finding that Defendants had an obligation to preserve evidence at the time it was destroyed, that Defendants had a culpable state of mind, and that the destroyed evidence was relevant. The court looked to a separate lawsuit filed in 2008 to determine the date when an obligation arose to preserve evidence based upon that 2008 lawsuit’s similarities to the instant case. The court also found no justification for Defendants’ failure to initiate a litigation hold in a timely manner. Defendants tried to argue that Plaintiffs’ discovery requests were overly broad and, therefore, sanctions were not appropriate, but the court held that the scope of the requests had no bearing on the issue. The court found gross negligence by Defendants in their failure to timely issue a litigation hold and in their failure to circulate the hold and implement it. The court thus ordered a permissive inference instruction as a spoliation sanction; that is, the jury would be instructed that destroyed evidence could have helped Plaintiffs’ case, but Plaintiffs would still have the burden of proof.
The court also noted that the recent changes to the FRCP 37(e) could not be retroactively applied to this case.