Spoliation Sanctions After Losing Summary Judgment a High Burden to Carry (Especially If You Fail to Request ESI!)
Is it possible to receive spoliation sanctions as a plaintiff if a case has been adjudicated for the defense on summary judgment? As the plaintiff discovered in the case of Anderson v. Sullivan, et al. Case No. 1:07-cv-111-SJM(W.D.Pa. August 16, 2013), it’s possible, but difficult. The background of this case was plaintiff alleged wrongful retaliation from a school district after she made whistleblower reports against the district and its officials. Plaintiff lost the case, as summary judgment was entered as a matter of law in favor of defendants. The court retained ancillary jurisdiction to rule upon plaintiff’s motion for spoliation sanctions.
Plaintiff alleged spoliation occurred regarding two computer hard drives and deleted emails. The court noted that as the defendants prevailed on summary judgment, the only possible sanctions would be fines, attorneys’ fees and costs.
Although the court made certain findings of fact and conclusions of law on each of the three issues (two hard drives and email), common themes emerged:
1. Plaintiff failed to issue ESI requests for email or subpoena the hard drives during the discovery period of the case. (FOF 36, 67 and 95).
2. There was no evidence of any purposeful destruction of the hard drives or email. (FOF 57, 80 and 88)
3. As the defendants prevailed on summary judgment, the nature of a summary judgment motion is to presume all facts as true as pleaded by plaintiff. As the court did so and ruled in favor of defendants in finding the pleadings insufficient as a matter of law, not fact, this determination pointed to the conclusion that the two hard drives and email threads were irrelevant. (COL 3, 18 and 25)
Thus while the possibility of sanctions was available post summary judgment given that defendants had a duty to preserve evidence, in this case, plaintiff failed to meet the burden of spoliation of evidence. Although the evidence was within defendant’s control and there was a duty to preserve, plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the evidence was relevant or that any destruction was even willful. Therefore, the court denied sanctions.