• Rule 37(E)’S Safe Harbor Provision Used to Limit Sanctions Requested under the Court’s Inherent Authority
  • September 20, 2010 | Author: Evan D. Brown
  • Law Firm: Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP - Chicago Office
  • Grubb v. Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ill., 2010 WL 3075517 (N.D. Ill., Aug. 4, 2010)

    One of the limitations in the protection provided by Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(e)’s “Safe Harbor” provision is that it ostensibly only applies to ediscovery sanctions “under these rules.” For that reason, I have referred to Rule 37(e) as a “wading pool,” rather than a safe harbor. So, when a court points to Rule 37(e) as a basis for exercising restraint when sanctions are sought under the court’s inherent authority, it bears highlighting.

    Grubb involved a claim brought by a former professor at the University of Illinois that the University violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act when it accessed a laptop computer he had been using in order to remove University software. That laptop was not owned by the professor but rather by the American Board of Orthodontics (“ABO”), and allegedly contained personal and sensitive information as well as testing data and private patient information. After plaintiff filed suit, ABO gave him a new laptop to use and he returned the one that was involved in his claim against the University. Subsequently, ABO “wiped” the hard drive of that laptop. When the University learned of this development, it filed a motion which sought terminating sanctions under the court’s inherent authority arguing that plaintiff had permitted the destruction of evidence relevant to his claim. The University contended that plaintiff had allowed the spoliation of evidence to occur which rendered it impossible to refute the plaintiff’s Computer Fraud and Abuse claim.

    In rejecting the University’s claim for sanctions, the district court noted that in Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 44 (1991), the Supreme Court warned that a court’s use of its inherent powers “must be exercised with restraint and discretion.” Pointing to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37, the district court observed “restraint seems imminently sensible given the content of the federal rules.”

    The district court in Grubb also pointed to the plaintiff’s lack of computer expertise as a basis for exercising restraint. The court noted that plaintiff’s computer expertise, “like most people, falls somewhere in that broad swath between technophobe and technophile.” Taking a common-sense approach to the issue, the district court aptly noted, “it cannot be said that everyday people would possess an understanding of how data are stored and how access history can be reconstructed (or destroyed).” Because plaintiff testified that while he knew how to turn on his laptop but little else about how computers work, the court had little difficulty in concluding that plaintiff did not take any actions for the purpose of hiding adverse information.

    The court’s decision in Grubb should be contrasted with Green v. McClendon, 2009 WL 2496275 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2009) where a defendant’s lack of computer expertise did not save her from the imposition of sanctions. The Green decision was critically analyzed in one of our prior posts, which can be found here. The outcomes reached in these decisions underscore the practical reality that parties and counsel now face - that the outcome of an ediscovery sanctions motion frequently turns on the approach generally taken in a given district court and by a given district court judge in particular. While uniformity will never be achieved, a more consistent approach would certainly ease the burdens of ediscovery on clients and their counsel, and is one of the reasons why various organizations are pushing to have the federal ediscovery rules amended.