Part of the Solution

Idealistic musings about eDiscovery

Legal Hold Notifications: Is E-Mail Good Enough?

An e-mail exchange this morning with one of our product managers has got me thinking … and that’s always dangerous.

Most enterprises that issue legal hold notifications to their custodian employees use good ol’ e-mail. The hold notification gets pasted into the body of the e-mail, and off it goes, (theoretically) to the recipient. Perhaps the e-mail was sent with a return receipt requested; and if the recipient is feeling generous, that receipt just might come back to prove that the message was received. As for whether the notification ever gets read? Well, we’ll just have to assume the best, won’t we?

Problem is, this isn’t a very practical solution. First, let’s look at the logistics. E-mails are not only subject to one-click deletion, but (at least in Microsoft Outlook and Exchange) can also be subject to custom routing rules. A user with the appropriate software permissions can easily create a rule to route all e-mails from, say, the Office of the General Counsel directly to the “Deleted Items” folder.

E-mail retention on the enterprise level also tends to be subject to shorter data preservation times than other types of electronic documents. If a custodian is on vacation when they get the e-mail, there is a possibility that the e-mail may not be there for download when the custodian gets back.

Finally, even if the e-mail is delivered in a timely manner and doesn’t get deleted, there’s no guarantee that the custodian will actually read it. And even if they do read it, they have the option (again, in Outlook; I don’t know about other systems) of denying the sender’s request to return a receipt.

The point of all this is that the enterprise remains vulnerable to “plausible deniability”. If a custodian can be shown to have read the hold notice, and they then proceed to violate it by spoliating evidence, the enterprise can likely protect itself from liability by arguing that in violating the hold notice, the custodian was acting outside the course and scope of their employment. Without that proof, the enterprise may remain firmly on the hook.

Now, the content of the hold notice itself is probably privileged from discovery under attorney-client privilege and attorney work produce privilege. However, the process of issuing that hold notice, and of obtaining proof of receipt, may not be privileged. In the recent case Cannata v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., 2011 WL 3495987 (D. Nev. Aug. 10, 2011), the court held that the opposing party was entitled to know “what has actually happened in this case, i.e., when and to whom the litigation hold letter was given, what kinds and categories of ESI were included in defendant’s litigation hold letter, and what specific actions defendant’s employees were instructed to take to that end.” (Emphasis mine. I commend to you Dennis Kiker’s excellent discussion of the Cannata case at his blog.)

At Autonomy, our legal hold software notifies the custodian via e-mail that they have a message awaiting them from the GC’s office, and to click on an enclosed link. The link serves a form from our workflow management engine, completely independent from the e-mail, containing the language of the legal hold notification, and requiring an electronic signature as acknowledgment that the form has been received and read. This ensures that the custodian cannot claim, “I didn’t get the e-mailed notice; and if I did, I deleted it; and if I didn’t delete it, I didn’t read it, etc.,” as a way to shift liability for spoliation back onto the enterprise. To me, this seems a MUCH better and safer practice that is more likely to withstand judicial scrutiny. (This is my opinion, not influenced by anyone at Autonomy, and I firmly and personally believe what I have written here.)

The Zubulake V opinion (229 F.R.D. 422, 433 (S.D.N.Y. 2004)) set the standard quite plainly: ‘‘[A] party cannot reasonably be trusted to receive the ‘litigation hold’ instruction once and to fully comply with it without the active supervision of counsel.’’ So why do so many counsel continue to insist that an e-mail “blast” of hold notices is good enough? Food for thought …

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