In this zoning dispute involving claims of civil rights violations and tortious interference with contractual relations, the court denied the plaintiffs’ request for spoliation sanctions where they could adduce no evidence that any records were destroyed in bad faith once the defendants anticipated litigation.
The plaintiffs, property owners in the defendant Township, alleged an “unremitting campaign of harassment and discrimination, spanning the better part of fifteen years, aimed at divesting plaintiffs of every economically viable use of their property.” The zoning dispute ended in 2009, but the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in January 2011.
Despite a “protracted discovery process,” the plaintiffs claimed the defendants “made no substantial or reasonable effort to identify and retain relevant documents” and destroyed internal e-mail correspondence, land development application files for other properties in the Township, and Planning Commission Board minutes.
The judge evaluated the claims under a four-part test for spoliation: “(1) the evidence was in the party’s control, (2) the evidence is relevant, (3) there was ‘actual suppression or withholding of the evidence,’ and (4) ‘the duty to preserve the evidence was reasonably foreseeable to the party.’” The judge decided that the documents were relevant and under the defendants’ control. However, he disagreed that the defendants had a duty to preserve the evidence because they believed all issues relating to the plaintiffs’ land development applications had been resolved until the lawsuit was filed.
The court also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the defendants’ discovery efforts were “feeble” because they did not issue a written legal hold. Instead, the Township Manager met face to face with employees in the “very small organization” so he could “make sure that they knew what [he] was looking for.” In addition, the Township’s lawyer asked staff to gather all records relating to the property at issue, and he collected and preserved all of the material. Once the Township Manager knew of the plaintiffs’ request for additional records for other properties, the staff saved them as well. The court found these efforts sufficient.
The court also found that any loss of evidence was at best negligent; the plaintiffs could not establish the evidence of “ill motive or bad intent” required to support a spoliation claim in the Third Circuit.
- E-mail: The plaintiffs complained that the defendants provided only 24 e-mails despite “a seventeen-year period of near-constant controversy.” The defendants countered that at the time, the Township generated little e-mail because it communicated by paper memos and letters. Moreover, the Township’s document retention policy required the immediate deletion of e-mails that did not “meet the definition of records.” Although the Township lacked a formal enforcement mechanism for its policy, the Township Manager, the assistant manager, and IT person regularly told people to delete their e-mails to maximize server storage. The plaintiffs contended this “slipshod” enforcement was enough to establish spoliation; however, they lacked “concrete proof” that the Township deleted relevant e-mails after the litigation began.
- Property records: After a third-party subpoena returned documents the Township had not produced, the plaintiffs cried foul. The Township argued that it discarded files whenever the Board of Commissioners granted a waiver of the land development process. The plaintiffs disputed this policy by showing that the Township had preserved 13 files where waivers had been granted. The court ruled that the Township discarded any relevant files “‘long before this litigation.’”
- Board minutes: Finally, the plaintiffs argued that the Township failed to produce minutes for 1996 and 1997 and certain months between 2000 and 2008, though its policy required their permanent retention. However, the plaintiffs could not provide any proof that the minutes “went missing . . . after this litigation began.”
Therefore, the court denied the plaintiffs’ motion.
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In the Third Circuit, mere negligence is not enough to support a claim of spoliation. According to the court, any deletion of e-mails resulted from the Township’s “‘inadvertence, negligence, inexplicable foolishness, or part of the normal activities of business or daily living.’” None of these amounted to bad faith.
However, the Township’s document retention procedures left itself open to claims of inconsistency. Had the deletion been more recent, the Township may have found itself on the losing end of the battle. Instead of following a haphazard enforcement policy, organizations, no matter their size, should automate their processes and ensure that they follow a consistent, documented, and defensible procedure.