Eaton-Stephens v. Grapevine Colleyville Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 16-11611, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 22704 (5th Cir. Nov. 13, 2017).

In this appeal of a workplace discrimination case, the court held that a school district’s erasure of the plaintiff’s computer files, although it violated document retention policies, was not per se done in bad faith. Because the plaintiff offered no other evidence of bad faith in the destruction of files, the appellate court upheld the denial of an adverse inference. It also affirmed the lower court’s award of summary judgment for the defendant school district.

The plaintiff, Linda Eaton-Stephens, previously worked as a counselor for the Grapevine Colleyville Independent School District. Eaton-Stephens believed that her colleagues were “prejudiced against non-white students and faculty.” Her primary support for this contention was her deposition testimony that another counselor had referred to her as “the little black counselor.” The principal failed to intervene on Eaton-Stephens’s behalf when she raised this concern. Notably, she was also the only black employee within her school.

Eaton-Stephens eventually resigned her position, following an accusation that she “was taking online college courses” on behalf of another employee. Another deponent claimed to have found two class assignments on Eaton-Stephens’s computer in the other employee’s name. That fraudulent conduct, if true, would have violated the district’s policies and the counselor’s code of ethics.

After her resignation, Eaton-Stephens sued the school district, alleging discrimination and various violations of Title VII and other laws. During the litigation, Eaton-Stephens moved for an adverse inference against the school district. She claimed the school had improperly wiped the contents of her school laptop. The trial court denied her that inference and granted summary judgment in favor of the school district.

On appeal, the court agreed with Eaton-Stephens that the trial court had “unduly discredited some of [her] deposition testimony as conclusory.” Even when considering that improperly excluded evidence, however, the appellate court found that the trial court had ruled correctly. Eaton-Stephens offered no proof that the school district’s spoliation was done in bad faith, and the court “decline[d] to adopt a per se rule” that deleting files in violation of policy established bad faith.

After considering all of Eaton-Stephens’s nonconclusory evidence and rejecting an adverse inference in her favor, the appellate court affirmed the trial court. It found that summary judgment for the school district was appropriate.

Takeaways

If you are trying to establish that a party destroyed evidence in bad faith, relying on a policy violation will not suffice. Here, it was not clear what Eaton-Stephens believed the contents of her computer would have proved. However, laying that evidence out for the court and explaining how it would have related to her case could have helped her establish why the school district might have acted in bad faith and thus helped her obtain an adverse inference.

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