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What Charlie Sheen Can Teach Us About E-Discovery

Created: 24 Mar 2011 • 5 comments
Matthew Nelson's picture
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Surprisingly, a large percentage of the population has been captivated by what many characterize as a public melt down by Two and a Half Men star, Charlie Sheen. Following his well-publicized split with the show’s executive producer, Chuck Lorre, Sheen’s media interviews have been harder to avoid than cowboy hats at a Kenny Rogers concert. Regardless of whether or not you’re a pop-media junkie, fan of Two and a Half Men, or completely disinterested in the entire saga, it’s clear that many of Mr. Sheen’s ramblings have stirred controversy.

What do all Mr. Sheen’s seemingly random musings mean? Has he lost his mind? Is he pulling the wool over the eyes of the media by flawlessly executing the biggest Hollywood hoax in history? Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Sheen is a stealth e-discovery expert, secretly providing the legal community with a guide for handling litigation. Don’t agree? Well, maybe you’ll be a believer after reading my interpretation of how some of Mr. Sheen’s most popular quotes can serve as an e-discovery 101 guidebook.

“It was so gnarly I can’t remember.”

It’s hard to remember that the first Zubulake decision was penned by Judge Scheindlin long ago in 2003, but the gnarly $29.2 million jury verdict against UBS Warburg by a single plaintiff, in a fairly routine employment lawsuit, is one that most legal departments in Corporate America won’t soon forget.[1] Many industry experts feel the jury’s massive verdict could have been avoided if it wasn’t for repeated electronic discovery errors that resulted in the jury receiving an adverse jury instruction about UBS Warburg’s failure to produce emails. Eight years later, the incredible growth of electronic information continues to present e-discovery challenges for organizations, even though clearer guidelines have evolved.

“Sorry man, didn’t make the rules.”

Prior to Zubulake, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) did not squarely address the unique challenges of electronic evidence. Although she didn’t actually make the rules, Judge Scheindlin served as a member of the committee that helped draft the 2006 amendments to the FRCP. The amendments address many electronic evidence challenges faced by legal departments, and topics such as data sampling, proportionality, and data accessibility that were tackled in Zubulake, ultimately made their way into the notes or text of the amendments.

The amendments seek to minimize discovery disputes and provide clarity by, among other things, requiring parties to “discuss any issues about preserving discoverable information” and by outlining a protocol for dealing with electronically stored information (ESI) characterized as “not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost.”[2] Despite these guidelines, the rules are not always bright line instructions so the conduct of the parties is typically evaluated based on “reasonableness” standards when a discovery dispute arises. Some are lobbying for further clarification regarding issues such as when the duty to preserve electronic evidence is triggered and there seems to be a movement afoot that could lead to additional Rule amendments as evidenced by last year’s Civil Litigation Review Conference at Duke University.[3]

“Your perimeter’s been breached.  You got work to do bro.”

No lawyer wants to be responsible for having the organization’s perimeter breached as a result of data spoliation. However, failing to take proper data preservation steps continues to be the number one reason organization’s face e-discovery sanctions.[4] In Zubulake IV, Judge Scheindlin explained that an organization has work to do when it “reasonably anticipates” litigation since the anticipation of litigation is enough to trigger counsel’s duty to issue a litigation hold notice to employees.[5] The duty is easy to understand, but determining the “triggering” event and the best approach for preserving data can be challenging. To minimize the risk of spoliation, many organizations are moving away from using email notifications and spreadsheets to track when, who, how, and why employees are notified of a litigation hold in favor of more automated solutions and repeatable workflows. Automated solutions allow notices, reminders, and surveys to be created with easy-to-use templates and the “reasonableness” of the entire litigation hold process can be illustrated since reports can be automatically generated with the click of a button.

“I’ve got tiger blood and Adonis DNA”

Although the line between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” conduct can be very blurry in some cases, in other situations the offending party simply chooses to flagrantly disregard the rules as if they have tiger blood and Adonis DNA. For example, in Daylight, LLC v. Mobilight Inc., the Utah Appellate court upheld the lower court’s entry of a default judgment after defendants threw a laptop off a building, ran it over with a vehicle and stated: “if this gets us into trouble, I hope we’re prison buddies.”[6] Uh, sorry Charlie….

Typically, most parties are not so cavalier about disregarding their legal obligations and the judge’s decision to issue sanctions when evidence is lost or deleted is not a slam dunk. One challenge is that the 2006 FRCP Amendments allow litigants to request any “Electronically Stored Information” stored in “any medium” that is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.[7] That means the scope of the duty to preserve, collect, and produce information as part of litigation may be very broad and very complicated, even though data growth continues to increase exponentially and corporate information technology systems continue to become increasingly complex.

To meet these burdens, many organizations are demanding technology solutions that do more than manage the legal hold process because they also need to collect, analyze, and review ESI to evaluate the case. The holy grail of e-discovery is being able to leverage a single technology solution to manage all these tasks as well as the litigation hold process. The value is twofold. First, automating e-discovery steps related to preservation and collection that have traditionally been managed manually minimizes the risk of human error and makes it easier to demonstrate a repeatable process that is defensible. Second, using the same technology solution to filter, analyze, and review key documents faster results in significant cost savings and strategic advantages.

“You make a choice to win, and you win”

Despite the fact that organizations continue to make e-discovery mistakes, smart organizations choose to leverage a combination of repeatable workflows and legal technology solutions to help them win. Although the new technological era we live in has created new discovery challenges, legal technology can be used to streamline data preservation, collection, processing, and review. Legal technology can also be used to quickly find important documentary evidence earlier in the case, thereby resulting in strategic advantages so smart organizations can “just keep winning.”


[1] Zubulake v. UBS Warburg, LLC, 217 F.R.D. 309 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)

[2] See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(f)(2) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)

[3] John G. Koeltl, 2010 Civil Litigation Review Conference Introduction: Progress in the Spirit of Rule 1, 60 Duke L.J. 537 (2010).

[4] See Dan H. Willoughby, Jr., Rose Hunter Jones, and Gregory R. Antine, SANCTIONS FOR E-DISCOVERY VIOLATIONS: BY THE NUMBERS, 60 Duke L.J. 789 (2010), at 803 stating (“FAILURE TO PRESERVE ESI IS THE MOST PREVALENT SANCTIONABLE CONDUCT”

[5] Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 218 (S.D.N.Y. 2003)

[6] Daylight, LLC v. Mobilight Inc., 2011 UT App. 28 (2011)

[7] Fed. R. Civ. P. 34(a)(1)(A).

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