Avoiding ‘E-trouble’ in Construction Litigation

Judah Lifschitz | Construction Executive | August 14, 2018

During the 2016 presidential election, the FBI subpoenaed Hillary Clinton’s emails after she used a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Separately, the more recent investigation into Donald Trump’s campaign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, resulted in scrutiny over both his email and social media.

As shown the above examples, there are damaging effects of electronically stored information in politics, but how does it impact the construction industry?

If not used carefully and properly, emails will serve as “truth serum” in court. Attorneys can simply read an email to know employees’ thoughts or actions, meaning an impulsive email or social media post will most likely come back to haunt the company. Requests for ESI are inevitable in litigation today and the production of inappropriate emails and other ESI open the door for an opposing attorney to argue that a company fosters a culture of uncouth, unprofessional and unfocused project management.

REQUESTS FOR ESI ARE INEVITABLE IN LITIGATION TODAY

It is estimated that 90 percent of all information is now created digitally – the majority of which is never printed. A comparison of the ESI and hard-copy documents produced in a recent construction case revealed that only 25 percent of email communication had been printed to paper. A Duke University survey revealed that the ESI Discovery costs in typical cases range from approximately $600,000 to just less than $3 million. And in large cases, the costs average from $2.3 million to $9.7 million.

ESI is created and stored in a variety of places, including computers, fax machines or copiers’ internal hard drives, voicemail, web pages, smartphones, jump drives, memory cards and external hard drives. It is important to remember that all of the data and information created and stored in these various places is subject to being produced to a litigation adversary in discovery, granting them access to a significant volume of information – some of which is produced in a very informal setting.

Opposing attorneys acquire this information through the discovery process, which includes:

  • The obligation to preserve potentially relevant information. Even before litigation is filed, any time that a company has reason to anticipate that it will be involved in litigation it has an obligation to ensure that it takes reasonable steps to preserve potentially relevant documents and ESI.
  • Requests for the production of information. If litigation is filed, the adverse party will be entitled to request the production of relevant information, including documents and ESI, from the company.
  • The obligation to identify, collect and produce relevant information. After receiving requests for production of information, the company will be obligated to identify, collect and produce documents and ESI responsive to the requests received.

In order to produce responsive information, a company will first need to review the ESI and documents collected in order to identify any that may be protected by the attorney-client privilege, work product or another relevant evidentiary privilege. Those documents and ESI should be withheld from the company’s production, but all other responsive documents and ESI must be produced, and through this process the company’s adversary will receive access to a large volume of company documents and ESI. Opposing lawyers will then comb through these materials searching for “ammunition” to use in court or arbitration.

WHAT IS E-TROUBLE AND HOW TO AVOID IT

A company may find itself in E-trouble either because it fails to preserve and produce electronic documents during the discovery process or when ESI is discovered and used against it by an adverse party in litigation. But, E-trouble can be avoided. There are steps to help a company avoid E-Trouble and protect itself from damaging information being discovered and used against it in litigation. Always consult counsel with any questions about the discovery process.

Implement and enforce a document retention policy

Documents should be retained for the duration of their useful life – and no longer. A well-drafted document retention policy is not enough. Implementation and enforcement are critical to avoiding E-Trouble and reducing electronic discovery and document production costs. A recent study found that while two-thirds of the companies surveyed have a document retention policy in effect, almost half of them don’t actively enforce it.

When litigation is on the horizon, a company must suspend its routine document retention and destruction policy and put in place a “litigation hold” to ensure the preservation of relevant documents. In furtherance of the litigation hold, legal counsel must become familiar with the company’s document and information retention policies and data retention architecture.

Counsel must communicate with “the key players” in the litigation to understand how they stored information. Both the company and its counsel should monitor compliance with the litigation hold. This will guard against damaging and potentially expensive monetary sanctions.

Use email appropriately

Do not send “ammunition” that the other side can use against the company. If there are company inside jokes, lingo or nicknames for other staff members, clients or project personnel, do not use them in emails. Additionally, ensure employees are not using company email accounts for inappropriate personal business.

Do not email while angry. Avoid hitting send on an email if upset about something that occurred on a job. At trial, opposition may use an angry email to portray the sender as a bullheaded and unreasonable general contractor who put a project on the fast-track to attorneys and costly litigation.
When searching through ESI, opposing attorneys search for certain phrases in emails. Avoid using the following when emailing.

  • “I could get into trouble for telling you this, but …”
  • “Delete this email immediately.”
  • “I really shouldn’t put this in writing.”
  • “Don’t tell [So-and-So]” or “Don’t send this to [So-and-So].”
  • “She/He/They will never find out.”
  • “We’re going to do this differently than normal.”
  • “I don’t think I am supposed to know this, but …”
  • “I don’t want to discuss this in e-mail. Please give me a call.”
  • “Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.”
  • “Is this actually legal?”

Be mindful of social media

The digital age of communication and information technology has drastically increased the scope and volume of what is now discoverable to include more than just email communication. Today, even personal social media accounts can be used against a company in litigation.

An appellate court in New York ruled that social media posts, pictures and messages may become evidence regardless of the privacy settings status. The court compared Facebook to a diary, stating “the postings on the plaintiff’s online Facebook account, if relevant, are not shielded from discovery merely because plaintiff used the service’s privacy settings to restrict access, just as relevant matter from a personal diary is discoverable.”

There are several ways that attorneys for both plaintiffs and defendants gain access to social media posts for the parties they represent. Attorneys today search social media updates and posts for anything that may be useful in court. For example, the typical fact pattern in a personal injury case is as follows:

  • a plaintiff claims her permanent injuries kept her confined to her home and bed;
  • her public profile page on a social networking internet site shows her smiling and “out and about” outside of her home; and
  • the defendant gets a court order requiring the plaintiff to grant access to her accounts on social networking sites, including her current, archived and deleted information and pages.