Watch Your E-Mails: You Don’t Know Who Will Be Reading Them
This piece of local business legal advice is brought to you by Arizona's Finest Lawyers. Learn more about their organization at www.azfinestlawyers.org
Standards governing e-discovery continue to evolve. Attorneys and courts have struggled to adapt traditional discovery methods to the electronic age. Emails and other electronic files are now considered “documents” subject to discovery. Even “deleted” documents may be discovered. Know and follow your document retention and destruction policies.
It is virtually impossible to conduct any business today without the aid of computers. Computers play an essential role in most business and records, including contracts, employee files, and medical records, are all commonly handled by and stored on computers, thumb drives and computer discs as well as on cell phones and other portable devices. Even the most mundane of communications, such as e-mails between offices or even employees in the same office, often take place only in cyberspace. Computer files, unlike “hard” or paper files, typically contain documents - perhaps even thousands of documents - that have never been printed or otherwise stored on paper. Absent special measures, e-mails, correspondence and draft documents, even those thought erased, remain embedded on computer hard drives, even if not easily accessible. Indeed, it is just such documents that electronic discovery, more commonly known as e-discovery, is often intended to find.
E-Discovery Is Here To Stay
In recent years, attorneys and courts struggled to adapt traditional discovery methods to the electronic age. Questions regarding the duty to preserve evidence, relatively simple to answer when the topic is limited to paper, photographs and witness statements, become significantly more complex when electronic media are involved. Now, rules regarding electronic documents and electronic discovery have been adopted in most state and federal jurisdictions, including Arizona. As a result, it is vitally important to develop and adhere to a document retention and destruction policy.
Given the prevalence of electronic communications and the increasing likelihood that litigation will lead to their discovery, companies should institute clear policies and procedures for use of e-mail and other electronic communication and information storage media. One need look no further than recent disclosures of e-mails from governmental agencies to see the negative impact that can result in the careless use of e-mails. In addition to establishing guidelines for the storage and retention of communications, employees should be given strict guidelines regarding the appropriate use of e-mail. One seemingly harmless “joke” may ultimately take center stage in a courtroom. As in most other business situations, professionalism is the best source of protection.
Regardless of any contradictory policies that may be in place, parties confronted with a claim now have a clear duty to institute a “litigation hold” to freeze and preserve relevant information and documents once the threat of a claim or litigation arises. Any “hold” put in place should encompass not only electronic and hard copy files, but also “back up tapes” and other materials retained by information technology personnel. Such a hold should be instituted regardless of whether it is requested by the claimant or their attorney. Parties and their attorneys have an ongoing duty to supervise and monitor document retention and production. Failure to institute a proper hold can lead to court-imposed sanctions.
Companies should take reasonable steps to preserve relevant documents and electronic information. It is important to remember that e-mails, unprinted drafts and electronic memoranda are considered “documents” regardless of whether they were ever committed to paper. The following list represents a starting point for any document retention program. When faced with litigation that implicates electronic files, companies, their risk managers, IT Departments, and attorneys should:
- Ensure familiarity with relevant document retention policies and data retention “architecture” by:
- speaking with information technology personnel about data backup procedures; and
- communicating with expected “key players” in the claim to determine the extent of their individual files, their individual information retention policies and otherwise work to understand how they store information.
- Identify any computers, including laptops, tablets, and phones, that may have relevant data or documents stored on them.
- Periodically remind the relevant personnel, including the “key players,” of their duty to preserve electronic and hard-copy documents.
- Make certain that all backup media which is to be retained is identified and stored in a safe place. Under certain circumstances, it may be appropriate for counsel to take possession of backup media.
Although electronic discovery will not be an issue in every case, it is one of increasing importance and can no longer be ignored. Thus, it is important to know what, if any, rules apply in each case or jurisdiction. As long as computers are an integral part of business, electronic discovery is clearly an issue that is here to stay.
Andrew Turk is a shareholder with the Polsinelli PC, where his practice focuses on commercial litigation. He can be reached at [email protected].