July 31, 2009

New E-Discovery Rules in California: What does this mean for you?

by Cary J. Calderone, Esquire

With no fanfare our Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed into law AB 5, the California Electronic Discovery Act ("CEDA") (Full Text). The only surprise to those of us who practice in this area was that it did not get signed into law last year. Most believe it was delayed solely due to California's pressing budget problems. California is the home of Silicon Valley and the High Tech industry so the laws in our state typically lead the way when it comes to considering their effect on technology and business. In California email correspondence has been legally enforceable as a "written instrument" since the mid 1990s. It made no sense that one state after another, except California, was adopting rules to mirror the e-discovery rules contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and thereby, acknowledging that business disputes were now dominated by Electronically Stored Information ("ESI") such as email, word-processed documents and databases etc. These states recognized the importance of having specific discovery rules around ESI and yet, California did not. Now that California has acted what does this mean for your company when it operates in, or is subject to legal proceedings in state courts in California?

First, all those stubborn attorneys who used to tell me that they did not need to worry about Legal Hold Notices, Email Procedures and Record Retention Schedules, because they never were involved in Federal disputes, no longer have that weak excuse. It was a weak excuse because under the old California discovery rules, litigants and their lawyers were affirmatively charged with the duty to protect potentially discoverable materials. In most cases, destroying "evidence" can be charged separately as a crime. There was never any exclusion for emails and ESI and in fact, emails and ESI have been critical pieces of evidence in many criminal and civil matters for at least a decade.

Second, not only is that lame excuse gone, the California rule requires that attorneys from all sides of a litigation matter will need to "meet and confer" 30 days prior to the Case Management Conference. This means they will need to discuss ESI and what/how it will be preserved and exchanged during the discovery process for state legal matters, just like they already must do for Federal matters. Do you know how much ESI you have on your network and in other places you control? Do you know where it is? Can you search it? You should be able to answer a resounding "YES" to these questions. Otherwise, it means you may end up litigating from a weakened position.

Some commentators believe the CEDA modifies the Federal Rule around "inaccessibility" of data as it may be used to defend from producing materials in a litigation matter. I believe the CEDA merely does a better job of explaining the real world arguments that occur in front of the judge. Namely, the judge will ultimately decide whether or not the information is "reasonably accessible" on a case by case basis. Judges have never been fans of an attorney conducting a cost escalating "fishing" expedition during discovery, but if there is a likelihood that important information is only available in one location, there are very few circumstances when a judge will not want that information to be retrieved and searched. The idea is that "Justice" is about finding the truth, not about being able to hide the truth from the judge.

Now it pains me to admit this, but in some ways, if your company has procrastinated and delayed having an Assessment Report and updating its ESI policies and procedures, you have benefited in that the software programs and procedures for accomplishing these tasks are better now and, in some cases, even cheaper. The bad news is that you have at least 2 more years of data to organize, review and remediate. So the longer you wait, the more likely the process will become more difficult and more costly. Will your company be like so many others out there that waited until they got tagged by losing a legal matter or got sanctioned for mishandling ESI? Or, those that had to settle a matter because they could not find their evidence to prove their case, or, they could find it but it would be cost-prohibitive to produce it in a defensible manner? Or, will your company need to feel the sting of a hefty discovery sanction to be motivated to organize their ESI? In a prior post, I mentioned performing a Google search for "million dollar discovery sanctions." There are even more now than there were the last time I mentioned it!

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