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Case Law Catch-Up: Default Judgment Sanction for Deleted iPhone Data

Smartphone Data Security

Background

The 2022 case Atalian U.S. New England, LLC v. Navarro explored the consequences of deleting relevant data from mobile sources, including iPhones, iPads, and Gmail. The plaintiff alleged that two of the defendants had committed eDiscovery violations and motioned for sanctions, specifically a default judgment. There was no suggestion that their counsel was involved in the alleged violations.

Despite receiving multiple preservation requests at the beginning of the discovery process, one of the defendants admitted that he had identified and deleted relevant case data from his iPad. While the defense claimed this spoliation was merely negligent, the plaintiffs showed that the defendants received warnings from their computer program and multiple steps were required to delete the electronically-stored information (ESI), so it must have been deliberate.

Ruling

Believing the plaintiff arguments that the defense had deleted ESI from their devices intentionally, the magistrate judge granted their motion for sanctions against the defense. He stated, “The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this record is that [the defendants] intended, by their respective actions, to deprive Plaintiff of relevant information. As such, the Court has the discretion to presume that the lost information was unfavorable to the party who failed to preserve it.” The defense attempted to argue that an adverse jury instruction or lesser sanction would remedy the eDiscovery violations, but the magistrate judge stated that, based on the actions taken by the defendants, he could presume that the lost ESI was unfavorable to them and determined that a harsher sanction was necessary. Referring to an earlier motion, the court determined that a default judgment was “the only effective sanction to remedy this intentional discovery violation.”

Our Analysis

As much as this opinion serves as a warning to parties who may attempt to conceal relevant evidence and get away with it, it is equally a lesson in how to successfully argue for a motion to be granted. The plaintiffs undertook forensic work to find the evidence they were looking for, both that the defendants intentionally deleted relevant ESI and lied about doing so.

When ESI is inadvertently deleted and can be found from a different source, courts tend to be lenient about imposing sanctions. However, neither of those factors were present in this case. While one defendant continued to argue that he had not intentionally deleted any data, the judge found “strong and convincing evidence” that his testimony was false. The reason this motion for sanctions was granted is because of the effort the plaintiffs made to show the exact steps the defendants must have knowingly taken when deleting data from their devices.

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