Early Dismissal: The Plaintiff’s Destruction of Computer Files Leads to Dismissal as a Sanction

Hammer Smashing Hard DriveAlthough the imposition of sanctions for misconduct involving electronic discovery continues to gain momentum, it is still rare that courts turn to the ultimate sanction: the dismissal of a lawsuit. One plaintiff in an Illinois tort case left the court with little choice. In Peal v. Lee, et al., 2010 Ill. App. LEXIS 760 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. July 30, 2010), the appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit due to the plaintiff having intentionally destroyed over 20,000 computer files the day before the defendants’ expert was to inspect the computer.

The plaintiff ice skating instructor sued his employer and others for, among other things, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. While the Complaint alleged that the tortious conduct occurred in 2005, the defendants were in possession of letters that the plaintiff had submitted to the defendants in 2004 complaining of the same conduct. As a result, the defendants moved to dismiss under the statute of limitations, but the court refused to do so because the plaintiff denied authoring those documents.

Fast forward to discovery: The defendants sought to obtain evidence confirming that the plaintiff had written those 2004 letters. After the plaintiff violated a court order requiring that he produce his computer, the court again ordered that the computer be produced by April 10, 2009. The defendants’ forensic expert would later uncover that, on April 9, 2009, the plaintiff used four different data “wiping” programs to permanently delete data from the hard drive, and that before that date, the plaintiff had used three other such programs. This, notwithstanding that his attorney had sent him defense counsel’s electronic discovery preservation letter.

The defendants wisely moved to dismiss the case because of spoliation. To say the least, the trial court was not humored by the plaintiff’s explanation that he had downloaded “cleaning programs” to remove viruses on his computer. After an evidentiary hearing, the court dismissed the case with prejudice. The appellate court found “no evidence” showing that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the case. The court’s disdain for the plaintiff’s misconduct was evident, and perhaps best reflected in its colorful description of plaintiff’s arguments: “completely disingenuous,” “nervy,” “hollow,” “patently untruthful,” and “pure pettifoggery.” The plaintiff claimed he did not act in bad faith; the court responded that the plaintiff’s conduct is “the personification of bad faith.”

Few can be surprised by the trial court’s dismissal and the appellate court’s biting affirmance given the plaintiff’s shocking conduct. Still, this case demonstrates that courts can and will resort to the sanction of all sanctions when a party takes such nefarious steps to thwart the discovery process and more generally to undermine the integrity of the judicial system.

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