The Importance of Negotiating with Your Adversaries: New Jersey Federal Court Spares Plaintiff a Large-Scale Document Review

 

We live in a digital world where smartphones are the norm and email access is seemingly as important as food and water. This increase in usage of email and the amount of electronic data requires companies to develop ways to collect and store a significant amount of data. Inevitably, this data will have to be searched, reviewed, and produced to opposing parties in the event of litigation and often at great cost to the producing party. Fortunately for one plaintiff, however, this is a cost that it will not have to incur.

In I-Med Pharma Inc. v. Biomatrix, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141614 (D. N.J. Dec. 9, 2011), Judge Debevoise was asked to consider whether the plaintiff was required to produce documents from so-called “unallocated space” areas on its computers, namely, the area of the computer where deleted files and temporary data are stored. The parties stipulated that the defendants would hire an expert to conduct a “forensic investigation” and keyword search of the plaintiff’s entire computer system, using over 50 search terms. This search was not limited to specific custodians or time periods and, in the unallocated space alone, the search terms yielded an estimated 65 million “hits,” or 95 million pages of files. In light of this, the Magistrate Judge modified a previous order, which required the plaintiff to produce the results of the forensic investigation and allowed the plaintiff to exclude data from the unallocated space.

In reviewing the Magistrate Judge’s modification, the Court acknowledged the overwhelming burden to the plaintiff if it had to review the documents from the unallocated space. The Court further explained that a “privilege review of 65 million documents is no small undertaking” and that “[e]ven if junior attorneys are engaged, heavily discounted rates are negotiated, and all parties work diligently and efficiently, even a cursory review of that many documents will consume large amounts of attorney time and cost millions of dollars.”

The Court also recognized that the defendants did not show the likelihood that relevant and non-duplicative information was stored in the unallocated space. Additionally, the Court found that the money the defendants spent to obtain the data “pale[d] in comparison” to the cost the plaintiff would incur to review the data.

Finally, the Court addressed the proposed search terms and discussed five factors to consider when analyzing whether those terms were reasonable: “(1) the scope of documents searched and whether the search is restricted to specific computers, file systems, or document custodians; (2) any date restrictions imposed on the search; (3) whether the search terms contain proper names, uncommon abbreviations, or other terms unlikely to occur in irrelevant documents; (4) whether operators such as ‘and’, ‘not’, or ‘near’ are used to restrict the universe of possible results; [and] (5) whether the number of results obtained could be practically reviewed given the economics of the case and the amount of money at issue.” The Court examined all of these factors and stated that although the plaintiff should have “known better than to agree to the search terms . . . the interest of justice and basic fairness are little served by forcing Plaintiff to undertake an enormously expensive privilege review of material that is unlikely to contain non-duplicative evidence.”

The plaintiff in I-Med Pharma Inc. was fortunate in that the Court did not force it to review and produce all of the data in the unallocated space. Not all parties, however, will always be as fortunate. When negotiating with the adverse party regarding the search terms to be utilized for a document production, the following steps may avoid situations similar to those facing the parties in I-Med Pharma Inc.:

·         Know your client’s data system. This may be the most obvious, but most important, advice. To negotiate effectively, you must know certain aspects of the data storage system, such as how much data is contained there, how many potential custodians exist, how long is data retained, and where potentially duplicative data resides.

·         Negotiate for the use of restricting terms. This is especially true with frequently used words. For example, in I-Med Pharma Inc., one of the search terms was the word “return.” Negotiate for the use of search operators, such as “and,” “not,” or “near” in an attempt to further limit your results.

·         Do a sampling first. If possible, run a search with proposed terms to determine what types of “false positives” may result. This will enable the parties to further analyze the negotiated search terms and their effectiveness.

·         Determine relevant time periods and custodians. Limit searches to only those individuals who had a role in the subject matter of the litigation and to only that time period in which relevant documents may exist.

·         Be willing to seek the Court’s assistance. I-Med Pharma demonstrates the efficacy of seeking the Court’s involvement early on to limit the costs associated with e-discovery. When doing so, however, make sure you have done your proverbial homework and are able to educate the Court as to your client’s data systems and what the search proposed by the opposing side truly entails.

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