Federal Court Sanctions Litigant Who Destroyed Evidence Relating to His Claim

In McLaughlin v. Lenovo Global Technology Inc., plaintiff Daniel McLaughlin sued his former employer, defendant Lenovo Global Technology Inc., alleging Lenovo failed to pay him unpaid commissions and reimburse him for certain business expenses that totaled over $100,000. In the course of the litigation, Lenovo learned that McLaughlin had downloaded the documentation of the business expenses at issue onto SD drives, then wiped the hard drive of his work laptop in violation of company policy well known to him. Upon learning of McLaughlin’s actions, Lenovo filed a Motion for Spoilation Sanctions against McLaughlin, seeking dismissal of the claims against it on grounds that evidence relevant to the dispute had been destroyed when McLaughlin erased the hard drive.

Lenovo alleged that McLaughlin’s actions were retaliatory in nature and that Mclaughlin had acted with the intent to deprive Lenovo of electronically stored information relevant to the issue in controversy. It alleged that McLaughlin’s actions had, among other things, deprived it of the ability to determine whether the documents on the SD cards were the originals or had been modified. McLaughlin argued that his wiping of the hard drive was innocuous, but the court noted that he provided “constantly evolving” and “disingenuous” explanations for his actions. Lenovo argued that, as a result of McLaughlin’s destruction of evidence that was relevant to the dispute between Lenovo and McLaughlin, it was entitled to sanctions against McLaughlin in the form of dismissal of the claims against it.

The Court noted that, in order for an inference of spoilation to be drawn, it first must be determined whether an act of destruction occurred, which necessarily requires a finding of “1) an act of destruction; 2) discoverability of the evidence; 3) intent to destroy the evidence; and 4) the occurrence of the act after commencement of litigation or, if before, at a time when the party was on notice that the evidence might be relevant to potential litigation.” In this case, there was no dispute that the hard drive had been cleared and the material at issue was discoverable. Accordingly, the Court held that an act of destruction had occurred and that the material at issue was, in fact, discoverable. The Court did not find McLaughlin’s argument (that he did not intend to destroy the electronically stored evidence) persuasive, as a party can be held liable for spoilation even “if the spoilation was due to negligence.” The Court concluded that it was well-settled in this case that McLaughlin had been asked to return his laptop immediately upon termination and, instead, he had cleared its contents.

As such, the issue came down to whether McLaughlin wiped the hard drive at a time when he knew or should have known that he was likely to be in litigation with Lenovo. The Court held that the wiping of the hard drive came at a time when McLaughlin should have known litigation was likely or, perhaps, had already begun and it held McLaughlin liable for spoilation. Notwithstanding that fact, the Court did not grant Lenovo’s’ request that the case be dismissed but, instead, limited McLaughlin’s ability to present certain evidence and ordered him to pay the fees Lenovo incurred for having to conduct forensic examinations of the laptop.

This decision is a cautionary tale to parties that rash actions which result in the destruction of evidence can come back to haunt them.


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