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Court Grants Spoliation Sanctions for Deleted Social Media Accounts

Posted on June 6th, 2018

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In Nunes v. Rushton (Case No. 2:14-cv-00627-JNP-DBP.)(United States District Court, D. Utah), the Court granted the plaintiff’s spoliation sanctions. Rachel Nunes (plaintiff) brought a copyright infringement claim against Tiffanie Rushton (defendant).

The defendant copied protected portions of the plaintiff’s book, A Bid for Love, and released copies of the work to reviewers for promotional purposes. At the time the copyright theft occurred, the defendant created multiple sockpuppet accounts on Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Goodreads and Amazon to post good reviews of her books and negative reviews of the plaintiff’s books. A sockpuppet account is a fake account created to mask the true identification of an individual who posts harmful reviews of businesses or products.

In August 2014, a reviewer of the defendant’s book contacted the plaintiff to inform her that the material was very similar to A Bid for Love. The plaintiff used this opportunity to try and secure an  advanced copy of the book to ascertain who was behind the sock puppet accounts. At this point, the defendant used a sock puppet account to discourage the plaintiff’s investigation. After the plaintiff discovered the identity behind the sock puppet account, the defendant deleted most of her sockpuppet accounts.

After the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiff made a discovery request for documents stored on the Google and Yahoo sockpuppet accounts, which were used to create the Facebook, Goodreads and Amazon sockpuppet accounts. The defendant deleted one of the Google sockpuppet accounts while the discovery request was pending. Shortly afterwards, the judge granted the motion to compel the defendant to produce these documents.

The defendant believed that Google and Yahoo would produce these documents after being subpoenaed, so she deleted the remaining sockpuppet accounts. One week later, Google responded to the subpoena by stating that the accounts had been deleted and that not all of them could be recovered.

The Court addressed the account deletions, ultimately deciding that sanctions were appropriate for the account deletion that occurred on August 12, 2015. This is due to the fact that the deletion occurred while litigation was pending and because it was done in bad faith.

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