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U.S. 3rd Circuit Appellate Court Affirms Denial of Spoliation Sanction; Outlines Moving Party’s Insufficient Showing re Bad Faith Intent

Posted on October 11th, 2017

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Follow our blog for updates on ESI issues and case lawThe United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that there was no bad faith involved regarding a question of accessabiltiy of evidence in Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., No. 16-1464.  (3rd. Cir. Feb. 2017), and so the pre-requisite bad faith intent needed for ordering spoliation sanction was missing.

In August 2011, Joanie Alston (“Alston”) was hired by Park Pleasant, Inc., (“Park Pleasant”) to be the Director of Nursing at its adult care facility. Alston’s supervisor was Nancy Kleinberg (“Kleinberg”), with whom Alston had personal rapport and from whom Alston received positive work reviews. In February 2012, Kleinberg was promoted, and her role as Alston’s supervisor was filled by Carmella Kane (“Kane”). Kane and Alston clashed almost immediately. Alston discussed with both Kane and Kleinberg that she was unhappy with her role after Kleinberg’s promotion.

On June 21, 2012, Alston, Kleinberg, Kane, and HR director Sonjii West (“West”) had a meeting in which Kane explained to Alston that Alston’s performance was not meeting expectations, and the group laid out an improvement plan for Alston. Five days after that meeting, Alston missed work to have a biopsy. On July 12, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Alston’s relationship with her supervisors at Park Pleasant continued to deteriorate. By late July, Kleinberg and Kane instituted weekly meetings at which Alston’s duties and performance were discussed. Park Pleasant terminated Alston in early August of 2012.

Park Pleasant was sold in December 2012. As part of the sale, Park Pleasant turned over physical email servers and other infrastructure, but retained documents it thought might be relevant to a future lawsuit by Alston. Park Pleasant did not preserve everything that Alston’s counsel ultimately requested in discovery once litigation commenced in November 2014, nearly two years after the sale.

Alston alleged discrimination on the bases of age, race, color, and disability. During discovery, Park Pleasant determined that some potentially responsive material might be accessible in old storage devices, and communicated to Alston the high expense and uncertain prospects for success of retrieving that material. Alston’s counsel neither responded nor filed a motion to compel, before filing a motion for sanctions against Park Pleasant for spoliation of evidence.

The District Court granted Park Pleasant summary judgment on all of Alston’s claims, and denied Alston’s motion for spoliation sanctions against Park Pleasant. Alston appealed the District Court’s denial of her motion for sanctions.

In addressing the appeal of the District Court’s denial of Alston’s motion for sanctions, the Appellate Court used a four-factor test for determining whether Park Pleasant’s actions constituted spoliation.  Spoliation occurs where: (1) the evidence was in the party’s control; (2) the evidence is relevant to the claims or defenses in the case; (3) there has been actual suppression or withholding of evidence; and (4) the duty to preserve the evidence was reasonably foreseeable to the party. The Appellate Court concluded that even if the evidence requested by Alston existed and would have been relevant to her claims, Park Pleasant’s conduct during discovery did not amount to bad faith. The Court found that Park Pleasant had described to the Plantiff the situation with regard to the old storage devices, and had offered possible accommodations, to which it had not received reply from Plaintiff. By contrast, the withholding which merits sanction requires intent. Because there was no actual suppression, Alston’s spoliation claim fails. The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s denial of sanctions for spoliation.

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