Friday, February 21, 2014

Texas Court Clarifies What Is Required to Order a Party to Turn Over Hard Drives During Discovery

As with most complex commercial litigation, lawsuits over construction often involve investigations into electronically stored information (“ESI”). In Texas, a recent case has clarified the requirements necessary to order a party to turn over hard drives during disputes over production of ESI.

In 2013, a Texas Court of Appeals in Houston granted a writ of mandamus and vacated an order to compel production of computer and network hard drives.
In the lawsuit, several former co-owners of businesses had a falling out and sued one another alleging various claims. Central to the case was whether one of the parties had misrepresented his educational background to the other.

After several disputes regarding whether responsive ESI had been produced, the trial court issued an order requiring production of forensic images of the defendants’ computer hard drives and the drives of their network servers. Forensic images are digital duplicates of hard drives prepared used to prevent any changes being made to the original source of the ESI.
The defendants sought mandamus relief from the court of appeals, arguing the trial court had abused its discretion. They argued that the order was overly broad, giving the plaintiff “carte blanche to rummage through” their hard drives without any reasonable limits to address privilege, confidentiality, or privacy.

The court of appeals granted the writ of mandamus and vacated the order. It examined the Order in light of the applicable Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as a seminal Texas Supreme Court case on electronic discovery, In re Weekley Homes, 295 S.W. 3d 309 (Tex. 2009). In Texas, courts have held that providing direct access to electronic information systems is particularly intrusive and should be discouraged. An order requiring electronic data storage systems to be turned over is not appropriate unless and until the moving party has shown that existing discovery responses were inadequate and the proposed searches of the storage systems could recover the relevant missing information.

In this case, the court found that a conclusory statement that “emails must exist” was insufficient to overcome the threshold question of whether there was an inadequate production. The moving party had to present actual evidence that the production was somehow deficient. Moreover, even with such a showing, the moving party had not shown that there was deleted relevant information which could feasibly be recovered by taking a forensic image of the hardware. To do so, the requesting party should have provided information from his forensic imaging expert as to why his methods would have produced relevant deleted information.
The court also examined the requests for production at issue, and found them insufficiently specific to justify the trial court’s order. The moving party made a blanket request for servers, tablets, and laptops, which was insufficient because it did not inform the opposing parties of the exact nature of the information sought.  Specific discovery requests must be aligned with the request for the production of hardware.

The widespread use of ESI to conduct business continues to require attorneys and courts to evaluate how far parties may go to uncover documents through discovery. This case suggests that a party seeking to search its opponents’ hard drives must prepare a detailed and thorough justification of the request before a trial court can permit the searches to proceed.

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