A party who was unable to explain the disappearance of two hard drives and several e-mails has dodged potential sanctions because the evidence was not relevant to the underlying claims and because there was no showing the alleged spoliators intentionally destroyed evidence, a federal trial court has ruled.  Anderson v. Sullivan, No. 1:07-cv-00111-SJM (W.D. Pa. 08/16/2013).

The plaintiff, MaryAnn Anderson, alleged she was retaliated against by the Millcreek Township School District (“MTSD”) as well as several individuals, including the former Superintendent, Dean Maynard, for alleged whistleblowing activity during her employment.  After her claims were dismissed on summary judgment, Anderson moved for sanctions based on the disappearance of one hard drive, the “scrambling” or wiping of a second hard drive, and the withholding of 44 pages of e-mails from a 10,000-page production in order to allegedly conceal that one of the hard drives was missing.

By way of background, in January 2007, Maynard misdirected an e-mail which revealed that Maynard had a personal relationship with two people he had recommended for employment with the MTSD.  Shortly thereafter, he received an anonymous letter at his home threatening to expose him if he did not resign as Superintendent.  Maynard disclosed this letter to the School Board and an investigation ensued, which included the examination of several computers, including those of Anderson and Maynard.

When Anderson ultimately turned over her computer on March 16, 2007, she stated she feared Maynard would tamper with it.  On May 11, 2007, Anderson filed her complaint in federal court.

As part of the investigation into the anonymous letter, MTSD’s IT Department planned to remove the original hard drive from Maynard’s computer for analysis and replace it with a new hard drive containing the active data from the original hard drive so the laptop could operate without interruption.  For some reason, the original hard drive from Maynard’s computer was lost. 

The new hard drive installed in Maynard’s computer remained in Maynard’s possession until he returned  the computer almost two years later, in August 2009.  The hard drive was not examined by Anderson’s expert until approximately June 2011 – almost two years after that.  Upon examination, the expert discovered the hard drive was “scrambled” possibly by some type of wiping software.

Following a hearing, the trial court dismissed Anderson’s claims as a matter of law, finding  her claims were legally – as opposed to factually – deficient.  For example, it found Anderson’s alleged complaints did not qualify as whistleblowing activity under the law.   Nevertheless, the court retained jurisdiction to hear the plaintiff’s motion for sanctions regarding the alleged spoliation of evidence.

As to the missing original hard drive, the court found that sanctions were not warranted .  First, because Anderson’s claims were dismissed as a matter of law, the court found the hard drive could not have contained relevant evidence.   It also found there was no forensic or physical evidence as to the whereabouts of the original hard drive.  Rather, the court found the most reasonable inference was that the hard drive was lost as part of a miscommunication during an evolving and fast-paced investigation of the anonymous threat.  In addition, the court noted Anderson failed to request the production of the original hard drive during the discovery period.

As to the new hard drive which apparently was “scrambled,” the court again noted the hard drive could not have contained relevant information because Anderson’s underlying claims were dismissed as a matter of law.  In addition, even though Anderson was advised that Maynard’s computer, with the new hard drive, was going to be put back into service, she never objected or asked that it be preserved.  Moreover, the court noted there was no evidence as to what software was used to scramble the hard drive, when it was used or by whom.    Thus, there was no way to know whether the scrambling of the hard drive was the result of an intentional act or simply an accident.  For these reasons, the court likewise declined to award sanctions.

Finally, as to the 44 pages of e-mails which were not produced, the court found there was nothing in the record to suggest they were intentionally withheld or even were relevant to Anderson’s claims. 

In sum,  by focusing on the unlikelihood that the  disputed  sources of electronic information would  contain any relevant information, as plaintiff’s  case was dismissed, as well as the lack of evidence suggesting that evidence was intentionally destroyed, the court rejected the claim for sanctions.