The United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas declined to impose litigation ending discovery sanctions for several claims of spoliation, but does plan to issue a spoliation instruction in Quantlab Technologies Ltd. v. Godlevsky, No. 4:09-cv-4039, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20305, filed February 19, 2014.

Plaintiff, Quantlab Technologies Ltd. (“Quantlab”), is a quantitative financial research firm that employed two of the defendants, Dr. Godlevsky and Dr. Kuharsky (“the defendants”), in its research and technology departments.  The defendants wrote algorithms and code that transformed Quantlab from a company on the verge of bankruptcy into a profitable stock trading company.  The defendants were fired from Quantlab in 2007 after they had inquired about the legality of Quantlab’s trading practices.  The defendants then joined a new trading start-up, SXP Analytics, where they also wrote high-frequency trading strategy code to analyze the stock market.  Litigation over whether the defendants were using Quantlab’s trade secrets began in 2007.  The FBI raided SXP Analytics in 2008, seizing hundreds of thousands of files that may have come from Quantlab.  Following the raid, the defendants left SXP Analytics, which was eventually dissolved in 2012. The defendants then attempted to form a new high-frequency trading start-up called Singletick.

The Quantlab trade secret litigation followed the defendants throughout their subsequent career.  Because Quantlab claimed that the defendants relied on its code to develop their own code, Quantlab argued that “each iteration of code written by Defendants since Dr. Kuharsky and Dr. Godlevsky departed from Quantlab’s employ is relevant to determining whether that code was impermissibly based upon Quantlab’s version.”  Id. at *39.  Since litigation had begun as soon as the defendants were terminated and the instant suit was filed in 2009, Quantlab argued that the defendants had had a duty to preserve their computers ever since 2007 and definitely since 2009.

The court took time to set forth the legal standards that apply to issuing discovery sanctions, and then analyzed each claim of spoliation against each defendant individually, reasoning that whether a party has a duty to preserve evidence is a fact specific inquiry.

The first spoliation claim was against SXP Analytics founder, Emmanuel Mamalakis, for wiping and/or giving away 23 computers used by his developers.  The work stations were wiped or given away in 2012 as part of winding up SXP Analytics.  The court found that Mr. Mamalakis had a duty to preserve the work stations even though they had not yet been the subject of a specific discovery request.  Before Mr. Mamalakis got rid of the work stations, he had been served with many Requests for Production.  In light of those, “Mr. Mamalakis should have known that significantly altering or disposing of computers used by SXP employees was unwise.” Id. at *42.  The court rejected Mr. Mamalakis’s arguments that he did not have the requisite state of mind for spoliation because part of his decision to wipe computers was to inexpensively wind up SXP Analytics and that he believed any relevant evidence from the work stations could also be found on the servers, which he kept.  The court found Mr. Mamalakis acted in bad faith “because Mr. Mamalakis intentionally wiped and gave away numerous computers nearly three years after initiation of this lawsuit and concealed it from the court.”  Id. at *48.  The evidence on the workstations was relevant and prejudiced Quantlab because information on the servers would only show the code a developer uploaded to the server and would not contain detailed information about what the developer was looking at when he wrote the code or what versions of the code the developer went through before uploading it to the server.  But the court refused to impose terminating sanctions finding that whether Quantlab would have used evidence from the work stations was still “somewhat speculative” so the evidence was only “moderately relevant” and its loss was only “moderately prejudicial.”  Id. at *53.

The second spoliation claim was against Dr. Godlevsky because when Quantlab requested all computers Dr. Godlevsky had used since 2007, he only provided one laptop.  Quantlab did not allege specific acts of spoliation, but brought a spoliation claim on the theory that “there must be more.”  Id. at *54 [emphasis omitted].  Dr. Godlevsky admitted that he had another personal laptop, which he never used for coding, that he had disposed of after the hard drive had failed and that he had used many USB drives over the years that he did not keep track of.  The court found that Dr. Godlevsky should have known in 2007 that litigation was likely so that he could not be careless with evidence and that he definitely had a duty to preserve since 2011.  Even if Dr. Godlevsky intended to argue that the evidence was not relevant, he still had a duty to preserve it.  The court found that Dr. Godlevsky’s carelessness with his electronic devises constituted bad faith, but not “the most culpable state-of-mind possible.” Id. at *61.  The evidence was likely relevant, especially evidence on devices that had been seized by the FBI and had been connected to computers containing Quantlab code.  But the court declined to impose litigation-ending sanctions because the bad faith was not strong enough.

The third spoliation claim was against Dr. Kuharsky regarding a few specific devices, including one that Dr. Kuharsky had plugged into his computer approximately 50 times.  Dr. Kuharsky admitted that he had a duty to preserve evidence ever since 2007 and the court found bad faith for losing the specific devices.  But like the claims against the other defendants, while the evidence was likely relevant, it was not certain that it would have been used in Quantlab’s case, so prejudice to Quantlab could not be readily determined.  The court determined that loss of the specific devices warranted a spoliation instruction against Dr. Kuharsky, but that there was not a strong enough showing of culpability or prejudice to warrant litigation ending sanctions.

This case serves as a reminder to institute appropriate litigation hold procedures when litigation becomes reasonably likely.