Evans v. Mobile County Health Department No. CA 10-0600-WS-C, 2012 WL 206141 (S.D. Ala.)

Motion by the defendant to compel production and for an order dismissing the plaintiff’s lawsuit as a sanction for intentional destruction of relevant evidence.  In the main action, the plaintiff sued Mobile County Health Department (“Mobile”) for discrimination on the basis of race.  Plaintiff admitted to burning her personal computer in July 2011, roughly 8 months after she began her action.  Further, subject to an order dated June 23, 2011, the plaintiff was to take steps to preserve all electronically stored information (“ESI”) in her possession.  The plaintiff’s motion to compel was granted as there was no doubt that the productions sought were relevant to the action.

With respect to the motion for sanctions, the defendant argued that the destruction of the computer should result in the dismissal of the lawsuit.  The Court defined spoliation as the intentional destruction, mutilation, alteration or concealment of evidence.  The Court held that federal law governs, but because specific guidelines for the imposition of sanction guidelines have not been set federally, courts may look to state law principles for guidance so long as they do not conflict with general federal spoliation principles.  Since dismissal represents the most severe sanction available it should only be exercised where there is a showing of bad faith and where lesser sanctions will not suffice.

The Court further considered the following five factors: 1) the importance of the evidence destroyed; 2) the culpability of the offending party; 3) fundamental fairness; 4) alternative sources of the information obtainable from the evidence destroyed; and 5) the possible effectiveness of other sanctions less severe than dismissal.  The Court held that there could be little doubt that the information stored on the computer was important.  One alternative source of information identified was the plaintiff’s e-mail address.  However, this account would not be able to supply all of the missing information.  The Court assessed the plaintiff’s culpability as excessively high since the computer was destroyed after the lawsuit was commenced and after an order for preservation was made.  The plaintiff knew that the computer contained important information since she testified to as much.  Prejudice to the defendant was established via the gaps in the plaintiff’s narrative.  The very destruction of the evidence justified a finding that the destroyed evidence prejudiced the defendant.  The Court held that lesser sanctions than dismissal would suffice since the defendant was not left in a position where it would be unable to defend itself.  Accordingly, the Court ordered an adverse inference instruction and awarded the defendant its costs.