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Lawson v. Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 23, 2019

KRISTOPHER LAWSON, et al., Plaintiffs,

          Conner Chief Judge


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Advancements in technology now enable us to collect, retain, analyze and review electronically stored information (ESI) on a scale which was unimaginable a generation ago. These technological advances, however, create a challenge for parties who become engaged in litigation: How do parties conduct civil discovery and assess questions of relevance and privilege when presented with the staggering volume of ESI which many large organizations routinely collect and retain?

         To meet this challenge, the Sedona Conference has developed a series of guiding tenets, the Sedona Principles, which describe best practices in this field. See the Sedona Conference, The Sedona Principles, Third Edition: Best Practices, Recommendations & Principles for Addressing Electronic Document Production A Project of the Sedona Conference Working Group on Electronic Document Retention and Production, 19 Sedona Conf. J. 1 (2018). The Sedona Principles embrace 14 specific tenets, [1] marked by several overarching guiding concepts. First, the Sedona Principles recognize that the technological advances that enable us to store countless pieces of data electronically do not alter the legal obligations of parties in discovery. Therefore, parties must still follow the principles embodied in Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when preserving, collecting, evaluating, and disclosing ESI. Id. Principles 1, 2. However, the sheer volume of this data imposes special duties and obligations on litigants. Foremost among these obligations is a duty to work in a cooperative and collaborative fashion to devise discovery strategies which allow of the transparent disclosure of relevant evidence that is not cloaked in any claim of privilege. Indeed, the Sedona Principles' injunction that parties should collaborate in conducting electronic discovery underscores that cooperation is the keystone to any successful ESI discovery strategy. Id. Principles 3-12.

         The Sedona Principles then identify two specific, collaborative strategies which, when employed by litigants, enhance the fairness and transparency of voluminous ESI discovery review: The use of relevant search terms or technology assisted review to cull ESI and on-going sampling of data to assess the accuracy of search term searches. Id. at 164-67. This process, however, places reciprocal responsibilities on all litigants. First, for requesting parties, it is clear that discovery requests for electronically stored information should be as specific as possible. This duty of specificity applies to the formulation of search terms to be used in ESI searches. These search terms should be tailored to the needs of the case and designed to capture that which is relevant without burdening parties with excessive, irrelevant data. For responding parties, there is a corresponding duty to ensure the accuracy of searches by cooperating in sampling techniques that allow the parties to revise their searches to locate that which is relevant, protect that which is privileged, and exclude that which does not pertain to the parties' dispute.

         When litigants depart from these Sedona Principles, ESI discovery can often devolve into a dysfunctional process, one which produces more heat and smoke than light. When this occurs, the court must intervene and prescribe cooperative practices for parties that are unable to collaborate on their own. There is a peril to this course, which thrusts responsibility for devising elements of an ESI discovery strategy upon the court. As one judge has observed: “Given this complexity, for . . . judges to dare opine that a certain search term or terms would be more likely to produce information than the terms that were used is truly to go where angels fear to tread.” United States v. O'Keefe, 537 F.Supp.2d 14, 24 (D.D.C. 2008). Nonetheless, in this case we are called upon to perform this task for the parties who are now engaged in an intractable series of ESI discovery disputes.

         This case is a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) collective action brought on behalf of current and former Operations Managers (OMs) employed at various Love's Travel Stops. (Doc. 1). The plaintiffs allege that they were misclassified as exempt managerial employees under the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., and accordingly were not paid overtime as required by federal law. (Id.) On February 16, 2018, the court entered an order conditionally granting the plaintiffs' motion for class and collective certification in this case. (Doc. 68). Following the entry of this order, approximately 400 current and former Love's OMs opted into this conditionally certified class and the parties engaged in a course of reciprocal discovery involving the defendants and a selected group of discovery Opt-in plaintiffs. In connection with this reciprocal discovery, the plaintiffs propounded discovery which sought to review ESI, including emails of various General Managers (GMs), District Managers (DMs) and Division Directors who oversaw the work of these Operations Managers. These emails had an obvious potential relevance to this FLSA misclassification claim, since OM job duty discussions by these officials and the directions that these supervisors provided to the OMs could shed light on whether the OM duties were truly supervisory and subject to an FLSA exemption or were more akin to those of salaried employees entitled to the protections of the FLSA.

         With the potential relevance of this information thus defined, the parties have engaged in what we regard as a dysfunctional ESI discovery process. While each party blames the other for the sorry state of this discovery process, in our view, all parties share some responsibility for the current sad state of this discovery. At the outset, we question whether the plaintiffs' proposed list of 65 search terms fully met the Sedona Principles' injunction that discovery requests for electronically stored information should be as specific as possible. For example, the use of search terms like “clean”, “complain”, “expect”, or “salar*” are so broad that they may well capture much which is not relevant and exponentially increase the costs and burdens of discovery. While Love's decries the use of this expansive list of search terms as a burdensome departure from the Sedona Principles, Love's itself is alleged to have also failed to abide by these principles. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege that when initial hit reports of these search terms were run by Love's, the defense then refused to engage in the form of sampling that the Sedona Conference has deemed to be essential to informed modification and refinement of search terms.

         Thus, the conduct of this aspect of ESI discovery was marked by mutual departures from the best practices enshrined in the Sedona Principles. The plaintiffs had not narrowly crafted their search terms and the defendant had declined to allow transparent sampling to refine further word searches. Even at this juncture, however, adherence to the overarching Sedona guidance that parties work together in a cooperative and collaborative fashion might have enabled the parties to overcome these early missteps and devise a mutually agreeable ESI protocol without the court's intervention.

         Unfortunately, despite our encouragement, the parties did not choose this collaborative direction. Instead, each party followed its own unilateral course, choosing separate paths that lead to the current ESI discovery impasse. For its part, Love's chose on its own to add modifiers to the plaintiffs' search terms, adding “OM” or “Operations Manager” to the plaintiffs' proposed search terms. While these modifiers significantly narrowed the scope of responsive documents, as the plaintiffs have pointed out, the use of these modifiers may be unduly restrictive and, in the absence of some rational mutual sampling process, it is impossible to reliably determine what the universe of potentially relevant, but unidentified, records may be.

         Stymied by the defendant's refusal to engage in sampling of data, the plaintiffs have advanced their own unilateral approach to ESI discovery, recommending that we order the wholesale disclosure of specific percentages of the various records identified by the defense based upon the plaintiffs' initial 65-word search parameters. While this approach may avoid the evil that the plaintiffs identified in Love's narrow search-the fact that the narrow modifiers used by Love's may not capture other relevant ESI-this proposal, which is not informed by any data sampling, runs the risk of being vastly over-inclusive, imposing undue expense and burdens upon Love's.

         Presented with this binary choice by the parties, a binary choice driven by the failure to abide by Sedona Principles, for the reasons set forth below, we will choose a third path for the parties, one which compels cooperation and scientific sampling to achieve fair ESI discovery outcomes.[2]

         II. Discussion

         A. Guiding Principles.

         Rulings regarding the proper scope of discovery are matters consigned to the court's discretion and judgment. A court's decisions regarding the conduct of discovery will be disturbed only upon a showing of abuse of that discretion. Marroquin-Manriquez v. I.N.S., 699 F.2d 129, 134 (3d Cir. 1983). This far-reaching discretion also extends to rulings by United States Magistrate Judges on discovery matters. In this regard:

District courts provide magistrate judges with particularly broad discretion in resolving discovery disputes. See Farmers & Merchs. Nat'l Bank v. San Clemente Fin. Group Sec., Inc., 174 F.R.D. 572, 585 (D.N.J. 1997). When a magistrate judge's decision involves a discretionary [discovery] matter . . ., “courts in this district have determined that the clearly erroneous standard implicitly becomes an abuse of discretion standard.” Saldi v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 224 F.R.D. 169, 174 (E.D. Pa. 2004) (citing Scott Paper Co. v. United States, 943 F.Supp. 501, 502 (E.D. Pa. 1996)). Under the standard, a magistrate judge's discovery ruling “is entitled to great deference and is reversible only for abuse of discretion.” Kresefky v. Panasonic Commc'ns and Sys. Co., 169 F.R.D. 54, 64 (D.N.J. 1996); see also Hasbrouck v. BankAmerica Hous. Servs., 190 F.R.D. 42, 44-45 (N.D.N.Y. 1999) (holding that discovery rulings are reviewed under abuse of discretion standard rather than de novo standard); EEOC v. Mr. Gold, Inc., 223 F.R.D. 100, 102 (E.D.N.Y. 2004) (holding that a magistrate judge's resolution of discovery disputes deserves substantial deference and should be reversed only if there is an abuse of discretion).

Halsey v. Pfeiffer, No. 09-1138, 2010 WL 2735702, at *1 (D.N.J. Sept. 27, 2010).

         The exercise of this discretion is guided, however, by certain basic principles. At the outset, Rule 26(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure generally defines the scope of discovery permitted in a civil action, prescribes certain limits to that discovery and provides as follows:

(b) Discovery Scope and Limits.
(1) Scope in General. Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed ...

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