The image of a law firm stuffed with banker boxes floor-to-ceiling is shifting to the view of a computer server filled with gigabytes of information. This is increasingly a digital world and the documents, photographs, charts, memos, and emails that are the “stuff” cases are built upon now often come in digital form. As a result, great emphasis is placed upon “electronic discovery.”
What is “electronic discovery”? “Discovery” includes the exchange of information between parties in a lawsuit. “Electronic discovery” is the process of collecting, preparing, reviewing, and producing “electronically-stored information” in the context of a civil action.
What is electronically stored information (“ESI”)? The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure define ESI as information created, manipulated, communicated, stored, and best utilized in digital form, requiring the use of computer hardware and software. Because of the wide variety of computer systems currently in use, and the rapidity of technological change, courts often give an expansive definition of ESI which can include any type of information that is stored electronically, including emails, images, spreadsheets, “metadata,” PDF documents, databases, and other groupings of information.
Are printed copies of my emails sufficient? In litigation, emails are commonly produced as printouts or PDFs. However, courts may require the production of emails in their native electronic form to allow the other party to certify that the produced emails have not been altered. If the court finds that a party, anticipating litigation, intentionally deletes or destroys ESI, that party may be exposed to a claim that they have “spoliated” evidence. An opponent may even complain if a party fails to take affirmative steps to prevent information from being deleted or overridden as part of an automated process. For instance, this often occurs when a surveillance camera system “writes over” older video to create space for new video.