While House Embroiled In E-Discovery Controversy

While lawyers may be getting used to the occasional e-discovery dispute boiling over into the trade press or advance sheets, we still don't expect to see it make front-page news in traditional media. But there, on the front of today's Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and many others, are dreaded phrases like "deleted e-mails," "backup tapes," and "preservation."

The White House has been under fire since last year based on an investigation that found numerous e-mails had not been preserved as they should have been. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino acknowledged this in April 2007, saying there could be as much as 5 million missing e-mails. In response to that report, a public watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, brought a lawsuit asserting that the White House and certain agencies were in violation of the Federal Records Act and other statutes. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Executive Office of the President, Civ. No. 1:07 cv 1707 (HHK) (D.D.C.).

The complaint asserted that the only place the missing e-mails might still exist is on backup tapes the White House made for disaster recovery purposes. Plaintiff moved for expedited discovery on that subject. In response, on January 8, 2008 the court ordered the government to provide an affidavit answering four specific questions designed to cut through the dispute and determine whether the backup tapes did or did not have the e-mails that were the subject of the case.

Yesterday, the White House filed the affidavit. It essentially admitted that the White House "recycled" its backup tapes for several years. In other words, many of the e-mails are not going to be found on those tapes because tapes regularly were overwritten with newer data. If this sounds like the kind of thing that gets litigants into trouble these days, you're right. In its briefs, the White House seems to take the position that because the recycling did not happen once the complaint was filed, but that misses the point. The lawsuit maintains that the government has a statutory duty not to destroy the e-mails wholly apart from whatever obligations exist under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Even without that duty, the duty to preserve would have kicked in much earlier because of plaintiff's pre-litigation demands.

This has the potential to become the best-known e-discovery spoliation case to date. Watch the plaintiff's web site as the story develops.