GATTO v. UNITED AIRLINES, INC. et al
OPINION/ORDER granting in part and denying in part 33 Motion for Sanctions. Signed by Magistrate Judge Steven C. Mannion on 3/25/13. (DD, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
Civil Action No.:
UNITED AIR LINES, INC.,
ALLIED AVIATION SERVICES,
INC., and JOHN DOES 1-10
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on joint motion of defendants
United Air Lines, Inc., (hereafter, “United”) and Allied Aviation
Services, Inc., (hereafter, “Allied”; collectively, “Defendants”)
for spoliation sanctions related to the deletion of plaintiff Frank
Specifically, Defendants request that this Court: (1) enter an Order
issuing an instruction at trial that the jury draw an adverse
inference against Plaintiff for failing to preserve his Facebook
attorneys’ fees, associated with discovery and the filing of the
Plaintiff opposes Defendants’ motion.
The Court has considered the parties= submissions and, for the
reasons set forth herein, Defendants’ motion for sanctions is hereby
GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.
This is a personal injury action arising out of an alleged
accident that occurred on January 21, 2008, at the John F. Kennedy
(See D.E. 1, Complaint at *1).
Plaintiff was employed as
a ground operations supervisor for JetBlue Airways Corporation, and
Id. at *2.
Essentially, Plaintiff asserts that while
he was unloading baggage an aircraft, owned and operated by United,
caused a set of fueler stairs, owned and operated by Allied, to crash
into him. Id.
Plaintiff alleges to have sustained a number of injuries as a
result of the accident, including a torn rotator cuff, a torn medial
meniscus, and back injuries.
Plaintiff also alleges that said
injuries have rendered him permanently disabled, and that his
Furthermore, Plaintiff claims that he has been unable to work since
July of 2008.
(See Defendants’ Brief in Support of Motion at *6,
Defendants have sought discovery related to Plaintiff’s damages
and his social activities.
Id. at *7.
Defendant United’s Third
Request for Production of Documents to Plaintiff was served on July
21, 2011, and included a request for documents and information
related to social media accounts maintained by Plaintiff as well as
online business activities such as eBay.
On July 27, 2011,
Defendant Allied joined in United’s discovery requests, and on
authorizations for the release of information from social networking
sites and other online services like eBay and PayPal.
Plaintiff did not include an authorization for the release of records
After Defendants again requested authorization for the release
of Plaintiff’s Facebook records, the parties raised their discovery
issue before Magistrate Judge Cathy L. Waldor during an in-person
settlement conference on December 1, 2011.
Id. at *8.
ordered Plaintiff to execute an authorization for the release of
documents and information from Facebook, and Plaintiff agreed to
change his account password to “alliedunited.”
parties dispute whether it was agreed that defense counsel would
directly access Plaintiff’s Facebook account, the parties do not
dispute that the password was provided to counsel for the purpose
of accessing documents and information from Facebook.
Plaintiff alleges that “assurances were given by Counsel for the
Defendants at the December 1, 2011 conference that there would not
be unauthorized access to the Facebook account online,” whereas
Defendants allege that there were no assurances given that the
account would not be accessed.
Plaintiff changed his password on December 5, 2011.
Defendants’ Brief in Support of Motion at *8, D.E. 33-4).
thereafter, counsel for United allegedly accessed the account “to
Plaintiff’s Facebook page.
Counsel for Allied allegedly did
not access or view any portion of Plaintiff’s Facebook account.
On December 9, 2011, counsel for Plaintiff sent an email to
defense counsel indicating that Plaintiff had received an alert from
Facebook that his account was logged onto from an unfamiliar IP
address in New Jersey, and asked if Plaintiff’s Facebook account had
been accessed directly by defense counsel.
On December 15,
2011, counsel for United confirmed that Plaintiff’s Facebook account
had been accessed and that Plaintiff’s authorization “had been sent
to Facebook with a Subpoena in order to obtain the entire contents
of the account directly from Facebook.”
While Facebook did respond to the subpoena served upon it,
Facebook objected to providing certain information related to
Plaintiff’s account due to concerns regarding the Federal Stored
Facebook instead recommended that the
account holder download the entire contents of the account as an
alternative method for obtaining the information.
allege that this issue was discussed with the Court during a telephone
status conference on January 6, 2012, where Plaintiff’s counsel
advised that he would be willing to download the account information
and provide a copy to the parties.
Defendants allegedly agreed
to Plaintiff’s proposal, with the condition that Plaintiff would also
provide a certification that the data was not modified or edited since
the December 1, 2011 settlement conference.
However, on January 20, 2012, Defendants were advised by
Plaintiff’s counsel that Plaintiff’s Facebook account had been
deactivated on December 16, 2011, and that all of Plaintiff’s account
data was lost.
Id. at *10.
Plaintiff allegedly deactivated his
account because he had received notice that it was accessed on
December 6 and 7 by a New Jersey IP address that was unknown to him,
despite counsel for United having already confirmed that it had
directly accessed Plaintiff’s Facebook account. Id.
counsel requested that Plaintiff immediately reactivate his account,
but the account could not be reactivated because Facebook had
As a result, the contents of Plaintiff’s
Facebook account no longer exist and cannot be retrieved.
Defendants contend that some of the contents of Plaintiff’s
Facebook account that were printed in black and white by counsel for
United contain comments and photographs that contradict Plaintiff’s
claims and deposition testimony.
Id. at *13.
allegedly includes physical and social activities in which Plaintiff
1 There is some dispute between the parties regarding whether the
Plaintiff did, in fact, merely deactivate the account and then
neglect to reactivate it within fourteen days, thus causing the
account to be “automatically deleted.” As noted by Defendants, the
procedures for deactivating versus permanently deleting a Facebook
account are not identical. (See Defendants’ Brief in Support of
Motion at *12, D.E. 33-4). While Plaintiff argues that his account
was merely deactivated, it appears from the record that Plaintiff
must have taken additional steps required to permanently delete his
account. See id. For the purposes of deciding the instant motion,
the Court finds that it is irrelevant whether plaintiff requested
that his account be deleted or merely deactivated, as either scenario
involves the withholding or destruction of evidence.
engages, trips taken by Plaintiff, and evidence of Plaintiff’s online
Defendants contend that the above
constitutes discoverable evidence relevant to Plaintiff’s claims for
damages and overall credibility.
Spoliation occurs where evidence is destroyed or significantly
altered, or where a party fails to “preserve property for another’s
use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.”
Mosaid Technologies v. Samsung Electronics, 348 F.Supp.2d 332, 335
(D.N.J. 2004) (internal citations omitted).
Litigants in federal
court have a duty to preserve relevant evidence that they know, or
reasonably should know, will likely be requested in reasonably
foreseeable litigation, and the Court may impose sanctions on an
offending party that has breached this duty.
Corp., 196 F.R.D. 223, 248 (D.N.J. 2000).
See Scott v. IBM,
“Potential sanctions for
spoliation include: dismissal of a claim or granting judgment in
favor of a prejudiced party; suppression of evidence; an adverse
inference, referred to as the spoliation inference; fines; and
attorneys’ fees and costs.”
Mosaid, 348 F.Supp.2d at 335.
In determining which sanction is appropriate courts consider
The degree of fault of the party who
altered or destroyed the evidence;
The degree of prejudice suffered by the
opposing party; and
Whether there is a lesser sanction that
will avoid substantial unfairness to the
opposing party, and where the offending
party is seriously at fault, will serve to
deter such conduct by others in the future.
Schmid v. Milwaukee Elec. Tool Corp., 13 F.3d 76, 79 (3d Cir. 1994).
Here, the Court will limit its focus to the adverse inference
instruction and monetary sanctions, as they are the only sanctions
that Defendants request.
(See Defendants’ Brief, D.E. 33-4).
An adverse inference, or “spoliation instruction,” permits a
jury to infer that the fact that a document was not produced or
destroyed is “evidence that the party that has prevented production
did so out of the well-founded fear that the contents would harm him.”
Scott, 196 F.R.D. at 248.
The adverse inference instruction is
predicated “upon the common sense observation that when a party
destroys evidence that is relevant to a claim or defense in a case,
the party did so out of the well-founded fear that the contents would
Mosaid, 349 F.Supp.2d at 336.
Before giving an adverse
inference instruction, the Court must find that four factors are
satisfied: (1) the evidence was within the party’s control; (2) there
was an actual suppression or withholding of evidence; (3) the
evidence was destroyed or withheld was relevant to the claims or
defenses; and (4) it was reasonably foreseeable that the evidence
would be discoverable.
Id.; Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Refining Co.,
72 F.3d 326, 334 (3d Cir. 1995); Veloso v. Western Bedding Supply
Co., 281 F.Supp.2d 743, 746 (D.N.J. 2003); Scott v. IBM Corp., 196
F.R.D. 223, 248 (D.N.J. 2000).
Here, the deletion of Plaintiff’s Facebook account clearly
satisfies the first, third, and fourth of the aforementioned factors.
Plaintiff’s Facebook account was clearly within his control, as
Plaintiff had authority to add, delete, or modify his account’s
See Arteria Property Pty Ltd. v. Universal Funding V.T.O.,
Inc., 2008 WL 4513696 at *5 (D.N.J. 2008).
It is also clear that
Plaintiff alleges to have sustained serious injuries in this personal
injury action, and further alleges that said injuries have limited
his ability to work and engage in social and physical activities.
The Facebook information sought by defendants focused upon posts,
comments, status updates, and other information posted or made by
the Plaintiff subsequent to the date of the alleged accident, as such
information would be relevant to the issue of damages.
first and third factors are both satisfied.
With regard to the fourth factor, the Court finds that it was
reasonably foreseeable that Plaintiff’s Facebook account would be
sought in discovery. Defendants requested Plaintiff’s Facebook
account information as early as July 21, 2011, nearly five months
before Plaintiff deactivated his Facebook account.
Plaintiff’s Facebook account was discussed during the December 1,
2011, Settlement Conference, where Plaintiff was present and the
Court order related to the discovery of information associated with
Plaintiff’s Facebook account.
Accordingly, it is beyond dispute
that Plaintiff had a duty to preserve his Facebook account at the
time it was deactivated and deleted.
It follows that the only point of discussion that remains with
regard to the appropriateness of an adverse inference instruction
is the second factor, whether there was “actual suppression or
withholding of evidence.”
Plaintiff argues that he did not
intentionally destroy evidence or violate a Court Order, and that
his actions fall short of the “actual suppression” standard.
D.E. 34, Plaintiff’s Brief at *6).
Plaintiff alleges that he had
recently been involved in contentious divorce proceedings, and that
his Facebook account had been “hacked into” on numerous occasions
prior to this lawsuit and the settlement conference held in December
reasonably in deactivating his Facebook account after receiving
notice from Facebook that his account had been accessed from an
unauthorized IP address that he was unfamiliar with.
asserts that the permanent deletion of the account was accidental,
and entirely the result of Facebook “automatically” deleting the
account 14 days after its deactivation in accordance with company
Relatedly, Plaintiff’s counsel notes that Plaintiff
was never personally advised that it was actually defense counsel
permanently deleted, and at this point Plaintiff allegedly attempted
to reactivate the account to no avail.
Id. at *6-7.
The Court is not persuaded by Plaintiff’s arguments regarding
whether the evidence at issue was intentionally suppressed.
noted in Mosaid, the spoliation inference serves a remedial function,
leveling the playing field after a party has destroyed or withheld
relevant evidence, thereby prejudicing the opposing party.
348 F.Supp.2d at 338.
With regard to “actual suppression,” the court
in Mosaid is clear in finding that, so long as the evidence is
relevant, the “offending party’s culpability is largely irrelevant,”
as it cannot be denied that the opposing party has been prejudiced.
Even if Plaintiff did not intend to permanently deprive the
defendants of the information associated with his Facebook account,
there is no dispute that Plaintiff intentionally deactivated the
In doing so, and then failing to reactivate the account
within the necessary time period, Plaintiff effectively caused the
account to be permanently deleted.
Neither defense counsel’s
Plaintiff’s belated efforts to reactivate the account, negate the
fact that Plaintiff failed to preserve relevant evidence.
result, Defendants are prejudiced because they have lost access to
evidence that is potentially relevant to Plaintiff’s damages and
In light of all of the above, a spoliation inference
compensate a party for “the time and effort it was forced to expend
in an effort to obtain discovery” to which it was entitled.
348 F.Supp.2d at 339.
There is no rule of law mandating a particular
sanction upon a finding of improper destruction or loss of evidence;
rather, such a decision is left to the discretion of the court.”
Kounelis v. Sherrer, 529 F.Supp.2d 503, 520-21 (D.N.J. 2008) (quoting
Hawa Abdi Jama v. Esmor Corr. Servs., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45706,
at *126 (D.N.J. 2007)).
While the Court appreciates that Defendants
wish to be compensated for the time and effort expended in obtaining
the discovery at issue in this matter, the Court, in its discretion,
does not find that an award of attorney’s fees and costs is warranted.
Here, Plaintiff’s destruction of evidence does not appear to be
motivated by fraudulent purposes or diversionary tactics, and the
loss of evidence will not cause unnecessary delay.
considering the particular circumstances presented in this matter,
the Court, in its discretion, finds that an adverse inference
instruction without monetary sanctions is sufficient. See Kounelis,
529 F.Supp.2d at 522.
For the reasons set forth above, Defendants’ request that an
instruction be given at trial to the jury that it may draw an adverse
inference against Plaintiff for failing to preserve his Facebook
Defendants’ request for attorney’s fees and costs is DENIED.
adverse inference should be provided to the jury at an appropriate
time, as determined by the Honorable Esther Salas, U.S.D.J.
s/ Steven C. Mannion
STEVEN C. MANNION
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
March 25, 2013