MARTIN v. STOOPS BUICK, INC. et al
ORDER denying Plaintiff's 61 Motion for Sanctions for the Spoliation of Evidence. Signed by Judge Richard L. Young on 4/25/2016. (TMD)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
ELLA SUN MARTIN,
STOOPS BUICK, INC., and
ENTRY ON PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SANCTIONS AGAINST
DEFENDANTS FOR THE SPOLIATION OF EVIDENCE
Plaintiff, Ella Sun Martin, is a former employee of Stoops Buick, Inc. After she
was terminated by her supervisor, Debra Trauner, Plaintiff brought the present
employment discrimination lawsuit against the Defendants, alleging she was terminated
on the basis of her race (Asian), national origin (Chinese), and religion (Buddhism), in
violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plaintiff now moves for sanctions
against Defendants for spoliation of evidence, alleging that Stoops destroyed evidence
relevant to Plaintiff’s case and intentionally withheld disclosure of the destroyed
evidence until after the close of discovery.
On March 23, 2016, the court held an evidentiary hearing and heard the testimony
of key witnesses, including Trauner, Lisa Goodin, members of Stoops’ Information
Technology Department (“IT Department”), and Plaintiff’s expert, Rhys Kenworthy.
Having considered the parties’ submissions, the designated evidence, and the testimony
of witnesses at the hearing, the court now DENIES Plaintiff’s motion.
On March 23, 2012, Trauner hired Plaintiff for the payroll clerk position on a part-
time basis. (Filing No. 64-6 at 87, 94). On January 25, 2013, Trauner called Plaintiff at
home to offer her a full-time position as the payroll clerk. (Id. at 165-66). Plaintiff
accepted, but stated she had to give her other employer, KinderCare, two-weeks notice,
before she could start. (Id. at 166). Plaintiff began working full-time on February 11,
2013. (Id. at 166-68).
Near the time that Trauner offered Plaintiff a full-time position, Trauner received a
telephone inquiry from Lisa Goodin, who asked Trauner if there were any open positions
at Stoops. (Filing No. 64-5 at 8, 24). Goodin received Trauner’s contact information
from Barbara Winegar, who also worked at Stoops. (Id. at 21, 23). Trauner told Goodin
that Stoops did not have any open positions, but that Goodin was more than welcome to
send in a resume. (Id. at 23-24). Goodin did so on January 27, 2013. (Id. at 8).
On February 25, 2013, Trauner terminated Plaintiff’s employment allegedly
because “she [was] not a good fit for [the] position.” (Plaintiff’s Ex. 5; see also Tr. 1 at
79 (testifying Plaintiff did not perform satisfactorily)). Two days later, Trauner hired
The transcript from the hearing is cited as “Tr.” followed by the page number. The exhibits
admitted into evidence are also cited.
Goodin. (Tr. at 79; Filing No. 55-31 at 43, 49). Unlike Plaintiff, Goodin is Americanborn, Causasian, and Christian. (Filing No. 55-31 at 43, 49; see also Tr. at 84-85).
Plaintiff’s Termination and Procedural History
According to Plaintiff, immediately after she was terminated, she informed
General Manager James Myers that she was going to file a discrimination claim against
the dealership. (Filing No. 55-23 at 193-95). Myers does not recall this conversation.
(Filing No. 64-7 at 60-61).
Plaintiff filed her Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on March 4, 2013. (Filing No. 55-19). Stoops
received notice of Plaintiff’s Charge from the EEOC on March 7, 2013. (Filing No. 611). Stoops asked for an extension of time to respond due to “the necessity of conducting
a thorough investigation of the factual allegations contained [in the charge] and gathering
the necessary information to prepare a suitable response[.]” (Id.). Stoops, by Trauner,
prepared a written response, and Defendants’ counsel sent Stoops’ Position Statement to
the EEOC on May 2, 2013. (Filing No. 55-22; Filing No. 61-2).
On November 29, 2013, the EEOC issued its Dismissal and Notice of Rights
regarding Plaintiff’s Charge. (Filing No. 1-2). This was mailed to both Plaintiff and the
Defendants. (Id.). Plaintiff timely filed her Complaint against the Defendants on
February 27, 2014. (Filing No. 1).
On September 17, 2015, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment;
the motion was fully briefed as of November 20, 2015.
On December 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for sanctions against the
Defendants for spoliation of evidence. Plaintiff claims the Defendants destroyed and/or
replaced Plaintiff’s work computer, thereby precluding Plaintiff from obtaining evidence
in support of her claims, and that Trauner deleted her e-mail communications with
Goodin that allegedly occurred before January 27, 2013—the day Goodin sent Trauner
her resume. Plaintiff further claims that the Defendants deliberately misled Plaintiff
during discovery by, inter alia, providing false interrogatory answers under oath and
purposely failing to disclose that material evidence was destroyed until after the close of
Plaintiff’s Work Computer Files
At the evidentiary hearing, Trauner testified that after she terminated Plaintiff, she
e-mailed the IT Department2 to request that someone deactivate Plaintiff’s passwords and
voicemail. (Tr. at 19-20; Plaintiff’s Ex. 3). Tom Nolan performed that task on February
25, 2013. (Tr. at 156; Plaintiff’s Ex. 3).
Pursuant to Stoops’ unwritten data retention policy, once a terminated employee’s
passwords and voicemail are deactivated, information stored on the company servers
remains for at least another 30 days. (Tr. at 113). Before permanently deleting a
terminated employee’s user accounts, the IT Department would contact the terminated
employee’s supervisor for his or her approval. (Id. at 149). If approval was given, the IT
Stoops used the IT Department of Stoops Freightliner. (Filing No. 61-16 at 27). The IT
Department assisted Stoops employees with various computer issues, and determined whether it
was necessary to replace computer equipment and/or update computer software. (Id. at 33).
Department would delete the user account from the active directory, which would then
delete the employee’s work data from the operating system. (Id.). The terminated
employee’s mailbox was also deleted. (Id. at 115).
At the hearing, Trauner testified that she had two conversations with the IT
Department regarding Plaintiff’s computer information. (Tr. at 71). The first occurred
shortly after Plaintiff’s termination. (Id. at 35, 70). Trauner asked the IT Department to
preserve all of Plaintiff’s computer data and, according to Trauner, “they said they
would.” (Id. at 70). The second conversation occurred “probably after this litigation
began.” (Id. at 70-71). She asked the IT Department to provide her with Plaintiff’s emails and work documents, “but they were unable to” because they had been deleted.
(Id. at 71). Trauner’s 30(b)(6) testimony on this subject does not explicitly verify that
Trauner contacted the IT Department twice. Her testimony suggested she contacted the
department “after all of this started” which she clarified as “[a]fter this lawsuit was filed.”
(Filing No. 61-16 at 29). When confronted with this testimony at the hearing, Trauner
explained, “I think I was still confused as to whether it was after the complaint in Federal
Court or after the complaint at the EEOC.” (Tr. at 39). IT Department employees
Marcus Prow, Tom Nolan, and Tom Nelson do not recall ever receiving a telephone call
from Trauner requesting a litigation hold (i.e., an instruction to preserve documents)
following Plaintiff’s termination. (Id. at 106-07, 140, 145, 157, 160). In addition, the
parties stipulated that Service Manager James Jarvis, Service Manager Kelly Stocking,
and Assistant Office Manager Linda Robinson did not receive written or verbal notice of
a litigation hold regarding Plaintiff’s computer information. (Id. at 4). And there is no
evidence of a ticket generated by the IT Department regarding such a request. (Id. at 113,
Trauner testified Prow came to Stoops to update the computers soon after
Plaintiff’s termination, but she does not know if he replaced Plaintiff’s computer or not.
(Id. at 47, 48; see also Filing No. 61-16 at 28-29). At any rate, it is undisputed that
Plaintiff’s mailbox containing her work e-mail has been permanently deleted.
Neither Prow, Nelson, nor Nolan remember receiving a request from Trauner or
anyone associated with Stoops to delete Plaintiff’s e-mail and data files. (Tr. at 129, 147,
Trauner’s Emails with Lisa Goodin
Lisa Goodin is a former employee of Andy Mohr Ford who applied for and
ultimately obtained Plaintiff’s position as payroll clerk. She testified that, before she emailed her resume to Trauner on January 27, 2013, she talked to Trauner on the
telephone the Friday before (January 25th). (Id. at 7; see also Filing No. 55-31 at 8-9;
Plaintiff’s Ex. 14 at 1). Goodin also testified that she and Trauner e-mailed one another
approximately two or three times about potential employment. (Tr. at 7). Goodin’s
cover letter states, “Debbie, Thank you for your interest in speaking with me. In your email you mentioned . . . .” (Filing No. 55-13; Plaintiff’s Ex. 14 at 2). Goodin could not
remember whether a cover letter was attached to her January 27 e-mail. (Tr. at 2) (“I
would think professionally I would [attach a cover letter with her resume], but I cannot
say for 100 percent.”).
Trauner testified, consistent with her deposition testimony, that Goodin voluntarily
sent Trauner an e-mail “out of the blue” for the first time on January 27, 2013. (Id. at 58;
Filing No. 61-14 at 118). This e-mail did not contain a cover letter; Trauner believes the
cover letter came a few days later in the regular mail. (Tr. at 55-56). At any rate,
Trauner sent Goodin an e-mail in response to Goodin’s January 27 e-mail. (Id. at 56;
Filing No. 61-14 at 118, 128). This e-mail was not disclosed during discovery. At the
hearing, Trauner explained she could not locate the sent e-mail because she likely deleted
it. (Tr. at 56). Trauner deleted her sent e-mail as a matter of course “whenever [her]
computer would tell [her] that [she] can’t send e-mails anymore.” (Tr. at 75; see also id.
at 56 (“I delete the sent items because of space on the system . . . .”)).
Stoops’ Responses to Plaintiff’s Discovery Requests
Plaintiff’s Interrogatory No. 9 to Trauner stated:
If you have deleted, erased, or altered information contained on any
computer, cellular, or other electronic device, or destroyed hard copies of any
documents, including but not limited to business records, emails, voicemails,
social media content, text messages, journal entries, or other content which
refer, related to, or comprise a record of any allegation, claim or defense
asserted in this lawsuit, identify what information you deleted, erased,
altered, or destroyed, and the date(s) you deleted, erased, altered, or
destroyed the information or document(s).
(Filing No. 61-7 at 7). Trauner answered: “Trauner states that she is not aware of any
responsive information or documents that have been discarded, deleted, destroyed or
otherwise lost.” (Id.).
Plaintiff’s Interrogatory No. 9 to Stoops stated:
State the exact date you or any person acting on your behalf first
communicated or corresponded with Lisa Goodin about her potential future
employment with the company, and identify the person with whom Lisa
Goodin first communicated or corresponded.
(Filing No. 61-8 at 9). Stoops responded:3 “January 27, 2013 regarding the
possibility of employment. See also the documents produced by Stoops Buick in
Response to Plaintiff’s First Request for Production of Documents . . . .” (Filing
No. 61-7 at 8).
Plaintiff’s Interrogatory No. 24 to Stoops provided:
Identify each document responsive to Plaintiff’s First Request for Production
that you did not produce, and, for each document, state the reason for your
failure to produce such a document.
(Filing No. 61-8 at 19). Stoops responded: “Stoops states that it has produced all
documents in its possession that are responsive to Plaintiff’s First Request for Production
of Documents. To the extent any such documents are found, Stoops will produce a
privilege log.” (Id.).
In Plaintiff’s Request for Production No. 16, Plaintiff requested a copy of the
email referenced in Goodin’s cover letter. Defendants responded: “Stoops is not in
possession of any responsive documents.” (Filing No. 61-9 at 7).
Mr. Kenworthy’s Testimony
Rhys Kenworthy, the owner of Root Computing, testified as Plaintiff’s expert
witness on Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange protocols. Merely disabling
Plaintiff’s user ID and e-mail account would result in a “soft delete,” he explained, but
Stoops directed Plaintiff to “[s]ee the Answer to Interrogatory No. 11 to Trauner’s Answers to
Plaintiff’s First Set of Interrogatories dated October 13, 2014.” The answer to Interrogatory No.
11 is set forth above.
the e-mails would remain on the exchange server and Stoops’ storage medium; thus, to
disable Plaintiff’s active user account took affirmative action by Stoops. (Plaintiff’s Ex.
20, Kenworthy Expert Report ¶ 7) (“To have permanently deleted all versions of
Plaintiff’s mailbox items, it would have taken deliberate and direct action to first locate
all versions of those items, then purposefully delete all copies from all mediums.”). He
testified, however, that he did not find any evidence that Stoops destroyed Plaintiff’s emails and computer files to hide adverse information; in other words, he did not find any
evidence of bad faith. (Tr. at 110).
All other evidence necessary to a determination of this motion will be addressed in
the Discussion Section.
“Spoliation of evidence occurs when one party destroys evidence relevant to an
issue in a case.” Smith v. United States, 293 F.3d 984, 988 (7th Cir. 2002) (citing
Crabtree v. Nat’l Steel Corp., 261 F.3d 715, 721 (7th Cir. 2001)). The court’s
determination of whether spoliation occurred requires a two-part inquiry. Malibu Media,
LLC v. Tashiro, No. 1:13-cv-205-WTL-MJD, 2015 WL 2371597, at *11 (S.D. Ind. May
18, 2015). First, the court must determine whether the defendant was under a duty to
preserve evidence; second, it must determine whether the defendant destroyed evidence
in bad faith. Norman-Nunnery v. Madison Area Tech. Coll, 625 F.3d 422, 429 (7th Cir.
2010); Trask-Morton v. Motel 6 Operating L.P., 534 F.3d 672, 681 (7th Cir. 2008).
Duty to Preserve
A defendant has a duty to preserve evidence where it “knew, or should have
known, that litigation was imminent.” Trask-Morton, 534 F.3d at 681. The scope of the
duty to preserve is broad, and includes evidence the defendant should have reasonably
foreseen would be relevant to a potential claim or action. Domanus v. Lewicki, 284
F.R.D. 379, 386 (N.D. Ill. 2012). The duty attaches when the plaintiff informs the
defendant of his or her potential claim. Peerless Indus., Inc. v. Crimson AV LLC, No. 11
C 1768, 2014 WL 3497697, at *4 (N.D. Ill. July 14, 2014); see also Trask-Morton, 534
F.3d at 681 (finding the duty to preserve attached when Motel 6 received a demand letter
from plaintiff’s attorney). Here, the duty attached, at the latest, when Defendants
received notice of Plaintiff’s Charge on March 7, 2013.
Although Trauner testified to placing a litigation hold on Plaintiff’s work e-mails,
there is no evidence in the record to support her statement. There is no evidence of a
ticket generated by the IT department regarding the request, and neither Prow, Nolan,
Nelson, Jarvis, Stocking, nor Robinson could verify such a request. The court therefore
finds Defendants breached their duty to preserve evidence.
“‘An employer’s destruction of or inability to produce a document, standing alone,
does not warrant an inference that the document, if produced, would have contained
information adverse to the employer’s case.’” Norman-Nunnery, 625 F.3d at 428
(quoting Park v. City of Chicago, 297 F.3d 606, 615 (7th Cir. 2002)). In order to draw an
inference that the missing document, if produced, would have contained information
adverse to the defendant/employer, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant
intentionally destroyed the documents in bad faith. Id. Evidence is considered to be
destroyed in bad faith “if it is destroyed for the purpose of hiding adverse information.”
Faas v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 532 F.3d 633, 644 (7th Cir. 2008); see also Partington v.
Broyhill Furniture, 999 F.2d 269, 272 (7th Cir. 1993) (“But if, being sensitive to the
possibility of a suit, a company then destroys the very files that would be expected to
contain the evidence most relevant to such a suit, the inference arises that it has purged
incriminating evidence.”). According to Plaintiff, Defendants engaged in bad faith
because they deliberately misled Plaintiff during discovery; provided false answers under
oath; failed to timely supplement interrogatory answers and responses to requests for
production; unjustifiably failed to disclose the existence of e-mails; and purposely
withheld disclosing that material evidence was destroyed until after the close of
With regard to Interrogatory No. 9 to Trauner, which asked whether she had
“deleted, erased, or altered information contained on any computer . . ,” Trauner replied
that she was “not aware of any responsive information or documents that have been
discarded, deleted, destroyed, or otherwise lost.” Trauner’s testimony is technically
correct; she did not delete any information of Plaintiff’s from Plaintiff’s work computer.
And although Trauner was aware of the fact that Plaintiff’s e-mails were deleted, there is
no evidence in the record to support an inference that she, or any other managerial
employee of Stoops, directed the IT department to delete Plaintiff’s computer data. In
short, Trauner’s Interrogatory No. 9 Response was not answered in bad faith.
With regard to Interrogatory No. 9 to Stoops, Trauner’s testimony has been
consistent that her first communication with Goodin occurred when she received
Goodin’s resume on January 27, 2013. Goodin remembers a conversation with Trauner
the Friday before, but Trauner does not. Trauner believes she heard about Goodin from
Barbara Winegar, a Stoops’ employee who formerly worked at Andy Mohr Ford. This
conflicting testimony is insufficient to show that Trauner answered Interrogatory No. 9 in
bad faith. The alleged conversation occurred three years ago, and, as is evident from
their testimony, memories fade.
With regard to Interrogatory No. 24, Stoops represented that it had “produced all
documents in its possession that are responsive to Plaintiff’s First Request for Production
of Documents.” At the hearing, Plaintiff argued that Stoops did not identify Goodin’s email to Trauner as one of those documents in response to Plaintiff’s First Request for
Production of Documents, which sought “[c]opies of any and all communications
between you and the individual you hired to replace Plaintiff’s position.” (Plaintiff’s Ex.
19, Request No. 34). From that premise, Plaintiff maintains that Stoops deliberately
withheld Trauner’s e-mail(s) to Goodin.
As an initial matter, Stoops’ answer was technically correct; it did produce those
documents responsive to Plaintiff’s First Request for Production of Documents that were
in its possession. Moreover, Trauner testified that she routinely deleted sent e-mail to
make room on the company server. Trauner’s testimony was credible. There is no
evidence to suggest that Stoops, by Trauner, purposefully deleted Trauner’s e-mails to
Goodin which occurred on or around January 27, 2013. For this reason, with regard to
Defendants’ response to Plaintiff’s Request for Production No. 16 seeking a copy of the
e-mail referenced in Goodin’s cover letter, Stoops supplied a truthful response: “Stoops is
not in possession of any responsive documents.” (Plaintiff’s Ex. 19 at 7).
Lastly, and most significantly, Plaintiff’s own expert admitted that, after hearing
all of the evidence, Stoops did not destroy evidence in bad faith. (Tr. at 110 (“Q: But you
did not – it’s your opinion, based upon your background and experience, that what
you’ve seen and heard and read and that’s been provided to you, that you do not find bad
faith here? A: Right. Correct.”). Plaintiff, therefore, has failed to establish the required
element of bad faith.
The court finds Plaintiff did not carry her burden of proving that Stoops
deliberately destroyed evidence in bad faith. Accordingly, the court DENIES Plaintiff’s
Motion for Sanctions Against Defendants for the Spoliation of Evidence (Filing No. 61).
SO ORDERED this 25th day of April 2016.
RICHARD L. YOUNG, CHIEF JUDGE
United States District Court
Southern District of Indiana
Distributed Electronically to Registered Counsel of Record.
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