Court Orders Third Party to Search Again for Any Relevant Emails: eDiscovery Case Law

eDiscovery Case Week is at the midway point!  In Hoffman v. Gdowski, No.: 19-13691 (E.D. Mich. June 16, 2021), Michigan Magistrate Judge Curtis Ivy, Jr. granted the plaintiff’s motion to compel, ordering third party Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) to “provide to Plaintiff any relevant emails that were sent or received by Gdowski…using any of Plaintiff’s search terms—using each term in a separate search.”

Case Background

In this prisoner civil rights matter, the plaintiff served a Rule 45 subpoena on MDOC during March 2021 listing four separate requests for documents…Three of the requests concerned email, each from a different prison employee, all stating the same request: “All emails received or sent by [Sara S. Gdowski, Karen Hamblin, and Mark King] encompassing the time period from September 01, 2019 through June 01, 2020, that contain any of the following words or portions of: Robert Hoffman #181813; grievance; retaliation; lawsuit, and; sued or suing.”

In response to the plaintiff’s subpoena, MDOC provided one email sent or received by Karen Hamblin…In addition to the subpoena, the plaintiff solicited assistance from Humanity for Prisoners (“HFP”), which submitted a FOIA request on the plaintiff’s behalf. In response to that request, the plaintiff was given copies of emails that appeared to be responsive to his discovery requests but were not produced by MDOC. The emails were also redacted, and some emails were not provided because they contained medical information, despite the fact Plaintiff executed an authorization for release of health information. The plaintiff used the emails provided in response to the FOIA request to support his argument that MDOC neglected to produce any relevant emails sent or received by Defendant Gdowski and that MDOC inappropriately redacted information contained in the emails.

MDOC contended the emails provided in response to the FOIA request were not given in response to the subpoena because the FOIA request was not limited to emails containing “grievance, retaliation, lawsuit, and sued or suing,” and thus captured emails regarding healthcare. In response to the plaintiff’s allegations of insufficiencies in the production, MDOC conducted a second search for emails using only the search terms “Robert Hoffman” or “181813”, but it was after the plaintiff had already placed his motion to compel in the mail.  MDOC argued that “Plaintiff is not entitled to “contact information” of others due to his status as an inmate at the MDOC.”

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Ivy, noting the timing discrepancy, stated: “It is not clear from the briefing whether the additional emails mailed to Plaintiff from the second search resolve the issues raised in the motion. Plaintiff did not file a reply brief and clarify the matter and MDOC did not attach to its response, for the Court’s review, copies of the additional emails provided to Plaintiff following the second search being conducted.”

Continuing, Judge Ivy stated: “The Court notes that the email attached to Plaintiff’s brief appears to be related to healthcare. None of the search terms disclosed in Plaintiff’s subpoena request relates specifically to healthcare, but “Robert Hoffman 181813” is included as a search term. Plaintiff requested emails containing “any of the following words,” which did not limit the universe of responsive emails to only those that contained all the responsive words…Email communications related to Plaintiff’s healthcare that include his name or identification number fairly fall within the parameters of the request. Though not produced initially, it appears MDOC likely provided emails related to healthcare in the second search, as the broader search encompassed all emails with Plaintiff’s name and identification number.

If not previously produced, MDOC must provide to Plaintiff any relevant emails that were sent or received by Gdowski (the only set of emails at issue in the motion) using any of Plaintiff’s search terms—using each term in a separate search. Contact information of persons other than Plaintiff is not relevant to the issues in this case and may indeed prove problematic in the hands of the wrong persons. Therefore, MDOC may redact contact information. MDOC may also redact any information contained in those emails regarding another person confined in the MDOC. Accordingly, the motion to compel is GRANTED.”

So, what do you think?  Do you think that MDOC intentionally interpreted the request narrowly to avoid producing any relevant emails from the defendant?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant, an Affinity partner of eDiscovery Today.

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