In Arconic Inc. v. Novelis Inc., No. 17-1434 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 10, 2022), Pennsylvania District Judge Joy Flowers Conti denied the plaintiff’s motion to recuse over the fact that orders filed by the Court contained author metadata from the special master’s staff, ruling that “[t]he author field of the metadata is not evidence of the actual preparer of a document and does not support a reasonable inference that the court abandoned its role or provide a basis for recusal.”
In this case involving alleged misuse of trade secrets and confidential information, after a summary judgment was entered on most of the plaintiff’s claims, the litigation primarily focused on the defendant’s antitrust counterclaims. In a monthly status conference on January 13, 2022, the court asked whether there were any other issues to discuss in the case. Neither side identified any issues.
However, the plaintiff filed a motion to recuse the following day, with 38 attachments, and a 28-page brief in support. The defendant reported that the plaintiff never met and conferred with it prior to filing the motion to recuse. The only evidence pointed to by the plaintiff to support its recusal motion is the author and created date fields of the metadata of certain decisions, which pointed out that the special master’s staff was listed in the author property of the metadata as the “author” of several of the court’s opinions.
Judge Conti began her analysis by stating: “The court understands the gravamen of Arconic’s motion is an assertion that the court abandoned its duty to conduct an independent, de novo review of the special master’s R&Rs by having the special master’s staff ghost-write the court’s decisions. Subject to certain exceptions, parties are entitled to de novo review of the special master’s findings of fact and conclusions of law and abuse of discretion review of the special master’s rulings on procedural matters by the district judge.”
However, Judge Conti continued, stating: “To alleviate any concerns raised by Arconic, the court will briefly explain why Arconic’s argument based on the ‘author’ field of the metadata is wrong… The author field of the metadata is not evidence of the actual preparer of a document and does not support a reasonable inference that the court abandoned its role or provide a basis for recusal. The author field is part of the system metadata. A computer’s file management system uses ‘system metadata’ to track file locations and information about a file’s name, size, creation, modification and usage.” She also referenced Craig Ball’s guide Beyond Data About Data: The Litigator’s Guide to METADATA (though she did erroneously reference the author metadata field as “system metadata” when, in fact, it’s application metadata). 🙂
As Judge Conti noted: “The court’s practice in this and many other cases was to use a document that is already docketed as a template for the court’s next opinion or order. This practice promotes efficiency, by avoiding the need to retype boilerplate information such as the caption, keeping the formatting consistent, and providing unobjectionable basic information about the context of the case, such as the factual and procedural history or standard of review… To create a template, the court uses the ‘save as’ command to create a new document. The ‘saved as’ command enables the court to create a template for a new opinion or order without overwriting the document being used as the starting point. The court, as noted, did not take the steps necessary to change the name in the author field of the metadata and the template document inherited the ‘author’ named in the author field of the metadata of the document from which the template was created. The metadata pointed to by Arconic about the ‘author’ in the court’s opinions and orders at issue is superficial and has no relationship to the contents of the final product.”
Judge Conti also noted that the special master has issued 40 report & recommendations (R&Rs), that many of them were not objected to by either party and that the Court used the “save as” command and filed the order without changing the author.
In denying the plaintiff’s motion to recuse, Judge Conti stated: “The ‘author’ field of the metadata is not a smoking gun or a reasonable or reliable way to determine who is responsible for the content of a document…The author field of the metadata is particularly unreliable for documents created by the “save as” command for use as a template.” She also noted: “In preparing this opinion, the court reviewed the Guidelines for Editing Metadata released by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts”, which recommended that the user should verify and edit the author’s name if incorrect through the Properties option or start with a fresh document, and copy and paste text from the existing documents and stated: “Going forward, this court will follow the Administrative Office’s suggestions to avoid the concerns raised by Arconic about the author field of the metadata.”
So, what do you think? Do you agree with the Court’s ruling on the motion to recuse? Have you ever been tripped up by the author metadata in a document? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
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