Charges of spoliation of evidence are frequently levelled in trade secret cases but rarely result in formal judicial findings of misconduct and sanctions. That may be changing. Last week, on the eve of jury selection, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond found that key employees of the defendant, Kolon Industries, Inc., deliberately deleted emails and other evidence and engaged in prolonged efforts to conceal that conduct. The district court has sanctioned Kolon by ordering that an adverse inference instruction will be given to the jury and has awarded DuPont its attorneys fees in connection with the motion. (A special thanks to Mark Klapow for bringing this ruling to my attention).
This case has been the subject of significant media coverage already and is shaping up to be the East Coast version of the Mattel/MGA dispute. For the uninitiated, DuPont sued Kolon, a company with its headquarters in South Korea, in February 2009, claiming that Kolon had misappropriated trade secrets relating to the body armor, Kevlar, after Kolon hired a former DuPont employee, Michael Mitchell.
While working with Kolon, Mitchell served as a go-between with other former DuPont employees and he ferried various DuPont trade secrets to Kolon. After DuPont discovered Mitchell’s actions, it notified the FBI and Department of Commerce, who then launched their own investigations. Mitchell ultimately pled guilty to theft of trade secrets and obstruction of justice.
The Virginia ip Law Blog has a thorough summary of the case, which has generated over 1,200 pleadings and orders. There have been a number of noteworthy rulings that have garnered commentary, ranging from rulings relating to the viability of Kolon’s antitrust claim against DuPont to a recent decision finding the Department of Justice and DuPont did not improperly collude in connection with subpoenas used to gather evidence for the prosecution.
Not surprisingly, given the scope of this case, the July 21, 2011 Order (a link for which is below) is not light reading and spans 91 pages. After finding misconduct by a number of key employees, the district court declined to enter a default against Kolon because of two relatively prompt litigation holds and because the company itself had not systematically engaged in the misconduct. Nevertheless, the district court did find that a number of key employees who interacted with Mitchell deliberately, willfully and in bad faith deleted a substantial amount of emails immediately after the filing of the complaint; it further found that they also set upon a course to conceal their conduct from the court and DuPont. Balancing the fact that many of the emails were recovered while many others were not, the court found that there was more than adequate grounds for a spoliation jury charge.
On these facts, the district court concluded that the best remedy was “to inform the jury that certain Kolon executives and employees, after learning that DuPont had sued Kolon, deleted much electronically stored information that would have been available to DuPont for use in presenting its case.” The district court further held that the “jury then should be allowed to infer that the recoverable deleted information would be helpful to DuPont and harmful to Kolon.” Finally, the district court ordered that “jury should be told that the fact of deletion, without regard to whether the deleted material was recovered, may be taken into account in assessing the element of Kolon’s intent and knowledge” (Opinion at pp. 87-88).
The takeaway? Litigation holds may provide a corporate defendant with some protection but there needs to be follow through within the company to ensure that the litigation hold is not only distributed to the appropriate employees but that it is also followed by those employees. Special care may also need to be taken with key employees located outside the U.S., who may not be as familiar with the severe consequences of preserving email and other electronic information in U.S. litigation.