The Preservation Obligation: Regulating and Sanctioning Pre-Litigation Spoliation in Federal Court

30 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2010 Last revised: 30 Jun 2015

Date Written: April 2011


The issue of discovery misconduct, specifically as it pertains to the pre-litigation duty to preserve and sanctions for spoliation, has garnered much attention in the wake of decisions by two prominent jurists whose voices carry great weight in this area. In Pension Committee of University of Montreal Pension Plan v. Bank of America Securities, Judge Shira Scheindlin - of the Zubulake e-discovery cases - penned a scholarly and thorough opinion setting forth her views regarding the triggering of the duty to preserve potentially relevant information pending litigation and the standards for determining the appropriate sanctions for various breaches of that duty. Not long afterwards, Judge Lee Rosenthal - Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Rules of Practice and Procedure (the Standing Committee) and former Chair of the Civil Rules Advisory Committee - issued an opinion (Rimkus Consulting Group, Inc. v. Cammarata ) describing her understanding of many of the same issues touched on in Pension Committee. Both of these opinions have come at a time when the legal community is looking for better and more consistent guidance regarding the preservation obligations attendant to prospective litigation in the federal courts. Unfortunately, although other courts may draw some guidance from these two opinions, the fact is that variation among district courts and among the circuits will persist as long as policing pre-litigation preservation obligations remains largely the product of common law regulation via the inherent power of the courts.

Given this state of affairs, the time is ripe for a uniform federal approach to the pre-litigation duty to preserve and sanctions for spoliation. After reviewing the existing frameworks for determining the duty to pre-serve and imposing sanctions that prevail among the federal courts, this Article will explore how the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure might be amended to define and enforce pre-action preservation obligations more effectively and consistently across jurisdictions.

Keywords: spoliation, evidence, preservation obligation, civil procedure, federal rules, discovery, electronic discovery, e-discovery, professional responsibility, legal ethics, Pension Committee, sanctions

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K10, K4, K40, K41, K49

Suggested Citation

Spencer, A. Benjamin, The Preservation Obligation: Regulating and Sanctioning Pre-Litigation Spoliation in Federal Court (April 2011). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 79, p. 2005, 2011, Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2010-15, Available at SSRN:

A. Benjamin Spencer (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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