Proportionality Redux: The Sedona Conference Revisits its Commentary on Proportionality in Electronic Discovery

When Working Group 1 of The Sedona Conference (Sedona) publishes one of its eDiscovery White Papers, the consequence is often that Sedona steers the development of the law rather than merely reports on developments.  This observation is intended as a compliment, not a criticism. Sedona’s publications have guided the development of eDiscovery law since publication in 2003 of The Sedona Principles; Best Practices, Recommendations & Principles for Addressing Electronic Document Production, and have earned recognition as the gold standard for both the practical and scholarly discussion of eDiscovery issues.

In November 2016, Sedona released its Public Comment Version  of its Commentary on Proportionality in Electronic Discovery (“2016 Commentary”).  This version follows Sedona’s 2010 and 2013 Commentaries on Proportionality and its Fall 2015 publication in The Sedona Conference Journal of Judge Craig B. Shaffer’s scholarly article, “The ‘Burdens’ of Applying Proportionality” (also available for download from Sedona’s website).

This Blog post is not a critique or even a summary of the 2016 Commentary, but serves as a signpost directing litigators to Sedona’s website and the White Paper with the suggestion that the work be a resource for every federal litigator.

The December 2015 Rules Amendments: Key Rules Completely Revamped

The 2016 Commentary reminds us that “Rules 26 (b)(1) and 37(e) were completely revamped in December 2015.”  The amendments are the product of at least five years of  committee work and the most extensive public debate over any rules amendment going back to and probably including the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure introduction in 1938.

For federal court litigators on the front lines, these amendments should carry enormous, almost religious significance.  Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized in his 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary that these developments were indeed a “Big Deal.”   See Kurz, J, “The Chief Justice and the Big Deal in the December 2015 Amendments to the Federal Civil Rules,” EDVA Update Blog (February 8, 2016).

The Chief Justice wrote that amended Rule 26(b)(1) “crystallizes the concept of reasonable limits on discovery through increased reliance on the common-sense concept of proportionality.”   Before the amendment, the boundary for the scope of discovery was relevancy.  While for at least three decades federal courts had wrestled with various proportionality considerations embedded in the discovery section of the Federal Rules, the consensus is that proportionality had gained little or no traction for the day-to-day practice of law.  Each time we checked, proportionality slipped deeper into the forgotten fine print of rule subsections and subparts.  With the December 2015 amendment, the discovery scope boundaries are revised to matters “relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case . . .” (emphasis added).  The amended rule then identifies six consideration points.  Proportionality thus moved from the proverbial rule sub-basement (Rule 26(b)(2)(iii)) to the front foyer.

The rule-makers opted in Rule 26(b)(1) not only to elevate proportionality as a discovery touchstone along with relevancy, but seemingly weighted them equally.  This amendment was then paired with the total revision of Rule 37(e), the rule that provides directions for data preservation and spoliation sanctions.   For our coverage of the Rule 37(e) amendment, see Kurz and Mauler, “Proposed Rule 37(e) Cleared by the U.S. Judicial Conference,” EDVA Update Blog (September 29, 2014).  Under these combined rules, a proponent of discovery should now be prepared to defend both the relevancy and the proportionality of requested discovery. Additionally, when conducting a post hoc analysis of preservation decisions, the reasonableness of the preservation should depend in part on proportionality considerations.

Sedona’s 2016 Commentary on Proportionality in Electronic Discovery

The intervening development between the earlier Commentaries and Judge Shaffer’s work and now the 2016 Commentary is the arrival of the December 2015 amendments to Rule 26(b)(1) and Rule 37(e).

The 2016 Commentary revises only slightly the previously published Sedona Principles of Proportionality.  These principles first appeared in the 2010 Commentary. The discussion under each principle is now considerably more robust than in the prior versions. Of course, this is the expected result now that we have the amended rules, the Committee Notes, and nearly a year of case law applying the amended rules.

Some commentators have observed that many practitioners, and even some federal courts, have continued seemingly oblivious to the December 2015 amendments.  This was expected—as we all know, court procedural rules can be mind-numbing, and it will reasonably  take several years for amendments, even highly consequential amendments, to achieve broad effect.  The Chief Justice’s “Big Deal” reminder in his 2015 Report was probably more an effort to accelerate what was otherwise anticipated to be slow change, and not a response to minimally-observed changes on the front lines of litigation.

Sedona’s 2016 Commentary does not admonish either the bar or the bench regarding recognition of the rules amendments.  Rather, the Commentary summarizes the rules amendments, and then works through the six Principles of Proportionality using for the first time a detailed set of 24 Comments.  With each Comment, the Commentary suggests how the new rules can and should work in practice.  For example, under Principle 1 (which addresses proportionality in preservation) in Comments 1.a and 1.b, the language is “proportionality principles may be considered in evaluating the reasonableness of prelitigation preservation efforts,” and “a post hoc analysis of a party’s preservation decisions should [be made] in light of the proportionality factors set forth in Rule 26, and the reasonableness of the preservation parties’ efforts.”  Consistent with Sedona’s practices, the Comments are supported by comprehensive footnotes.

As a second example, the same bridge from Principle to Comments and practical advice can be seen in the discussion of Principle 4 (proportionality decisions should be based on information other than speculation). Comment 4.b directs that “Discovery must be limited if producing the requested information is disproportionate to its likely benefits . . . .”  In Comment 4.c the instruction is that “courts may order sampling of the requested information to determine whether it is sufficiently important to warrant discovery.”

Making Use of Sedona’s 2016 Commentary

Sedona’s White Papers should be a part of every federal litigator’s eDiscovery toolkit.  The White Papers are the preferred starting point to understand the current state of eDiscovery law, to track recent developments, and to appreciate pending or future rules amendments.  Overall, Sedona presents balanced assessments of eDiscovery issues, and provides the best available practical guidance as well as scholarly research and analysis.

We appreciate the practical value of the 2016 Commentary.  This reflects the make-up of the team of lawyers and judges who drafted the Comments. The team members, all respected eDiscovery veterans, include front-line litigators and two federal court magistrate judges.  In many instances, they provide granular, step-by-step recommendations for implementing the Principles.  For this reasons, the Commentary may prove to be especially valuable in resolving many of the eDiscovery challenges that routinely arise in federal court litigation.

The 2016 Commentary, while currently at the Public Comment Version stage, is no exception to the continuing quality of Sedona’s White Papers.  The writers and editors have produced the best available resource on proportionality in eDiscovery, including bringing to date the developments associated with the December 2015 amendments to Rule 26(b)(1) and Rule 37(e).