Spoliation Claim Fails Where The Evidence Was Lost Before Suit Was Filed

In Ansley v. Wetzel, 21 cv 528 M.D. Pennsylvania, the plaintiff filed suit against prison guards for violations of his civil rights. Plaintiff sought to obtain video evidence of the incident but the video was lost. He moved for sanctions under 37, but his motion was denied because the tapes of the incident were lost prior to suit being filed.

The Defendants argued that there was no spoliation because they had no reason to retain the tapes because there was no use of force. The District court agreed with their argument:

Defendants submitted the declarations of Captain Jeffrey Madden and Captain Robert Bookheimer wherein they explain when video footage is retained at state correctional institutions. (Doc. 91-2 at 10-11, Madden Declaration ¶¶ 3-4; Doc. 91-2 at 12-13, Bookheimer Declaration ¶ 3). Captain Madden explained that video footage is typically recorded over when a camera’s memory capacity has been met, unless the video involved a planned or unplanned use of force. (Doc. 91-2 at 10-11, Madden Decl. ¶¶ 3-4). Captain Bookheimer further declared that video footage of an inmate’s escort to the RHU is generally not retained, unless in the event of an extraordinary occurrence report or other event deemed necessary by the Facility Manager. (Doc. 91-2 at 12-13, Bookheimer Decl. ¶ 3). The video footage at issue was not retained because the incidents did not involve either a planned or unplanned use of force, and there is no evidence that Ansley’s escort to the RHU involved an event triggering retention of the video.

“When a party argues that spoliation occurred before the complaint was filed, the court must conduct a fact-sensitive inquiry to determine at what point the spoliating party reasonably should have anticipated the litigation.” Bistrian, 448 F. Supp. 3d at 468. Ansley states that defendants should have been aware of impending litigation based on two grievances he filed on October 9, 2020, related to a “rape plot” fabricated by defendants. (Doc. 89 at 10; Doc. 89-1 at 38). However, the filing of these grievances does not support a pre-litigation duty to preserve recordings. Such an obligation arises when a party reasonably should have anticipated litigation concerning the grieved incidents. Bistrian, 448 F. Supp. 3d at 468 (“A party `is under a duty to preserve what it knows, or reasonably should know, will likely be requested in reasonably foreseeable litigation.”). Based on the filing of grievances related to a rape plot, defendants could not have reasonably anticipated litigation concerning the escort to the RHU on June 25, 2020, an incident involving masturbation on January 10, 2021, and the escort to the psychiatric observation cell on March 18, 2021. Because defendants could not reasonably foresee litigation and appreciate that the video footage at issue should be preserved for possible use in that litigation, they were not under a duty to preserve the video footage.

Conclusion: there as no duty to preserve evidence under Rule 37(e) before the lawsuit was brought.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

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