Court Orders Inspection of Government Employee’s Home Computer for Metadata Associated with a Public Record
O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, 2010 WL 3911347 (Wash. Oct. 7, 2010). In this action concerning the Public Records Act (PRA), the plaintiffs sought disclosure of an email and its associated metadata that was sent to the deputy mayor alleging improprieties in city zoning decisions. The Court of Appeals determined the email was a public record to which the plaintiffs were entitled (along with the metadata) and remanded the case to the trial court. The defendants petitioned for review, which the Supreme Court of Washington granted. Upon review, the court referenced Lake v. City of Phoenix and determined that an electronic version of a record along with its embedded metadata was a public record subject to disclosure. Further, the court found the State Records Management Guidelines did not justify the deletion of emails or related metadata that were subject to a pending PRA request and held the plaintiffs were entitled to disclosure of the original email and associated metadata. In addition, the court reasoned that the PRA would be drastically undermined if government employees could circumvent it by using their home computers for government business and directed the City to inspect the hard drive of the deputy mayor’s computer to attempt recovery of the missing email and metadata. Accordingly, the court remanded giving the City the chance to search for the requested metadata, and instructed the trial court to determine whether the City has violated the PRA if the metadata is not found and to decide if a monetary penalty is appropriate.
As noted in the case summary above, O’Neill v. City of Shoreline cites the holding in Lake v. City of Phoenix. In that case the Supreme Court of Arizona determined that metadata was a part of the underlying electronic document that could not stand on its own and is thus subject to disclosure. This decision overturned the appellate court’s denial of the plaintiff’s request for metadata production finding the arguments unpersuasive regarding metadata’s value and authentication power.
These cases raise an important discussion surrounding metadata, which can be a valuable litigation and internal investigation tool, as it can be used to provide key pieces of relevant evidence and information. Metadata may also help establish or discount elements of a legal claim or defense, and serves to authenticate evidence at trial. Unfortunately, like other forms of ESI, it implicates a variety of new concerns that are not clearly addressed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Cases like O’Neill and Lake help to shed light on the discoverability of metadata.
Similar to other types of evidence, parties must exercise caution to avoid spoliation of metadata or risk facing sanctions. To help prevent metadata spoliation, develop and implement your client’s metadata preservation plan before the data collection begins. If you are unsure which metadata fields should be preserved, collected, reviewed and produced, seek clarification from the opposing party or the court. Counsel should also document all the steps taken to preserve this delicate evidence, in the event the opposing party brings a motion for spoliation sanctions. It is important to remember that spoliation concerns related to metadata may also arise in review and production. Thus, continue the established protocol developed to address metadata throughout the ediscovery process as necessary.
Metadata that is properly preserved can help uncover information about a particular case, and can help authenticate and interpret evidence by providing date and time stamps, network access logs, evidence of simultaneous user activity, version control information and more. Use metadata to your advantage, engaging the services of an expert when needed. An expert can testify about how metadata verifies the credibility of an electronic document, and can also help the judge or jury understand, interpret and evaluate the relationship between a piece of evidence and its associated metadata.