Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Important New Decisions - October 3, 2011

First Department Establishes Rules Related to Obligation of Nonparty to Produce Electronically Stored Information Deleted Through Normal Business Operations

In Tener v Cremer, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4389170 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept.) the First Department addressed the obligation of a nonparty to produce electronically stored information (ESI) deleted through normal business operations. The action underlying this discovery dispute concerned a statement about plaintiff that someone posted on a website known as Vitals.com on April 12, 2009. Plaintiff claimed this statement defamed her. Plaintiff claimed that through discovery she managed to trace the Internet protocol (IP) address of the computer from which the allegedly defamatory post originated "to a computer in the custody and control of New York University." This computer had accessed the Internet through a portal located at Bellevue Medical Center and registered to nonparty New York University Langone Medical Center. According to NYU's Chief Information Security Officer, NYU had installed the Internet portal at Bellevue for the convenience of its residents who trainedd there. The portal is a network address translation (NAT) portal that is essentially a switchboard through which a person can access the Internet. While only NYU personnel with proper security codes can gain access to NYU's computer system and medical records, anyone using a computer plugged into an ethernet outlet at Bellevue can access other web sites through the NYU portal. On April 30, 2010, plaintiff served a subpoena on NYU seeking the identity of all persons who accessed the Internet on April 12, 2009, via the IP address plaintiff previously identified. With the subpoena, plaintiff served a preservation letter advising NYU that the identity of the person who posted the remarks was at issue and that NYU should halt any normal business practices that would destroy that information. When NYU did not produce the information, plaintiff moved for contempt. In opposition to plaintiff's contempt motion, NYU's Chief Information Security Officer stated that "[c]omputers that simply access the web through NYU's portal appear as a text file listing that is automatically written over every 30 days. NYU does not possess the technological capability or software, if such exists, to retrieve a text file created more than a year ago and 'written over' at least 12 times." Plaintiff, in reply, submitted an affidavit from a forensic computer expert opining that NYU could still access the information using software designed to retrieve deleted information. The expert stated that "the term 'written over' is deceptive" because what really occurs is that " 'old' information or data is typically allocated to 'free space' within the system." Plaintiff's expert suggested using "X-Rays Forensic" or "Sleuth Kit" to retrieve the information from unallocated space.
Supreme Court denied the contempt motion in part because it found that NYU did not have the ability to produce the materials plaintiff demanded and that "this allegation is unrefuted as a reply affidavit contradicting such allegation has not been supplied." The Appellate Division held that Supreme Court was incorrect. In its papers in opposition to the motion, NYU offered no evidence that it made any effort at all to access the data, apparently because it believed it could not, as a nonparty, be required to install forensic software on its system. However, the cases that NYU cites to support its assertion that it need not install forensic software were outdated. The most recent was from 1993, nearly 20 years ago (see Carrick Realty Corp. v. Flores, 157 Misc.2d 868, 598 N.Y.S.2d 903 (Civ Ct, New York County 1993). Thus, there were several unanswered questions regarding NYU's ability to produce the requested documents.
The Appellate Division held that the party moving for civil contempt arising out of noncompliance with a subpoena duces tecum bears the burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, that the subpoena has been violated and that "the party from whom the documents were sought had the ability to produce them" (Yalkowsky v. Yalkowsky, 93 A.D.2d 834, 835 [1983]; see also Gray v. Giarrizzo, 47 A.D.3d 765, 766 [2008] ). In this day and age the discovery of ESI is commonplace. Although the CPLR is silent on the topic, the Uniform Rules of the Trial Courts and several courts have addressed the discovery of ESI and have provided working guidelines that are useful to judges and practitioners. The Commercial Division for Supreme Court, Nassau County publishes in depth guidelines for the discovery of ESI (the Nassau Guidelines). While aimed at parties, the Nassau Guidelines are appropriate in cases, such as this, where a nonparty's data is at issue. ESI is difficult to destroy permanently. Deletion usually only makes the data more difficult to access. Based on the specific facts of this case, the Court found that the Nassau Guidelines provided a practical approach. To exempt inaccessible data presumptively from discovery might encourage quick deletion as a matter of corporate policy, well before the spectre of litigation is on the horizon and the duty to preserve it attaches. A cost/benefit analysis, as the Nassau Guidelines provide, does not encourage data destruction because discovery could take place regardless. Plaintiff had variously described the information it seeks as stored in a "cache" file, as "unallocated" data or somewhere in backup data. Data from these sources is difficult to access. But, plaintiff's only chance to confirm the identity of the person who allegedly defamed her may lie with NYU. Thus, plaintiff thus demonstrated "good cause"necessitating a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether the needs of the case warrant retrieval of the data.
As the record was insufficient to permit the court to undertake a cost/benefit analysis it remanded to Supreme Court for a hearing to determine at least: (1) whether the identifying information was written over, as NYU maintained, or whether it is somewhere else, such as in unallocated space as a text file; (2) whether the retrieval software plaintiff suggested can actually obtain the data; (3) whether the data will identify actual persons who used the internet on April 12, 2009 via the IP address plaintiff identified; (4) which of those persons accessed Vitals.com and (5) a budget for the cost of the data retrieval, including line item(s) correlating the cost to NYU for the disruption. It observed that some of these questions (particularly [1] and [2] ) may involve credibility determinations. Until the court has this minimum information, it cannot assess "the burden and expense of recovering and producing the ESI and the relative need for the data" (Nassau Guidelines) and concomitantly whether the data is so "inaccessible" that NYU does not have the ability to comply with the subpoena. That NYU is a nonparty should also figure into the equation. In the event the data is retrievable without undue burden or cost, the court should give NYU a reasonable time to comply with the subpoena.

Family Court Finds Irrebuttable Presumption of Unfitness in SSL 378-a(2)(e)(1) and 378-a(2)(h) Violate Due Process Clauses of the New York State and United States Constitutions

In the Matter of the Adoption of Abel,--- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4436127 (N.Y.Fam.Ct.), Cheryl and Derrick Adamson filed a petition to adopt Abel. Abel was born on August 9, 2004. Since September 22, 2004 when Abel was discharged from the hospital, on the basis of a petition that had been filed alleging that his biological mother had neglected him, Abel resided in the home of his maternal cousin, Cheryl Adamson, and her husband, Derrick Adamson. On April 20, 2009, the court terminated Abel's biological mother's parental rights.. The evidence submitted provided incontrovertible support for the proposition that it was in Abel's best interest to be adopted by the Adamsons and clearly militated in favor of this court approving the Adamsons' petition to adopt Abel. Mr. Adamson's criminal history, however, created an issue as to whether there existed a statutory bar to such approval. Mr. Adamson had a 1987 Washington D.C. conviction for simple assault and a 1992 Kings County (New York State) conviction for Robbery in the Third Degree. On November 24, 2009, pursuant to Social Services Law 378-a(2)(h), New York Foundling conducted a safety assessment of the conditions of the Adamson household. Based on the remoteness in time of his criminal convictions and the fact that in the years since the 1992 robbery conviction, Mr. Adamson had reformed his behavior and has led a productive life, the safety assessment reported that Mr. Adamson did not pose a safety concern to Abel. The assessment concluded that because "Mr. Adamson has been the sole father figure in Abel's life, [New York Foundling] strongly believes that it is in the best interest of the child to be adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Adamson."
In order to gain further understanding of the facts underlying Mr. Adamson's 1992 robbery conviction, the court obtained the criminal court complaint and a transcript of Mr. Adamson's guilty plea. The criminal complaint alleged that on November 27, 1991, in Kings County, Mr. Adamson hit the victim with an unknown blunt object about his head and face and took a bag containing money that the victim had been carrying.The blows allegedly knocked out the victim's front teeth, caused his nose to bleed, and resulted in his sustaining a separated shoulder. On February 3, 1992, having been promised a sentence of one and one-third to four years imprisonment, Mr. Adamson pled guilty to one count of Robbery in the Third Degree and admitted that, on November 27, 1991, when the owner of a store came out [of the store], he hit him, caused him to fall, took his bag containing money, and fled. The Family Court observed that prior to the 2008 amendment of SSL 378-a(2)(e), the court would have found that Mr. Adamson's 1992 robbery conviction did not automatically disqualify him from adopting Abel because denial of Mr. and Mrs. Adamson's petition to adopt would have created an unreasonable risk of harm to Abel's mental health and granting said petition would have been in Abel's best interest and would not have placed his safety in jeopardy. However, in 2008, in order to comply with the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection Act of 2006, see Public Law 109-248, New York State eliminated the language in SSL 378--a which only presumptively disqualified from becoming foster or adoptive parents those who had been convicted of certain felonies, and by doing so made automatic the disqualification of those prospective foster or adoptive parents who had been convicted of certain felonies. The Court held that Mr. Adamson's conviction in 1992 for Robbery in the Third Degree fell within the category of convictions which would automatically disqualify him from adopting Abel. SSL 378-a(2)(e)(1)(A) reads, in pertinent part, "an application for certification or approval of a prospective foster parent or prospective adoptive parent shall be denied where a criminal history record of the prospective foster parent or prospective adoptive parent reveals a conviction for: (A) a felony conviction at any time involving: (i) child abuse or neglect; (ii) spousal abuse; (iii) a crime against a child, including child pornography; or (iv) a crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault, or homicide, other than a crime involving physical assault or battery. See also 18 NYCRR 421.27(d)(1); 42 USCA 671(a)(20)(A)(I); 45 C.F.R. 1356.30(b)(4). Since assault was specifically excluded from the above-cited provision and since Mr. Adamson's assault conviction was both a misdemeanor and occurred over five years ago, there was no doubt that, unlike the robbery conviction, the assault conviction fell within the category of convictions for which the court had discretion to approve or deny the petition to adopt. See SSL 378-a(2)(e)(3(A). Because robbery was not specifically mentioned in this provision, the court, therefore, found that Mr. Adamson's 1992 robbery conviction constituted a "crime involving violence. The fact that robbery is not specifically included in Social Services Law 378-a(2)(e)(1)(A)(iv) is not dispositive. Although this provision specifically includes rape, sexual assault and homicide and specifically excludes assault as crimes involving violence, there is nothing in either the legislative history of this provision or the state or federal regulations promulgated thereunder that would indicate that the listed crimes are exhaustive, and not merely illustrative, of crimes involving violence.
It was beyond cavil that Mr. Adamson had rehabilitated himself and that removal of Abel from this home would have a devastating impact upon Abel. Under the circumstances of this case, it was clear that to follow the strict mandate of the statute and deny Mr. and Mrs. Adamson's petition to adopt Abel and to remove Abel from the home of his maternal cousin and her husband-the only home he has ever known-based solely upon Mr. Adamson's 1992 robbery conviction, would deprive both Abel and the Adamsons of their due process right to an individualized determination of whether this adoption is in Abel's best interest. That right, to a case-specific determination, was firmly established almost forty years ago in Stanley v. Illinois, 605 U.S. 645(1972) when the United States Supreme Court struck down as violative of the Fourteenth Amendment, Illinois' irrebuttable statutory presumption that all unmarried fathers are unqualified to raise their children. The Court held that a hearing was required by the due process clause, upon the death of the mother and prior to the removal of the children, to determine whether the father was fit to raise the children. In so ruling, the Court opined, "procedure by [irrebuttable] presumption is always cheaper and easier than individualized determination. But when ... the procedure forecloses the determinative issues of competence and care, when it explicitly disdains present realities in deference to fast formalities, it needlessly risks running roughshod over the important interests of both parent and child ... [and] therefore cannot stand." Based upon the due process clauses of the New York State and United States Constitutions, this court found that SSL 378-a(2)(e)(1) and 378-a(2)(h), as applied to the facts of this matter, violated Mr. and Mrs. Adamson's and Abel's right to a determination, based on the totality of the circumstances, as to whether the adoption of Abel by the Adamsons is in Abel's best interest. The court examined the totality of the circumstances presented and notwithstanding Mr. Adamson's criminal past, held that it was in Abel's best interest to be adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Adamson and granted the petition.

Method of Service Provided for in Order to Show Cause Is Jurisdictional

In Matter of Sharma v New, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4389744 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.), in March 2010 the mother filed a petition and order to show cause to modify the overnight visitation provisions contained in an order dated January 14, 2010, alleging that the father violated that order by taking the subject child "to a different hotel than the one ... which he informed [the social worker] he would be using." In an order dated July 9, 2010, the Family Court, inter alia, granted the mother's petition so as to suspend the father's overnight visitation. The Appellate Division reversed. It observed that the method of service provided for in an order to show cause is jurisdictional in nature and must be strictly complied with. Moreover, where the court orders service by a particular date, all components of service must be accomplished by that date. Here, the record did not contain any evidence establishing that the father was properly or timely served in compliance with the provisions of the order to show cause. Moreover, contrary to the contention of the attorney for the child, the father asserted the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction in his answer and did not waive the defense (see CPLR 3211[e]). Since personal jurisdiction was not obtained, the Family Court should have dismissed the proceeding.

Father Did Not Implicitly Consent to Referee by Merely Participating in Custody Proceeding. Referee Had No Jurisdiction.

In Gale v Gale, --- N.Y.S.2d ----, 2011 WL 4090031 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept.) the Appellate Divison reversed on the law and remitted for a new hearing, an order of the Family Court which, after a hearing, granted the mother's petition to modify the custody provisions of a judgment of divorce so as to award her sole custody of the parties' children, and denied the fathers petitions for sole custody of the children. It pointed out that a referee derives authority from an order of reference by the court (see CPLR 4311), which can be made only upon the consent of the parties, except in limited circumstances not applicable here. It found that the parties did not stipulate to a reference in the manner prescribed by CPLR 2104. In any event, there was no indication that there was an order of reference designating the referee who heard and determined the petitions at issue here. It observed that that contrary to the mother's contention, the father did not implicitly consent to the reference merely by participating in the proceeding without expressing his desire to have the matter tried before a judge (see McCormack v. McCormack, 174 A.D.2d at 613). The Court held that “...to the extent that certain dicta in Chalu v. Tov-Le Realty Corp. (220 A.D.2d 552, 553) may suggest a different conclusion, it is not to be followed.” Furthermore, a stipulation consenting to a reference to a specified referee, executed by the parties in connection with the father's previous petition to modify the visitation schedule, expired upon completion of that matter and did not remain in effect for this matter. Accordingly, the referee had no jurisdiction to consider the father's petitions related to custody and visitation and the mother's petition to modify custody, and the referee's order determining those petitions had to be reversed.