Case Law Update: Federal Court Endorses Targeted Search Term Based ESI Collection

By John Patzakis
April 13, 2022

A recent decision from the Southern District of New York provides that the parties’ have obligations to conduct reasonable searches during discovery, but such searches targeted search ESI collectionmay be targeted. The court invoked the proportionality concepts within the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which govern the production of Electronically Stored Information (“ESI”). In Raine Grp. v. Reign Capital, (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 22, 2022), the plaintiff, “a merchant bank with over 100 employees,” sued defendant “Reign Capital LLC, a two-person real estate development and management firm, for trademark infringement and unfair competition based on Defendant’s” name. After unsuccessful meet and confer efforts to negotiate an ESI protocol, the Court ruled on two key issues in dispute—the scope of the plaintiff’s search and collection obligations and the formulation of certain search terms.

The court, in its written decision, first articulated a party’s general obligations under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, noting that Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26 and 34 “require parties to conduct a reasonable search for documents that are relevant to the claims and defenses.” The court further noted that under Rule 26(a), “Parties have an affirmative obligation to search for documents which they may use to support their claims or defenses.” In meeting these obligations, the court provided that a producing party may utilize search methodologies, specifically mentioning search terms. The court observed that, “in this instance, the producing party must include and utilize search terms it believes are needed to fulfill its obligations under Rule 26 in addition to considering additional search terms requested by the requesting party.” The court—in addressing the concept of reasonable, proportional discovery under the Rules—continued: “In other words, the producing party must search custodians and locations it identifies on its own as sources for relevant information as part of its obligations under Rules 26 and 34.” Importantly, the court noted that “an ESI protocol and search terms work in tandem with the parties’ obligations under the Federal Rules…”

Additionally, the court advised the plaintiff to search not only the relevant custodians’ direct data sources, but also “other sources of data such as shared drives that are not particular to a specific custodian that should be searched as part of Plaintiffs’ obligations under Rule 26. Plaintiff is expected to conduct a reasonable search of such non-custodian sources likely to have relevant information.” The court here is making an important point about shared network drives, and that the parties have a duty to search them for relevant information. We have previously blogged about the importance of network file shares and how to effectively conduct eDiscovery on those critical data sources.

In regard to the formation of search terms, the court, explained that “[s]earch terms, while helpful, must be carefully crafted. Poorly crafted terms may return thousands of irrelevant documents and increase, rather than minimize the burden of locating relevant and responsive ESI. They also can miss documents containing a word that has the same meaning or that is misspelled.” The court further correctly advised that overly broad search terms “are typically not sufficiently targeted to find relevant documents. Modifiers are often needed to hone in on truly relevant documents.” This decision is very important as the court endorses the concept of utilizing highly targeted search terms and other parameters to defensibly collect and preserve potentially relevant ESI.

Additionally, this decision illustrates the necessity of an iterative, in-place search and collection process. None of the cost-saving, targeted collection efforts outlined by the court can be realized without an operational capability to effectuate them. Ideally, the producing party can employ a defensible, targeted, and iterative search and collection process in place, prior to collection to effectuate the proportional discovery process approved by the court in this decision. However, without such a capability, the alternative is an expensive, over-collection effort, where the data is searched post collection. Enabling the search iteration and targeted collection upstream brings dramatic cost savings, risk reduction, and other process efficiencies.