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Sixth Circuit Addresses Spoliation Sanction Standard

In holding that the determination of a spoliation sanction should be left to the discretion of the district court, considering the facts of each case individually, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held it would not upset a district court's decision unless it constituted an abuse of discretion.

The appellate court entered its ruling in a case involving Michigan state prisoner Kenneth Ray Adkins, who argued that he was entitled to an adverse inference instruction because video and photographic evidence related to his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive use of force claim against prison guard Basil Wolever had been lost by officials at the Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility.

Adkins claimed in his suit that Wolever had assaulted him "by yanking his hands through a slot in the cell door before removing his handcuffs." As a sanction for the missing video and photographic evidence, he asked the district court to instruct the jury that they could presume the evidence would have been favorable to him.

Applying Michigan law as required by Sixth Circuit precedent at the time, the court denied Adkins' request. The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Wolever. Adkins appealed the district court's denial of the spoliation sanction and the Sixth Circuit panel affirmed. See: Adkins v. Wolever, 520 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. 2008).

In an en banc ruling, the Court of Appeals joined its sister circuits in holding that federal courts are not constrained by state law when crafting proper spoliation sanctions, and remanded the case to the district court for consideration of Adkins' request for a new trial. See: Adkins v. Wolever, 554 F.3d 650 (6th Cir. 2009).

The district court held an evidentiary hearing on remand, again determined that a spoliation sanction was not warranted, and again denied Adkins' motion for a new trial or other relief. Adkins appealed.

The Sixth Circuit began its analysis by discussing the standard for determining whether a spoliation sanction is appropriate. "A party seeking an adverse inference instruction based on the destruction of evidence must establish (1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant to the party's claim or defense...," the appellate court wrote, quoting from Beaven v. United States Dept. of Justice, 622 F.3d 540 (6th Cir. 2010). "Thus, an adverse inference for evidence spoliation is appropriate if the Defendants knew the evidence was relevant to some issue at trial and their culpable conduct resulted in its loss or destruction. This depends on the alleged spoliator's mental state regarding any obligation to preserve evidence and the subsequent destruction."

The district court found that preservation of the evidence in Adkins' case "was entirely beyond Officer Wolever's control," and a spoliation sanction is only warranted "by showing that the evidence was destroyed knowingly, even if without intent to breach a duty to preserve it, or negligently." Wolever, the district court held, had no control over or access to the evidence and thus could not be culpable for its loss.

The Sixth Circuit refused to set a bright line test for spoliation sanctions. "The ultimate determination of culpability is within the district court's discretion so long as it is not a clearly erroneous interpretation of the facts," the Court of Appeals stated. The most prudent path, "and the one we adopt today, is to consider incidences raising spoliation questions on a case-by-case basis, considering the purpose of a spoliation sanction and the factors for determining whether one should be imposed."

Finding there was no abuse of discretion, the district court's order was affirmed. See: Adkins v. Wolever, 692 F.3d 499 (6th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Adkins v. Wolever