Don’t Sledgehammer Your Computer After Suing Someone

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By IT-Lex Member Jason Pill (Bio)

A recent district court decision may hold appeal for anyone who has wanted to fulfill their inner-most “Office Space” fantasy.  No, not the fantasy of owning your very own Red Swingline stapler (although such an item can be purchased here, and makes for a great stocking stuffer this time of year).  I am referring to the infamous scene where the main characters, Peter, Samir, and Michael Bolton, demolish a temperamental fax machine/copier/printer (all-in-one!) against the idyllic backdrop of a summer meadow.   Inspired by the movie, the plaintiff in Taylor v. Mitre Corp., 2012 WL 5473573 (E.D. Va. Nov. 8, 2012), went “Office Space” on his work desktop by taking a “sledgehammer to it” and disposing of it in a local landfill after filing a charge against his employer for FMLA discrimination and failure to accommodate his disabilities—but it does not end there.

In 2009, Plaintiff secured counsel in anticipation of bringing a lawsuit against his employer.  Counsel advised Plaintiff of his obligation to preserve and maintain all relevant documents or files in his possession.  In November 2010, Plaintiff filed his EEOC charge.  Sometime in 2011, Plaintiff’s work computer allegedly “died” and he attempted to back-up the files (including work-related emails), with partial success to his laptop. After transferring the limited information he could, Plaintiff “wiped his work desktop” and then—ignoring counsel’s advice—“took a sledgehammer to it,” before ultimately disposing of it in a landfill.  (For the curious type, the Court did, in fact, ruminate on the size and magnitude of Plaintiff’s weapon of choice.  The Court noted that Plaintiff’s accounts of the size and type of the hammer varied, but Plaintiff did not deny that he smashed the computer with “some nature of mallet.”)

Despite these efforts, Plaintiff was not quite done.  After filing suit in November 2011, Plaintiff was ordered to submit his laptop to inspection.  The forensic expert examining Plaintiff’s laptop concluded that Plaintiff had purchased and run a program called Evidence Eliminator, a program whose express purpose was removing “sensitive material” from an individual’s hard drive, and had extensively researched evidence-removing software online before ultimately purchasing Evidence Eliminator.  And, because these things occur in threes, the forensic expert further determined that Plaintiff had run another program, called CCleaner, at least twice in the week between the Magistrate Judge’s order and the date upon which Plaintiff submitted his laptop for inspection.  By the nature of these programs, the Magistrate Judge was unable to conclude how many files were deleted from Plaintiff’s laptop.  Nevertheless, the Magistrate Judge recommended dismissing Plaintiffs claims outright, based on the severity and magnitude of Plaintiff’s destruction.

The District Court, in adopting the Magistrate’s recommendation, noted that any one of Plaintiff’s actions would have likely been sufficient to warrant sanctions, and had no reservation in dismissing Plaintiff’s claims entirely.  Based on the egregious and intentional nature of Plaintiff’s actions, and given his knowledge and experience as a computer expert, the Court adopted the Magistrate’s ruling granting Defendant’s Motion for Sanctions, dismissing Plaintiff’s claims against Defendant with prejudice and awarding Defendant fees and costs associated with its Motion for Sanctions.  The full order can be read here [.doc].

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