6.04.2008

Sixth Circuit Grants En Banc Review in Case to Determine Whether State or Federal Law Governs Spoliation of Evidence

The Sixth Circuit has granted en banc review in a case in which a panel of the court noted that the Circuit's rule applying state law to determine spoliation of evidence issues was out of step with the approach taken in other circuits. Here is an excerpt from the panel opinion in Adkins v. Wolever, 520 F.3d 585 (6th Cir. Mar. 21, 2008):

Under the law as it currently stands in our Court, we cannot say that the district court abused its discretion in failing to provide relief for third-party spoliation of evidence. At present, the rules that apply to spoliation of evidence require the application of state law in federal question cases such as this one. See Beck v. Haik, 377 F.3d 624, 641 (6th Cir.2004); Welsh v. United States, 844 F.2d 1239, 1245 (6th Cir.1988). We are bound by these decisions, correct or not. See Salmi v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 774 F.2d 685, 689 (6th Cir.1985); 6th CIR. R. 206(c) ( “Reported panel opinions are binding on subsequent panels.”). The decisions are not without contrary precedent, however. See Beil v. Lakewood Engineering and Mfg. Co., 15 F.3d 546, 552 (6th Cir.1994). In Beil, we stated that although evidence destroyed during the course of a lawsuit in our Court is subject to Federal Rule 37 sanctions, the availability of sanctions for pre-litigation destruction “must be found in the substantive law of the case.” Id. Because the conduct for which Adkins seeks sanctions arose before litigation, and because Adkins's lawsuit arises under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, federal law arguably could apply. Indeed, every other circuit to directly address the issue of spoliation of evidence and appropriate sanctions applies federal law, and does so even in diversity cases. See Davison v. Cole Sewell Corp., 231 Fed.Appx. 444, 452 n. 4 (6th Cir.2007).

Applying federal law in this evidentiary realm makes good sense. Federal courts generally apply their own evidentiary rules in both diversity and federal question matters, and therefore federal law should govern whether a district court abused its discretion in declining to apply spoliation sanctions. See King v. Ill. Central R.R., 337 F.3d 550, 556 (5th Cir.2003); Hodge v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 360 F.3d 446, 449-50 (4th Cir.2004). Quite simply, imposition of sanctions for spoliation is an inherent power of federal courts, and therefore the decision to impose them should be governed by federal law.

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