Sixth Circuit En Banc Resolves Federal Spoliation Law Question

After a prior circuit panel urged en banc consideration to resolve conflict with other circuits, an en banc Sixth Circuit addressed whether state or federal spoliation law applies, in Adkins v. Wolever, 554 F.3d 650 (6th Cir. Feb. 4, 2009)

As previously posted, a Sixth Circuit panel had urged the circuit to rehear en banc an issue concerning the application of federal or state law for imposing sanctions for the spoliation of evidence. See Adkins v. Wolever, 520 F.3d 585, 587 (6th Cir. 2008). In applying state law, the panel upheld the denial of sanctions by the district court since state law did not allow for sanctions based on third-party spoliation. However, the panel had noted that other circuits applied federal law. Since the panel was bound by Sixth Circuit precedent, it urged the full circuit to rehear the matter.

In the case, plaintiff Adkins, a Michigan state prisoner, brought an action against prison guard Wolever alleging that the guard assaulted him, causing serious injuries. An inspector conducted an investigation which included a review of video and color photographs of the incident. An inspector concluded the claim could not be substantiated. During civil discovery, the plaintiff requested the film and photographic evidence. The items were not produced after the prison reported they were lost or destroyed. During the trial, the plaintiff requested a spoliation instruction to allow the jury to draw an adverse inference from the unavailable evidence. In applying state law, the trial court denied the request “because Michigan’s spoliation instruction required Adkins to demonstrate that the spoliated evidence was under Wolever’s control.” Adkins, 554 F.3d at 652. After the defendant prevailed at trial, the plaintiff appealed. The circuit affirmed but recommended en banc resolution of the split in case law.

The Sixth Circuit “granted rehearing en banc to bring our case law in line with other courts of appeals” and held “as does every other federal court of appeals to have addressed the question — that a federal court’s inherent powers include broad discretion to craft proper sanctions for spoliated evidence.” Adkins, 554 F.3d at 651 (citing Silvestri v. Gen. Motors Corp., 271 F.3d 583, 590 (4th Cir. 2001); Reilly v. Natwest Mkts. Group Inc., 181 F.3d 253, 267 (2d Cir. 1999); Glover v. BIC Corp., 6 F.3d 1318, 1329 (9th Cir. 1993)).

The Sixth Circuit en banc noted two reasons to align with the precedent in other circuits:

“First, the authority to impose sanctions for spoliated evidence arises not from substantive law but, rather, ‘from a court’s inherent power to control the judicial process.’ Silvestri, 271 F.3d at 590 (citing Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 45-46 (1991)). Second, a spoliation ruling is evidentiary in nature and federal courts generally apply their own evidentiary rules in both federal question and diversity matters. King v. Ill. Cent. R.R., 337 F.3d 550, 556 (5th Cir. 2003) These reasons persuade us now to acknowledge the district court’s broad discretion in crafting a proper sanction for spoliation.” Adkins, 554 F.3d at 652.

The en banc panel noted the discretion with the district court in fashioning an appropriate sanction for spoliated evidence. The case was remanded to the district court to determine “whether sanctions for spoliation are appropriate and whether Adkins is entitled to a new trial because the denial of any such sanctions affected his substantial rights.” Adkins, 554 F.3d at 653.



Update:

Further details of the Adkins case and its resolution by the circuit will be found in
vol 6, no 3 (March 2009)
of the Federal Evidence Review.

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