North Carolina May Require Licensing For Computer Forensic Consultants, But Do We Need It?

In cases in the Business Court, the lawyers are often assisted by computer forensics experts in dealing with electronic discovery issues. That’s becoming almost essential in complicated business cases.

Anyone can do this type of work right now.  I get regular phone calls and emails from people pitching this type of work.  But there is regulation in the works in North Carolina to clamp down on who can provide computer forensic services.

The North Carolina Board which regulates private investigators is looking at proposing legislation that would require that someone be a licensed private investigator before being able to do computer forensics work. Regulation in this area isn’t a revolutionary idea. You have to be licensed in some states to analyze electronically stored information, although there are great variances from state to state. Kessler International recently did a national survey on state licensing requirements.  An American Bar Association Committee recently issued a report recommending against such licensing, as discussed below.

The driving force for the North Carolina legislation is the Private Protective Services Board, which regulates private investigators and others in the "private protective services professions."  The Board is working on amendments to N.C. Gen. Stat. Chapter 74C to require a private investigator’s license for anyone doing computer forensics consulting.

Here's a draft of the legislation, which was recently approved by the Board's Computer Forensics Committee. It creates a new license category for a "Digital Forensics Examiner," which it defines as "any person who, on a contractual basis, engages in the profession of or accepts employment to conduct examinations of digitally stored data in order to recover, image, analyze, or examine such data to determine responsibility and/or reconstruct usage of such data."  A person seeking such a license will need to have 3,000 hours of experience in digital forensics or a closely related field in order to be licensed, and to have completed basic training offered by the company supplying the analysis software used by the licensee.

The Board provided me with excerpts from other committee meetings at which the amendments were discussed, and also the draft minutes from the June 9, 2008 meeting of the committee.

Attorneys are exempt from the current statute, as are their agents, “provided the agent is performing duties only in connection with his or her principal’s practice of law.” G.S. §74C-3(b)(4). That exemption presumably would continue if the statute is amended, so this legislation may not prove to be a major issue for litigation matters if a lawyer retains the consultant, but if a client hires a consultant to perform analysis before litigation, that might be an issue. 

The proposed amendment also exempts accountants and others it defines, including "persons employed to conduct network security operations up to the point of responsibility for network security violations," and "members of network security compromise response teams."

The American Bar Association's Section of Science and Technology Law is also looking at this issue, and has come to a completely different conclusion regarding the need for licensing. The Report from the Section concludes that there shouldn't be licensing, and recommends that the ABA should take a position discouraging the states from enacting regulatory legislation. Their rationale is that this is a technical area outside the expertise of those regulating private investigators, that there are professional certification programs available for forensic specialists, and that judges can in the final analysis determine whether a person is qualified to testify about the forensic work that he or she did. (Thanks to the TechDirt blog for this information).

A Public Utility Can Limit All Liability For Breach Of Contract And Negligence

Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical Industries, Inc. v. Carolina Power & Light Co., 2008 NCBC 16 (N.C. Super. Ct. Sept. 15, 2008)(Jolly)

As the North Carolina Business Court framed the issue in its opinion yesterday in Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical Industries, Inc. v. Carolina Power & Light Co., it was "whether and to what extent a public utility contractually may limit its liability for subsequent acts pursuant to the filed rate doctrine, as adopted by the North Carolina Supreme Court."  The answer from Judge Jolly, in a case of first impression, was that such limitations of liability can be complete.

Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, asserted in its Complaint that CP&L had breached contracts to provide it with uninterrupted power.  The Plaintiff alleged that it had entered into these contracts because if it lost power, even briefly, the insulin it manufactured would be contaminated and a costly clean up process would be necessary.  The Complaint asserted that CP&L had breached those contracts on three occasions, causing it substantial damage, and made claims for breach of contract and negligence.

There were three contracts involved.  Two of them said that neither CP&L "nor its employees, its subcontractors, or suppliers shall be liable for any direct, indirect, general, special, incidental, exemplary, or consequential loss or damage of any nature arising out of their performance or non-performance hereunder."  The third contract contained similar language, but limited a recovery to "the total of monthly payments made by" Novo Nordisk.

Judge Jolly held that he was "forced to agree" that the limitations of liability in the contracts approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission were valid as to both CP&L and its subcontractor.  He made this ruling based on the filed rate doctrine, "which provides that a plaintiff may not challenge a Commission-approved filed rate, including attendant contractual provisions, unless that challenge is made while the proposed rate is before the Utilities Commission for approval."

The Court noted that the liability limitations played a role in the rate being approved by the Utilities Commission, and stated that if the limitations were held invalid that the "price for the service . . . would remain the same.  This would effect an alteration of the relative position of the parties as approved by the Commission, and would constitute a collateral attack on the filed rate."

Novo Nordisk had argued that the limitations of liability should be void on public policy grounds, and that a public utility could not contract away liability for negligence in the regular course of its business.  The Court ruled, however, that the contracts involved "permanent on-site commercial power, which is not directly related to the public service," and that the limitations of liability in the contracts did not violate public policy.

New Federal Rule of Evidence 502 Deals With Attorney-Client Privilege, Waiver, And Inadvertent Production

There's going to be a new Federal Rule of Evidence, approved by voice vote in the House this week and unanimously by the Senate earlier this year.  It's on President Bush's desk for signature (that's him signing the baseball in the picture at the left), and should be on the books in the next few weeks.  

The new addition to the Rules is Rule 502, titled "Attorney-Client Privilege and Work Product: Limitations on Waiver."  New Rule 502 covers the scope of a waiver of privilege and the issue of inadvertent production of privileged documents, among other waiver related issues. 

The full text of the Rule is at the bottom, but here's a synopsis:

  • If a waiver of privilege is found, the waiver extends to undisclosed communications or information only if (1) the waiver is intentional,  (2) the other communications involve the same subject matter, and (3) the communications "ought in fairness to be considered together."  Rule 502(a).
  • If the disclosure is inadvertent, it does not operate as a waiver in either federal or state court if (1) the disclosure was inadvertent, (2) the holder of the privilege took "reasonable steps to prevent disclosure," and (3) the holder "promptly took reasonable steps to rectify the error."  Rule 502(b)
  • If the disclosure was made in a state court proceeding, it doesn't operate as a waiver in a federal proceeding if either the disclosure wouldn't have been a waiver under the federal rule, or it wouldn't be a waiver under state law. Rule 502(c).
  • If the Court enters an Order (like a consent Protective Order) that a disclosure will not be a waiver, that Order will bar any determination by another federal court or a state court that a waiver has occurred.  In other words, such a judicially approved non-waiver provision will have effect beyond the pending litigation, which isn't the case now.  Since parties can provide by such an agreement that, for example, there will be no waiver irrespective of the care taken by the disclosing party, no-waiver provisions will no doubt become stock provisions in Protective Orders. An agreement between the parties on waiver issues won't be effective unless it becomes part of a Court Order.  Rule 502(d) and (e).

The new Rule resolves conflict between courts throughout the country on whether an inadvertent production results in waiver.  North Carolina's District Courts had reached different conclusions on that issue.  Scott v. Glickman, 199 F.R.D. 174 (E.D.N.C. 2001) and Parkway Gallery v. Kittinger/Pennsylvania H. Group, 116 F.R.D. 46 (M.D.N.C.1987) followed the flexible approach espoused by the new Rule, but the Western District had held that even an inadvertent production waived privilege, in Thomas v. Pansy Ellen Products, Inc., 672 F. Supp. 237 (W.D.N.C. 1987).

The Rule takes effect immediately upon the President's signature.  It applies to all cases filed after its enactment, and applies to pending cases "insofar as is just and practicable."

I read about Congress' passage of the Rule on the Electronic Discovery Law blog. The full text of the Rule is below, the explanatory note is here.

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Rules Are Rules, Make Sure To Comply With Those Of The Business Court

In North Carolina Superior Court, there is no civil procedure tradition more respected than the courtesy of a thirty day extension of time to answer a Complaint or to respond to discovery.  Like it or not, motions seeking the extra month are granted almost without exception, and are so routine that the requesting party usually doesn't even bother to ask for the consent of opposing counsel.

The same courtesy applies in the Business Court, but there are rules to be followed.  Business Court Rule 9.2 says that "the movant shall have a good faith basis for requesting any such extension of time and, except in extraordinary cases, the movant shall first consult with any opposing party and reflect that party's position in the motion and indicate whether the opposing party wishes to be heard on the motion."

If you don't follow the Rules, you aren't going to get your extension. That's the message of a short ruling today in Velocity Fiber Broadband, LLC v. Lang Management, Inc., in which the required consultation hadn't occurred.  Judge Jolly, in denying the plaintiff's motion to respond to a counterclaim, stated "notwithstanding that the . . . reporting requirements of Rule 9.2 of the Business Court Rules may be viewed by some as merely a technicality and not substantive, the requirements are clear and simple, and compliance with them promotes efficiency in case administration by the court and counsel."

There are hyperlinked Business Court Rules available on the sidebar of this blog.  By hyperlinked, I mean that you can click on a section of the table of contents of the Rules and you'll get taken to the particular Rule, and then you can click back again.

The Law And Duke Football: The Video

This is a follow-up to the most read post on this blog.  That's the one about the lawsuit brought by the University of Louisville against Duke University when Duke backed out of its contract to play four football games against the Cardinals. Louisville sought a contractual cancellation fee of $150,000 per cancelled game, but Duke won the case on a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.

You can read the earier post here, but a quick synopsis of Kentucky Judge Phillip Shepherd's decision is that Louisville was not entitled to damages because the contract said that Louisville could not get damages if it was able to replace Duke with teams of "similar stature."  The Court observed that at oral argument, Duke . . . persuasively asserted that this is a threshold that could not be any lower."  The Court adopted Duke's argument that any football team playing in former Division 1-A and many in former Division 1-AA were of "similar statute" to Duke, and dismissed the case. 

Since then, I've been wondering: what exactly did Duke's lawyers say to Judge Shepherd to so "persuasively assert" that Duke football is so bad?

Well, not only can I fill you in on that, you can watch and see for yourselves.  The Court in Franklin County, Kentucky, videotapes some of their hearings, and a video excerpting the highlights of the Louisville v. Duke hearing is at the top of this post. (There's no criticism of the lawyering here, Duke's lawyer did a great job, and after all, she won the case for her client.).  The video takes a few seconds to get going.

If you don't want to take the time to watch the video, you can keep reading to see exactly what was said.

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Electronically Stored Information: New Sedona Principles On Preservation Of ESI

The small Arizona town of Sedona is one of the centers of the e-discovery universe, and the Sedona Conference's Best Practices for dealing with electronic discovery issues have been favorably referenced by many Courts, including the North Carolina Business Court (see here and here).

Now, the Conference has put out a Commentary on Preservation, Management and Identification of Sources of Information that are not Reasonably Accessible.  Why should you care about that?

The answer is that the term "reasonably accessible" is contained in Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, governing document production, which says that "a party need not provide discovery of electronically stored information from sources that the party identifies as not reasonably accessible because of undue burden or cost."  (North Carolina Rule 34, last amended twenty-one years ago with a quill pen, contains no such language).

The new Commentary contains detailed guidelines for determining how to make the determination of accessibility, and when electronic information should be preserved.  The Guidelines themselves are below, from the Electronic Discovery Law blog (which is a great resource for court decisions on e-discovery matters) but the Commentary itself contains many useful examples and case citations and is worth reading.   

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The Practice Of "Litigation Funding" Gets A Chilly Reception From The North Carolina Court Of Appeals

Today, the North Carolina Court of Appeals allowed a plaintiff to proceed with her lawsuit that "litigation funding," the practice by which private firms make advances to plaintiffs involved in litigation in exchange for a substantial return in the event of a successful result, violates the law of North Carolina. Reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals let stand claims for usury, unfair and deceptive practices, and a violation of the North Carolina Consumer Finance Act. The Court threw out, however, claims that this practice constitutes "unlawful gaming" and champerty. 

In the case of Odell v. Legal Bucks, LLC, the litigation funder had advanced Ms. Odell $3,000 for her motor vehicle accident claim.  Ms. Odell ultimately settled her claim for $18,000, but found that the terms of her agreement required her to pay Legal Bucks $9,582, or more than triple the advance that she had received. Ms. Odell, certainly unhappy at having to give up more than half of her recovery, then sued Legal Bucks, seeking class certification on her multiple claims.

The principal argument of Legal Bucks against the usury claim was that Ms. Odell was not under an absolute obligation to repay the money she had been advanced, and that the arrangement between them was therefore not usurious.  The Court recognized that the litigation funding was not a "loan," because a "loan" carries the requirement of an unconditional obligation to repay principal, but held that N.C. Gen. Stat. §24-1.1 also covers "advances," which do not have the same requirement. The Court found that the agreement between the parties demonstrated an understanding that the principal of the advance would be returned, meeting a key element of the test for usury. The Court further found that there was no dispute "that the rate of interest provided for in the Agreement substantially exceeds that permitted" by the statute, and that Legal Bucks had "intentionally entered into a contract to receive a greater amount of interest that that allowed" by law.

Since Legal Bucks wasn't licensed under the Consumer Finance Act, that made out a violation of the Act, as did its violation of the usury statute. The unfair and deceptive practices claim also went forward, over Legal Bucks' objection that the terms of the agreement had been fully disclosed to the plaintiff. The Court held that:

 "violations of statutes designed to protect the consuming public and violations of established public policy may constitute unfair and deceptive trade practices." In this regard, we note that it is a "paramount public policy of North Carolina to protect North Carolina resident borrowers through the application of North Carolina interest laws." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 24-2.1 (2003). [The] [d]efendants' practice of offering usurious loans was a clear violation of this policy.

 

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Court of Appeals Rulings Today (September 2, 2008)

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled today on cases involving the statute of repose applicable to legal malpractice actions, fiduciary duties of trustees, and the waiver of the right to arbitration.

On the fiduciary duty issue, the Court affirmed the decision of the Business Court in Heinitsh v. Wachovia Bank on an obscure point of trust law for which it observed there was "surprisingly little guidance." The trustee in Heinitsh was caught between the income beneficiaries and the remaindermen of a substantial trust over a dispute whether millions of dollars from the sale of property should be categorized as income or principal. During the dispute, the trustee took the disputed funds and invested them in a money market account. The plaintiff, an income beneficiary, argued that the trustee's duties required it to maximize income in her favor, and that the trustee had breached its fiduciary duties by placing the funds in a low-yielding money market account. The Court of Appeals held that "holding the retained funds during the pending litigation was reasonable in light of the circumstances and defendant did not breach its fiduciary duty to plaintiff." The Court suggested, however, that "the better practice may be to interplead the funds. . . ."

The legal malpractice case is Goodman v. Holmes & McLaurin Attorneys at Law. The plaintiff had sued outside the four year statute of statute of repose contained in N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-15(c), but contended that the law firm was equitably estopped from asserting the statute given a lawyer's active conduct in trying to hide the fact of his malpractice.  The Court of Appeals found that conduct of concealment to be "particularly egregious," but held that "this Court has consistently refused to apply equitable doctrines to estop a defendant from asserting a statute of repose defense in the legal malpractice context. . . ."  It found plaintiff's claims therefore to be barred by the statute of repose.

In Gemini Drilling and Foundation, LLC v. National Fire Insurance Co. of Hartford, the Court found that the defendant had waived its right to arbitration. The defendant had filed a motion to compel arbitration, and lost. Instead of taking an immediate interlocutory appeal, which it had the right to do, it participated in discovery and then a bench trial of the claim. The Court held that the purpose of arbitration "would be defeated if a party could reserve its right to appeal an interlocutory order denying arbitration, allow the substantive lawsuit to run its course (which could take years), and then, if dissatisfied with the result, seek to enforce the right to arbitration on appeal from the final judgment."

There's another case from today's opinions, Odell v. Legal Bucks, LLC, which I'll deal with separately. You can find all of the Court of Appeals opinions today here.

The photo of the Court of Appeals building is from Juliet Sperling.