E-Mail Retention: The High Cost of Digging Up Data

Case study: When encountering legal or regulatory action, technology managers who fail to get corporate data fast or vouch for its completeness can cost their companies millions of dollars. Learn what happened to WestLB, an investment bank, when it

In the cool air of a law firm conference room one day last summer in New York, conversation flares hot.

Hostile lawyers handling a sex discrimination case against investment bank WestLB shoot questions at Ken Bigelow, chief information officer at the New York branch of the German investment bank, which has $314 billion in assets. How does the company preserve e-mail? How often? For how long?

Lawyers for the plaintiff, Claudia Quinby, are fighting about which e-mail, instant messages and other electronic information WestLB should turn over to them. Quinby, a former saleswoman in the equities group, sued WestLB in U.S. District Court in New York in September 2004 for sex discrimination, retaliation and violation of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

She claims the bank discriminated against her because of her gender by cutting her bonus pay and that when she complained, it retaliated by wrongly firing her in June 2003. She was rehired three months later, then wrongly fired again in April 2004, she says in her lawsuit, filed just 17 days before her pension would have vested. WestLB admits terminating Quinby twice because it was "dissatisfied with plaintiffs performance," according to the banks response. WestLB denies her other accusations. Quinby says she has lost pay and professional opportunities and suffered emotional distress.

To try to prove their case, Quinbys legal team requested that WestLB exhume thousands of e-mails and documents from as far back as 2000 for key players in the case, such as her former boss, peers and human-resources managers. They sought messages containing anti-female language, for example, or online conversations to support claims that Quinby was excluded from key get-togethers and that WestLB violated laws in how it let her go.

At his deposition that July afternoon, Bigelow acknowledges he didnt know of Quinbys lawsuit until a few days earlier, when WestLBs in-house counsel told him to make sure no e-mail was deleted.

WestLB had recently started to collect electronic evidence for the case, according to court papers. Bigelow was there to explain the whereabouts of the company e-mail that Quinby demanded, and how the banks technology systems were set up so that Quinbys side could assess for themselves what information might be available to them and how onerous it would be for WestLB to produce. He was questioned under oath for 2 1/2 hours.

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