A lawsuit between the Department of Justice and a company over body armor that the DOJ says is faulty is turning into a legal quagmire for the DOJ, which contends that an outside information-management firm, not DOJ itself, is responsible for a failure to produce data central to the dispute .
The suit, which has spawned the kind of nasty accusations not always associated with government suits, is between the DOJ and Honeywell International, which has already accused the department’s lawyers of misconduct, as Main Justice reported in July.
Now, the DOJ is blaming the information-management firm, Labat-Anderson, for lapses in turning over the relevant documents to Honeywell International – resorting to a “dog ate my homework” excuse, as Robert Hilson puts it in a posting on the website of the Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists.
Hilson writes that the stakes are high for several reasons. Millions of dollars were spent on the armor that DOJ says was deficient, a contention that Honeywell International denies. Moreover, the DOJ is trying to avoid severe sanctions that Honeywell is seeking to impose on it through U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
And, of course, Labat-Anderson, which describes itself as “a trusted provider of information management services to agencies, companies, and institutions that handle large volumes of data and have a fundamental need for confidentiality and security,” has a lot to lose.
The Honeywell case springs from a 1998 claim that the company allegedly knew the “Zylon Shield material” used in body armor sold to the government degraded “quickly over time,” particularly in hot and humid conditions, and failed to notify the government about the problem.
But Honeywell contends that the government later uncovered a huge trove of documents relating to the sale, some of which show that the company informed the government about the problem and repeatedly offered to share test data and expertise with the government.
“Labat, a company acquired in May 2009 by Altegrity, a holding company for USIS, HireRight and Kroll, said it does not comment on ongoing litigation,” Hilman wrote for ACEDS. (He noted that Providence Equity Partners is the parent company of Altegrity.)
Regardless of which party is ultimately held responsible, the dispute with Honeywell seems to have turned into a nightmare for the DOJ, which says it has spent more than $1 million just trying to process millions of words of relevant information.
Some of the relevant documents, e-mail communications and computer data were turned over so late that discovery deadlines in the lawsuit have been repeatedly been pushed back. Not only that, but some of the material was little more than “gibberish,” Honeywell contends. And if all that weren’t enough, some of it contained obscenities and vulgarities not intended for outside eyes, let alone for the public spectacle of a major lawsuit.
As the ACEDS article recounts, Honeywell accuses the DOJ, among other things, of “Sponsor[ing] inaccurate and misleading deposition testimony and sworn interrogatory responses contradicted by documents it claimed did not exist.”
The DOJ counters by saying that Honeywell “invents dark motivations” in coming up with accusations so wild that they include “in effect, suborning perjury.”
The ACEDS piece offers an opinion that, regardless of the outcome of the Honeywell case, a lack of funding “leaves government attorneys undermanned, outgunned and ill-equipped to handle cases with voluminous electronically stored information.”
“Understaffed or not, the Justice Department must weigh personnel questions against fresh concerns that its e-discovery capabilities are not keeping pace with the proliferation of electronic evidence in cases such as the one involving Honeywell,” the ACEDS article concludes.
And, of course, no one expects the universe of electronic data to stop expanding.