To Shred or Not to Shred – That is the Question

To Shred or Not to Shred – That is the Question
Kathy Parker, CP,
has been a member of Humboldt County Legal Professionals Association for 18 years,
holding numerous chair and board positions. She is the current Governor and Executive
Advisor, most recently sitting as president in 2012-2013. She is a certified paralegal
employed in civil litigation and insurance defense at the Law Offices of Mitchell, Brisso,
Delaney & Vrieze, LLP, in Eureka, California.
To Shred or Not to Shred –
That is the Question
by Kathy Parker, CP — Submitted by Humboldt County LPA
e have an annual “cleaning day” at our office, where
the staff vaguely become aware that the numerous
and/or voluminous files that have been closed and
stored upstairs during the last year have filled storage to
capacity and some must either be carted to off-site storage
or destroyed.
The basic understood principle that
readily comes to mind has always been
“records must be retained for seven
years . . . or is it ten?” -- a vague misunderstanding that rises to the surface
annually when contemplating ones
own tax records (for clarification, see: But what
does “records retention” mean in the
law office and when can documents be
shredded? That answer is not as simple
as it once was considered to be, and for
the purpose of this article, will basically
cover the background for requirements
pertaining to retention or shredding of
The procedures for preservation
and non-preservation of information
have become more complex due to the
electronic age and privacy issues. Of
course, different kinds of documents
require different handling or retention
periods. (For example, a client’s estate
plan or corporate records should be
kept in perpetuity, pending death or
dissolution; but a paper file containing
a lawsuit that settled a number of years
ago may not need to be kept, while its
key electronic storage may be useful for
future or separate litigation purposes.)
However, eventually, even legal docu-
ments lose their value and become
obsolete. Keeping them indefinitely
can expose your clients to unnecessary
risks that can be avoided with a document destruction strategy. Regulatory
compliance and increased emphasis
on ethical conduct and accountability demand that you safeguard your
clients’ privacy and administrative
records. i
The United States Supreme Court
determined a case that helped define
privacy rights relating to material discarded as trash. (California v. Greenwood,
486 U.S. 35 (1988).) In this case, the
Supreme Court held that the Fourth
Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage
left for collection outside the curtilage
of a home. ii
Greenwood had thrown out information in his trash that incriminated him
in a crime, and the information was
used to gain a conviction. Greenwood
claimed that he was the victim of an
unlawful search and that his privacy
rights had been violated. In its ruling,
the Supreme Court stated that there
could be no expectation of privacy
in trash left accessible to the public.
The Court further stated it is common
knowledge that garbage is readily
accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the
public (including criminals, investigators, journalists, garbage collection
agencies, law enforcement, etc.).
Privacy protection is experiencing a
rebirth in legislative activity. The runaway crime of “identity theft” is causing
a groundswell of interest in the electorate; hence, also in our state and federal
politicians. “Identity theft” also has a
connection to national security issues.
The concept of protecting the
privacy of ordinary citizens did not
become significant until the beginning
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To Shred or Not to Shred
Continued from page 9
of the information age. Problems arose
from increased identity theft. The
U.S. Congress responded with acts to
protect privacy: the Social Security Act
of 1934; Privacy Act of 1974; Right to
Financial Privacy Act of 1978; Health
Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA); Economic
Espionage Act of 1996 (EEA); GrammLeach-Bliley Act (GLBA) of 1999; Fair
Credit Reporting Act of 2001 (FCRA);
Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002; and the
Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions
Act of 2003 (FACTA). These legislative acts have reinforced the overall
need for organizations to take reasonable measures to safeguard private
The 2003 FACTA expanded several
FCRA provisions and provides protection for victims of identity theft
(and includes one free credit report
per year). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) utilizes federal law and is
responsible for enforcement. FACTA
is a federal law designed to minimize
the risk of identity theft and consumer
fraud by enforcing the proper destruction of consumer information. The FTC
developed the Disposal Rule in November 2004 to further implement the policies set forth in FACTA. The Disposal
Rule applies to businesses that utilize
consumer information; however it
affects every person and business in
the United States. The Disposal Rule
requires disposal practices that are
reasonable and appropriate to prevent
the unauthorized access to – or use of –
information in a consumer report.
The FACTA Disposal Rule, effective
June 1, 2005, states that “any person
who maintains or otherwise possesses
consumer information for a business purpose” is required to dispose
of discarded consumer information,
whether in electronic or paper form.
The Disposal Rule further clarifies the
definition of compliance as “taking
reasonable measures to protect against
unauthorized access to or use of the
information in connection with its disposal.” “Reasonable measures” include
burning, pulverizing, or shredding
1 0 | T H E L E GA L S E C R E TA R Y
physical documents; erasure or destruction of all electronic media; and entering into a contract with a third party
engaged in the business of information
The “Comprehensive Identity Theft
Protection Act” was passed in 2006.
Almost every state is also passing laws
to protect identity and privacy, and at
the federal level additional new laws
are being introduced. California and
Georgia are being particularly aggressive, where new laws even require “selfreporting” of any security incident. The
message is clear that private and confidential information should no longer
be disposed of in the trash. Thus, if you
look up “shredding laws” on the Internet, you will find numerous shredding
businesses that provide much more
detailed information regarding the
congressional acts (see sources listed at
the end of this article, as well as local
advertisers in your area), and offers
for professional shredding services are
Existing law requires a business to
take all reasonable steps to destroy a
customer’s records containing personal
information when the business will
no longer retain those records. The
existing laws provide civil remedies for
violations of these provisions. California Senate Bill 1386 was introduced in
July 2003 and was the first attempt by a
state legislature to address the problem of identity theft. In short, the bill
introduces stiff disclosure requirements
for businesses and government agencies
that experience security breaches that
might contain the personal information
of California residents. It is expected
that many organizations in the United
States (and possibly worldwide) are
now subject to these requirements.
SB 1386 comes with the biggest
recrimination, allowing for civil ligation
against businesses that don’t comply. If
you fail to disclose computer security
breaches, you become liable for civil
damages and may face a class action
lawsuit. However, the bill permits
notifications required by its provi-
sions to be delayed if a law enforcement agency determines that it would
impede a criminal investigation. The
bill would require an agency, person, or
business that maintains computerized
data including personal information
owned by another to notify the owner
or licensee of the information of any
breach of security of the data, as specified. The bill states the intent of the
Legislature to preempt all local regulation of the subject matter of the bill.
This bill would also make a statement
of legislative findings and declarations
regarding privacy and financial security.
Civil Code sections 1798.80-1798.84
provide details pertaining to requirements, violation, rights, and remedies.iv
The consequences for failing to maintain legislative compliance include
serious fines and penalties.v
So it is clear that basic steps are
needed to create and implement an
effective document retention policy
(a whole separate magazine article in
itself). The reader here should utilize
research tools available to effectuate a well-designed policy that ceases
document destruction upon notice of
a pending lawsuit or governmental
investigation, as well as utilizing Government Code requirements for specific
retention periods, depending upon the
type of entity, or department within the
entity, for which the document retention policy is needed.
While paper shredding can elicit
images of obstruction of justice a lá
Enron, with today’s technological
advances and the information-sharing
electronic age, the majority of information is now generated electronically,
and 60 to 70 percent of all documents
are never printed. Hence, discovery
of electronic information is also critical in litigation today. The California
state courts, as well as federal courts,
allow discovery of information stored
electronically. Revisions to the Federal
Rules of Civil Procedure to incorporate electronic discovery continue to
be updated. It is assumed that state
court judges will utilize federal rules to
some degree for guidance when dealing
with issues pertaining to discovery of
electronic evidence. But, getting back
to best practices for retention or shredding: Many businesses have adopted
retention polices that require routine
destruction of documents or information after a certain lapse of time. Under
FRCP 37(f), absent exceptional circumstances, a court may not impose
sanctions under these rules on a party
for failing to provide electronically
stored information lost as a result of the
routine operation of such a procedure.
Because technology is changing
so quickly, new questions and issues
continue to arise. The best policy is
to have a policy that protects identity
and privacy while regularly monitoring
the status of files and data, as well as
continuing to monitor how the courts
use their inherent power to manage
discovery and address issues as they
come up. vi
Without a program to control it, the
daily trash of every business contains
information that could be harmful.
This information is especially useful
to competitors because it contains the
details of current activities. Discarded
daily records include phone messages,
memos, misprinted forms, drafts of
bids, and drafts of correspondence.
All businesses suffer potential exposure due to the need to discard these
incidental business records. The only
means of minimizing this exposure is to
make sure such information is securely
collected and destroyed.
Again, while paper documents
remain the most visible and tangible
information that must be dealt with,
they are not the only format where
your confidential information is stored.
Keep in mind that data is contained on
all types of information storage: paper,
x-rays, checks, promotions, cardboard,
signage, binders, files, photographs,
CDs, DVDs, hard drives and back-ups,
portable drives, computers, videotapes,
prototypes, and the list goes on.
Once a business no longer needs
a document and its retention is not
otherwise required, it should gener-
ally be destroyed. By not adhering to a
program of routinely destroying stored
records, a company exhibits suspicious disposal practices that could be
negatively construed in the event of
litigation or audit. Also, Federal Rule
26 regarding disclosure requires that, in
the event of a lawsuit, each party provide all relevant records to the opposing counsel on a deadline. If either of
the litigants does not fulfill this obligation, it will result in a summary finding
against them. By destroying records
according to a set schedule, a company appropriately limits the amount
of materials it must search through
to comply with this law. If a party
makes a discovery request, the other
party has a duty to diligently search for
documents in its custody responsive to
the request. (Code of Civil Procedure
§2031.280(a).) And fewer necessary
documents mean less expensive timeconsuming search and production.
It is permissible to destroy documents, including deleting computer
files and shredding documents, unless
at the time of the destruction there
was a duty to preserve them. A document retention policy can be critical
in positioning a business to effectively
and efficiently defend against future
lawsuits, while allowing it to justifiably
dispose of unneeded documents while
managing only necessary documents.
Such a retention policy also holds down
litigation costs.
From a risk management perspective, the acceptable method of discarding stored records is to destroy
them by a method that ensures that
the information is obliterated, and
documenting the exact date that a
record is destroyed is a prudent and
recommended legal precaution. For
various important reasons, the choice
of recycling as a means of information
destruction is undesirable from a risk
management perspective.
Every business entity, not just a
law office, needs to have and enforce
an appropriate document and data
retention or destruction policy. The
nature of that policy, its enforcement,
and/or non-usage of the policy to avoid
destruction of evidence may have significant ramifications in litigation.
iii.; Stop and Shred
Document Shredding Service
v.; ProShred Security
Shredding-Compliance.php; Shred Nations
Other sources used:
1.) Risk Management – Record Retention Policies – Electronic Data Changing the Way
the Game is Played; July 2012, by Mark C.
Russell, GORDON & REES;
2.) Lexis Nexis notes re document retention:; by
Timothy R. Sullivan of McLaughlin Sullivan
august 2013 | 11
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