The handling of all electronic data in Florida courts — from tweets to emails to blogs — is now subject to new rules. Attorneys aren't the only ones with a sizable stake in the changes.
Litigation attorney Steve Teppler pounced on a treasure trove of electronic data during a case in 2009.
Teppler's clients, the plaintiffs, were involved in a fuel surcharge dispute against a bank and a travel agency. Millions of dollars were at stake. On one particular issue, before the case got to court, Teppler says “one of the co-defendants swore up and down” he knew nothing about the accusations of improperly collecting fuel surcharges.
Teppler pored through more than 250 excel spreadsheets embedded in computer files going back to 1996. He found several damning documents written by the same co-defendant who claimed ignorance. The discovery was so overwhelming the defendants settled within a week.
“That was a killer,” says Teppler of the electronic discovery. “I looked where other people wouldn't.”
Teppler is now going where few other attorneys on the Gulf Coast are, by hyper-focusing his practice on a rare new section of the law: electronic discovery. The concentration isn't only counterintuitive. It's also timely, in that the Florida Supreme Court recently adopted seven new rules of civil procedure specific to electronic data discovery in state courts.
The rules are supposed to make the e-discovery process clearer, more specific and more efficient. The rules, which also spell out how judges can sanction attorneys in e-discovery matters, were adopted in July and went into effect Sept. 1.
The trick now is to ensure attorneys, and by extension, their clients, are fully aware of the changes. “There are some landmines (in e-discovery) that can trip up attorneys, to the detriment of clients,” Teppler says. “Attorneys know how to handle technology — kind of. But when it comes to litigation, they are at a disadvantage.”
The new Florida policies are modeled after federal electronic data discovery rules. One key element — an important aspect for business owners and executives involved in a lawsuit or litigation — is the rules are designed to manage costs. The rules do that through a system where e-discovery issues are handled in conferences early on in a case. E-discovery issues that creep up can add significant time delays to a case, attorneys say, which usually means more billable hours the client has to pay.
The new rules, however, don't alter the discovery process civil courts have followed for decades. All attorneys are still obligated to produce documents, no matter if it's a written memo or an email.
But at least now every attorney in the state has a procedure to follow, says Doug Cherry, a Sarasota lawyer with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, who helped write the new polices. Also important: Judges now have rules to sanction attorneys who don't follow procedures.
“E-discovery has always been there,” says Cherry. “But the rules are in place to help practitioners understand how to do this. Florida has been struggling with e-discovery issues in state court.”
Those struggles are where Teppler sees his edge. “Attorneys in large part don't know what they don't know,” he says. “And if attorneys don't know what to ask, they don't know what's important.”
A 30-year attorney, Teppler was named chair of the newly created information governance and electronic discovery practice at Sarasota-based Kirk-Pinkerton in August. It's a practice of one, so far.
But Teppler's resume bulges with other e-discovery highlights: He currently teaches the first-ever electronic discovery class at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples. He co-founded and is now co-program chair of the American Bar Association's Electronic Discovery and Information Governance Institute. He's also general counsel for the Sylint Group, a Sarasota-based data security and retrieval firm involved in several local high-profile e-discovery cases.
“He is the best there is when it comes to this work,” says Franklin Zemel, an attorney with Arnstein & Lehr in Fort Lauderdale who has worked with Teppler on some cases. “He's the professor.”
Literally. Teppler called Ave Maria Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Patrick Quirk this summer about teaching an e-discovery class at the school. Quirk says he quickly realized Teppler had a grip on both the technical side of the rules and what it all means for budding attorneys.
The class filled up quickly, school officials say, and now has a waiting list 28 students deep. “Steve is helping people understand the adjustments that need to be made,” says Quirk. “Steve is doing the hard yards on this.”
A New York native, Teppler worked on Wall Street in the go-go 1980s, when he traded mortgage-backed securities at an investment firm. He also had a law degree, from Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City, and in the early 1990s he began to use it for work. “I was enticed into helping someone with litigation,” he says. “I found out I really enjoyed it.”
Teppler worked for law firms in Chicago and Washington, D.C., before he relocated to the Gulf Coast. At one point he worked for Chicago-based Edelson McGuire, a prominent Midwest firm. Edelson McGuire, which represented former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in civil defense matters, is a national leader in plaintiff-driven class action lawsuits.
Teppler's ultimate goal now, past cases and classes, is to become a hired gun for attorneys in need of an e-discovery expert. “I'm practicing and teaching and trying to make a buck at the same time,” Teppler says. “There is a great need for this.”
Zemel, the Fort Lauderdale-based litigator, sees that need. For instance, Zemel currently represents plaintiffs in a case involving South Beach diet products. The defense attorneys, Zemel says, missed multiple deadlines to submit e-discovery documents because they weren't clear on the new rules. The judge in the case, says Zemel, handed down $134,000 in sanctions to those attorneys.
“I was completely taken aback to find out they had never heard of any of this,” Zemel says. “It was absolutely bungled.”
Cherry, who specializes in intellectual property law at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, has also seen attorneys trip over the new rules. In fact, Cherry has become the de facto expert on the rules at his firm. Cherry also chairs the Florida Bar Association's E-Discovery Subcommittee, where Teppler is vice-chairman.
Cherry contends the rules aren't designed to catch attorneys doing wrong. Instead, he says, the rules, when followed, can make cases run smoother and cost less. “This is an excellent potential tool that could help a lot of litigators,” says Cherry. “But I don't think a lot of them know about it.”
Florida is the 29th state to implement e-discovery rules for state courts.
“This is one of the first new areas of the law in 40 years,” Teppler says. “I think it will grow nationally and in the state and lead to more employment opportunities in the law.”
Sarasota attorney Steve Teppler, who is building a practice around new court rules for electronic discovery, has an interest in the field that goes deeper than the law.
Teppler is also an e-discovery entrepreneur.
That is, the longtime litigation attorney runs an intellectual property development company and holds six patents in the e-discovery field, in addition to his legal work. The company, Sarasota-based TimeCertain, was founded in 1999.
TimeCertain's software and related products, patented in 1999, 2000 and 2005, allow users to prove computer-generated information and data is authentic. The technology, says Teppler, protects against fraud and potential document backdating. In the industry, adds Teppler, that's called “trusted time-stamping.”
Teppler declines to release revenues, though he says the company expects to grow “as the need for the technology is increasingly recognized.”