A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Google to pay sanctions and face a possible penalty at trial for intentionally destroying employee chat messages that could have been used as evidence in a sweeping antitrust litigation against the internet giant.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco came after an evidentiary hearing that featured witness testimony and other evidence. He said that Google “fell strikingly short” in its duties to preserve records and that it “intended to subvert the discovery process” by deleting chats that were relevant to the case.
The litigation involves a consumer class action with as many as 21 million residents; 38 states and the District of Columbia; and companies including Epic Games Inc and Match Group LLC. They accuse Google of illegally monopolizing the Android app distribution market by engaging in exclusionary conduct that harmed them in various ways, allegations that Google has denied.
The plaintiffs are seeking aggregate damages of $4.7 billion. The trial is scheduled to begin in November.
Donato said he would allow the plaintiffs to seek an instruction to the jury that Google destroyed unfavorable information. He also asked the plaintiffs’ lawyers to provide an amount in legal fees they are seeking as a sanction by April 21.
“Google has tried to downplay the problem and displayed a dismissive attitude ill tuned to the gravity of its conduct,” Donato wrote.
A Google spokesperson said the company has “produced over three million documents, including thousands of chats.” In a court filing last year, Google’s lawyers said the company took “robust steps to preserve relevant chats.”
But Donato said that Google “left employees largely on their own to determine what Chat communications might be relevant” to the litigation and that some employees preferred to keep chat history off even when they were on legal hold.
He cited newly produced chats that showed Google employees discussing topics such as revenue share agreements, mobile application distribution agreements, and payment policies that were at the core of the litigation.
Google is also facing similar claims of destroying chat records in a separate antitrust case brought by the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., federal court. That case focuses on Google’s search business.
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