In Fulton v. Livingston Financial LLC, 2016 WL 3976558 (W.D. Wash. July 25, 2016), U.S. District Judge James L. Robart sanctioned a defense lawyer who “inexcusabl[y]” relied on outdated case law and pre-2015 amendments to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b) in motion practice before the court.

On April 13, 2015, Plaintiff (Richard Fulton) filed suit against Defendants for allegedly violating the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (“FDCPA”) 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., and several Washington statutes.

On March 17, 2016 (after the Federal Rules were amended), Defendants moved to either compel discovery or exclude medical evidence presented by Mr. Fulton. Specifically, Defendants argued that Fulton “stated on numerous times since the beginning of this case that he was not seeking recovery for any medical condition, so his medical records and treatment were not in issue.”* Judge Robart found defense counsel’s inference “so unreasonable as to constitute a misrepresentation to the court,” as the plaintiff did seek recovery for emotional distress. Id. at *6, *8. More important to this Blog post, however, was Judge Robart’s finding that defendant’s counsel had “misstate[d] the law” regarding discovery by citing cases analyzing pre-amendment Rule 26. Id. at *7. And further finding, defense counsel proceeded to misstate the law in their reply brief continuing to rely upon case law that existed before the highly publicized amendments that took effect December 1, 2015. Judge Robart declared that such citations to outdated case law were “inexcusable” and “inexplicable.” Id. at *7, *8.

Judge Robart then proceeded to sanction defense counsel in an oral ruling. In addition to awarding Fulton his fees and costs incurred in litigating the motion, Judge Robart ordered defense counsel to provide a copy of his offending motion to the supervising members of his firm, with the explanation that the court had entered sanctions against him “for quoting provisions of the civil rules that are badly out of date, and also making direct misrepresentations to the court.” Id. at *8. Judge Robart also threatened an additional sanction of requiring defense counsel to report this sanction on future pro hac vice applications. Id.

Before determining whether to require counsel to report the sanction on future pro hac applications, defense counsel filed a supplemental memorandum in response to the court’s oral ruling, stating that he had acted in good faith and noting that his conduct did not affect the administration of justice in the case. For these reasons, defense counsel requested that the court exercise its discretion in not taking disciplinary action or, in the alternative, limiting the disciplinary action to an informal, private admonition that would not need to be reported on future pro hac vice applications. Id. As the defense counsel’s memorandum was not denominated a motion for reconsideration, Judge Robart declined to reconsider his oral ruling and instead considered only whether to impose the additional pro hac vice reporting sanction. Id. at *8.

Judge Robart rejected as “post hoc speculation” defense counsel’s claim that because pre-amendment Rule 26 could have applied “insofar as just and practicable,” his citation to pre-amendment cases was in good faith. Id. The court held that by relying on pre-amendment cases in an argument on discoverability and making “no reference to the proportionality requirement,” counsel “misrepresented the scope of discoverable information in a motion to compel or exclude evidence” and then failed to “own[] up to his misrepresentation,” which was “tantamount to bad faith.” Id.

In conclusion, Judge Robart noted that despite [defense counsel’s] flawed efforts to excuse his comportment, the previously issued sanctions (i.e., providing a copy of offending motion to supervising members of firm and awarding plaintiff his fees and costs in litigating this motion) “nearly suffice” to deter counsel from misrepresenting facts or the law in the future and thus decided that counsel did not need to report the sanctions on future pro hac vice applications. Id. Judge Robart did add, however, an additional sanction, requiring counsel to disclose the sanctions imposed if, at any point in the next five years, a federal court threatened or imposed sanctions on him. Id. In Judge Robart’s view, “[t]his requirement will alert courts presiding over future cases that [defense counsel’s] misrepresentations in this case constitute strikes one and two against him. Future courts will then be sufficiently informed to properly sanction any further bad faith by [defense counsel].” Id.

This case serves as an important reminder of our obligations to remain current with and conversant in an organic and evolving body of rules and decisions.

*This conclusion was based on Fulton’s statements that “he did not seek formal medical treatment for stress, worry and inconvenience brought on by Defendants’ conduct.”

 

Armstrong Pump, Inc. v. Hartman, No. 10-CV-446S, 2016 WL 7208753 (W.D.N.Y. Dec. 13, 2016)

In this case, pending before the Court was a motion by Armstrong Pump Inc. (“Armstrong”) to compel formal production of certain documents that defendant Optimum Energy LLC (“Optimum”) considered the functional equivalent of its proprietary source code.  This “formal production” Armstrong sought to compel consisted of 46 documents (305 pages) that Armstrong previously viewed during a “document and source code review” conducted pursuant to a strict protocol.  During that review Armstrong was permitted to attend with two outside counsel and two experts.  Moreover, Armstrong was able to print – also under strict protocol – certain of those documents.

In support of its motion to compel, Armstrong now argues that the reviewed documents did not contain “actual programming” and thus were able to be produced under the parties’ protective order for discovery without any additional protections designed to protect source code. Optimum argued in response that the documents were “functionally equivalent to source code” and should not be subject to production.  Specifically, Optimum contended that the documents contained enough technical information including (in detail) the functions, logic and algorithms implemented in Optimum’s products to “allow a software engineer to build its proprietary source code based on that information.”

Ultimately, the Court reasoned that discovery had “reached the point of diminishing returns” and declined to compel production, with limited exceptions.

In reaching this conclusion, the court first addressed the effects of the 2015 amendments to Federal Rule 26, reasoning that “proportionality has assumed greater importance in discovery disputes” and that the amended rule is intended to encourage more aggressive efforts from the judiciary to discourage discovery overuse. The court continued:

Discouraging discovery overuse does not end with the early stages of a case, however. Implicit in both the language and the spirit of the 2015 Amendments is the obligation, at any stage of a case, to prevent parties from expending increasing time and energy pursuing diminishing returns. Calling a halt to the pursuit of diminishing returns often will overlap with an assessment of duplicate or cumulative discovery. Sometimes the additional discovery sought technically would provide nominally probative information not yet in the parties’ hands. Either way, when adding a few more pages of documents requires five or six inches of motion papers, and when those few more pages would be added to over one million pages of total discovery, numerous pages of expert reports, and transcripts from depositions of all of the relevant players, there exists a point beyond which courts have to tell the parties that if they cannot yet prove their claims then they probably never will. See Alaska Elec. Pension Fund v. Bank of Am. Corp., No. 14-CV-7126 (JMF), 2016 WL 6779901, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 16, 2016) (“Rule 26(b)(1)’s proportionality requirement means [that a document’s] ‘marginal utility’ must also be considered.”) (citations omitted); Updike v. Clackamas County, No. 3:15-CV-00723-SI, 2016 WL 111424, at *1 (D. Or. Jan. 11, 2016) (“There is a tension, however, among the objectives of Rule 1. As more discovery is obtained, more is learned. But at some point, discovery yields only diminishing returns and increasing expenses. In addition, as more discovery is taken, the greater the delay in resolving the dispute. Finding a just and appropriate balance is the goal, and it is one of the key responsibilities of the court in managing a case before trial to assist the parties in achieving that balance.”).

The court then turned to the discovery specifics in the underlying case and concluded that discovery had “reached the point of diminishing returns.” Indeed, discovery had been ongoing for six years and the parties exchanged more than 1,600,000 pages of documents.  The Court listed a litany of critical case development failures along the 6 year discovery path and concluded it hard to believe that 150 pages of already reviewed but not printed documents would definitively prove what six years of discovery could not.

This case serves as a further reminder that discovery is not limitless.  Indeed, there is little tolerance for cumulative discovery and proportionality is the key inquiry under new federal landscape.

The amendment to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) (which defines the scope of permissible discovery) did away with the timeworn “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” standard.  In its place is now the “proportionality standard,” which explicitly imposes a responsibility on litigants to tailor their discovery requests to account for the significance of the information requested, and the cost of gathering responsive information:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). (emphasis added)

Although many courts have applied the revised Rule 26 during 2016, the District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently reminded practitioners that proportionality is a critical factor.  In First Niagara Risk Mgmt. v. Folino, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106094 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 11, 2016), which involved the purported violation of a non-compete agreement, the plaintiff moved the Court to compel a discovery request. Specifically, the plaintiff requested that the Court allow its e-discovery vendor to search the defendant’s personal electronic devices and email accounts for a particular set of agreed upon search terms. The defendant objected stating that “the request is overly-broad, costly, and burdensome.”  Although the Court agreed with defendant that the “request was rather broad,” the Court found the request “proportional to the needs of this case.” After verifying that the information requested by the plaintiff was relevant to the case, the Court considered the individual factors in FRCP 26(b)(1).

Specifically, using the factors set forth above, the Court found the issues were “of grave importance” to the plaintiff, the defendant is the sole source of access to the important information, and the plaintiff “needs to conduct broad discovery to uncover the scope of [defendant’s] misdeeds.” The Court granted the motion to compel, and explained that, “[w]eighing these factors makes it clear that the potential harm [plaintiff’s] discovery requests may impose on [defendant] does not outweigh the presumption for disclosure of these requests.”

This case (Heller’s Gas, Inc. v. Int’l Ins. Co. of Hannover Ltd., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71069 [M.D. Pa. June 1, 2016]), arises from an insurance claim filed by Heller’s Gas Inc. (“Heller”).  Heller was issued a commercial output insurance program property insurance policy by defendants International Insurance Company of Hannover LTD and International Insurance Company of Hannover  SE (“Defendants”). Heller’s used this policy to insure property that housed six 30,000 gallon tanks filled with approximately 136,800 gallons of liquid propane. On October 11, 2013, Plaintiffs found evidence of a sinkhole beneath the tanks, which allegedly damaged the tanks. Heller removed the liquid propane from the tanks, transported the liquid propane to other facilities, disassembled the tanks, and moved the tanks to stable ground at considerable expense. Defendants denied coverage for the loss, aside from $5,000 under emergency removal expense coverage. Heller’s subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and statutory bad faith.

During discovery, Defendants received information from various third parties through subpoenas.  After receipt of that information, Defendants discovered that Heller failed to produce relevant and discoverable information. For example, Defendants received an email from a records custodian who admitted in the email that there was no physical damage to the propane tanks. This email was discovered, not through documents produced by Plaintiff, but from documents produced from a third party. Thus, Defendants brought a motion to compel Heller to produce more complete responses to discovery.

The Court, in granting Defendants’ motion noted that recently amended Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) provides that “[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case . . .” And, evidence is relevant if it has “any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” and if it “is of consequence in determining the action.” The Court then noted that the party objecting to discovery must state the grounds for the objection with specificity and the party requesting the discovery then bears the burden to prove that the requested discovery falls within the bounds of Rule 26.  Finally, the Court noted that if this burden is met, the objecting party must then “convince the court why discovery should not be had.”

Applying these discovery principles to the motion at hand, the Court determined that Heller failed to put forth specific objections to the requested discovery.  Rather, Heller objected to the motion on the grounds that it already produced four hundred and thirty-one pages of documents at Defendants’ request and that Defendants have suffered no prejudice, as they received the disputed documents, albeit from third parties. Heller’s counsel also stated that he was “amenable to revisiting the issue with Plaintiff and issuing an appropriate discovery certification.”  Latching on to Plaintiff’s counsel’s good intentions, the Court found “the Plaintiff offers no objection to ‘revisiting the issue,’ ” and granted Defendants’ motion to compel.

The lesson here is that any discovery objections interposed must be done with specificity especially where, as in Heller, the requested discovery falls within the bounds of Rule 26.