Another Reminder That Attorneys Are Responsible for the e-Discovery Behavior of Their Clients

Another Reminder That Attorneys Are Responsible for the e-Discovery Behavior of Their Clients

In the summer of 2013, the Northern District of California conducted a hearing over a motion to compel discovery responses which stemmed from e-discovery disagreements.  The plaintiff was a corporate investor in the defendant pharmaceutical company developing bovine-derived oxygen therapeutics.  A corporate officer of the pharmaceutical company was also named a defendant.  The plaintiff alleged breach of fiduciary duties, breach of contract, and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.  In its reply, the defendants counterclaimed breach of a licensing agreement, theft of intellectual property, and interference with prospective economic advantage.

Discovery began when the plaintiff served interrogatories, requests for production, and requests for admission.  The defendant corporation submitted its responses two months past the deadline, failed to completely respond to the interrogatories, and submitted incomplete document production.  The plaintiff moved to compel full and complete responses, after which the defendants’ counsel failed to appear at the hearing.   The court granted the plaintiff’s motion and awarded the plaintiff $1,400.00 in sanctions.  Additionally, the plaintiff complained that the defendant officer’s responses were also incomplete and filed two weeks late.

These disputes are governed by the discovery rules in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Rules 33 and 34 establish a 30-day response period for a party to serve its answers and applicable objections.  Additionally, Rule 33(b)(2) states that failure to timely respond to discovery requests generally constitutes a waiver of any objections to those requests.  Under Rule 37, a party may move to compel discover and if the court grants it the responding party must pay the moving party’s reasonable expenses incurred in making the motion.

At oral argument, the plaintiff asserted the defendants only produced 121 emails, 109 of which were communications with the the Plaintiff.  The plaintiff alleged this lack of production raised the possibility of spoliation and boded ill for the document preservation efforts of the defendants.  The defendants’ counsel testified he gave instructions to his clients to produce the related documents; however, the court was not convinced.  The court cited Rule 26(g) which places an affirmative obligation on an attorney to ensure a client’s search for responsive documents and information is complete.  The previous submissions were clearly incomplete and it was the attorney’s responsibility to remedy them.  Furthermore, since the responses were late, all of the defendants’ objections were denied even though the court admitted the claims might be vague and overly-broad.

The court used its discretion to modify the sanctions placed upon the defendants.  It set a new date for all remaining responsive documents to be submitted and if the new deadline was missed the Defendants would be forced to hire an e-discovery vendor.  Vendors can be very costly.  Furthermore, since the defendants’ failure to timely and fully respond was not justified, the court awarded $5,200.00 in additional attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.  While the defendants’ counsel was still held responsible, the court recognized that the defendants were also responsible for the delay and ordered the parties to split the cost of the sanction.  This illustrates the point that when discovery efforts are not taken seriously, both the client and the attorney can be on the hook for big expenses.

George is a student at Seton Hall University School of Law (Class of 2014).  He is pursuing both the Health and Intellectual Property Concentrations and is especially interested in patent law.  He received both a B.E. and M.E. at Stevens Institute of Technology in Biomedical and Systems Engineering, respectively.  Presently, George works as a law clerk at Stone Law in Colts Neck, NJ, where he assists in the drafting of litigation documents and Office Actions with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

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