Sanctions for inadequate Rule 26 disclosures

blue-white-number-rounded-rectangle-26-roundPlaintiff accused defendant (and his employer) of sexual assault while incarcerated at a privately-run detention center. Defense counsel had recordings of calls made by the plaintiff, from the facility, suggesting that the encounters were consensual. Counsel did not identify the recordings in their Rule 26 initial disclosures, and did not make the recordings available until the plaintiff’s deposition, after questioning her about the conversations. The district court sanctioned defense counsel for inadequate disclosure and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, concluding that “some evidence serves both substantive and impeachment functions and thus should not be treated as ‘solely’ impeachment evidence” under Rule 26. Olivarez v. GRO Group, Inc., No. 16-50191 (Dec. 12, 2016).

Rare bird – interlocutory discovery appeal

pidgeotInterlocutory appeal of discovery issues is largely foreclosed under the restrictive view of the “collateral order” doctrine adopted by Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, 130 S. Ct. 599 (2009). Another, rarely-traveled path appears in Cazorla v. Koch Foods of Miss., in which the district court and Fifth Circuit agreed that an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) of a difficult discovery issue TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_VectorGraphicinvolving parallel private employment litigation and immigration proceedings. The specific issue address is important but narrow; the procedural holding is notable for how unusual and important a discovery issue must be to come within the ambit of the interlocutory appeal statute. No. 15-60562 (Sept. 27, 2016).

Produce the texts.

yunomemeThe district court required the plaintiff in an FLSA case to submit her phone to a forensic examiner. It then awarded significant sanctions when the defendants’ “inspection revealed that the text messages in question were not on [Plaintiff’s] phone, that the mobile application allegedly containing such text messages was not on the phone, and that the phone appeared to have been reset or newly activated only three days before the forensic inspection.” The Fifth Circuit found no abuse of discretion; footnote 2 of the opinion details several unsuccessful explanations and counterarguments offered by the plaintiff, which had no traction here but could be of interest in a future e-discovery dispute involving similar issues. Timms v. LZM, LLC, No. 15-20700 (July 5, 2016, unpublished).

“I’ll wait here while Jim objects to all relevant rulings.”

marlin_perkinsMutual of Omaha obtained a summary judgment against Prospect, who complained under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d) that it needed “additional electronic discovery related to allegedly backdated documents produced by Mutual.”  The Fifth Circuit declined to enter that wild kingdom, observing: “[T]he magistrate judge denied Prospect’s motion to compel that electronic discovery, and Prospect did not object to the denial. That means that the electronic discovery was not ‘susceptible of collection within a reasonable time frame’ —Prospect was never
going to get it—so it cannot support Prospect’s Rule 56(d) motion.”  Prospect Capital v. Mutual of Omaha, No. 15-20345 (April 13, 2016).

I’m a doctor, not a spoliator.

mccoyGuzman sued Celadon Trucking for personal injuries.  On May 9, 2011, Celadon’s counsel asked him to undergo an independent medical exam.  On May 27, Guzman said in his deposition that he intended to undergo back surgery. Celadon later contended that his surgery constituted spoliation of evidence, and requested an adverse jury instruction. The Fifth Circuit affirmed its denial, noting: “After [Celadon’s counsel] received this disclosure in the deposition, they made no request to be informed of his surgery date, nor did they ask that he delay surgery pending his examination. Only after the examination was completed did [they] assert that the surgery had meaningfully altered evidence.  While the timing of Guzman’s surgery may seem strange, there is no evidence to suggest that he acted in a manner intended to deceive [Celadon] or that he undertook the surgery with the intent of destroying or altering evidence.”  Guzman v. Jones, No. 15-40007 (Oct. 22, 2015).

False Claims Act Liability Upheld – UPDATED

windThe plaintiffs/relators in United States ex rel Rigsby v. State Farm contended that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, State Farm improperly skewed its claims handling process in favor of finding flood damage, as “wind policy claims were paid out of the company’s own pocket while flood policy claims were paid with government funds.”  They won at trial and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that – notwithstanding earlier investigations – they were “paradigmatic . . . whistleblowing insiders” as to this specific claim who qualified as “original sources.”  The Court went on to find sufficient evidence of falsity and scienter, and reversed a discovery ruling that would not have allowed the plaintiffs to investigate the facts of other potentially false claims. ” 794 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 2015). The Supreme Court granted review and affirmed on an issue about violation of the FCA’s sealing requirement.

Discovery — fair market value, is fair market value.

adamsmithDefendants claimed that a foreclosure sale produced an unfair windfall for Fannie Mae on a substantial commercial property.  They alleged that Fannie Mae had a practice of making unfairly low bids on Gulf Coast properties.  The Fifth Circuit observed: “As the district court held, evidence regarding Fannie Mae’s other foreclosure practices throughout the Gulf Coast region would not impact whether the subject property was sold for the amount at which it would have changed hands between a willing buyer and seller having knowledge of the relevant facts. At most, such evidence might have suggested that Fannie Mae’s conduct throughout the region affected the fair market value of the subject property. So long as the property was sold for fair market value, however, evidence of the various market forces influencing that value is not relevant to this case.” Fannie Mae v. Lynch, No. 14-60864 (June 2, 2015, unpublished).

E-Discovery Sanction on Attorney Reversed

sandisk driveWaste Management sued Kattler, a former employee, for misappropriating confidential information and other related claims.  A dispute about what information Kattler had in is possession expanded to include a contempt finding against Kattler’s attorney, Moore.  Waste Management v. Kattler, No. 13-20356 (Jan. 15, 2015).  The Fifth Circuit reversed, reasoning as follows:

1.  The order setting a hearing referenced a motion, by Pacer docket number, that only sought relief against Kattler and not the attorney.  It was not an adequate “show-cause order naming [both] Moore and Kattler as alleged contemnors[.]”

2.  On the merits, the Court found that Kattler had misled Moore as to the existence of a particular “San Disk thumb drive,” that Moore had acted prudently in consulting ethics counsel and withdrawing after he learned of the untruthfulness, and that new counsel made a prompt disclosure about the drive that avoided unfair prejudice.  This part of the opinion reviews Circuit authority about the failure to correct incorrect court filings.

3.  Also on the merits, “while Moore clearly failed to comply with the terms of the December 20 preliminary injunction by not producing the iPad image directly to [Waste Management] by December 22, this failure is excusable because the order required Moore to violate the attorney-client privilege.”  Further, the relevant order only “required Kattler to produce an image of the device only, not the device itself,” which created a “degree of confusion” that excused the decision not to produce the actual iPad.

Law360 has also reported on this decision, and an expanded version of this article appears in the Texas Lawbook.

How not to manage a whistleblower

Menendez complained about his employer’s accounting practices to the SEC.  The employer received a letter from the SEC asking for retention of certain documents.  The employer then emailed Menendez’s colleagues, “instructing them to start retaining certain documents because ‘the SEC has opened an inquiry into the allegations of Mr. Menendez.'”  Relations with his co-workers deteriorated and he ultimately resigned.  In a detailed opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a $30,000 damages award to Menendez on his claim for retaliation: “The undesirable consequences, from a whistleblower’s perspective, of the whistleblower’s supervisor telling the whistleblower’s colleagues that imagehe reported them to authorities for what are allegedly fraudulent practices, thus resulting in an official investigation, are obvious.”  Halliburton, Inc. v. Administrative Review Board, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, No. 13-60323 (Nov. 12, 2014).  The case has received considerable attention in employment and compliance circles; the Wall Street Journal‘s coverage is a short example.

The Arc of the Discovery Rules is Long, but it Bends Toward Proportionality

The concept of “proportionality” in discovery began its modern ascendance in  Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, with observations such as these: “Probably, then, it is only by taking care to require allegations that reach the level suggesting conspiracy that we can hope to avoid the potentially enormous expense of discovery in cases with no ‘reasonably founded hope that the [discovery] process will reveal relevant evidence’ to support a § 1 claim.”  127 S.Ct. 1955, 1968 (2007).

Over time, the “proportionality” concept has moved from the discovery rules to pervade the entire system of federal procedure.  Consider Advisory Committee Note to revised Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1 (approved by the Judicial Conference in September 2014 and now before the Supreme Court): “Effective advocacy is consistent with — and indeed depends upon — cooperative and proportional use of procedure.”

While arising under state law rather than the Federal Rules, the recent Texas Supreme Court of In re National Lloyds Ins. Co. illustrates the concept of proportionality in a highly practical context. The plaintiff in an insurance bad faith case sought evidence about similar claim denials, arguing “that the trial court’s discovery order was (1) limited in time, because it compelled only production of evidence relating to the two storms at issue, and (2) limited by location, because it involved only properties in Cedar Hill.”  ___ S.W.3d ___, No. 13-0761 (Tex. Oct. 31, 2014) (per curiam).

That Court disagreed: “Scouring claim files in hopes of finding similarly situated claimants whose claims were evaluated differently from [plaintiff’s] is at best an ‘impermissible fishing expedition.’ . . . [Plaintiff] is correct that discovery must be reasonably limited in time and geographic scope.   But such limits in and of themselves do not render the underlying information discoverable.”   It concluded that there were still too many likely differences between this set of claims and the plaintiff’s case to justify the discovery request.

Was Deepwater Horizon a “stationary source”?

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board served administrative subpoenas on Transocean in connection with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  United States v. Transocean Deepwater Drilling, Inc., No. 13-20243 (Sept. 18, 2014).  Transocean contended that the Board lacked jurisdiction because the ill-fated rig was not a “stationary source” within the meaning of the Board’s enabling statute; the majority disagreed, concluding that at the time of the accident, the rig “was physically connected (though not anchored) at that site and maintained a fixed position.”

Transocean also contended that this sentence deprived the Board of jurisidiction: “The Board shall not be authorized to investigate marine oil spills, which the National Transportation Safety Board is authorized to investigate.”  After a foray into the grammatical thicket of “which” v. “that,” the majority concluded that the Board was not categorically barred from investigating oil spills in light of the “overall regulatory scheme.”

A dissent disagreed with both conclusions, reminded that “[f]or the sake of maintaining limited government under the rule of law, courts must be vigilant to sanction improper administrative overreach,” and noted that at least 17 other investigations were conducted into the accident.