Seventh Circuit Affirms Default Judgment Against Litigant As Discovery Sanction
Domanus v. Lewicki, 13–2435 (7th Cir. 2014)
This is an appeal from a default judgment entered against the defendants in the litigation. The plaintiff were shareholders in a Polish entity, Krakow Business Park (KBP) that was formed to develop a business park in Krakow Poland. Plaintiffs alleged that the three defendants, Adam Swiech, Richard Swiech and Derek Lewicki caused “KBP to pay out millions of dollars to the defendants for services never performed, and that the defendants stole cash and property from the company.” Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants used the proceeds to acquire cash and property in Chicago, Illinois. Plaintiffs sued under the RICO statute.
Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants did not cooperate with discovery requests and they eventually requested a default judgment from Judge Bucklo. The defendants argued in the district court that it was impossible for them to comply with the court’s discovery orders.
The district judge did not agree with the defendants and imposed a default judgment of $413,000,000. Consistent with a recent trend to sanction litigants who do not cooperate with discovery orders, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the default judgment. It is important to remember that discovery sanctions are reviewed for an abuse of discretion, a more lenient standard. That standard is designed to allow the district judge to manager her caseload and docket.
The document discovery dispute centered on three issues, two bank accounts and one computer hard drive.
The first account was an account at the Julius Baer bank, a Swiss bank. Plaintiffs alleged that Adam Swiech owned this account and that some of the funds wrongfully removed from KBP had ended up in the account. Swiech denied ownership of the account and did not produce any documents in response to the discovery requests. Plaintiffs sought to hold Swiech in contempt for failing to produce documents. The magistrate judge found Swiech’s behavior sanctionable, but did not hold him in contempt. The district judge increased the penalty and held Swiech in contempt. The Seventh Circuit described her decision to do so as “sensible.”
The second bone of contention was the defendants’ failure to produce documents for a Polish HSBC account belonging to Lewicki. Lewicki told the plaintiffs that he was unable to obtain the documents. Again, plaintiffs moved to compel and for sanctions, but the magistrate judge declined to impose them. The district judge again disagreed and held Lewicki in contempt. She found Lewicki’s testimony that he could not gain access to the documents to be “incredible.” The Seventh Circuit agreed that there was clear and convincing evidence necessary to support a contempt finding.
The third issue concerned a computer hard drive. In May 2011, Defendants produced 1800 pages of documents. Plaintiffs suspected that the production was incomplete and the defendants produced another 21 CD-ROM discs. In February 2012, plaintiffs moved for sanctions. They asked the court to order the defendants to produce certain missing emails. The Defendants responded that the hard drive had been destroyed in 2009, which was impossible as they had already produced many documents from 2010 and 2011 from that same hard drive. The magistrate granted a spoliation of evidence instruction as a sanction. The spoliation instruction allows the jury to infer that whatever evidence was withheld was unfavorable to the party that wrongfully withheld it. A spoliation instruction is a traditional, but weak, sanction for discovery misconduct. The district judge again increased the sanction by barring the defendants from using any documents from the hard drive and ordering Richard Swiech and Lewicki to obtain all of their missing emails from the email providers. As the Seventh Circuit concluded “such a sanction appropriately mitigated the harm to the plaintiffs as a result of the defendants’ wrongdoing.”
After additional deposition-related misconduct (failing to show up for depositions), the district judge granted a motion for default judgement against the defendants. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the default finding, holding that the defendants’ discovery misconduct demonstrated “a clear record of delay or contumacious conduct,” and “willfulness, bad faith or fault.” Maynard v. Nygren, 332 F.3d 462 (7th Cir. 2003).
A litigant who obtains a default judgment must still prove damages. The Seventh Circuit upheld the damages calculations of plaintiffs, which were presented by an expert witness. The damages were then trebled under the RICO Statute.
This case shows that the federal courts are now beginning to enforce significant sanctions, even the use of a default judgment, where one party fails to comply with discovery. One interesting facet of the case is that on two occasions Judge Bucklo increased the sanctions ordered by the magistrate judge, which is unusual. The Seventh Circuit held that Judge Bucklo acted reasonably. The defendants did not help themselves by first producing some documents from a hard drive and then claiming that the hard drive had been destroyed years earlier. Withholding documents has always been against the federal rules of civil procedure, but it has taken many years for the courts to clamp down and consider harsh sanctions for noncompliance.
Edward X. Clinton, Jr.