This is a lengthy opinion by a federal district court judge, Mark W. Bennett, in which he sanctions a Jones Day lawyer for excessive and tedious objections at a deposition. In writing the opinion, Bennett is clearly out to reform the entire discovery process. He writes: “Discovery-a process intended to facilitate the free flow of information between parties – is now too often mired in obstructionism. Today’s ‘litigators’ are quick to dispute discovery requests, slow to produce documents, and all-too-eager to object at every stage of the process.” He also criticizes judges for ignoring this misconduct and encouraging obstructionist tactics. He argues that the judiciary should step up to the plate and sanction obstructionist lawyers. “Obstructionist litigators, like Ivan Pavlov’s dogs, salivate when they see discovery requests and are conditioned to unleash their treasure chest of obstructive weaponry. Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, their rewards are not food but successfully blocking or impeding the flow of discoverable information. Unless judges impose serious adverse consequences, like court-imposed sanctions, litigators’ conditional reflexes will persist. The point of court-imposed sanctions is to stop reinforcing winning through obstruction.”
As an aside, I agree with Judge Bennett. There are too many objections and delays in the discovery process. That conduct slows down the court system and wastes resources. Judges who urge lawyers to meet and work it out need to remember that some lawyers won’t produce, no matter what happens. In Chicago, the most difficult firms to work with are often the so-called litigation boutiques.
In any event, Judge Bennett sanctioned a Jones Day lawyer for obstructionist conduct during depositions. First, the lawyer used speaking objections when questions were asked to disrupt the flow of questions and answers. Second, the lawyer excessively used what are known as “form” objections. Third, Judge Bennett concluded that the lawyer was using the objections to coach the witness on what to say.
Specifically, Judge Bennett found that the form objections were a waste of time and were not necessary. Furthermore, the form objections did not explain what the problem was so that the questioner could cure the problem. As the court explained, “counsel’s ‘form’ objections, however, amplified two other issues: witness coaching and excessive interruptions.” Page 17. The court found that certain objections were used to coach the witness not to answer questions. Judge Bennett objected to the use of “vague and ambiguous” as an objection because it was used to coach the witness to refuse to answer on the ground that the question called for speculation.
Judge Bennett objected to objections such as “You can answer if you know.” He is correct to find this conduct sanctionable. Those type of objections are designed to coach witnesses to give certain types of answers.
The sanction ordered is that the lawyer make a video discussing proper deposition conduct. I think the sanction is very odd, given the behavior, but Judge Bennett is on to something – lawyers should not be coaching witnesses during a deposition.
Update: the Eighth Circuit reversed the ruling on the ground that the sanction was inappropriate and out of line.
The court was concerned about (a) the lack of any complaint from the other side’s attorneys (b) the lengthy delay before sanctions were imposed; and (c) the failure to notify Ghezzi that sanctions were being considered. The Court explained its ruling in this abstract:
“Then, sixteen months after defense counsel participated in the Bottock and Barrett-Reis depositions, one year after fact discovery had closed, and nine months after Abbott had moved for summary judgment based on excerpts of key depositions, the trial judge assumed control of the case for the first time and criticized defense counsel’s deposition conduct. Seven months later she was sanctioned under Rule 30(d)(2)—some two years after she had defended the Bottock and Barrett-Reis depositions without complaint from opposing counsel or inquiry by the magistrate judge. Cf. Manual for Complex Litigation § 11.42; Federal Judicial Center, Civil Litigation Management Manual, Ch. 3 (2d ed. 2010).
With few exceptions, sanctions should be imposed “within a time frame that has a nexus to the behavior sought to be deterred.” Thomas v. Capital Sec. Servs., Inc., 836 F.2d 866, 881 (5th Cir. 1988); cf. Cooter & Gell, 496 U.S. at 395-96. Rule 30(d)(2) sanctions assessed near the time of violation deter both ongoing and subsequent abuses. See Craig, 384 F. App’x at 533. Prompt action “helps enhance the credibility of the rule,” and by deterring further discovery abuse, “achieve its therapeutic purpose.” Cf. Matter of Yagman, 796 F.2d at 1183-84. This is especially true when sanctions are imposed sua sponte after the fact, for delay allows potential violations to pass unchecked and undeterred. E.g., Thomas, 836 F.3d at 881. The primary purpose of Rule 30(d)(2) was not well served by the post hoc procedures here. See Matter of Yagman, 796 F.2d at 1184 (concluding that “the benefit provided by the policy of deterrence is lost if the [district court] postpones imposition of [discovery sanctions] until the end of the case”); see alsoCraig, 384 F. App’x at 533….”
The court discussed the failure to notify counsel in this passage:
Here, there was no real notice of the nature of the sanction the court had in mind. While the trial judge did provide defense counsel advance notice of his reasons for considering sanctions under Rule 30(d)(2), nothing was mentioned about their unusual nature requiring counsel to produce and distribute an instructional video addressing the impropriety of unspecified form objections, witness coaching, and excessive interruptions. Nor were any “probable consequences” discussed at the subsequent sanctions hearing. See Fisher, 526 F.2d at 1343. The nature of the sanction became apparent only in the court’s final published opinion in the matter. See In re Tutu Wells, 120 F.3d at 380; see also In re Prudential, 278 F.3d at 192-93.
Once information about an unusual sanction appears in public, the damage to the subject’s career, reputation, and future professional opportunities can be difficult if not impossible to repair. See Adams v. Ford Motor Co., 653 F.3d 299, 308-09 (3d Cir. 2011). Defense counsel’s reputation was one of her “most important professional assets,” see id. at 305, and the district court’s unusual sanction might leave an indelible and deleterious “black mark” on her career, see In re Tutu Wells, 120 F.3d at 381 n.10.”
The Eighth Circuit opinion can be found at this link. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=13463882856548559569&q=June+k.+ghezzi&hl=en&as_sdt=400006&as_ylo=2015
Comment: the sanction imposed by the District Court was harsh and unusual punishment. It is noteworthy that the Eighth Circuit did not vindicate the conduct of the attorney who made the tedious objections at the deposition. In my experience tedious objections of this sort are used to coach witnesses on how to answer questions and should be prohibited.
Edward X. Clinton, Jr.