District Court Holds That Rule 37 Does Not Allow Sanctions In The Absence of A Court Order

The underlying dispute concerned an inspection of Chevron’s premises in Nigeria. Plaintiffs’ experts were initially denied access, but Chevron claimed that it cleared up the problem almost immediately and obtained access for the experts.

In any event, the sanctions motion was denied because the defendant did not violate or refuse to comply with a specific court order. The court explained:

Plaintiff seeks sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37, which governs “failure to comply with a court order.” Defendant contends that Rule 37 does not apply because the December 2015 trip was not scheduled pursuant to a specific court order. The Court agrees. In Unigard Sec. Ins. Co. v. Lakewood Engineering & Mfg. Corp., 982 F.2d 363 (9th Cir. 1992), the Ninth Circuit held that a district court could not sanction a party under Rule 37 for the party’s destruction of evidence prior to filing suit. The court explained,

This court has foreclosed the application of Rule 37 sanctions in cases such as this where a party’s alleged discovery-related misconduct is not encompassed by the language of the rule. The definition of “order” in Rule 37(b) has been read broadly. See, e.g., Henry v. Sneiders, 490 F.2d 315, 318 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 419 U.S. 832, 95 S.Ct. 55, 42 L.Ed.2d 57 (1974) (Rule 37 sanctions may be imposed on a party for disobedience to a court’s request in oral proceedings, so long as those proceedings give the party unequivocal notice that a court has asked that certain documents be produced.). But Rule 37(b)(2)’s requirement that there be some form of court order that has been disobeyed has not been read out of existence; Rule 37(b)(2) has never been read to authorize sanctions for more general discovery abuse.Id. at 368.

Here, plaintiff acknowledges that there is no court order that Chevron has disobeyed. Instead, plaintiff asserts that Chevron’s United States counsel either negligently or intentionally failed to coordinate with Chevron’s Nigerian representatives to ensure that plaintiff’s experts would be able to access the explosion site. Under Unigard, Rule 37 sanctions are unavailable for this conduct.

Source: GBARABE v. CHEVRON CORPORATION, Dist. Court, ND California 2016 – Google Scholar

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