April 19, 2018

Tenth Circuit: District Court Erred in Excluding Evidence That has the Necessary Effect of a Dismissal

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in HCG Platinum, LLC v. Prederred Product Placement Co. on Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

HCG Platinum, LLC (HCG) and Preferred Product Placement Corporation (PPPC) entered into a marketing and non-circumvention agreement, where PPPC agreed to place HCG products into specified retailers in exchange for a percentage of the proceeds, PPPC would disclose details of negotiations and projects with other business associates, and HCG would be prevented from interfering with PPPC’s agreements with any third-parties. The following year, HCG filed a breach of contract action against PPPC, alleging that PPPC breached the agreement by failing to execute a sales agreement with certain retailers. PPPC filed a counterclaim alleging that HCG breached the agreement by failing to pay outstanding commissions and by interfering with PPPC’s third-party relationships. The damages PPPC put forth were void of evidential support or significant written explanation.

HCG then moved to preclude PPPC from presenting any evidence of damages under the agreement. HCG argued that PPPC’s initial disclosures described projections that would be inadmissible without expert testimony and PPPC should not be able to put on any evidence of damages.

The district court stated that PPPC’s failure to supplement the damages aspect of its initial disclosures meant that PPPC could not introduce evidence of damages unless its discovery deficiency proved harmless or substantially justified. The district court then described an established “four factor test” regarding: (1) the prejudice or surprise to the party against whom the damages evidence would be offered, which is HCG; (2) HCG’s ability to cure that prejudice; (3) the extent to which the introduction of new damages evidence would disrupt the trial; and (4) whether bad faith or willfulness motivated PPPC’s discovery failures.

The district court addressed the fourth factor and found no support for a finding of bad faith. The district court then focused on prejudice and harmlessness and allowed arguments from both parties for the right way to think about the issue. HCG argued that the law compelled exclusion due to PPPC’s failure to disclose precise quantifications of damages, as well as claiming that the prejudice proved incurable and disruptive because reopening discovery and reviewing new documents would be burdensome and expensive. PPPC emphasized that its conduct caused only slight prejudice, which could be easily remedied through limited additional discovery.

The district court concluded that PPPC could not proceed to trial and entered a judgement in favor of HCG. PPPC appealed. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the district court’s decision.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a discovery sanction that barred PPPC from pursing its counterclaims. The court  based this conclusion on the fact that the district court misapplied the four-factor test described above, and found that the record reflected that the district court reached an arbitrary outcome that overlooked all but the last factor of the test.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment in favor of HCG on PPPC’s counterclaims and remanded to allow the district court to reevaluate the exclusion of PPPC’s damages evidence under the four factor test.

The Tenth Circuit also mentioned that district courts should consider the effectiveness of lesser sanctions, where the exclusion of evidence has the necessary force and effect of a dismissal. There are three reasons for this. First is that dismissal constitutes an extreme sanction that typically is appropriate only in cases of bad faith or willful misconduct. Second, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure expressly empower the district courts to impose sanctions short of exclusion. And third is the notion that district courts should consider the appropriateness of lesser sanctions, where their discovery rulings have the effect of dismissal, which is in accord with the decisions of other circuits.

The Tenth Circuit held that where the exclusion of evidence has the necessary effect of a dismissal, as in this case, the district courts should, in conjunction with the traditional four factor test, consider the efficacy of less drastic alternatives, reserving the sanction of dismissal for cases involving bad faith or willfulness or instances where less severe sanctions would prove futile.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals REVERSED the district court’s judgment in favor of HCG and REMANDED with instructions that the district court reevaluate the exclusion of PPPC’s damage evidence.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Speak Your Mind

*