February 26, 2017

The 2015 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Part 3 of 3)

Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series discussing the 2015 changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Part 1 discussed the changes to Rules 1, 4, and 16, and is available here. Part 2 discussed the changes to Rule 26, and is available here

Bill_GrohBy William C. Groh, III

Changes to Rules 30, 31, and 33

Rules 30 and 31, which govern depositions, have been amended to account for the changes to Rule 26. Both rules require that when the parties seek leave of court to conduct depositions, “the court must grant leave to the extent consistent with Rule 26(b)(1) and (2).” Rule 33, governing interrogatories, has also been amended to reflect the proportionality requirements of Rule 26(b).

Rule 34

Like Rules 30, 31, and 33, the amendments to Rule 34 (governing requests for production) incorporate the changes to Rule 26. They also require greater specificity in objecting to discovery requests. New Rule 34(b)(2)(B) requires the responding party to “state with specificity the grounds for objecting to the request, including the reasons.”

New Rule 34(b)(2)(C) further clarifies this requirement by requiring that “an objection must state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of that objection.” In practical terms, however, a party will not necessarily have detailed knowledge of withheld documents. This is especially so if a responding party has conducted a limited search for documents based on an objection: how can the party specify what has been “withheld” in these circumstances?

The Committee Notes address these questions, providing that in objecting to a request, “[t]he producing party does not need to provide a detailed description or log of all documents withheld, but does need to alert other parties to the fact that documents have been withheld and thereby facilitate an informed discussion of the objection.” [1]  The Committee Notes also address the issue of limited searches, providing that “an objection that states the limits that have controlled the search for responsive and relevant materials qualifies as a statement that the materials have been ‘withheld.’”[2]

Finally, Rule 34(b)(2)(B) has been amended to reflect the “common practice” of producing documents rather than permitting inspection.[3] The new rule provides that “[t]he responding party may state that it will produce copies of documents or of electronically stored information instead of permitting inspection. The production must then be completed no later than the time for inspection specified in the request or another reasonable time specified in the response.”[4]

Rule 37

The amendments to Rule 37(e) provide more guidance regarding the failure to preserve ESI. Prior Rule 37(e), adopted in 2006, provided that “[a]bsent exceptional circumstances, a court may not impose sanctions under these rules on a party for failing to provide electronically stored information lost as a result of the routine, good-faith operation of an electronic information system.” While the rule implied authority to impose sanctions on a finding of bad faith, it provided no other specific criteria.

New Rule 37(e) provides a more comprehensive framework for courts to issue sanctions in the event of loss of ESI where “a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it, and it cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery.” As a preliminary matter, while New Rule 37(e)(1) requires a finding of prejudice resulting from a negligent failure to preserve ESI, it does not place a burden of proving or disproving prejudice on one party or the other. The Committee Notes indicate that under certain circumstances, it would be unfair for the party that did not lose the information to demonstrate prejudice. Under other circumstances, however, the content of the lost information might be “fairly evident” and perhaps unimportant in light of other available information; the Committee Notes suggest that the party seeking relief should be required to demonstrate prejudice under those circumstances.[5] In light of these considerations, the rule leaves the court with discretion as to how best to assess prejudice.[6]

Once prejudice has been found, New Rule 37(e)(1) states that the court “may order measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice.” The court is afforded wide discretion in fashioning appropriate remedies, depending on the circumstances. The Committee Notes caution, however, that “authority to order measures no greater than necessary to cure prejudice does not require the court to adopt measures to cure every possible prejudicial effect.”[7]

No finding of prejudice is required, however, to impose sanctions when a party has acted “with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation.”[8] Sanctions for the willful destruction of ESI include (1) presumptions that the lost information was unfavorable to the party, (2) adverse jury instructions, or (3) dismissal of the action or default judgment.[9] The Committee Notes caution that these more punitive remedies should not be confused with the “curative” remedies available under Rule 26(e)(1), noting that courts should:

ensure that curative measures under subdivision (e)(1) do not have the effect of measures that are permitted under subdivision (e)(2) only on a finding of intent to deprive another party of the lost information’s use in the litigation. An example of an inappropriate (e)(1) measure might be an order striking pleadings related to, or precluding a party from offering any evidence in support of, the central or only claim or defense in the case. On the other hand, it may be appropriate to exclude a specific item of evidence to offset prejudice caused by failure to preserve other evidence that might contradict the excluded item of evidence.[10]

Lastly, and while not incorporated into Rule 37(e) itself, the Committee Notes provide considerable analysis as to how courts should determine whether a party has taken reasonable steps to preserve ESI. The Committee Notes describe factors to address in considering when a duty to preserve may have arisen, as well as proportionality factors in evaluating what preservation measures may have been reasonable.[11] They also emphasize that Rule 37(e) does not apply when a party loses information despite reasonable preservation efforts.[12] Finally, the Committee Notes explore the distinction between independent common law or statutory duties to preserve information and the obligations triggered under New Rule 37(e).[13] Litigants attempting to evaluate the sufficiency of preservation efforts should reference these notes in addition to the existing case law.

Rules 55 and 84

Rule 55, governing default judgments, has also been amended to clarify the difference between entry of default and entry of a final judgment. An entry of default that does not dispose of all issues in the case may be set aside for good cause under New Rule 55. If, on the other hand, an entry of default results in a final judgment under Rule 54, such a judgment can be set aside only under the standards of Rule 60. Finally, Rule 84 has been amended to abrogate the appendix of forms.

Conclusion

The 2015 Amendments to the Federal Rules may very well reinvigorate many preexisting standards for the conduct of discovery in federal courts. While many contend that the amendments to Rule 26 will spawn considerable motions practice, others argue that the amendments will ultimately help streamline the discovery process. Other developments, such as the new framework for sanctions under Rule 37(e), will provide the court with additional tools to deal appropriately with failure to preserve ESI.


[1] 2015 Committee Notes, supra note 4 at 34.

[2]. Id.

[3]. Id. at 38.

[4]. New Rule 34(b)(2)(B).

[5]. Id. at 43, 47.

[6]. Id.

[7]. Id. at 44.

[8]. New Rule 37(e)(2).

[9]. New Rule 37(e)(2)(A), (B), and (C).

[10]. 2015 Committee Notes, note 4 at 44.

[11]. Id. at 39-41.

[12]. Id. at 41.

[13]. Id. at 40 (“The fact that a party had an independent obligation to preserve information does not necessarily mean that it had such a duty with respect to the litigation, and the fact that the party failed to observe some other preservation obligation does not itself prove that its efforts to preserve were not reasonable with respect to a particular case.”).


Bill Groh is an experienced commercial litigator who has represented individuals and small businesses in a variety of fields since 2005. Mr. Groh frequently handles matters involving both intellectual property and commercial litigation issues, including trademark infringement, copyright infringement, trade secret infringement, civil disputes involving breach of contract, business partnerships, allegations of breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, civil theft, actions for dissolution of partnership interest, and other such disputes that are increasingly common in modern business.