The Delaware Court of Chancery recently issued a decision that should be required reading for any lawyer that practices before it, whether they be Delaware counsel or non-Delaware counsel admitted pro hac vice, and whether they engage in corporate and commercial litigation or other types of cases before the court. In the matter styled: In re Examworks Group, Inc. Stockholder Appraisal Litigation, Cons. C.A. No. 12688-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 21, 2019), the court explained in a heavily footnoted and scholarly analysis how serious the court regards scheduling orders, pretrial deadlines, discovery obligations, and the importance of properly-prepared and timely-submitted privilege logs.
For the last 13 or so years that this blog has highlighted key decisions from the Delaware Court of Chancery, the purpose has been to provide noteworthy excerpts from important decisions that are of practical application to lawyers who toil in the vineyards of the Delaware courts.
I have intentionally avoided using names of counsel involved in this case, and have focused on the “nuggets” of the court’s ruling that a busy litigator would need to know. I provide bullet points of the most noteworthy statements of law and the principles emphasized in this decision that should be memorized by any practitioner in the Court of Chancery who seeks to avoid the types of penalties that were imposed in this case for the failure to meet deadlines and the failure to fulfill various discovery obligations.
- The court begins its analysis with the doctrinal underpinning and the public policy rationale for the importance of candor and fair dealing during the discovery process in order to reduce the element of surprise at trial and to insure that a trial decision is the result of a disinterested search for truth from all available evidence.
- The court reminded parties that scheduling orders are “not merely guidelines but have the same full force and effect as any other court order.” See footnote 39.
- The court bluntly underscored the rule that a “party that disregards the provisions in a scheduling order that govern discovery is engaging in discovery abuse.”
- The court remonstrated that: “Discovery abuse has no place in Delaware courts, and the protection of litigants, the public and the bar demands nothing less than Delaware trial courts be diligent and promptly and effectively take corrective action to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every proceeding before them.” See footnote 41.
- Importantly, the court interpreted Court of Chancery Rule 37(b)(2), based on Delaware Supreme Court decisions, as generally requiring the mandatory award of fees for discovery abuses unless the failure to comply with discovery obligations was “substantially justified.” See Slip Op. at 15-17.
- One of the several problems that the court addressed was that the production of documents came many weeks after the discovery deadline, and well after the depositions were taken. The court noted that the offending party neither requested an extension of the deadline from the court nor sought an extension by agreement with the other parties in the case.
- The court rejected with emphasis the argument that because the receiving party did not “nag” or press for the compliance with the discovery deadline, that there should be no penalty for non-compliance. The court refused to allow the offending party to “shift the obligation for compliance” to the other party.
Two Levels of Consequences for Missed Discovery Deadlines:
- The court described the first level of consequence for misconduct involved as including the actual prejudice that resulted from the belated production of documents that the company could have used in discovery for depositions and with their experts.
- The second level of prejudice involves the “degradation of the litigation process.” The court explained that in order for the litigation system to function, the parties must follow the rules.
- The court’s reasoning on this point deserves a block quote:
“If participants suspect that others are not following the rules, then the process deteriorates. People who follow the rules feel like chumps when others seem to be cutting corners or breaking rules and getting ahead. People who otherwise might not think of pushing limits become more aggressive if they think everyone else is doing it. It is this broader, systemic interest that the Delaware Supreme Court seems to have had in mind when stressing the courts must address discovery abuse not only to protect litigants, but also to protect the public and the bar.” See footnote 57.
- The foregoing rationale is one of the best articulations of the need for the courts to enforce discovery obligations so that those who don’t follow the rules gain some advantage, and those who do follow the rules feel, in the words of the court, “like chumps.”
- The penalty that the court imposed for the substantially tardy production of documents was that the offending party that missed the production deadline was required to produce their witnesses again for deposition and pay for the cost of the depositions, or as the court described it, “bear all expenses associated with their late production of documents and the remedy imposed by this decision.” The court listed in an extended description the types of additional efforts that would be included in the fees that the offending party would be responsible for.
- Although many prior Chancery decisions have described in detail the importance of privilege logs and the specific components required to be included in privilege logs, as well as the penalty of waiver if the contents of the privilege logs are not sufficient, this opinion provides an additional reminder for those who might not have gotten the message in prior decisions.
For example, the court emphasized that:
- Producing a timely privilege log is part of a party’s obligation when asserting privilege. The privilege logs must be produced by the same deadline as the date for documents to be produced.
- The burden of establishing privilege rests on the party asserting it. See footnote 61.
- The court emphasized that: “An insufficiently supported claim of privilege can result in waiver.” See footnote 63 for cases supporting that well-established statement of Delaware law. Those cited cases also describe the detailed contents that a privilege log must include in order to avoid waiver.
- The court explained that: “Just as you can’t hit what you can’t see, you can’t challenge what the other side has hasn’t described.” That is, the privilege log must provide sufficient information to enable the adversary to “assess the privilege claim an decide whether to mount a challenge.”
- The court reiterated Delaware law that: “Producing a privilege log after the discovery cutoff prevents the opposing party from evaluating the log, making timely challenges, and using the resulting documents in discovery. Producing a post-cutoff log has the same effect as not producing a log, which is the same thing as not providing any support for a claim of privilege. Improperly asserting a claim of privilege is no claim of privilege at all.” See footnote 57 (cases collected).
- In sum, the court gave the party who did not receive the documents on time leave to conduct supplemental depositions to explore any materials produced after the depositions were taken, or as a result of the penalties imposed by this decision. The court imposed on the offending party the cost of the supplemental depositions of its own representatives, as well as the additional costs of additional efforts incurred as a result of the late production, as more specifically described in the opinion.
- This opinion should be required reading for anyone who practices before the Delaware Court of Chancery, especially out of state counsel who are admitted pro hac vice, in order to “bring home” the importance that the court places on timely compliance with discovery deadlines and discovery obligations, as well as the severe and costly penalties that the court will impose, on a mandatory basis, if those discovery deadlines and obligations are not complied with properly.
POSTSCRIPT: Several years ago, a Delaware Supreme Court opinion was highlighted on these pages, addressing a related issue of what penalties are appropriate for missing pretrial deadlines. See Christian v. Counseling Resource Associates, Inc., Del. Supr., No. 460, 2011 (Jan. 2, 2013) (revised March 26, 2013).