The Delaware Court of Chancery recently imposed penalties on a non-Delaware attorney for behavior during a deposition that was not in compliance with the applicable Delaware deposition standards. The letter decision in the matter styled In Re: Shawe & Elting LLC, C.A. No. 9661-CB (Del. Ch. Aug. 14, 2015), provides helpful guidance on the types of obstructionist conduct during a deposition that can be the subject of penalties imposed by the court.

Although such behavior during a deposition may be common in some fora, and in my experience is not often penalized even in Delaware, this ruling provides specific guidelines that can be used by those who have the time, money and inclination to seek enforcement of the rules against those who obstruct depositions or interfere with the questioning during a deposition by both subtle and not-so-subtle “cues” to the deponent, such as speaking objections, “questions to the defending attorney”, and the “nuclear option”–instructing the deponent not to answer a question.

Highlights of this useful ruling include the court’s reliance on the following rules:

  • Court of Chancery Rule 30(d)(1) only condones an instruction to a deponent not to answer a question in three instances: (i) to preserve a privilege; (ii) to enforce a limitation on evidence based on an existing direction by the court; or (iii) to present a motion under Rule 30 (d)(3)[e.g., to seek a protective order].
  • Rule 30(d)(2) provides that: “if the court finds … conduct that has frustrated the fair examination of the deponent, it may impose upon the persons responsible an appropriate sanction, including the reasonable costs and attorney’s fees incurred by any party as a result thereof.”

We have previously included on these pages materials that can be used by those who are interested in the standards applicable to depositions in Delaware cases–even when those depositions are taken outside of Delaware, or when they are taken or defended by non-Delaware attorneys, as in this matter, admitted pro hac vice. See, e.g., here and here. In corporate litigation, it remains common for out-of-state attorneys to be admitted pro hac vice and to take or defend depositions in Delaware cases, but when they do so, they are still bound by the Delaware rules.

The sad reality is that parties or their counsel often do not have the time, or the client’s authorization to spend the money needed to file a motion to compel or related motion to “play policeman” when an attorney interferes with the questioning at a deposition–especially when the obstructions are not as clear-cut as they were in the instant case.

This decision was issued on the day after the court’s 106-page decision addressing substantive matters and granting a request for dissolution in this “business divorce” dispute.