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An Overview of the 2015 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

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written by NITA guest bloggers Tereza Horáková and Michael J. Dale

I cannot believe that many members of the bar went to law school because of a burning desire to spend their professional life wearing down opponents with creatively burdensome discovery requests or evading legitimate requests through dilatory tactics.

This quote comes from the 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary issued by the Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Chief Justice Roberts[1] was addressing the protracted, antagonistic, and wasteful discovery practices often present in today’s litigation. The eradication of such practices became the main focus of the Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that went into effect on December 1, 2015 (hereinafter the 2015 Amendments). The 2015 Amendments represent one of the most significant changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in years. In the words of Chief Justice Roberts himself, they provide a concrete opportunity for actually getting something done[2].

While the 2015 Amendments address several topics, the most important changes affect Rule 26 defining the scope of the discovery and, most notably, electronic discovery. This post provides an overview of the impact and meaning of the 2015 Amendments to Rule 26 and how it will affect everyday federal litigation practice.

Return of Proportionality
A potential game changer with respect to discovery practice is the re-introduction of proportionality. The 2015 Amendments restore six proportionality factors to their original place in Rule 26(b)(1) and point out that parties must consider proportionality in all aspects of discovery. In particular, the Rule 26 was amended, with deletions stricken through and additions underlined:

Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable. [3]

Proportionality: Not a New Concept
The proportionality factors were first adopted in 1983 as an integral part of the scope of discovery provisions, with the objective to deal with the problem of overdiscovery and encourage judges to be more active in identifying and discouraging discovery overuse[4]. Ensuing amendments separated the proportionality language from the integral scope of discovery provision into a separate paragraph[5]. While the 1993 amendments made clear that the separation was intended merely for ease of reference and explicitly encouraged their active judicial use, the courts were nevertheless reluctant to limit the use of the discovery devices[6]. The amendments adopted in 2000 incorporated an otherwise redundant cross-reference and further urged the courts to apply the proportionality limitations, albeit to no avail[7].

It was the 2015 Amendments that finally brought a change. Before the 2015 Amendments, the proportionality factors appeared in subsection Rule 26(b)(2)(C), which governs court-ordered limitations on discovery and, therefore, operated as a limitation used in motions for a protective order[8]. The return of the proportionality factors to their original place in Rule 26(b)(1) makes them again an express component of the very definition of the permissible scope of discovery[9].

Underlying Reasons for the 2015 Amendments
The reasons for doing so are directly connected to the explosion of discoverable information. The technological progress of the last decades has created ample opportunities for abuse of discovery tools as instruments of delay or oppression[10]. With the advance of e-discovery, its cost apparently often exceeds its utility and the potential for abuse is ever more present[11]. As a consequence, one of the goals of integrating proportionality into the definition of discovery in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is to reduce its costs and remind both the courts and parties what should and should not be discoverable in any case[12].

The 2015 Amendments further advocate for active judicial involvement and supervision especially early in the case[13]. However, judicial activism is also advised later on in cases where parties cannot overcome on their own important differences leading to ineffective case management[14].

“The Point Is to Make Sure We Don’t Look Just at the Dollars”
The 2015 Amendments point out that monetary stakes are only one of the proportionality factors to be considered[15]. In fact, the courts should approach the factors in an evenhanded manner. Discovery requests addressed to an impecunious party do not automatically foreclose discovery, just as a party’s wealth does not justify limitless requests[16]. Similarly, important personal or public issues often connected to public policy such as discrimination or First Amendment cases must be taken into consideration even if they are involved in litigation over small or no amounts of money at all[17]. Moreover, the 2015 Amendments recognize that some cases involve an information asymmetry where a party seeking discovery of information may know little in comparison to the other party[18]. This asymmetry may justify one party bearing heavier discovery costs than the other.

Deleted Provisions
While the 2015 Amendments added some language, they also deleted three sections of the Rule 26(b)(1) for various reasons.

First, it is the enumerative list of discoverable matters [19] (“. . . existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons who know of any discoverable matter”). The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules has explained that the list is so deeply entrenched in practice that the language is simply redundant. Nevertheless, the list of discoverable matters remains the same regardless of eradication of the express language of Rule 26(b)(1)[20].

Second, the 2015 Amendments omit the provision authorizing the court, for good cause, to order discovery of any matter relevant to the subject matter involved in the action. As it turns out, the scope of discovery with respect to matter relevant to a claim or defense and matter relevant to the subject matter in fact overlaps and the latter was rarely employed[21].

Third, the 2015 Amendments modified a problematic phrase regarding relevant but inadmissible information that appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. The “reasonably calculated” test was sometimes incorrectly interpreted as a general scope of discovery tied to the probability of discovering admissible evidence which in effect eliminated all other limits[22]. The language is now replaced with a direct statement that information within the scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable, such as hearsay testimony solicited during a deposition[23]. In this way, Rule 26(b)(1) makes clear that discovery of nonprivileged information not admissible in evidence remains available as long as it is otherwise within the scope of discovery[24].

Relaxation of the Early Discovery Moratorium
Another important change in the 2015 Amendments concerns the time for serving a request for production under Rule 26(d). Prior to the 2015 Amendments, a party could not usually serve any discovery requests before meeting for a conference under Rule 26(f), which typically happens months after a complaint is filed[25]. The 2015 Amendments allow requests for production to be served as soon as twenty-two days after service of process regardless of whether the Rule 26(f) conference already took place[26].

The aim of allowing early requests for production was to make Rule 26(f) conferences more productive. Specifically, negotiations at the conference may be more fruitful with the knowledge gained from each party’s initial set of requests for production, thus facilitating a more focused discussion[27]. On the other hand, it is arguable whether parties will seize this new opportunity because doing so would provide the opposing party more time to prepare objections[28]. Furthermore, the early requests may turn out to be inconsistent with agreements later concluded at the Rule 26(f) conference[29].

Effect on (Pending) Matters
Although it would be premature to jump to conclusions as to the impact of the 2015 Amendments, there are already some signs that courts have been making use of the amended Rule 26 and its proportionality principles. For example, in Henry v. Morgan’s Hotel Group, a court in the Southern District of New York declined to grant a Rule 45 subpoena because the discovery request for “all documents and communications” was determined to be overly broad and the requested information was not relevant to the disputed issues[30].

Similarly, in Gilead Sciences v. Merck in the Northern District of California, the court declined to grant additional discovery[31]. The court found that no reason had been provided to doubt the proof tendered by the plaintiff, and given the cost and potential delay, additional discovery on that topic was precisely the kind of disproportionate discovery that Rule 26 was intended to preclude[32].

Conclusion
While it is undeniable that the 2015 Amendment stirred up the litigation waters of federal court discovery, its true impact on practitioners and litigants and potential to reshape certain discovery practices remains to be seen. Finally, further information about the 2015 Amendments may be found in the entire amendments packet sent to Congress.

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Tereza Horáková is a graduate of Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, and a dual degree student at Nova Southeastern University College of Law where she is a research assistant to Professor Michael J. Dale. She can be reached at tereza@hotmail.cz.

Michael J. Dale has been a member of the faculty at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law since 1985, teaching courses in family and juvenile law, and in the family and juvenile clinic. Professor Dale teaches at NITA programs in both public and in-house settings. In 2009, he received the Robert Oliphant Award from NITA for his service to the organization. An active litigator, he has been a consultant to federal and state agencies on civil rights issues and to law firms on litigation matters. He can be reached at dalem@nova.edu.

[1] John G. Roberts, 2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary 11 (2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).

[4] See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 Advisory Committee’s Notes to 2015 Amendment (hereinafter 2015 Notes).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Leeron Morad, Andrew Bramhall, Digging Through The New Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Law360 (May 26, 2015), http://www.law360.com/articles/654798/digging-through-the-new-federal-rules-of-civil-procedure (hereinafter Law 360).

[9] Id. 17, 2015), http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/32726/just-follow-rules-frcp-amendments-could-be-e-discovery-game-changer.

[10] 2015 Notes.

[11] Jennifer A. Brennan, Hon. John M. Facciola, Hon. Mary M. Rowland, Just Follow the Rules! FRCP amendments could be e-discovery game changer, Metropolitan Corporate Counsel (Jul. 17, 2015), http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/32726/just-follow-rules-frcp-amendments-could-be-e-discovery-game-changer.

[12] Law 360.

[13] 2015 Notes.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Law 360.

[19] 2015 Notes.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Jennifer A. Brennan, Wendy Butler Curtis, FRCP Amendments: The Early Returns Courts Show Signs of Heeding the Call for Early and Active Management, Metropolitan Corporate Counsel (Mar. 3, 2016), http://www.metrocorpcounsel.com/articles/33591/frcp-amendments-early-returns-courts-show-signs-heeding-call-early-and-active-managem.

[24] Id.

[25] Law 360.

[26] Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(d).

[27] Law 360.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Henry v. Morgan’s Hotel Grp., Inc., No. 15-CV-1789 (ER)(JLC), 2016 WL 303114, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2016).

[31] Gilead Scis., Inc. v. Merck & Co, Inc., No. 5:13-CV-04057-BLF, 2016 WL 146574 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2016).

[32] Id.

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