February 20, 2015
The Basics of Civil Litigation Discovery
At some point after the filing of a lawsuit in Virginia Circuit Court, initial disputes over the sufficiency of the complaint are resolved. The parties are now on notice of their opponents’ claims and defenses. The process of getting to this point was the focus of my previous blog post. Contrary to what one sees on T.V. or movies, parties do not immediately proceed to going to trial. Instead, lawyers and their clients begin to prepare for trial in a period called “discovery.” Discovery involves finding out more facts about the case. This post provides an overview of the basics of civil litigation discovery, with a focus on its purposes and tools in real estate cases. Why is there such a lengthy process for this? Consider three purposes of discovery:
- Hoarding. Preventing one side or another from “hoarding” documents and information about the case to the unfair detriment of others. For example, in a case between different homeowners’ association factions over control of the board of directors, whoever happens to have access to the minutes, resolutions, notices, amendments, etc., kept by the association must provide them to the other.
- Surprises. Lawyers, as a lot, are attracted to springing surprises on their opponents at trial. However, it may be contrary to the principles of justice for one side to hand the other a large stack of documents they have never seen before during the trial and expect the witness questioning to be meaningful. Discovery can mitigate unfair surprise.
- Effectiveness of Trial. The public places greater confidence in trial results that are based on documents and facts rather than the decisions made in the absence of existing evidence.
The methods of discovery are more formal than the fact gathering conducted outside of litigation. Informal investigation includes researching the documents and information within one’s control, talking to friendly witnesses, checking what is publicly available or that one’s bank can provide. Usually this doesn’t answer all questions. So what are the available forms of civil discovery? There are quite a few. The most useful in real estate and construction cases in Virginia circuit court are:
- Document Requests. The rules allow a party to request in writing an opponent’s documents. A party seeking production of documents must send a written request. The responding party then has 21 days in which to respond as to documents within their possession, custody or control. In large cases it usually takes significantly longer than 21 days to resolve a document request. Reviewing the relevant documents of one’s opponent is a central element of trial preparation. Contracts and other documents created before the dispute cannot, absent forgery, be changed to adapt to someone’s current story. When the judge or jury goes to make determinations of facts, the credibility of the parties and the key documents carry great weight. If a party fails to produce a document requested in discovery, they are not normally allowed to use it as an exhibit at trial. The documents of a third-party can be requested by serving them with a subpoena duces tecum.
- Interrogatories. Information sought may not necessarily be reflected in a document. In discovery, a party may submit written interrogatories to another party, seeking answers to specific questions. For example, a party may inquire into the factual support for their opponent’s claims or defenses. Parties usually ask for disclosure of all persons having knowledge about the facts of the case. Interrogatories are also a good tool for finding out about expert testimony that one’s opponent may present at trial. The answering party must respond within 21 days. The answers must be signed by a party under oath or affirmation.
- Requests for Admissions. Last August, I posted an article about the role of a party’s admissions in a federal trial in Maryland. In that case, a lawyer made an oral admission in a closing argument. His opponent did not make a motion to have the admission deemed binding before the jury went to deliberate. The jury made a decision contrary to the admission. The jury verdict ignoring the admission survived post-trial motions and appeal. Party admissions can be requested in discovery before they come out at trial. Parties are entitled to submit to the opponent formal, written requests for admission. The 21 day deadline applies here as well. Admitted responses are binding. These can be useful for resolving uncontested matters so that the trial can focus on what’s disputed.
- Depositions. How will a party or witness react to a line of questions at trial? Does a party or witness know something that can be useful to preparing one’s own case? In discovery, a party may take oral depositions of parties, experts or other witnesses. The deposition usually occurs at a law office. The parties, the lawyers and the witness meet in a conference room with a court reporter. The court reporter places the witness under oath, and then records all of the lawyers’ questions, objections and witness answers. Depositions of parties and experts are an important part of pretrial discovery in large cases.
- View of Real Estate. In many real estate or construction cases, the most significant piece of evidence is the building or land itself. If ordered, the jury travels to the property to view it as evidence. More commonly, the appearance of property is put into evidence by photographs or video. A party not in possession or control of the real estate is entitled to view it. This can be an effective way of expanding one’s knowledge about the case.
Not all of these tools will need to be employed in every case. In addition to these forms of discovery, there are common areas where parties dispute over whether the discovery has been properly sought or provided. These are usually the subject of objections and motions:
- Relevance. Discovery cannot be used to explore any and every topic. The requests must explore relevant, admissible evidence or information that is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Although not unlimited, the scope of discovery is broad.
- Confidentiality. A party may have confidentiality concerns about turning over documents or information. These concerns can be addressed by a protective order regulating the use and disposition of confidential documents or other information.
- Privileges to Withhold. Frequently attorneys will interpose objections to discovery requests. One justification for withholding documents is the attorney-client privilege. Communications between an attorney and his client are not subject to discovery. Despite the apparent simplicity of this concept, disputes over assertion of the attorney-client privilege are a frequent source of discovery disputes. There are other privilege and objections that are applicable in certain situations.
- Spoliation. In the age of computers, e-mails, text messages, computer files and other electronic data are easily created and easily deleted. Once litigation is threatened or pending, parties and witnesses should take action to preserve evidence, including electronically stored information for potential use in the lawsuit.
- Motions to Compel. Lawyers must make reasonable efforts to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of objections, the sufficiency of responses and other discovery disputes without putting it before a judge. When disputes cannot be resolved, typically one party will bring a motion to compel discovery against the other.
- Sanctions. The failure to obey discovery orders can subject a party to a variety of sanctions, including awards of attorney’s fees, dismissal of claims or defenses, exclusion of witnesses and other punishments.
By better understanding the basics of civil litigation discovery, one can adopt strategies that make better use of time, energy and resources pre-trial. Implementing discovery strategies proper to the needs and circumstances of the case pave the way towards a favorable result.