The North Carolina Business Court delivered a significant opinion on discovery sanctions today in Azalea Garden Board & Care, Inc. v. Vanhoy, 2009 NCBC 9 (N.C. Super. Ct. March 26, 2009). If you are litigating in the Business Court, you’d better read this one, which emphasizes the duty of lawyers to cooperate with one another in discovery.

The Defendant’s Motion for Sanctions concerned an interrogatory response by Plaintiff identifying two attorneys as potential expert witnesses, its subsequent refusal based on attorney-client privilege to supply information that it had provided to the experts, and its withdrawal of those persons as experts after the Court granted a Motion to Compel.

That earlier ruling on the Motion to Compel was very short, and wasn’t published, but if you were reading this blog you would have seen it in this May 2008 post.

The Defendant, having prevailed on the Motion to Compel, sought sanctions. The basis for the Sanctions was Rule 26(g) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that an attorney’s signature on a discovery response is a certification that it is "consistent with the rules," and "not interposed for any improper purpose," and "not unreasonable or unduly burdensome or expensive."

In a first impression aspect of his ruling, Judge Tennille said that sanctions under Rule 26(g) are mandatory in the event of a violation.  He also said that Rule 11 cases don’t have much relevance in a Rule 26(g) sanctions motion.

Judge Tennille emphasized the duty of attorneys to cooperate in discovery in complex cases, quoting extensively from Mancia v. Mayflower Textile Serv. Co., 253 F.R.D. 354 (D.Md. 2008), an opinion by Magistrate Judge Paul Grimm.  Judge Tennille described Judge Grimm as "one of the leading commentators on discovery issues in the federal court,"  and said that "his entire opinion should be read by all trial lawyers."  Op. ¶18. (The link is in the case name).

Forthright discovery is particularly important, said Judge Tennille, when expert discovery is involved.  He held that "[o]ur rules are designed to flush out what opinions are going to be expressed at trial so that challenges to those opinions can be heard pretrial without wasting the jurors’ time. Responses to discovery that comply with the rules save the parties and the courts substantial time and money." Op. ¶13.

Here’s how Judge Tennille summed it up:

Judges and lawyers should resurrect the original intention of the discovery rules, which was to make discovery a more cooperative and less adversarial system designed to reduce, not increase, the cost of litigation. North Carolina’s Rule 26(g) was designed to do that and mandates sanctions when violations of the rule occur. Our system of civil justice cannot function effectively and economically unless lawyers and judges return to the original intention of the discovery rules and make cooperation, communication, and transparency the cornerstones of the discovery process.

Op. ¶19.

On the facts before him, Judge Tennille entered sanctions.  He determined that Rule 26(g) had been violated because Plaintiff’s counsel had (1) designated one person (Wagner) as an expert "without an intention of having  Wagner prepare any expert report containing his opinions and the basis therefore, (2) failing to make inquiry into Wagner’s qualifications to give any expert opinions, and (3) designating [another witness, Tarr] as an expert without even having communicated with Tarr." Op. ¶28.

The Court found that these actions had caused delay and undue expense for Defendant and his counsel, necessitating a Motion to Compel, and furthermore that "[t]he conduct was unreasonable under the circumstances. It was more than mere negligence."  Op. ¶28.  The Court also said that the refusal to provide information based on attorney client privilege was "totally unfounded in the law." Op. ¶29.

Another factor leading to sanctions was Plaintiff’s counsel refusal to discuss matters with Defendant’s counsel.  Judge Tennille said that "[l]awyers have a responsibility and a duty to their clients, the Court, and opposing counsel to communicate openly and civilly with each other. A failure to do so is a breach of their professional duties and results in unnecessary delay and expense to the parties and the Court." Op. ¶32.

Brief in Support of Motion for Sanctions

Brief in Opposition to Motion for Sanctions