Defendants’ Discovery “Gamesmanship” Backfires, Leading to Sanctions: eDiscovery Case Law

In Pugh v. Community Health Sys., et al., No. 5:20-cv-00630 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 8, 2021), Pennsylvania Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice granted the plaintiffs’ motion in part “by directing that their allegations of undue delay in the delivery of their son are established as to the Northampton Defendants” and also awarded the plaintiffs $500 for attorneys’ fees and costs for litigating the motion.  However, Judge Rice deferred regarding the plaintiffs’ request for a direction that the undue delay was a proximate cause of their son’s injuries for the purposes of litigation, stating that “[t]he issue of causation is unrelated to the absence of records and shall be decided by the jury.”

Case Background

In this case, the plaintiffs filed suit in February 2020 related to allegations of undue delay in the delivery of their son.  The defendants had an express obligation to provide documents upon receiving the plaintiffs’ discovery requests in April 2020 but responded with multiple objections and only some of the requested documents in June 2020.  Subsequently, the plaintiffs sent a deficiency letter and additional discovery requests on July 30. After receiving no response, the plaintiffs filed a motion to compel on September 9, which was granted on September 17 and the Northampton Defendants were ordered to either produce the requested documents or certify that they do not exist, by November 2. The Northampton Defendants never produced documents or certifications to the plaintiffs, violating the Court order. When they finally corresponded with the plaintiffs in late December 2020, the Northampton Defendants asserted that the new owner of the hospital claimed to be unable to access the requested documents.

Judge’s Ruling

Judge Rice began his order by stating: “This case provides a classic example of how discovery gamesmanship can backfire”, noting that “[a]fter the Pughs first requested hospital records in April 2020, the Northampton Defendants stonewalled, blanketly asserting that the straightforward interrogatories were somehow ‘vague, ambiguous, overly broad and unduly burdensome.’”  He also noted: “I have ‘sound discretion’ to sanction a party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2) for failing to comply with a discovery order.”

Judge Rice also stated: “Had Defendants begun to collect documents after the lawsuit was filed in February 2020 or responded in good faith to Plaintiffs’ discovery requests in spring 2020, they likely could have accessed the requested documents before the July 2020 sale of the hospital. Moreover, Defendants’ conduct prejudiced the Pughs, who seek to prove that Defendants’ failure to provide a timely caesarian section caused their son’s birth injuries… According to the Pughs, they requested a caesarian section but did not have one because no staff appeared to perform it…Thus, the Pughs’ case will be significantly prejudiced without access to hospital documents identifying staff who worked during this time period, information about potential staff shortages or delay, timesheets, policies and procedures, and documents showing the assembly of staff who delivered their son…These documents have the potential to show whether the delay was due to inadequate staffing or another factor, essential evidence in this matter.”

Judge Rice also rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs could cure the prejudice by deposing relevant medical providers, stating that “depositions would not cure the prejudice caused by Defendants’ failure to preserve and produce the requested documents.”

Regarding willful or bad faith conduct by the defendants, Judge Rice stated: “Although the Northampton Defendants demonstrated an unwillingness to seriously conduct discovery, I do not find that they or their counsel acted in bad faith. Nevertheless, I also find sanctions are warranted because of the severe prejudice to the Pughs and the lack of a fair cure.”  As a result, Judge Rice granted in part the plaintiffs’ motion in part as discussed above.

So, what do you think?  Would the defendants have received the same sanctions if they had been more communicative during the process?  Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant, an Affinity partner of eDiscovery Today.

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