Default judgment or summary judgment as sanctions for discovery violations are predictably rare. The imposition of such drastic remedies requires particularly close analysis by the judicial officer assigned to hear the dispute. Hence a 37-page opinion and recommendation by the magistrate judge in Martinez v City of New York, 2018WL604019 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 24, 2018). Although dispositive sanctions were later rejected in favor of lesser but significant sanctions by the Article III judge in a ruling issued April 18, 2018, the case presents a study in extremes.
The plaintiff brought a section 1983 civil rights action against the New York Police Department arising from her arrest. After nearly two years of discovery that required the issuance of no fewer than 14 court orders, the plaintiff discovered that the defendant continued to withhold evidence critical to her case, and moved for dispositive sanctions. The magistrate judge recommended that the defendant’s pleadings be struck and that default or summary judgment be entered in the plaintiff’s favor.
The magistrate judge’s opinion discusses the legal standards for sanctions. The court stated the three purposes behind sanctions under Rule 37 as (1) they ensure that a party will not benefit from its own failure to comply; (2) they are specific deterrents and seek to obtain compliance with the order issued; and (3) they are intended to serve a general deterrent effect on the case at hand and on other litigation, provided that the party against whom they are imposed was in some sense at fault.
The opinion notes that courts generally consider the following factors in determining whether to exercise their discretion to enter default judgment or to impose another dispositive sanction: (1) the reason for noncompliance and whether it was willful; (2) the efficacy of lesser sanctions; (3) the duration of the period of noncompliance; and (4) whether the noncompliant party had been warned of the consequences of noncompliance. Courts also consider the extent of any prejudice to the party moving for sanctions. However, in the magistrate judge’s words, “real prejudice to a litigant may serve as a compelling consideration in support of dispositive relief,” but “a lack of prejudice should not be given significant weight in the overall analysis.” The court concluded that the defendant’s conduct over two years warranted the severest form of sanctions available under Rule 37.
Even if a lawyer is confident their conduct never falls to the level of conduct described in this opinion, the case should still be read as a reminder and a cautionary tale. The opinion lays a portion of the blame for the conduct leading to sanctions at the feet of the defendants and not the lawyers. This case highlights why clients should be educated and understand that no matter how good an attorney the clients have, if clients choose to willfully hinder the discovery process and refuse to comply with discovery orders the court can impose very severe sanctions. Those sanctions will be in addition to the undoubtedly significant invoices for attorney fees and costs incurred in advocating the dangerous path the clients chose.
Andrew M. Toft is an attorney in Denver, Colorado.