It is imperative that attorneys practicing in federal court familiarize themselves with the local rules applicable to their respective districts. Without awareness of local rule clarifications and supplementations to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, it is challenging to navigate almost all facets of federal practice, as each district court has its own particular way of enforcing, shaping, and interpreting various strictures and allowances of the rules. This is particularly true of discovery practice.
For example, the local rules for the District of Massachusetts impose discovery limits on practitioners that differ slightly from the language of the federal rules. District of Massachusetts Local Rule 26.1(C) states “[u]nless the judicial officer orders otherwise, the number of discovery events shall be limited for each side (or group of parties with a common interest) to ten (10) depositions, twenty-five (25) interrogatories, twenty-five (25) requests for admissions, and two (2) separate sets of requests for production.” Id. (emphasis added). Federal Rule 33 limits interrogatories to twenty-five per party rather than per side. Unlike the Local Rule, Federal Rule 33 also neglects to provide a condition to account for a “group of parties with a common interest.” Id. While this local rule modification might be considered reasonable by some—and perhaps even necessary—a party bringing suit against multiple other parties, or being sued by a group of plaintiffs, might argue that the local rules are inconsistent with the federal rules in placing limitations on discovery events (in this case the number of interrogatories) and that the federal rules should supersede, thus permitting more interrogatories to be served.
There is a dearth of case law on this issue. In St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co. v. Birch, Steward, Kolasch & Birch, 217 F.R.D. 288 (D. Mass. Sept. 28, 2003), Magistrate Judge Collings stopped short of holding that Rule 26.1(C) was outright unenforceable; however, it was his interpretation that any limit on the number of interrogatories that could be served by a party, which differed from Fed. R. Civ. P. 33, required a court order, due to the broader language contained in Rules 33 and 26, when compared to that contained in Local Rule 26.1.
Excessive interrogatory use is a real issue in practice. In a discrimination case, for example, if a plaintiff brings suit against a corporation—as well as the corporation’s CEO; general manager; local level manager; supervisor; and human resources director, in addition to the alleged harasser—arising out of purported discrimination and harassment that resulted in reports up the chain of command and, then, subsequent retaliatory conduct, Rule 33 would, in theory, permit the plaintiff to serve the defendants with 150 interrogatories. This is, by any account, excessive, but permissible under the rules. If this case were filed in the District of Massachusetts, the local rules would arguably cap the number of interrogatories available to the plaintiff to 25 directed to the corporate defendants as parties in interest (often represented by the same counsel of record), in addition to potentially 25 directed to the alleged harasser (often, but not always, represented separately). In most cases, each of these individuals would be deposed, rendering the necessity for 150 interrogatories immoderate in the first place, but the local rules serve to temper the overuse of disproportional written discovery in instances such as this.