First in a series.
“Discovery is intended to be a mechanism for the ascertainment of truth, for the purpose of promoting either a fair settlement or a fair trial.” Ostendorf v. International Harvester Co., 89 Ill.2d 273, 282, 433 N.E.2d 253, 257 (1982). “[D]iscovery is supposed to enable counsel to decide in advance of trial not only what the evidence is likely to be but what legal issues can credibly be argued.” Lubbers v. Norfolk & Western R. Co., 105 Ill.2d 201, 213, 473 N.E.2d 955, 961 (1984).
That’s what discovery in a civil case is intended to be.
Discovery is not supposed to be “a tactical game,” a game played to “impede and harass” an opponent. Williams v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., 83 Ill.2d 559, 566, 416 N.E.2d 252, 256 (1981).
But, too often, that’s just what discovery is: A game, a gauntlet, a trial by ordeal. It is too often used to prevent consideration of the merits of a case. It is deployed to wear down, subdue, bleed, and even bankrupt an opponent. Especially where the parties are not equally well-funded: Big business vs. small businessperson, for example, or well-insured or well-financed defendant vs. plaintiff (read: plaintiff’s attorney) with shallow pockets. Or where the defendant is uninsured.
How can this happen?
Two words: Human nature.
In the very next sentence after the Illinois Supreme Court warned, in Williams v. A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., that discovery should not be a tactical game, the court itself created the playing field: “Discovery is intended as, and should be, a cooperative undertaking by counsel and the parties, conducted largely without court intervention, for the purpose of ascertaining the merits of the case and thus promoting either a fair settlement or a fair trial.” (83 Ill.2d at 566, emphasis mine.)
With the lower courts instructed to refrain from routine intervention in discovery, whatever the Supreme Court’s intent, it was inevitable that abuses would flourish: Discovery bullies, like every other kind of bully, are all too willing to take every advantage when assured they can act without fear of ‘intervention.’
Not that trial courts needed much persuasion to refrain from intervention. Judges (understandably) don’t want to be burdened with discovery issues. It’s just human nature: Judges didn’t like discovery when they were mere practitioners.
Nor should this be surprising: No sane person likes discovery. Junior lawyers dream of becoming senior lawyers so they can fob discovery compliance off on the next cohort of fresh-faced associates, just as this unsavory task was dumped on them by their elders. That’s also human nature.
Senior partners may like the billable hours accumulated by their minions in the relentless pursuit (or avoidance) of discovery compliance, but none of them would willingly pitch in and review documents. That’s human nature, too.
Besides, no sane client would ever pay the senior partner’s hourly rate for tasks that the greenest associate might handle (or even a robot). Clients don’t just hate paying for discovery, they hate being bothered by it. What lawyer hasn’t had a client whine why am I paying you if I have to look for all this stuff myself? (With clients whose defense costs are being fronted by liability insurers the whining is sometimes even worse: Why do I have to do all this stuff? What did I buy insurance for anyway?)
So it’s just human nature that clients, and all the lawyers who can, will avoid discovery whenever they can (and, sometimes, even when they shouldn’t). Equally in accord with human nature, the courts are entirely willing to adopt an attitude of benign neglect (you lawyers should work this out amongst yourselves).
Bullies and the Eddie Haskell Effect,” and subtitled, “Why workplace bullies often don’t get caught.” So I guess the reference is still well enough understood.) Mrs. Cleaver usually saw through Eddie’s smarmy and unctuous horse manure, but not always right away. Sometimes Wallace and Theodore, er, Wally and the Beaver, would wind up in hot water first. Comedy ensued.
Like June Cleaver, judges may eventually see through the Eddie or Edwina Haskells who are abusing discovery (and their opponents) in the cases before them – but not always before costs are inflated out of proportion with the value of the case.
Litigation is about persuasion. Persuasion involves more than the lawyer’s careful case citations or passionate speeches. A jury trial, you may have heard, is a proceeding in which 12 strangers decide which party has the best lawyer. There’s a kernel of truth in that old piece of corn: First and foremost, persuasion involves the lawyer trying to show the court that she is the reasonable one, that he is trustworthy, that they are credible. The lawyer who loses credibility with the court may find that all the great case citations and flowery language in the world can’t save the client’s cause. Once again, that’s human nature.
Anyone who has ever played a team sport, or had a kid in a team sport, has learned (often the hard way) that the umpire or referee doesn’t always see (or recognize) the provocation that gives rise to the retaliation. But the retaliation is almost always seen, and penalized. That’s human nature, too.
A court may not immediately recognize that the motion to compel is unfair or unjust because the underlying discovery requests are irrelevant, overbroad, overly burdensome, and/or grossly disproportionate to the dispute in question. In fact, this would be unlikely because, after all, the parties are supposed to work this stuff out without judicial intervention. Therefore—human nature being what it is—the party seeking the court’s assistance in enforcing discovery, in apparent compliance with the rules, particularly Rule 201(k), especially when represented by an Edward Haskell, Esq., will, at least at first, command the court’s sympathy. And the aggrieved respondent, whose credibility with the court is diminished just by being on the receiving end of such a motion, can squander what credibility he or she has left with too shrill or outraged a response. This, too, is human nature.
A proper civil discovery system should not work against human nature (or, at best, in spite of human nature).
More on this tomorrow.
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