Tag Archives: Discovery

Beware The Words That Might Be Stuffed In Your Deponent’s Mouth

ghfAnyone who has taken or even attended a deposition is at least somewhat familiar with the litany of admonitions that are customary before the substantive examination begins. These include explaining to the deponent, and generally asking her to confirm her understanding, how a deposition works, i.e., don’t answer unless you understand the question, use words not gestures when responding, etc.

I attended a deposition last week of two of my client’s experts for an upcoming trial. The questioning attorney, obviously reading from an outline or script that he either drafted or was provided to him, attempted to get both experts to buy into the following:

“Q. If  you answer a question without telling me you didn’t understand it, I’m going to take the position — if you try to later say you didn’t understand the question — that you did and you were trying to get out from under the answer.  Do you understand that?”

In each instance, although I objected, my deponent ultimately agreed with the statement. I expect if my opponent attempts to use the testimony at trial the judge will probably sustain my objections. But he might not. Which leads me to think I should have better prepared both deponents (both of whom, by the way, are seasoned expert witnesses, very familiar with the deposition process). I will certainly prepare future witnesses for this kind of question, particularly by this particular attorney (whom I do generally respect for his frequent creative, outside-the-box thinking and approach to his cases).

What’s the problem?

The question asks the witness, in a complete vacuum, to buy into a set of circumstances and motivations that have no basis. Folks who have spent time in the world of depositions know that this isn’t a perfect science. Questions are only rarely (if ever) perfect. However, even seasoned experts get swept into the unconscious desire to “help out” the examiner, sometimes answering questions that weren’t asked, were very poorly asked, or supplying missing terms that help a problem question make sense. It’s not fair to ask that witness, who later explains a “bad” answer by suggesting she did not fully understand the question when it was originally answered, to agree in advance that any such effort is really “trying to get out from under the answer.” No.

Hearing a witness try to “back pedal” out of a bad deposition response by suggesting she didn’t understand the question when it was first asked is generally going to be viewed with suspicion by the jury. This is particularly true if it happens more than once. So, it is not a huge issue how the deponent answers the question above. However, the admonitions generally occur at the start of the deposition. If an examiner asks questions like that at the outset and the deponent answers without realizing words are being stuffed into her mouth, there is a good chance that questions and testimony are coming later in the deposition that will create a dangerous record.

So be on the lookout!


Preparing Your Witness For A “Reptile” Deposition

tyreIn my last post, I attempted to describe what has come to be known as the Reptile technique of discovery and trial presentation, as advocated in the book, Reptile: the 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution. Again, the goal with this technique is to invoke the reptilian brain of jurors, which thrives on evolution, and therefore maximizes “survival advantages” and minimizes “survival dangers.”

As Reptile becomes more common, it falls to us to ensure that our lay and expert witnesses are adequately prepared to deal with the technique during deposition. To better understand what your witness will be up against, here is an example of a Reptile examination of a medical expert concerning a doctor’s care:

“Q: Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?

A: Correct.

Q: That’s the standard of care?

A: Yes.

Q: When diagnosing or treating, do doctors make choices?

A: Yes.

Q: Often, several available choices can achieve the same benefit?

A: Yes.

Q: Sometimes, some of those are more dangerous than others?

A: Yes.

Q: So you have to avoid selecting one of those more dangerous ones?

A: Correct.

Q: Because that’s what a prudent doctor would do?

A: Yes.

Q: Because when the benefit is the same, the extra danger is not allowed?

A: Yes.

Q: The standard of care should not allow extra danger unless it might work better or increase the odds of success?

A: Yes.

Q: So needless extra danger violates the standard of care?

A: Yes.

Q: And there’s no such thing as a standard of care that allows you to needlessly endanger a patient?

A: Yes.”

Imagine your client is a doctor. He/she treats a patient suffering from an ailment for which multiple treatment options are available. At least when I was in law school, we learned that a doctor is held to the standard of care that a similarly qualified practitioner would have performed under the same or similar circumstances. Yet, it is difficult to take issue with the “umbrella rule” that “A doctor is not allowed to needlessly endanger patients.” No one should be allowed to “needlessly endanger” anyone, right?

The rub here is the word “needlessly.” Sure, if there is a 100% fail-safe, side-effect-and-risk-free treatment option, then the choice for the doctor should be simple. In the real world, however, nothing is “risk-free.” Every treatment has risks and benefits which must be weighed and evaluated. And the jury must understand this. Practicing medicine is not a game of darts. The problem with the above set of questions, however, is that they (purposely) leave no room for the crucial weighing of risks and benefits. The Reptile strategy works best when jurors sense at a primitive level that the defendant doctor is out there, on the loose, preying upon unsuspecting patients, and the only way to stop him is by returning a monster jury verdict.†

The challenge for your witness, then, will be to ensure that she does not get boxed in by questions that leave out the weighing of risks and benefits. Remember I generally take an “activist” role in defending depositions, which means I will do everything within my (albeit limited) power to prevent my witness from being bullied into answering an unfair question. Thus, to a question like, “Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?” I would object that this question is vague, ambiguous, unintelligible, overly broad and presents a hopelessly incomplete hypothetical. I would challenge the examiner to be more specific about what he/she means by “needlessly” and “endanger.” I would hope that, even if the examiner ignores my invitation to re-frame the question (as I expect she will), the judge will later agree that, in the real world of ailments and treatment options–and assuming the doctor did not perform surgery drunk–the phrase “needlessly endanger” is functionally meaningless.

Let’s assume, however, that the examiner ignores my objections and the court overrules them. The witness needs to be prepared to deal with this kind of question. And I believe she can learn, with practice, not to get boxed-in by questions that are frankly absurd. First, as I noted in my objection, the question is vague, ambiguous and unintelligible. The deponent should refuse to answer any question until she feels the meaning is crystal clear. I submit that “needlessly endanger” is far from crystal clear. If the examiner steadfastly refuses to break down or define what she means by “needlessly,” then the deponent should re-frame the question in her answer in a way that makes it reasonable. I’m no doctor–I don’t even play one on TV–but I believe the following answer beats “correct” any day:

“Q: Physicians are not allowed to needlessly endanger patients?

A: Correct. If you mean in prescribing treatment or medication, must a doctor consider and balance the risks and benefits of all treatment options available and known to him, I would agree with that. Otherwise, I don’t understand your question.”

Your witness must refuse to be drawn into empty over-generalizations. She needs to be prepared to endlessly reframe unfair questions, lest she will commit herself to enormous, sweeping “rules” or standards which have no real relevance or application to the concrete facts of the case. This actually holds true in any kind of deposition. The only difference with Reptile is that the questions will be cunningly tailored to prey upon jurors’ unconscious fears that doctors like your client are out there “needlessly endangering” patients like the juror and his/her family, and must be stopped. If your client did not “needlessly endanger” the plaintiff, but simply prescribed one among many accepted treatments, then the jury must–absolutely must–understand the balancing of risks and benefits that physicians undertake every time they prescribe a treatment. They can still conclude the doctor breached the applicable standard of care, but they should only do so based on an informed application of the appropriate standard to the specific facts.

†Let me say here that, while my practice does not include suing doctors for alleged malpractice, I do not have a built-in bias against plaintiffs or their lawyers.


When The Deposition Party Is Over . . .

rfdeEvery once in a while I get a glimpse into the way another lawyer or firm practices their craft and I have something like an epiphany. I realize there’s a vastly better way to do something, and it makes me want to kick myself because I didn’t realize it sooner. I was privy this week to some work product from a lawyer representing a co-defendant and I had one of these moments.

By way of background, I have long despised the practice of summarizing depositions. When I finish taking a deposition, the last thing I want to immediately do is revisit the details. I’m not sure why, but I usually just want to get on with my life. Then, the next day–which is the very latest possible time that you should try to summarize a deposition from notes and memory–I’m even less interested in summarizing a depo. Not only do I just hate doing it, I’ve actually given the issue a bit of thought and concluded that, in most instances, it does not bring a lot of value to have someone bill several hundred dollars an hour to “summarize” anything, deposition testimony included. That’s why when I am engaged by a client that does not require a summary, I usually keep the reporting of the event to two sentences or less. Later, as we near trial, I find a sensibly written* page/line index is useful if there is a 5% or greater chance the witness will be called to testify. But a summary of what I just heard has always seemed like a painful waste of time.

Well, like I said, I’ve had an epiphany and changed my mind. The summaries I learned to write as a young associate were these kind of narratives: what kind of witness did they make and what did they say. The summary that made me change my tune had 3 distinguishing characteristics.

First, the “summary” part was in bullet, not narrative, form. It wasn’t a long, time-consuming rumination about what kind of witness the deponent will likely make at trial because she has excessive facial hair, or tends to drool, or whatever. Instead, it was punchy and to-the-point. Something like: “Retired nurse. Late 60s. Smart. Detail-oriented.” The information conveyed by the deponent was described this way, too. It probably took the lawyer 10-15 minutes to lay out these details, maybe less if he dictated it.

The second component was how to deal with the witness if she testifies at trial. In this instance, it was a witness of whom we are theoretically afraid. So the lawyer laid out 2-3 points that distinguishes what she said from the facts of our case, and an additional point about how some of what she said is subject to exclusion as hearsay. The real genius of this approach is that it might trigger follow-up that could be missed otherwise. For example, if the witness went out on a limb about something that could easily be proven wrong by a photograph or a subpoenaed record, you should note this and go ahead and assign the follow-up (at least in a perfect world).

Finally, the third component of the summary was a short opinion about the impact of the testimony. It could be as brief as “Problematic for our defense because . . . .” Or something more detailed, if time and inclination permits. The point is that it’s something that could be dictated or written in a half hour or less at the end of the day before you tuck yourself into that first 12 oz. vodka martini.

Because this format is shorter, tighter and more user-friendly, the recipient of the summary will probably be grateful, too. I can tell you my best writing never found its way into a deposition summary–I save that for you, my loyal readers.

And while we’re on the topic of what to do when you’ve completed the deposition, another is to immediately draft written follow-up discovery, or at least make a to-do list of the additional work that needs doing. Most of the time a witness–at least an important one–will open a door that you hadn’t really considered before. Follow up here is critical and, like the details of a dream, easily forgotten if not at least noted right away.

*A sensibly written page/line deposition index is something I might cover in another post, if I run out of marginally interesting things to write about. I know I’m pushing the envelope with this post about deposition summaries, which is why I included the racy picture.


Why And How You Should Get “Surgical” With Your Discovery

99ii88uu(I so wanted to accompany this post with a still photo from the scene in Training Day in which Denzel Washington, wielding a sawed-off shotgun, tells Ethan Hawke’s character, “You know I’m surgical with this bitch!” Sadly, I couldn’t find a good still from that scene, so I used this lame stock photo instead.)

I’m a big proponent of serving written discovery that is “surgical,” that is, as narrowly drawn to fit the facts of the case as I can make it. Why? First, because I am a lawyer, my time is expensive. I don’t like to waste my client’s money writing discovery that is not likely to yield anything of value. But it’s not just that.

Drafting and serving unfocused and overly broad discovery will lead, in most instances, only to objections (“Overbroad!”) and, even if there are substantive responses, chances are they’ll be weak and of little value. As I’ve earlier written, you and your client should almost always “go to the mat” if necessary to obtain complete discovery responses. This means time spent reviewing the crappy objections and responses, writing one of those spectacularly painful “meet and confer” letters, getting a spectacularly painful letter in response, possibly writing another and/or having an unpleasant telephone call, followed by a motion which you may or may not win because the discovery was crappy and overly broad in the first place. All of this is time-consuming and, therefore, expensive for your client. In most jurisdictions, moreover, the court has discretion to force the party who loses a discovery motion (which could be you) to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees. Ouch!

A second reason I try to make my discovery surgical relates to how I want to be viewed by my opponent. While there are certain times when, for strategic reasons, I want my opponent to view me as unsophisticated and/or unprepared, I usually desire to instill the opposition impression. Nothing shows I haven’t a clue more clearly than 100 unfocused interrogatories, most of which skirt the real issues in the case. On the other hand, well drafted discovery shows not only that you know how to practice law, but also that you know what facts will win or lose the case. If your opponent happens also to know what she is doing, she will take you more seriously throughout the case, including at important times like when you are mediating or discussing settlement. If, on the other hand, your opponent is a lawyer who has gotten in over his head, recognizing that you know what you are doing will make him that much more eager to resolve the case before trial. Fear of submitting a case to judge or jury can be huge leverage.

So that’s my spiel for why it makes sense to serve surgical discovery. What about the how? A couple of ideas. First, it should be no big mystery at the discovery stage what the major theories of liability or defenses will be. I recognize we often refine theories and defenses based upon what we learn in discovery, but the complaint and answer at least frame the case in a general way. I like to take the jury instructions for the theories and defenses and draft discovery that seeks facts (and documentary evidence) that will support or defeat each element of a cause of action or defense. I recognize this isn’t revolutionary, but it works.

In addition, I like to involve at least some of the expert witnesses who will ultimately consult and, potentially, testify on behalf of my client as early as I can in the case. By meeting with these experts earlier than later, I can understand the technical issues likely to be in dispute. I may involve the expert in drafting discovery requests that are likely to yield meaningful information. I recognize that involving an expert early in the case can be costly. On the other hand, early expert involvement can ultimately save your client money in lots of different ways, starting with drafting useful cost-effective discovery, and including explaining earlier than later how the case you and your client thinks is so good actually sucks on a technical level.

So, go on, be surgical with that . . . er . . . interrogatory.


Preparing Your Deponent For “Soundbite” Questions

Soundbite questions are a hallmark of depositions taken of Persons Most Knowledgeable (PMK aka Persons Most Qualified or PMQ) within an organization on certain topics.  Here are some examples:

“Does your company, manufacturer XYZ, have ethical considerations in the design of its products?”

“Does ABC Hospital care about the safety of its patients?”

“Was it important to your company that African-American employees not be harassed because of their race?”

Of course the answer to these door-openers is an enthusiastic Yes.  The problem is the inevitable follow-up:

“Then why didn’t you recall product 123 when you learned it was defective?”

“If you cared about preventing harassment, then why did you skip harassment training in 2011?”

These kinds of questions are intended to elicit soundbite responses that are, at best, only marginally relevant.  But they can leave a strong negative impression with the jury if they somehow get into evidence. You can object until you are blue in the face, and chances are slim that the colloquy ever gets read to a jury, but do you want to take that chance?  Even though I can’t anticipate every kind of soundbite question an opponent will ask my witness, I like to prepare her to recognize and effectively “manage” these questions. 

One of the best ways to limit bad PMK or PMQ deposition testimony is to make the witness really understand the scope of his or her intended examination.  For this purpose, I do not rely on the language of the deposition notice or subpoena.  Rather, I typically object to the deposition notice, which is inevitably overly broad or problematic for other reasons.  I then indicate, in the objection, that my client “will make a witness available who is knowledgable about . . .”  This gives me some measure of control over what is going to happen in the deposition.  For example, I never make a witness available to testify on ridiculously overbroad topics like “safety.” Rather, a notice asking for a witness on the “safety” of a product will get an objection promising instead a witness who is prepared to testify about “design considerations” or “testing.”  If opposing counsel receives my objection and has a problem with it, I expect he/she will raise the issue and we will hash it out before the day of the deposition.  Failing that, I take the position that the language of my objection governs for purposes of scope. 

Now, this may seem strident.  However, if push comes to shove and we need to appear before the judge, (1) I have not conceded anything and there is an opportunity to fully brief my client’s position; and (2) the burden is on the party noticing the deposition to move to compel, rather than having the burden on my client in moving for a protective order.  As Denzel Washington points out, in Training Day, “The shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers.”

Since I have had some say in the scope of the witness’ examination, I want to make sure the witness knows the boundaries of this scope.  After explaining this, I reinforce it by asking a series of mock deposition questions that fall just inside or outside the scope.  This practice helps the witness feel comfortable asserting that the question is outside the scope of her deposition.  I also teach her to listen for my objection that the question is outside the scope.

Unfortunately, while some examiners will walk away when the witness resists an invitation to give a soundbite, others are more persistent.  They will ask the same question over and over until they get a response, or slightly change the question until they get an answer they think is useful.  Preparing my witness for this kind of persistent examination requires consideration of my overall theme in the case.  For example, if my client made a single part that was incorporated into a larger product that is claimed to be defective, my theme might be that my client made the part according to a specification.  I teach the witness to restate this theme in a way that she finds comfortable, then help her to apply it in response to a variety of different questions.  Again, practice through hours of mock questioning is the only way to “train” my witness how to incorporate the theme into her responses.

The most important thing is to put my witness on notice that she is likely to be asked soundbite questions.  Since the questions can seem innocuous (“You care about safety, right?), and seasoned examiners know how to sandwich them in between more legitimate questions, it’s important for the witness to remain vigilant.


Driving McElhaney’s “Wedge” Between Your Opponent And Her Counsel

I’ve written about dealing with difficult or overly coaching counsel when trying to conduct a deposition.  Considering that the entire purpose for taking a deposition is to gather evidence, and a coaching or otherwise difficult opposing counsel can undermine this goal, this is an important issue.  Unsurprisingly, Professor McElhaney, in his excellent Litigation (aka the Bible), offers a wise strategy for dealing with these situations.  In a chapter entitled “Pit-Bull Depositions,” he discusses The Wedge.*  Because I cannot say it better, here’s a quote: “[T]he lawyer is coaching the witness because he is afraid of what the witness might say.  That means he has not adequately prepared the witness for the deposition.  It also means he is afraid you are getting close to something that might help your case or hurt his. . . . [T]here are probably better things to do than run to the judge when a lawyer coaches a witness during a deposition.  One of them is to drive a wedge between the lawyer and the witness.”  (Id. at 53.)

How to do this? Professor McElhaney suggests you change the dynamic of the deposition, so that the witness begins to see how her attorney is interrupting her and preventing her from telling her side of the story.  The witness will likely already be irritated that her lawyer did not adequately prepare her for the kinds of questions you are asking (or perhaps did not prepare her at all).  Capitalize on this dynamic by encouraging the witness to finish telling her story.  In addition to the above, I would add that a calm, prefatory response to the attorney might also be useful.  I’m thinking something along the lines of, “Counsel, you and I both know that what you’re doing is against the rules and making the deposition a miserable experience for your client.  That’s not my goal.  It’s also going to make this take much longer than necessary because I have to re-ask the question every time you do it.  Your client is entitled to tell her own version of the events, let her do it. We can hash through your technical objections later with the judge.”

This, of course, requires the examiner to maintain a calm, professional composure throughout.  Raising your voice, or even scowling will tend to reinforce the Us vs. Them dynamic and cause the witness to cling to her lawyer, regardless how poorly she was prepared for the deposition. 

*McElhaney credits New York lawyer Patricia Hynes for this strategy.  That either renders this post triple hearsay or I owe Ms. Hynes a royalty.


Why I Typically Flee The Running Objection

In case this term is foreign to you, a “running objection” is sometimes offered by a party taking a deposition (or during a hearing or trial) when it appears that they are going to repeatedly encounter the same or similar objection.  Here’s an example of how it would arise:

Examining Attorney: “Why did your supervisor finally decide you should receive discipline?”

Defending Attorney: “Objection, calls for speculation, lacks foundation.”

Examining Attorney: “Counsel, why don’t we just agree you’ll have a running objection, so you don’t have to keep interrupting?”

Defending Attorney: “Thanks for the offer, but I would prefer to address each question separately.”

There are probably a wide variety of reasons why attorneys offer running objections.  I’ve even done it.  First, on the surface they would seem to streamline the deposition process, saving both time and money, since each individual objection consumes time and transcript space.  Why not give/take a running objection and cut down on the interruptions, shorten the deposition and transcript?

But I almost never accept the offer if I’m attending or defending a deposition.  Why? First, while I’m not interested in impeding the search for truth, I don’t view my job at a deposition to include making the examining attorney’s job an easy one.  If he/she asks a crappy question, it’s his/her fault, not mine.  If this results in repeated or even frequent objections, then he/she should hone his/her deposition skills.  It’s not my goal to interrupt the examiner’s flow–which is inevitable every time I make an objection–but it is an incidental benefit of objecting to protect the record.  If the examiner want’s to reduce the incidence of these interruptions, he/she should ask proper questions.

Second, the principal purpose of making an objection is to preserve the objection so the judge can later consider it and make a ruling if the deposition transcript is used at trial (or as evidence in another capacity, say in support of a motion for summary judgment).  The examiner has a choice, upon receiving the objection.  He/she can push forward (assuming there has been no instruction to the witness not to answer) and require the witness to respond.  Or, he/she can consider the objection, conclude it may have some merit and rephrase the question.  The benefit to me, as the attorney representing the witness, is that my witness will potentially get a proper question.  This is important where the objection to the question is that it is vague and ambiguous.  While such an objection may not be ultimately sustained by a trial judge, it might prompt the examiner to rephrase the question so that my witness is responding to a question that is less vague, less ambiguous. 

Finally, it can be cumbersome to obtain a ruling on a running objection.  For example, in the context of an all day deposition, imagine I accept the offer of a running objection at 11 am, which ends up on page 45 of the transcript.  The examiner continues to ask objectionable questions for the remainder of the day, but I stay mum based on the running objection.  Later, the case proceeds to trial or a motion for summary judgment is filed, and a bad, objectionable question from late in the day is about to see the light of day.  I want to obtain a ruling on the objection, but it becomes a cumbersome exercise, as I have to point the court back to a much earlier part of the transcript, where I obtained a running objection.

This is not to say that running objections are a bad idea.  I just prefer, if I am defending a deposition, to deal with each question individually.  If you do agree to a running objection, be sure to remain vigilant.  If a question is objectionable for an additional reason not addressed by the running objection, it is important to raise the additional objection or risk waiver.


Ok, You’re Limited In California To 7 Hours For Deposition, Now What?

I previously wrote that I disagreed with the proposal to amend the California Code of Civil Procedure to limit depositions to 7 hours.  Well, now we’re stuck with it.*  So, I thought I would explore strategies to deal effectively with this new rule.   I developed these strategies from trying to take effective plaintiff depositions in employment cases pending in Federal District court.  The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have long limited depositions to 7 hours.  (Fortunately, the new California rule has a carve out for depositions in employment cases.)

As I said before, it seems to me that most depositions in most kinds of cases should be reasonably capable of completion in 7 hours or less.  This is probably a radical overgeneralization, but it’s been my experience that most witnesses don’t have more than 7 hours of relevant testimony in them.  For those other cases and witnesses, in which it will be hard to finish in that time, here are 5 strategies that should help: 

1.  Give yourself more time to prepare.  Like everything in litigation, preparation is the key to success.  If you typically spent a day preparing for an all-day deposition without the time limitation, spend a day and a half preparing now.  If you generally eschew using deposition outlines in favor of a “come what may” approach, consider making at least a rough outline of topics you absolutely must cover.  The alternative is to risk running short of time without having covered crucial topics.  The argument against using an outline is that, using an outline causes us not to listen carefully to responses; this can be overcome with effort.

2.  Don’t be wed to a chronological or other artificial order of topics–get what you absolutely need first.  Speaking personally, I generally have an order I use over and over in taking depositions.  It is one that follows logically from how I see the case.  This can be a problem, though, when time is limited.  Then I have to prioritize based on order of importance, rather than imposing a chronological or other more familiar order of topics.  If, for example, there’s an especially important affirmative defense available, I reorder my examination in order to cover what I need to invoke that defense at the beginning, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense.  (This has the collateral benefit of “throwing off” opposing counsel who expected you to begin at the beginning.  It’s fun to see them look confused.) 

3.  Make a record that will support a motion for more time, if that becomes necessary.  You may need more than 7 hours regardless how you prepare and how smoothly the depo goes.  If this is the case, begin early creating a solid record to support judicial relief from the limit.   The new section, CCP 2025.209(a) includes this language: “The court shall allow additional time, beyond any limits imposed by this section, if needed to fairly examine the deponent or if the deponent, another person, or any other circumstance impedes or delays the examination.”  There’s a lot of room here.  Either “witness XYZ cannot be ‘fairly examine[d]’ in 7 hours because . . ., ” or “as demonstrated in the transcript of the first session of her deposition, XYZ [or her lawyer] impeded and delayed the examination by . . . ”   Videotape of the depo may help illustrate evasive responses, long delays or lengthy, meritless or talking objections.  In one case, we relied heavily on the videographer’s time-keeping records to show long delays.

4.  Resist the tendency to fight opposing counsel on the record.  As a reminder, taking a deposition need not be a contact sport.  This is especially true if you’re trying to get useful testimony and don’t have enough time.  Unreasonable objections or instructions not to respond should basically be ignored until after the deposition, when it’s time to “meet and confer” prior to filing a motion to compel responses to questions and/or a motion for more time.  Focus, don’t get distracted! 

5.  Go off the record whenever there’s going to be “dead air.”  If you hand a witness a document that will take a few minutes (or more) to read, go off the record while the witness reads it.  The same is true if you need to re-group or review your notes or a document between questions.  Just take a break. 

I hope these help.  Good luck.

Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. 2025.290 becomes effective Jan. 1, 2013.


On Timing of Contention Interrogatories

It used to be that I gave no real thought to when, in the course of a lawsuit, I would serve contention interrogatories.  Sometimes, I would serve them concurrently with my client’s answer to a complaint, just to get the discovery ball rolling.  But a couple of years ago a litigator whom I greatly respect gave me a tip I’ve found to be valuable, and which I’ll pass on here.  In a nutshell, the idea is to hold off propounding contention interrogatories, or requests for admission with corresponding interrogatories, until after completing the opposing party’s deposition.  This seems so obvious to me now that it’s hard to believe I didn’t intuitively follow the practice from the beginning. 

Contention interrogatories provide an excellent roadmap to the proponents case.  If I represent a plaintiff, my contention interrogatories will ask my opponent if and how they contend I will not be able to prove any essential element of my client’s case.  They may also ask what evidence my opponent has to meet his/her/its burden of proving essential elements of an affirmative defense.  If I represent a defendant, the interrogatories ask what facts and evidence my opponent has to prove his/her/its case (or to counter my client’s affirmative defenses). From viewing these interrogatories, my opponent should be able to get a pretty good idea where the contest(s) will be in the lawsuit.   

Assuming my opponent can walk and chew gum, he or she is not going to simply tender the interrogatories to his/her client, transcribe and serve the responses.  Either the attorney is going to work with his/her client to jointly draft responses, or he/she is simply going to write the responses and have the client sign a verification.  Either way, the interrogatories and responses are probably the best tool available for preparing his/her client when the time comes for deposition.

This is not to say that I do not serve any discovery before the deposition.  In fact, I think it’s important to serve a pretty comprehensive set of requests for production right at the outset.  Ideally, I’d like to have most or all of the relevant documents in-hand and reviewed prior to the deposition.  This is not always possible, but it’s a worthy goal.  I also see no problem serving discovery which asks the opposing party to identify all witnesses he/she/it believes will have knowledge of relevant facts (note that I do not limit the query to persons with knowledge of facts the opposing party “may use to support its claims or defenses” a la FRCP 26(a)(1)(A)(i)–I want to cast a broader net).  Unlike contention interrogatories, this discovery provides no roadmap whatsoever as to my client’s strategy in the case. 

Anyway, I hope this finds readers thinking “hey, that’s a pretty good idea.”


Should California Limit Length of Depositions?

California Assembly Bill 1875 would limit the deposition time to 7  hours, thus mirroring the Federal Rule.  There is currently no limitation at all for cases pending in California state court.  Is the proposed 7 hour limit a good idea? 

My experience tells me that most depositions in many kinds of cases can (and definitely should) be completed in less than 7 hours.  That said, I’ve had the issue repeatedly arise in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases in which the plaintiff’s deposition cannot reasonably be completed in 7  hours.  In fact, the plaintiff’s deposition in a sexual harassment case involving multiple instances of conduct allegedly occurring over the course of 3 years could not be reasonably completed in less than 20 hours.

The good news with this California legislation is that it would exempt cases involving employment issues or which are deemed complex.  It would provide the parties a choice to opt-out by stipulation.  Expert depositions would also be exempt from the limitation. 

The stated purpose of the bill is to prevent attorneys from deliberately using the deposition to harass a party or witness or needlessly increasing the litigation costs of a case.  I’m not so sure.  While I’ve felt that some attorneys could be more organized with their examination and sometimes they seem to dwell on areas that ultimately bear no fruit, it is important that examiners not feel unduly rushed or constricted.  I could probably count on one finger or less the number of times I’ve honestly felt that an examiner was dragging out a deposition for a purpose other than legitimate fact gathering.  As far as harassment goes, I bet most people find the entire deposition process to be an exercise in harassment.  A lawyer intent upon harassing a deponent can do so as easily in 7 hours as 10, so is the law necessary?

On balance, I think members of the bar should think and act like professionals.  We should not engage in harassing behavior.  Nor should we drag out the length of a deposition unnecessarily.  If somebody gets out of line, there are remedies available, including a protective order and/or sanctions.  But I’d like to think we can govern ourselves without the need to be overregulated.  So let us decide for ourselves how long it takes to complete a deposition.

Oh, and please don’t ask after the first hour how long I think I’ll take for my examination.  That is just soooo annoying.


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