eDiscovery Daily Blog

Default Judgment Sanction Upheld on Appeal – eDiscovery Case Law

In Stooksbury v. Ross, Nos. 12-5739/12-6042/12-6230, No. 13a0575n.06 (6th Cir. June 13, 2013), the Sixth Circuit upheld the entry of default judgment as a sanction against defendants that repeatedly failed to comply with discovery obligations, including producing a “document dump” of tens of thousands of pages of nonresponsive information that prejudiced the plaintiffs.

At trial in this RICO action, the court found the defendants engaged in “contumacious conduct” and intentionally delayed discovery. Although the defendants had provided a document “dump” of 40,000 pages of documents in response to document requests, the information was not responsive to the requests, lacked important financial information, was not Bates stamped, and prejudiced the plaintiff. The plaintiffs asked the court to sanction the defendants, and the magistrate judge recommended default judgment in favor of the plaintiff. The judge found that the defendant had a “‘total lack of forthrightness’” in refusing to comply and explain their noncompliance; this conduct “‘amount[ed] to bad faith and a willful decision not to cooperate in discovery.’” The district court subsequently adopted the magistrate judge’s findings but awarded costs and fees instead of a default judgment. The court also afforded the defendants 10 more days to comply with the discovery order, warning them that noncompliance could result in further sanctions.

Despite the additional time and warning, the defendants still failed to provide responsive discovery: “[T]hey included boilerplate objections and failed to provide basic accounting documents or Bates stamp references for the earlier document dump.” As a result, when the plaintiff renewed his motion for a default judgment, the court granted it. The district court relied on four findings: “(1) the defendants intentionally failed to comply with the discovery orders, (2) they failed to heed the court’s warning, (3) the plaintiff suffered prejudice as a result of their noncompliance, and (4) less drastic sanctions would not be effective.” The defendants later objected, but the court refused to reconsider its motion, finding there was no evidence that the defendants’ actions stemmed from excusable neglect.

The defendants appealed this decision. The court reviewed the district court’s four findings for an abuse of discretion. The Sixth Circuit approved the lower court’s decision for the following reasons:

  • First, the defendants met the standard for “willful conduct and bad faith” because they “lacked forthrightness, failed to directly respond to the Court’s inquiries about the discovery matters, offered no explanation for their lack of compliance, and demonstrated ‘bad faith and a willful decision not to cooperate in discovery.’”
  • Second, the plaintiff was prejudiced because the dispute had continued for more than a year, despite judicial intervention and two continuances. Further, the “discovery abuses imposed excessive costs on Plaintiff, who had to sort through the document dump, and undermined Plaintiff’s proof on the issue of liability.”
  • Third, the defendants were fairly warned about the possibility of sanctions, including a default judgment, by the magistrate judge and district court.
  • Fourth, the court first issued a less severe sanction and warned the defendants of the possibility of the default if they did not meet their discovery obligations. Nevertheless, the defendants “forced the district court’s hand in ordering the default judgment.”

Accordingly, the court ruled there was no abuse of discretion.

So, what do you think?  Was the default judgment sanction warranted?   Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Case Summary Source: Applied Discovery (free subscription required).  For eDiscovery news and best practices, check out the Applied Discovery Blog here.

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