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Experienced New England Attorneys

Death by Federal Procedure


I seem to be piling on the federal courts lately, but a recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals provides just one more reminder of how the procedural rules are rigidly enforced, and why it’s just not a good place for most plaintiffs to file their claims.

In Rivera-Almodovar v. Instituto Socioeconomico Comunitario, Inc., the First Circuit affirmed a magistrate judge’s recommendation to dismiss a case because the plaintiff failed to request a discovery extension–necessary to obtain documents and depositions from the defendant to oppose summary judgment–until two days after the discovery deadline expired.  The Court relied on the district court’s “stern warning” on the discovery order that ‘any motion to extend the deadline must show good cause and “must be filed well in advance of the deadline.'”  The Court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that her inability to complete discovery was due to the defendant’s failure to respond to requests, instead placing the burden squarely on the plaintiff to pursue the requested documents.

The Court noted that the discovery requests had not been filed until a few months before the deadline expired, and that the plaintiff failed to move to compel production when the defendant did not respond within the allotted time.  The Court then criticized the plaintiff for taking two weeks to review the documents eventually produced to determine that they were not responsive.  But the final straw was that the motion to extend the deadline was two days late.

To be sure, when there is a seemingly harsh result like this, there is sometimes a back story.  Perhaps there was action (or inaction) by the plaintiff not described in the opinion that made the late extension request the proverbial “last straw.”  But if that’s the case, it would behoove the Court to explain the situation, rather than to perpetuate the image of an unfriendly forum that values form over function, and procedural niceties over substantive justice.  The Rivera opinion does little to dispel that image.

Instead it appears that, while the plaintiff perhaps could have moved with a little more alacrity to compel the overdue discovery responses, the defendant benefited from ignoring its discovery obligations.  The Court noted that “two wrongs do not make a right,” and focused only on the plaintiff’s “acts and omissions.”  Given that the judicial system is supposed to prefer resolution on the merits of a case, rather than a dismissal on a technical or procedural ground, it’s hard to see why this is a fair and just result.  And it’s sad to see bad discovery behavior rewarded in such dramatic and Draconian fashion.

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