by Joseph Stanton & Patricia Campbell Malone
The Supreme Judicial Court has approved extensive amendments to the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure (“Rules”), which become effective on March 1, 2019. This article summarizes by topic the most significant amendments.
Background. The amendments are the product of a four-year study of the Rules conducted by the Appellate Rules Subcommittee (“Subcommittee”) of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Advisory Committee on Civil and Appellate Procedure, in conjunction with the Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Subcommittee included appellate judges, appellate and trial court clerks, and attorneys with expertise in civil and criminal appeals.
The Subcommittee reviewed the Rules and prepared amendments to: facilitate the just and expeditious resolution of appeals; clarify and simplify filing and formatting requirements; eliminate arcane language and incorporate consistent style and terminology; integrate existing practices and procedures; and facilitate the implementation of paperless court processes. Valuable public comments were received from the Boston Bar Association and other organizations and attorneys.
Universal Amendments. Global revisions to the Rules include: use of gender-neutral references; removal of provisions rendered obsolete by technological developments and work processes; numbering and collapsing of lengthy freestanding paragraphs to facilitate ease of reference; consistency in the numbering of provisions; revising the Rules’ shorter filing deadlines (i.e., non-brief or notice of appeal) to be in increments of 7 days to increase the likelihood that the deadline falls on a business day; and changing all use of “opposition” to “response” to reflect that a nonmoving party may respond to the moving party’s request, but not necessarily oppose that request.
Time Period for Filing Notice of Appeal. Amendments to Rule 4 clarify that if multiple post-judgment motions are filed, the time for filing a notice of appeal for all parties begins on the date when the lower court enters the order that disposes of the last remaining motion enumerated in the Rule, and that the filing of a motion under Mass. R. Civ. P. 60(a) to correct a clerical error does not toll the time period.
Assembly of the Record, Timing and Contents. To prevent delay in completing assembly of the record, amendments to Rule 9(a) establish a 21-day deadline for the clerk of the lower court to complete assembly of the record. The time period begins to run from the later of certain occurrences, including either the receipt of the entire transcript, approval of an agreed statement of the record, or a notice that the appellant does not intend to order a transcript. In addition, amended Rule 9(e) identifies in a checklist format the items and information that the lower court clerk must include in the assembly package.
Transcripts. Amendments to Rule 8 were adopted from recommendations made by the Trial Court Working Group on Assembly of the Record, convened by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court to coordinate with the Appellate Rules Subcommittee to modernize and streamline the transcript production processes. Amended Rule 8 is simplified by focusing on an appellant’s duty to file with the clerk and serve on all parties within 14 days an order of all relevant proceedings to be transcribed, a statement certifying that no court proceedings are relevant, or a statement certifying that all relevant transcripts are already on file with the lower court. Reference to service of designation (and counter-designation) of parts of the cassette to be transcribed was deleted and amended Rule 8 simply directs an appellee to, if necessary, order the transcript of any additional relevant proceedings within 14 days of the appellant’s order. An Administrative Order of the Chief Justice of the Trial Court now governs technical details such as submission of the transcript order form (which depends on the type of proceeding and method by which it was recorded), payment, indigency, and delivery of the electronic transcript.
Docketing the Appeal. In Rule 10, the time period for appellants and cross-appellants in civil cases to docket their appeal was increased from 10 to 14 days and a new provision was added to deem payment or request for waiver timely if mailed with a certificate attesting that the day of mailing was within 14 days of the filer’s receipt of the notice of assembly. These changes are intended to provide appellants additional time to docket the appeal, reduce the need for motions to docket appeals late, and obviate the need for parties to physically travel to the courthouse if attempting to docket an appeal on the final day.
Word Count Limit and Proportionally Spaced Font Alternative to Page Limits. One of the most significant amendments to the Rules appears in Rule 20(a)(2). It allows, as does Fed. R. App. P. 32(a)(7), the option for filers to submit documents using a word-count limit and a proportionally spaced font (e.g., Times New Roman) as an alternative to the traditional page limit and monospaced font (e.g., Courier New) requirement. This option is incorporated into each Rule that previously contained a page limit. For example, an appellant or appellee filing a brief in a non-cross appeal could, instead of using the 50-page limit, use an 11,000-word limit in a proportionally spaced font. When a proportionally spaced font is used, the font size shall be 14 or larger, all margins 1 inch or larger, and the Rule 16(k) certificate must state how compliance with the word limit was ascertained. These amendments are intended to improve documents’ readability and to eliminate the considerable time parties sometimes spend using formatting devices solely to comply with the current page limits. Notably, the specific word-count limits differ from the Federal Rules applicable to the various briefs and other filings because adopting the Federal word-count limits would lead to substantially longer filings than currently authorized by the traditional Massachusetts standards. The Rules continue to permit a filer to seek leave to exceed the maximum word-count or page limit, upon a showing of extraordinary reasons.
Filing and Serving Documents. Rule 1(c)’s definition of “[f]irst class mail” was expanded to “[f]irst class mail or its equivalent” to explicitly allow the common practice of using third-party commercial carriers to file documents. For the same reason, Rule 13 was amended to allow electronic service (such as through eFileMA.com or e-mail) with the consent of the party being served. The required contents of a certificate of service were modified to promote consistency with the appellate courts’ electronic-filing procedures.
“Inmate Mailbox Rule.” The amendments incorporate in all civil and criminal appeals the so-called “inmate mailbox rule” to the filing of a notice of appeal (Rule 4) and all other documents (Rule 13) by self-represented parties confined in an institution. These amendments are intended to incorporate the concerns highlighted by the Supreme Judicial Court in Commonwealth v. Hartsgrove, 407 Mass. 441, 445 (1990), as to the limitations of a person confined in an institution to effectuate the “mailing” of a document on a certain day. Documents will be deemed filed on the date an inmate deposits the document in the institution’s internal mail system, and then the time period for any party to respond to an inmate’s filing runs from the date the filing is docketed by the appellate court.
Motions. Although Rule 15(b) continues to allow an appellate court to act on motions for procedural orders without awaiting a response, Rule 15(a) was amended to encourage parties to state in their motion whether it is assented to, opposed, and, if opposed, whether the other party intends to file an opposition. This is intended to encourage the parties to communicate about whether a response will be filed prior to the filing of a motion to avoid the unnecessary consumption of time, effort, and expense to both the parties and the appellate court.
Throughout the Rules, references to Rule 27 “Petitions for Rehearing” were changed to “Motion[s] for Reconsideration or Modification of Decision” to more appropriately describe such filings which rarely, if ever, seek an oral argument and rehearing of a case before the justices and instead typically request a reconsideration or modification of the decision.
Amended Rule 29(b) requires a motion for voluntary dismissal in a criminal case to be accompanied by an affidavit by the defendant-appellant or include an attestation by counsel stating that the defendant-appellant assents to the dismissal of an appeal with prejudice. This new requirement codifies the appellate courts’ long-standing requirement for such supporting documentation. It does not apply when the motion states that the appeal is moot.
Content of Briefs. Rule 16(a) was reorganized to detail, in checklist format, the contents of an appellant’s brief. The amended Rule explicitly states existing requirements that were not previously referenced in the Rules, such as the need for a corporate disclosure statement in accordance with S.J.C. Rule 1:21, and the decisional-law requirement that any request for an award of appellate attorney’s fees be made in the brief. The amendments also create new requirements that a party identify the standard of review for each issue raised, and include record references in the statement of the case section. Similar to Appeals Court Rule 1:28’s requirement that a brief’s addendum include copies of any cited Appeals Court unpublished decision, Rule 16 now requires a brief’s addendum to include a copy of any unpublished decision cited in the brief. A summary of the argument is now required for briefs with argument sections exceeding 20 pages (previously 24 pages) or 4,500 words if the brief is produced in a proportionally spaced font.
Rule 16(b) incorporates the requirements of an appellant’s brief and applies them to an appellee’s brief, except as otherwise provided, and includes a new requirement that the appellee include an addendum just like an appellant, even if the materials included were already included in the appellant’s addendum.
New Rule 16(j) clarifies that a party may file only one brief in response to the service of multiple briefs, and may not file separate briefs in response to each brief. Finally, new Rule 16(n) details the procedures for filing an amended brief, including that a motion showing good cause is required, and clarifies that unless otherwise ordered, the filing of an amended brief has no effect on any filing deadlines.
Record Appendices. Rule 18 was reorganized to detail, in checklist format, the required contents of a record appendix. The Rule also now cautions parties that the lower court does not transmit the entire record to the appellate court and that the failure to provide sufficient transcripts can result in waiver of issues. These warnings are intended to remove sources of confusion that often befuddle attorneys and self-represented litigants.
Briefing in Cross Appeals. Another significant amendment to the Rules concerns briefing in a cross appeal, delineated in Rule 20(a)(3). Consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 28.1, the amended Rule recognizes that in an appellee/cross-appellant’s principal brief, the appellee must both respond to the arguments in the appellant’s brief and present the appellee’s arguments in the cross appeal, and that the appellant/cross-appellee’s reply brief must both respond to the arguments in the appellee’s principal brief in the cross appeal and reply to the appellee’s arguments in the appeal. Accordingly, Rule 20(a)(3) enlarges the limit of the appellee/cross-appellant’s brief to 60 pages or 13,000 words, and the appellant/cross-appellee’s reply brief to 50 pages or 11,000 words.
Amicus Briefs. Rule 17 now clarifies that a motion for leave to file is not required when an appellate court has solicited amicus briefs in the case. It also features a uniform filing deadline for all amicus briefs of 21 days prior to oral argument, unless leave is given for later filing. While making the formatting provisions of Rule 20 applicable to an amicus brief, the amendments provide that an amicus brief need only include certain enumerated content requirements of a party’s brief in Rule 16 (i.e., amicus briefs need not provide statements of the case, facts, or standard of review). Consistent with Fed. R. App. P. 29 and Supreme Judicial Court precedent, Rule 17 now requires disclosure of certain information relating to an amicus curiae or its counsel’s relationship to a party or interest in the relevant legal issue or transaction.
Format of Filings. Amendments to Rule 20 modify and clarify the format requirements for filings and are intended to promote consistency with the appellate courts’ electronic-filing procedures. Importantly, the amended Rule states that page numbers shall appear in the margin and begin pagination with the cover as page 1, and pages thereafter numbered consecutively through the last page. Any addendum should continue the pagination of the document itself without beginning again at page 1. In cases involving multi-volume appendices, each volume shall be separately paginated. Color covers remain a requirement for paper-filed briefs, but no color cover is required for any electronically-filed brief.
Number of Paper Copies of Brief and Record Appendix to be Filed. Amendments to Rule 19 reduce the number of paper copies of a brief and record appendix filed in the Appeals Court from 7 to 4, and in the Supreme Judicial Court from 18 to 7. Due to advances in the appellate courts’ paperless practices, fewer copies of each document are needed to process and review filings. Notably, as of September 1, 2018, the Appeals Court Standing Order Concerning Electronic Filing requires all attorneys with cases in the Appeals Court to register in eFileMA.com and to e-file all briefs and appendices in non-impounded criminal and civil appeals, and encourages the e-filing of impounded documents in all cases.
E-Filing Costs Taxable in Civil Cases. Amendments to Rule 26 include as taxable costs the fees incurred using the electronic-filing system, which include administrative fees and convenience fees, such as credit card convenience fees.
Distinguishing “Decision” from “Rescript.” Rules 1, 23, 27, and 27.1 were amended to clarify the distinction between the appellate clerk’s release of a decision to the parties and the public, and the clerk’s issuance of the rescript to the lower court. It is the release of the “decision” as defined in Rule 1(c) that commences the timeframe to file a motion for reconsideration or modification of decision (formerly known as a “petition for rehearing”) or an application for further appellate review.
Electronic Notice from Clerk. Rule 31 was amended to provide that the clerk shall send notice to the electronic business address of an attorney that is registered with the Board of Bar Overseers, and may send paper notice by conventional mail.
Effective Date. The amendments will become effective March 1, 2019 and govern procedures in appeals to an appellate court then pending and thereafter commenced. In advance of the effective date, parties are invited by the appellate courts to immediately begin filing their appellate documents in compliance with the formatting and filing provisions of the amended Rules, on a voluntary basis. This includes use of the new word count alternative to the page limit and the filing of a reduced number of copies of briefs and appendices in the Supreme Judicial Court. However, amendments affecting time deadlines do not become effective until March 1, 2019 and until that date parties must continue to use the existing time deadlines.
Where to Find the Amended Rules. The Rules in their proposed form and the Supreme Judicial Court’s approval may be viewed on the Judicial Branch’s website.
Joseph Stanton is Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. He serves on numerous Supreme Judicial Court and Trial Court committees, including as chair of the rules of appellate procedure subcommittee.
Patricia Campbell Malone is an Assistant Clerk at the Massachusetts Appeals Court. She served as a member of the rules of appellate procedure subcommittee.
Unlike Federal Rules, The Recent Amendment To Rule 26 Of The Massachusetts Rules Of Civil Procedure Addresses Protective Orders Only
by Nathalie K. Salomon
The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) approved amendments to Mass. R. Civ. P. 26, effective July 1, 2016, but unlike the recent and substantial amendments to Fed. R. Civ. P. 26, the SJC’s amendments are confined to section 26(c), concerning protective orders. Although the SJC’s Standing Advisory Committee on the Massachusetts Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure (the “Committee”) considered proposals based on recent amendments to the Federal Rules, which focused on limiting the burdens of discovery (https://bostonbarjournal.com/2016/04/13/proportionality-emphasized-in-amendments-to-the-federal-rules-of-civil-procedure/). The Committee ultimately did not recommend them. Instead, the Committee adopted a “wait and see” approach, and as a compromise, the Committee recommended, and the SJC adopted, the new language in Rule 26(c) which instructs a court to consider factors relating to the proportionality of discovery when determining whether to issue a protective order under Rule 26.
The New Massachusetts Rule 26(c)
Before the July 1, 2016 amendment, Rule 26(c) was largely a copy of its federal counterpart. The SJC has now added a new paragraph, not present in the federal rule, at the end of the first paragraph of Rule 26(c), identifying three factors that may be considered in determining whether a protective order limiting discovery is warranted “due to undue burden or expenses.” These factors are:
(1) whether it is possible to obtain the information from some other source that is more convenient or less burdensome or expensive;
(2) whether discovery sought is unreasonable, cumulative or duplicative; and
(3) whether the likely burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs the likely benefit of its receipt, taking into account the parties’ relative access to the information, the amount in controversy, the resources of the parties, the importance of the issues, and the importance of the requested discovery in resolving the issues.
Rule 26(c) still states that the court has power to issue a protective order “to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense,” and the rule also still lists the kinds of orders that the court is authorized to issue (e.g., “that the discovery not be had,” or that it may occur “only on specified terms or conditions”) – but now the Rule sets forth substantive guidance to the courts and the parties concerning the appropriate circumstances for such orders.
The Reporter’s Note observed that the amendment “should not result in a significant change to Massachusetts practice because similar factors already exist to limit discovery of electronically stored information under Rule 26(f)(4)(E),” with the exception of one factor that is omitted from the amendment of 26(c), namely “whether the party seeking discovery has had ample opportunity by discovery in the proceeding to obtain the information sought.” The Reporter’s Notes conclude that the addition of these factors to Rule 26(c) merely “confirms the existing authority of a trial judge in determining whether to grant a protective order.”
The Committee Considered, but Did Not Recommend, Changes to Mass. R. Civ. P. 26 that Would More Closely Track Its Federal Equivalent.
The limited scope of the Massachusetts 2016 amendment to Rule 26 is the result of a “compromise” between the Committee’s recommendation not to change the Massachusetts discovery rules at this juncture and commentators advocating for the adoption of the extensive changes recently made to Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
The Committee considered, but ultimately rejected, three proposed changes to discovery rules based on the 2000 and 2015 amendments to Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Each of those revisions would have impacted Rule 26(b), which is titled “Scope of Discovery.” As observed by the Reporter’s Note on the amendment, the intent of these proposed changes was “to address the burdens of discovery that have been the subject of significant debate across the country over the past few years.”
The first proposed change, drawn from the 2000 federal amendments, would have refined the scope of discovery under Rule 26(b) by removing language that discovery must be “relevant to the subject matter” and replacing it with language that discovery must be “relevant to the party’s claim or defense.”
The second proposed change to Rule 26(b), taken from the 2015 federal amendments, would have adopted the principle of proportionality by listing factors to consider in deciding whether a discovery request is “proportional to the needs of the case,” such as “the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.”
The third proposed change, drawn from the 2015 federal amendments, would have deleted language in Rule 26(b)(1) that information must be “reasonably calculated to lead to discovery of admissible evidence,” a confusing phrase which, as the Committee Note to the Federal Amendment explains, “has been used by some, incorrectly, to define the scope of discovery.”
Upon review of public comments, however, and to the dismay of some practitioners as shown in the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s June 20, 2016 story titled “Unfortunate delay in amending state discovery rules,” the Standing Advisory Committee ultimately recommended not to adopt the three proposed changes to Rule 26(b). Some comments took the position that the changes are not needed. As suggested in the Reporter’s Note, the Committee was particularly receptive to the concern that the consequences of imposing the federal changes to Massachusetts courts are unknown (“The principal objection to the amendments by the Standing Advisory Committee was based on the perception by many Committee members of drawbacks and unintended consequences of imposing the federal changes on the Massachusetts trial courts, as well as the newness of the federal changes”). Consequently, the Committee favored a “wait and see” approach, advising the SJC not to revise the discovery rules at this time. As a “compromise,” the Standing Advisory Committee prepared draft language for the SJC’s consideration alluding to the principle of proportionality but limited to the narrow issue of granting protective orders in discovery disputes under Rule 26(c). The SJC approved the draft amending Rule 26(c) as described above and left untouched the remaining portions of the discovery rules.
For a further discussion of the amendment to Rule 26(c), readers are directed to the Reporter’s Note (http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/rule-changes/rule-change-rule-26-mass-rules-civil-procedure-reporters-notes-may-2016.pdf).
Nathalie K. Salomon is a litigation associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP, where she focuses her practice on general commercial litigation, with particular emphasis on the defense of banks and other financial institutions in tort and contract matters, business litigation and real estate litigation.
The amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, effective December 1, 2015, include significant changes to Rule 37(e) concerning spoliation of electronic evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e). With electronically stored information (“ESI”) becoming increasingly prevalent, the amendments are designed to clarify and streamline litigants’ preservation obligations, imposing a high bar on parties who seek to have sanctions imposed on their opponents. Litigants can now expect uniform standards for curative measures where the circuits had previously been split and sanctions inconsistently applied. For example, the amended Rule 37(e) represents a departure from the negligence standard which precipitated sanctions in a variety of circuits under the former Rule, and “forecloses reliance on inherent authority or state law to determine when” sanctions and remedial measures should be used. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e) advisory committee’s note to 2015 amendment, available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/frcp/rule_37. (“Advisory Committee Notes”). Instead, under the current Rule 37(e), courts are instructed not to impose an adverse inference, or other harsh sanctions, absent a party’s intent to deprive the other party of the at-issue evidence, resulting in prejudice. Moreover, under the amended Rule, such corrective measures can only be imposed where electronic information that should have been preserved in anticipation of litigation is lost. The amended Rule offers some additional protection to litigants by permitting additional discovery to repair or replace such presumed “missing” evidence. And, even if the court eventually finds that sanctions are appropriate, they are limited to “measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e)(1). Thus, the result may be that, as litigants find additional protections under the amended Rule, and higher hurdles to imposing sanctions on their opponents, we may see a decrease in litigation concerning failure to preserve.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e), as amended.
The text of the amended Rule, marked to show changes from the prior version, follows:
(e) Failure to Provide[Preserve] Electronically Stored Information. Absent exceptional circumstances, a court may not impose sanctions under these rules on a party for failing to provide electronically stored information lost as a result of the routine, good faith operation of an electronic information system.[If electronically stored information that should have been preserved in the anticipation or conduct of litigation is lost because a party failed to take reasonable steps to preserve it, and it cannot be restored or replaced through additional discovery, the court:
(1) upon finding prejudice to another party from loss of information, may order measures no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice; or
(2) only upon finding that the party acted with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation may:
(A) presume that the lost information was unfavorable to the party;
(B) instruct the jury that it may or must presume the information was unfavorable to the party; or
(C) dismiss the action or enter a default judgment.
Evidentiary Sanctions Under the Amended Rule.
Failure to take reasonable measures to preserve. Rule 37(e) does not create a new duty to preserve, and as such, does not apply if the ESI is lost before the duty to preserve arises. See Advisory Committee Notes. Indeed, a party’s preservation obligations remain triggered when litigation is pending or reasonably foreseeable, or where the party has independent preservation obligations, e.g., under a specific statute or internal company policy.
In determining whether a party has taken reasonable steps to preserve, the Rule allows courts to consider “routine, good-faith operation of an electronic information system,” as well as the “proportionality” of the efforts to the case and to a party’s resources. Id. The Advisory Committee directs that courts be “sensitive to the party’s sophistication with regard to litigation in evaluating preservation efforts…” Id. And, a party’s efforts need not be perfect. Id.
No sanctions or other remedial measures unless information is lost. Critical to whether remedial measures are permitted under the amended Rule is that the information at issue be lost; if it can be “restored or replaced through additional discovery,” Rule 37(e) does not permit remedial action. Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e). The Advisory Committee reasons that “[b]ecause electronically stored information often exists in multiple locations, loss from one source may often be harmless when substitute information can be found elsewhere.” Advisory Committee Notes. Moreover, “efforts to restore or replace lost information through discovery should be proportional to the apparent importance of the lost information…. [S]ubstantial measures should not be employed to restore or replace information that is marginally relevant or duplicative.” Id.
Measures “no greater than necessary” on finding of prejudice. Assuming the above prerequisites are met, a court may order certain proportional remedial measures under subsection (e)(1) of the amended Rule only “upon finding prejudice to another party from loss of information.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e)(1). The measures must also be “no greater than necessary to cure the prejudice.” Id. How to assess prejudice is left to the discretion of the courts; the Rule does not address which party has the burden. Advisory Committee Notes.
Upon finding prejudice, courts may impose remedial measures that are proportional to the prejudice. Id. The Advisory Committee identifies these less severe, but serious measures, as “forbidding the party that failed to preserve information from putting on certain evidence, permitting the parties to present evidence and argument to the jury regarding the loss of information, or giving the jury instructions to assist in its evaluation of such evidence or argument, other than instructions to which subdivision (e)(2) applies.” Id.
Specified and severe measures only upon finding “intent to deprive.” Under the amended Rule, the most severe sanctions, such as adverse inference jury instructions, dismissal of claims, and entry of a default judgment, are now reserved for a “finding that the party acted with the intent to deprive another party of the information’s use in the litigation.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(e)(2). The Advisory Committee counsels the importance of a finding an “intent to deprive” in order to address and deter such failures. Advisory Committee Notes. Mere negligence — or even gross negligence — is no longer sufficient.
While the Rule sets forth four severe sanctions that may be imposed under the Rule upon a finding of intent, proportionality again directs the analysis. Likewise, the Advisory Committee cautions that “[t]he remedy should fit the wrong, and the severe measures authorized … should not be used when the information lost was relatively unimportant or lesser measures such as those specified in subdivision (e)(1) would be sufficient to redress the loss.” Id.
Elizabeth Bresnahan is a litigation associate in the Boston office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
Significant amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure became effective on December 1, 2015. The amendments modify Rules 1, 4, 16, 26, 30, 31, 33, 34, 37, 55, and 84. The amendments seek to increase the efficiency and speediness of litigation while slowing the rising costs of discovery. Toward the latter goal, certain of the revisions establish an express guiding principle to limit the scope of discovery: proportionality.
The application of the proportionality requirement likely will have an immediate and lasting influence on how parties conduct discovery in federal courts and how the courts referee discovery disputes. Specifically, amended Rule 26(b)(1), which governs the scope of discovery, permits discovery into relevant, non-privileged information “proportional to the needs of the case.” (Emphasis added.) Old Rule 26(b)(1) permitted discovery into relevant, non-privileged information “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence,” a phrase that was often misconstrued and which is now removed. Old Rule 26(b)(1) also permitted such discovery into sources of additional discovery, “including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons who know of any discoverable matter.” Thus, the new rule: (i) establishes “proportionality” as a limiting principle (ii) potentially limits “discovery about discovery” and, consequently, (iii) will, it is hoped, add a needed control to the rising costs of discovery.
Proportionality Is The New Standard
The amended rule removes “reasonably calculated” – an ambiguous phrase that sometimes allowed for expansive discovery – and focuses on “proportional.” And the amended rule specifies the considerations for determining whether discovery is proportional, including “the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Parties now must consider these factors when making or responding to discovery requests.
To be sure, proportionality is not a wholly new concept in federal practice. For example, before the 2015 amendments, proportionality was implied by Rule 26(b)(2)(C)(iii), which required courts to limit discovery where “the burden or expense of the proposed discovery” would “outweigh its likely benefit,” and Rule 26(g) required a party seeking discovery to certify that the discovery was “not . . . unduly burdensome or expensive,” in light of the circumstances of the litigation. But while parties seeking protective orders pursuant to Rule 26(c) would frequently call the court’s attention to these proportionality considerations, opposing parties would often invoke “reasonably calculated,” which the Advisory Committee Notes on the new rule state “were used by some, incorrectly, to define the scope of discovery.” The amendments change that. The Committee Notes also state that “[t]he present amendment restores the proportionality factors to their original place in defining the scope of discovery,” empowering courts to enforce tighter limits on disproportionate discovery.
Proportionality May Restrict Discovery About Discovery
The amendment to Rule 26 deletes language that permitted discovery into information about “the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents . . . and location of persons who know of any discoverable matter.” However, the Committee Notes suggest that this change is more style than substance. It states that the long list of examples is so “deeply entrenched” that to include it would only maintain unnecessary “clutter” in an already lengthy rule, and that “[t]he discovery identified in these examples should still be permitted under the revised rule when relevant and proportional to the needs of the case.”
Still, the revision suggests limitations to the scope of this discovery to the extent that it would be at cross purposes with proportionality. For example, in a recent case, a magistrate judge ruling on a motion for a protective order applied Rule 26(b)(1) and limited a proposed Rule 30(b)(6) deposition topic, noting that “[w]hile Plaintiffs have articulated credible reasons for seeking this information nationwide, its production is not proportional to the needs of the case.” Cooper v. Charter Commc’ns, Inc., No. 3:12-cv-10530-MGM, 2016 WL 128099, at *2 (D. Mass. Jan. 12, 2016). One of the credible reasons that Plaintiffs had advanced was that they were entitled to test Defendant’s assertion that they lacked certain relevant records for Massachusetts by inquiring about “how [Defendant] is able to track service losses in other states.” Pl.’s Opp’n To Charter’s Mot. at 7, Cooper, ECF No. 187. Thus, although the discovery request might have been permitted under the old rule, it was deemed not proportional under the new rule, and therefore exceeded the scope of discovery now permitted.
Proportionality Considerations Will Likely Contain The Costs Of Discovery
Proportionality figures to slow the ballooning costs of litigation caused by technological advances. Specifically, widespread use and adoption of electronically stored information (ESI), often over many platforms, has made once-mundane discovery requests exponentially more burdensome. In the past, responding to a discovery request might have meant collecting the data from a few computers from a few custodians, and each of those computers might have stored only a few gigabytes of data. Now, discovery sometimes requires searching and reviewing terabytes of data harvested from local computers, from networks, and from the cloud – all of which must be reviewed for relevance and privilege. This discovery can be similarly onerous for discovery recipients who must review and analyze large productions to determine how the information fits into or modifies their theory of the case or how the information might necessitate additional discovery.
The Committee Notes express the hope that parties and the courts will continue to embrace sophisticated ways to reduce the costs of producing ESI. For example, to the extent that a discovery request could call for a click-by-click review through thousands or millions of documents, courts should permit parties to use reasonably-tailored search terms to narrow the scope of review. Proportionality may now require it. Limiting the scope of e-discovery would certainly make discovery less expensive. Moreover, as discussed above, if courts become more reluctant to permit discovery into potential sources of additional discovery, that would further contain costs.
At the very least, the amended Rule 26(b)(1) will require parties and federal courts to weigh the proportionality factors and determine, for example, whether the importance of certain discovery in resolving an issue is proportional to the burden or expense of providing that discovery. The Committee Notes suggest that parties should use Rule 26(f) and other scheduling and pretrial conferences to gain a “full appreciation of the factors that bear on proportionality” to inform their discovery requests and responses. In discovery motion practice, parties will no longer prevail by arguing that a discovery request is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence; now they must demonstrate that the request is proportional.
Immanuel R. Foster is a litigation associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, and a member of the Boston Bar Association.