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July 18, 2017

California Supreme Court Rejects Limitation on Discovery

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Two years ago, the California Court of Appeal, Second District approved a trial court's denial of broad, early stage discovery in Williams v. Superior Court (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 1151, 187 Cal.Rptr.3d 321 and seemed to "promote the philosophy of proportionality drafted into the proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure."

Last Thursday, the California Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that the trial court abused its discretion in denying plaintiff's motion to compel identification of all other Marshalls employees at 129 California stores. See Williams v. Superior Court (2017) __ P.3d __, 2017 WE 2980258.

Of significant interest to our clients, the extensive discussion by the California Supreme Court in dicta of the standards to be applied in evaluating discovery requests seems inconsistent with any application of proportionality or balancing of interests as currently required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). See, e.g., 2017 WL 2980258, *4 ("Under the Legislature's 'very liberal and flexible standard of relevancy,' any 'doubts as to relevance should generally be resolved in favor of permitting discovery.'" (citing Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. v. Superior Court (1970) 2 Cal.3d 161, 173.)) California trial courts may interpret the decision as hindering them from narrowing or limiting the scope of requested discovery.

The direct application of the decision is limited to interrogatories seeking the disclosure of other potentially affected employees, in the context of a claim under Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq., the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004, or "PAGA." The application of the decision to civil litigation generally remains to be seen.

The decision reinforces the need to provide supporting evidence of the amount of work required to comply with an interrogatory, to support an "unduly burdensome" objection. The Court acknowledged the statutory provision that a trial court “shall limit the scope of discovery if it determines that the burden, expense, or intrusiveness of that discovery clearly outweighs the likelihood that the information sought will lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” (Code Civ. Proc., § 2017.020(a)), but found no evidentiary support for the trial court's limitation in this circumstance.

The decision in Williams is also notable because the Court rejected Marshalls' objection that it could not reveal the names of other Marshalls employees on privacy grounds. The Court acknowledged that privacy is a California constitutional right, See 2017 WL 2980258, *11 (citing Cal. Const., art I, § 1). The Court nevertheless took the opportunity to disapprove a long line of cases requiring a compelling interest to justify discovery of private information. The Court stressed that the burden is on the party asserting a privacy interest to establish its extent and the seriousness of the prospective invasion. The responding party must weigh the countervailing interests the opposing party identifies, as required by Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1 – a formidable task with uncertain outcomes.

For more information and continued coverage on Williams v. Superior Court, visit Bowman and Brooke's Discovery Coordination and eDiscovery page on our website or contact Janell Adams or Elaine Adam.

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