A federal district court in Pennsylvania recently gave defendants in putative class actions new authority for requiring plaintiffs to share discovery costs. See Boeynaems v. LA Fitness International, LLC, No. 2-10-cv-2326-MMB, 2012 WL 3536306 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 16, 2012). Specifically, Judge Michael Baylson ruled that when class action plaintiffs request “very extensive discovery, compliance with which will be very expensive,” plaintiffs typically should share defendant’s discovery costs – at least until plaintiffs’ certification motion has been filed and decided.
In discussing the case with my colleague Becky Schwartz, a class action guru, one of the things that jumped out at her was the notion: “If the plaintiffs have confidence in their contention that the Court should certify the class, then the plaintiffs should have no objection to making an investment.” Judge Baylson went on to say that the “Court is firmly of the view that discovery burdens should not force either party to succumb to a settlement that is based on the cost of litigation rather than the merits of the case.” 2012 WL 3536306, at *10. We have posted before about the dangers of blackmail settlements.
This case involved five named plaintiffs who alleged breach of contract and unfair trade practices related to alleged attempts to cancel their fitness club memberships. The parties were before the court on plaintiffs’ motion to compel production of additional documents and electronically stored information (“ESI”). One example of the parties’ disagreements involved defendant’s internal communications. Defendant claimed that large numbers of internal memoranda had already been provided, while plaintiffs held fast to their demand that absolutely “all responsive internal documents” be identified and produced. The court compared the parties’ discovery dialog to “a Verdian opera scene, where a tenor and a bass boast of their qualities, to compete to win over the fair princess.” 2012 WL 3636306, at *2.
Recognizing that discovery in the case was “asymmetrical,” the court contrasted the “very few documents” in plaintiffs’ possession – e.g., their membership contract and related correspondence – with the millions of potentially discoverable items in defendant LA Fitness’s possession. “The Court does not in any way suggest that counsel is acting otherwise than in the interests of their clients, but economic motivation and fairness are relevant factors in determining cost shifting of disputed discovery burdens,” Judge Baylson said. 2012 WL 336306, at *4.
“Plaintiffs have already amassed, mostly at Defendant’s expense, a very large set of documents that may be probative as to the class action issue,” the court opined. “If Plaintiffs conclude that additional discovery is not only relevant, but important to proving that a class should be certified, then Plaintiffs should pay for that additional discovery from this date forward, at least until the class certification is made.” 2012 WL 3536306, at *10.
My colleague Mark Cowing (many of our readers know Mark from his work on DRI’s Electronic Discovery Committee), pointed out that the court established a protocol by which the plaintiffs would list discovery that they still requested, being “specific as to what searching of ESI, or hard documents, is required.” Defendant’s response would include its internal costs for providing this information, including “the appropriately allocated salaries of individuals employed by Defendant who participate in supplying the information which Plaintiffs request, including managers, in-house counsel, paralegals, computer technicians and others involved in the retrieval and production of Defendant’s ESI.” 2012 WL 3536306, at *11. Plaintiffs would then be required to advise whether they were willing to make the necessary payment. Judge Baylson concluded the time-line by saying that “[t]he Court reserves the right to make an allocation of these costs depending upon the outcome of the class action motion and/or the merits of the case.” Id.
To help guide the process, the opinion itemized the categories of information that were considered to be relevant and irrelevant (i.e., “inside and outside the fence”) while certification remained pending. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2451 (2011), Judge Baylson noted that “the most relevant discovery at this stage of the case is that which will illuminate the extent to which Defendant’s membership cancellation policies and practices are set and followed nationally; Plaintiffs must show either that individual managers have no discretion or that there is a common mode of exercising discretion that pervades the entire company.” 2012 WL 3536306, at *11 (internal quotation marks omitted).
SHB’s Suggestions for Defense Counsel
I asked Mark, Becky, and my partner Denise Talbert, who chairs SHB’s eDiscovery, Data & Document Management Practice, for some e-discovery pointers for our readers, in light of this potentially important discovery decision. They suggest that defendants:
1. From the outset, maintain a record of the volume, cost, and custodians of documents and ESI reviewed for responsiveness and produced to opposing counsel.
2. In responses to plaintiffs’ requests for production, take care to (a) describe what defendant is willing to produce without objection; (b) specify the parts of plaintiffs’ requests that are irrelevant to the claims and defenses in the case; and (c) explain how individual requests are overly broad and unduly burdensome.
3. Be alert for opportunities where defendant may be able to offer to produce only examples of certain types of documents “sufficient to show” notice or some other specific fact. This can reduce costs associated with the production of repetitive documents such as articles and monthly reports.
4. Proactively seek agreement on the custodians and sources from which collection and production will be made. Emphasize the value of first producing from a core group of custodians (hopefully no more than three to five) and defendant’s willingness to meet and confer about reasonable requests to search additional sources after plaintiffs have reviewed the initial production.
5. Don’t jump the gun on a cost-shifting motion. It may well be stronger once a threshold volume of information has been produced and plaintiffs’ further requests begin to appear even more onerous.
6. Consider these approaches not only in class actions but in all complex cases in which a client is asked to produce documents and ESI in large volumes.