Appeal from the United States District Court For the Eastern of Pennsylvania. D.C. No.: 00-cv-6036. District Judge: Honorable Eduardo C. Robreno
Before: McKEE, Barry, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosenn, Circuit Judge.
This case demonstrates the importance of collegiality and professionalism among members of the Bar. Collegiality and professionalism can obviate unnecessary court intervention, needless expense and fees for clients, and protracted legal proceedings. Zealous advocacy on behalf of one's client does not excuse a belligerent and uncompromising approach to the discovery process. This appeal arises out of discovery proceedings that enveloped the underlying dispute and eventually led to sanctions against defendant Larry Tucker, Inc. (Tucker) and its attorneys Robert Zatorski, Esq., and Jeffrey Herrmann, Esq., of Cohn, Lifland, Pearlman, Herrmann & Knopf, LLP (Appellants). The District Court made no explicit findings of misconduct by defense counsel and the record does not support such a finding. Moreover, the District Court found that counsel for plaintiff Naviant Marketing Solutions (Naviant) was overzealous and unreasonable in his approach to discovery. At no time did plaintiff 's counsel confer with defense counsel in good faith prior to a motion to compel discovery, or motion for contempt or sanctions. Accordingly, we reverse the District Court's order sanctioning defense counsel.
Tucker is a business engaged in direct mail advertising. Naviant sold a mailing list to Tucker. In November 2000, Naviant sued Tucker in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for $150,000 alleging breach of contract.*fn1 Tucker filed various defenses and a counterclaim, asserting that the list was not supplied on a timely basis and that it was deficient in quantity and quality.
On March 2, 2001, Naviant served Tucker with two sets of interrogatories. Tucker, on the verge of bankruptcy, informed appellants that it would be unable to provide the information necessary within thirty days. Cf. Fed. R. Civ. P. 33. Appellants asked Naviant for additional time to comply. On March 30, 2001, Naviant responded by faxed letter that it would not consent to any extension of time.*fn2 Tucker objected to many but not all of the interrogatories and provided no responsive information before the thirty day period expired on April 2, 2001. On the next day, Naviant moved to compel an answer to the interrogatories. Tucker responded that a shortage of employees had prevented it from complying, but that it would be able to do so if given a short additional time period. On April 24, the District Court granted Tucker ten additional days and declined to impose sanctions.
On May 3, 2001, Tucker provided answers to the interrogatories. On May 8, 2001, Naviant faxed appellants a twenty-page letter demanding more complete answers. Plaintiff threatened to bring a motion for sanctions the morning after the next business day unless Tucker responded to plaintiff 's satisfaction immediately. On May 10, 2001, Naviant moved for contempt, alleging that Tucker failed to comply with the Court's April 24 order. This motion resulted in the sanctions that are addressed in this appeal.
After the motion was filed, the discovery disputes continued, focusing mostly on Naviant's April 24, 2001 document production requests. On June 1, 2001, the Court directed counsel for both parties to meet to resolve in good faith Naviant's discovery requests. This meeting took place on June 18, 2001, but the parties were unable to reach an accord. On July 12, the Court scheduled a hearing on the discovery disputes and ordered Naviant to file a specific list of its concerns by July 18. The Court gave Tucker until July 23 to respond. On July 19, 2001, Tucker served supplemental answers to interrogatories and produced additional documents. Naviant alleged that the answers were non-responsive, particularly as to the contention interrogatories, and also alleged that Tucker's answer to Naviant's document production request was non-responsive.
The District Court heard the discovery disputes on July 26, 2001. Appellants explained that the delay in answering Naviant's interrogatories resulted from Tucker's serious financial difficulties. The District Court accepted this explanation, stating that "I don't think there's going to be a trial here. I think that this organization is going out of business and it's going to file a bankruptcy." The District Court observed that "it appears that the defendant is either unwilling or unable to comply with the discovery requests concerning the counterclaim." The Court severed the counterclaim, a move it described as "the least severe sentence that can be imposed here." The District Court did not discuss the manner in which Tucker's answers to the interrogatories were insufficient. The District Court was sympathetic to appellants' assertion that defendant, rather than defense counsel, was to blame for Tucker's failure to comply with the Court's discovery orders. The District Court acknowledged that "I guess counsel is saying that you don't have the resources in the organization to come up with these documents, that you can't get blood out of a stone..."
The District Court granted in part Naviant's motion for contempt. Trial on Naviant's complaint was scheduled for October 1, 2001. The Court held Naviant's request for financial sanctions against Tucker and appellants in abeyance until the end of the trial. The Court gave Tucker ten days to supplement its answers to the contention interrogatories. On August 3, Tucker submitted its third set of answers to the contention interrogatories and withdrew some of its affirmative defenses. On August 13, 2001, Naviant again filed a motion for contempt. Appellants filed a certification that the requested documents had been produced but complained that Naviant had not made good faith efforts to work out discovery disputes with defense counsel prior to filing its motions for contempt.
On August 22, 2001, the District Court considered Naviant's second motion for contempt and sanctions and found that Tucker acted in bad faith by failing to comply with the Court's April 24 and July 25 orders regarding document production. Accordingly, the District Court granted Naviant's second motion for contempt and sanctions.*fn3 The District Court's ruling does not expressly find any misconduct by defense counsel. On September 12, 2001, as the rest of the nation paused to mourn the tragic events of the ...