8th Cir. upholds $53K sanction for plaintiff’s failure to cooperate with discovery

The Eight Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a sanction of $53,255.55 in costs and attorneys fees plus dismissal for a plaintiff failure to answer basic discovery requests after failing to comply with multiple court orders.

This was a case from hell. The plaintiff was suing for the defendant for a wrongful discharge case. Defendant filed a motion to compel discovery answers 10 months after plaintiff filed the complaint. Defendant was seeking information about plaintiff’s income and medical history to assess plaintiff’s damages. The court sustained defendant’s motion to compel, but plaintiff failed to provide adequate answers. Two hearings later and six weeks after the original deadline on the motion to compel, the court sanctioned the plaintiff $3000 for defendant’s attorneys fees for bringing the motions to compel.  After being financially sanctioned the first time, the plaintiff continued his failure to cooperate with discovery leading to the $53,000 sanction and dismissal of his case.

This case is an outlier, but it provides valuable lessons for lawyers who represent employees in the 8th Circuit. The first lesson is that judges will financially penalize your client severely if they do not comply with reasonable discovery requests. I’d share this decision with any client who was less than cooperative with reasonable discovery requests.

The second lesson is if your client is being sanctioned for failing to comply with a reasonable motion to compel, you need to find a way to withdraw. In Nebraska, Rule 3-501.16 of the Rules of Professional Conduct would probably allow a lawyer to withdraw in this situation for the reasons that the client failed substantially comply with an obligation to the lawyer regarding the lawyers services and that representation of the client has been made unreasonably difficult for the client. The comment to the rule states that the attorney needs to warn the client that failure to cooperate will lead the lawyer to withdraw and could also lead to the possibility the client having to represent themselves in their case.  Another practice pointer for trial lawyers is to make cooperation with reasonable discovery requests part of the fee agreement.

The bottom line is that it’s a waste of everyone’s time to bring a suit for a client who won’t cooperate in the process.  Cut your losses and get rid of troublemakers because as plaintiff’s lawyers we need to spend time on deserving clients, spend time serving our community and enjoying time with our family and friends.

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