Discovery is a vital tool used in civil litigation to ensure all parties in a dispute have access to the facts and evidence needed to build their cases and present them to the court. When used properly, discovery uncovers a rich amount of information that better informs judges and juries on the critical facts in a case. However, not all attorneys and parties use discovery in good faith. It can and often is abused, which is why the rules of civil procedure allow certain objections to discovery requests.
Most Common Objections to Discovery Requests
The following are a few of the most common objections that parties can make to discovery requests in North Carolina:
Attorney-client privilege: Clients have the right to freely consult with their attorneys without fear that their private conversations can become publicized in court or used by the opposing counsel. This is where attorney-client privilege comes in. The law generally protects communications between clients and attorneys, especially when those communications touch on trial matters, admissions of liability, and discussions about settlement offers with the lawyer.
Work product doctrine: A related protection is known as the work product doctrine and concerns documents prepared in anticipation of litigation. It’s worth noting that for this rule to apply, the evidence in question must actually be prepared for use in court proceedings. Parties sometimes try to abuse this objection by, for instance, emailing massive amounts of admissible documents to their lawyers in hopes of “cloaking” them with this rule. Judges will scrutinize the invocation of both this and the broader attorney-client privilege objection.
Relevance: A party may also object that a discovery request seeks information that is irrelevant to the lawsuit. Under Rule 26 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may seek information concerning any matter, not privileged, “which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action.”
This excludes not only asking a party to turn over information not related to the case at hand, but also information that may instead be related to another lawsuit. The intent of this rule is to prevent a party from filing a lawsuit which can then be used to open up every private aspect of another party’s life.
Unreasonably cumulative or duplicative: A court may limit the frequency and extent of discovery if it believes the methods chosen are unreasonably cumulative or duplicative. In other words, a party cannot repeatedly ask the same thing or send far too many requests than would be reasonable considering the nature of the case.
Along with this objection, parties often file a motion for what’s called a protective order. This is a request for the judge to restrict the use of discovery that might in some way be abusive. Protective orders can prevent discovery altogether or severely curtail its use to avoid excesses. But a party who believes the request to be cumulative or duplicative will likely assert this as an objection as well.
Unduly burdensome or expensive: If the discovery request would impose an undue burden or expense upon someone, that party can object on this basis. Emphasis should be added to the word “unduly.” Every discovery request imposes some inconvenience and cost upon another party; the question is whether it goes too far. The court, in deciding whether to sustain this objection, will consider such factors as:
- The needs of the case
- The amount of money or damages in controversy
- Limitations on the resources of the parties
- The importance of the issues at stake in the lawsuit
Similar to the previous objection, this one is also frequently the subject of a motion for a protective order.
These are not the only discovery request objections, and some may be better than others. What judges and attorneys don’t like to see is a lawyer or party asserting baseless or “boilerplate” objections that are overly broad, not tailored to the actual request, and used merely to drag out litigation or drive up the other side’s costs. All objections must be carefully considered before they are made so they don’t result in sanctions or other punishments by the court.