It’s not every day that I profess my adoration for a public official so, well, publically. Especially not for a sitting Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge who is often called conservative.
But I heart Kozinski.
It’s not because of his reportedly big personality, his colorful turn of a phrase, or his willingness to take on controversial topics. I must confess; I often disagree with his politics and his findings.
It’s that he gets it.
At least he gets it when it comes to the critical importance of vigorous discovery in civil cases to plaintiffs . . . now that he’s involved in a consumer class action suit against Nissan Motors.
What made this otherwise conservative judge see the light? It turns out that Judge Kozinski is unhappy with his attorney’s failure to delve into Nissan’s alleged illegal behavior before entering in what Judge Kozinski suggests is a “sweetheart” settlement deal in Klee, et al. v. Nissan North America, Inc., a class action on behalf of Nissan Leaf car owners for warranty and alleged battery defects. He was so enraged with his attorney’s failure to delve into the knowledge of Nissan regarding these alleged defects before selling the vehicles to consumers that he filed a pleading asking the Judge to deny court approval to the proposed settlement. In his thirty page opposition, he (and his wife) passionately made the case that “extensive” and “vigorous” discovery is needed to demonstrate liability of corporate defendants.
After deriding his high-powered attorneys for failing to obtain evidence that would be necessary to prove liability at trial, such as internal memos, emails, incident reports and prior complaints, Judge Kozinski wrote: “it’s the job of the lawyers suing to find out everything the company knows and hopes to conceal.”
Judge Kozinski took the words right out of my mouth.
His observation pinpoints the controversy over changes to federal rules now being proposed that would limit discovery in all civil cases, including those involving consumer, employment and civil rights claims, filed in federal courtroom across the country. The proposed changes to the federal rules that govern discovery would cut the number of depositions allowed by half (from 10 to 5) and limit them to six hours each. Documents requests are slashed imposing a limit of only to 25 requests; interrogatory requests from 25 to a paltry 15 and admissions having new numeric restrictions of only 25.
The proposed changes, recently submitted by the Judicial Conference of the United States to Congress are now open for public comment. Public hearings, which have already begun, are being held in Phoenix, Arizona on January 9, 2014 and Dallas, Texas on February 7, 2014. Public comments received from civil rights, consumer rights, and environmental champions argue that the rules will effectively do away with the discovery needed to enforce laws for the protection of all citizens.
On the other side, comments received from representatives of big corporate interests complain that the cost of discovery is too high, requiring a “trim” of discovery for all cases in federal court.
If these proposed changes to the federal rules of civil procedure take effect, Americans who bring consumer, employment or civil rights claims against large corporate entities will feel Judge Kozinski’s pain. An employee who was wrongfully fired for, say whistleblowing, won’t get to find out very much and certainly not what the company hopes to conceal. Instead, it is far more likely that companies who are intent on doing bad things and firing employees who bring unlawful practices to light will play possum until the meager discovery afforded under the proposed changes are all used up in a game of “gotcha.”
Judge Kozinski’s experience as a class member in a consumer rights case has led him to provide a vivid example of how paramount discovery is to prosecuting cases that that are brought under federal laws enacted to protect the public from false claims or faulty products. Judge Kozinski’s experience demonstrates how important this yawn-inducing technical “fix” to the discovery rules is to the general public. People and their elected representatives should be paying attention too.
[To learn more about how the proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure would harm civil right cases, read Wendy Musell's earlier blog post,Gaming the system: If you can't beat em, change the rules.]
This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on November 24, 2013. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Wendy Musell is a partner at the civil rights law firm Stewart & Musell, LLP, a bi-coastal law firm located in San Francisco, California, and Freehold, New Jersey. Stewart & Musell, LLP is a firm devoted to protecting civil rights in employment and in criminal law. Ms. Musell is committed to representing employees in public and private employment and protecting their civil rights.