Discovery is a pre-trial phase of litigation during which a party to a lawsuit seeks to “discover” information from the opposing party. Discovery is meant to facilitate the truth-finding function of the courts and, as such, parties to a lawsuit have an automatic right to discovery. From a strategic standpoint, discovery is used to gather and preserve evidence in support or defense of the claims made in the complaint. Further, discovery often helps parties narrow the focus of the litigation in preparation for trial and, in some cases, may lead to a pre-trial settlement. Discovery is an extremely important phase of litigation because the evidence gathered during discovery will serve as the foundation of a motion for summary judgment and/or strategy at trial.
Discovery proceedings are typically governed by state statutes in state court and by the federal rules of civil procedure in federal court. Generally, the scope of discovery permitted under these rules is very broad. Discoverable information may include any material which is reasonably calculated to produce evidence that may later be admitted at trial. However, certain information, including information protected by the attorney-client privilege and the work product of an opposing party, is generally protected from discovery. During the discovery period, parties may serve discovery requests upon one another. These discovery requests are made through one of several available discovery mechanisms including interrogatories, requests for admission, document requests and depositions.
Interrogatories are written discovery requests often utilized to obtain basic information such as names and dates. Any party served with written interrogatories must answer the questions contained therein in writing and under oath. Similarly, requests for admission consist of written statements directed towards an opposing party for the purpose of having the opposing party “admit” or “deny” the statements. Often, these statements seek to establish undisputed facts, authenticate documents and pin an opposing party to a particular position. Document requests are an important component of discovery in which a party may be required to make any relevant and nonprivileged documents available for inspection by the opposing party. Document production will be covered in greater detail in the following section entitled “Document Production.”
The lynchpin of discovery proceedings is the deposition. Depositions are used to obtain the out-of-court testimony of a witness with knowledge relevant to the litigation. They allow a party to discover any relevant information known to a witness and are often the only method of discovery available with regard to obtaining information from witnesses that are not a party to the litigation. During a deposition, the witness is questioned under oath and must answer the questions asked truthfully to the extent that the answer would not lead to the disclosure of privileged information. The rules governing depositions also allow for the deposition of an organization or corporation where a party is unable to identify the particular witness within the organization that may have knowledge of the information sought. In that instance, a party may identify the information sought and the organization will be required to designate a representative to testify on its behalf.
A party served with a discovery request must respond to the request within the specified time period or object to the requested discovery and state reasons for its objection. If, for some reason, a party refuses to respond to a discovery request, the party serving the request may move the court to compel a response. It is within the court’s power to compel a response to a discovery request and impose penalties on a party refusing to comply with a discovery request.