Overzealous Advocacy Leads to Sanctions

Attorneys have an obligation to provide zealous advocacy on behalf of their clients and to pursue a client’s interests within the bounds of the law.   To this end, lawyers are expected to protect clients during discovery by properly counseling them in anticipation of depositions and objecting to requests that are truly improper without crossing the line.  However, overzealous advocacy, which obstructs legitimate discovery requests, may draw judicial ire and potentially lead to disciplinary action. Consider the following example. 

Sanctions were recently imposed by an Iowa federal district court judge against an out-of-state attorney for alleged discovery abuse in her defense of an infant formula manufacturer.  Following discovery, the parties requested that the court rule on objections to the deposition transcripts, which the parties intended to use at trial.  During its review, the court determined that defense counsel had made an “astounding number” of objections as to the form of the question without explanation or valid basis, had attempted to coach witnesses by repeatedly clarifying opposing counsel’s questions, and had continuously interrupted opposing counsel’s questioning.  

Based on its review of the transcripts, the court sua sponte ordered defense counsel to show cause why sanctions should not be imposed for excessive discovery abuse.  Following a sanctions hearing, the court determined that “form” objections are not a freestanding objection in Iowa, but instead represent a category of specific objections that may be asserted, such as misleading or argumentative.  The court continued that while some jurisdictions expressly allow objections as to form, sanctions should nevertheless be imposed because counsel had used her form objections improperly in order to facilitate coaching the witness and to make unnecessary interruptions.  Based on this improper conduct, the court took the unusual step of requiring counsel to make a training video to be submitted to the court and distributed to her firm explaining proper discovery procedure as a punishment for her perceived discovery misconduct. 

The district court’s sanctions decision reiterates the dangers of engaging in aggressive litigation tactics that serve only to frustrate discovery or impair an opposing counsel’s legitimate discovery requests.  In order to avoid such potentially costly discovery missteps, attorneys should always familiarize themselves with local discovery practices and procedure, particularly when defending a case in an unfamiliar jurisdiction.  Failure to do so could invite unwanted judicial scrutiny and costly sanctions, which can harm the client’s interests and damage the lawyer’s reputation. Attorneys must maintain a balance between civility and advocacy.