Discovery Sanctions Can Rightly Include Dismissing a Case
Brianna Horton v. Bria Monique Hinton: When a party willfully fails or refuses to adhere to the requirements of the discovery process, a trial court is within its discretion to administer discovery sanctions, including dismissing the case.
I’ll confess up front that reading and briefing this particular case brought me an unusual amount of joy. Filing motions to dismiss under Rule 37 for a party’s refusal to participate in discovery is one of my great joys in practice. I would just about do it for free (unless you’re a client reading this, in which case that previous statement is total hyperbole).
Failure to Participate in Discovery
The trial court in the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County dismissed Brianna Horton’s personal injury case as sanctions for her disregarding the discovery process. Horton had sued Hinton arising out of a motor vehicle accident. In addition to the standard claims of negligent and wanton conduct alleged against Hinton, Horton also claimed that Hinton’s outrageous conduct had resulted in emotional distress.
After Horton failed to respond to discovery requests, Hinton filed a motion to compel. The trial court granted the motion to compel, and Horton failed to comply with the court’s order. Horton filed a motion to dismiss, pursuant to Alabama Rule of Civil Procedure 37. Before the court ruled on the motion, Horton provided her discovery responses. The court then denied the motion to dismiss as being moot.
Hinton scheduled Horton’s deposition, which Horton later cancelled. Counsel for Hinton sent two letters to counsel for Horton seeking new dates for Horton’s deposition. Counsel for Horton did not respond, so Hinton unilaterally set a date. Counsel for Hinton traveled to the deposition site, but both Horton and her counsel failed to appear without any explanation. Hinton moved to compel Horton’s deposition, which the court granted. But on the new time and date for her deposition, Horton failed to appear.
Rule 37 and Discovery Sanctions
Hinton moved to dismiss again, and this time the court dismissed the case. Thereafter, Horton moved the court to reconsider the dismissal, but the court denied Horton’s post-judgment motion. Horton appealed. Brianna Horton v. Bria Monique Hinton [Ms. 2150631 Mar. 24, 2017], — So.3d — (Ala.Civ.App. 2017).
Under Alabama Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), a trial court is authorized to dismiss a case as a sanction against a party who violates an order compelling her to provide or permit discovery. And more specifically, Alabama Rule of Civil Procedure 37(d) permits a court to dismiss a case as a sanction for a party’s failure to attend her deposition. The Supreme Court of Alabama has made it clear that it will not disturb a trial court’s choice of discovery sanctions, which is within the trial court’s discretion, absent gross abuse of discretion. See Iverson v. Xpert Tune, Inc., 553 So.2d 82, 87 (Ala. 1989).
A key part of the appellate court’s willingness to uphold a dismissal for discovery sanctions lies with the non-complying party’s willful failure to participate in discovery. “If one party has acted with willful and deliberate disregard of reasonable and necessary requests for the efficient administration of justice, the application of even so stringent a sanction as dismissal is fully justified and should not be disturbed.” Id. Where a party demonstrates a consistent failure to properly comply with the requirements of the discovery process without adequate excuse, the dismissal of an action as a sanction for failure to participate in the discovery process should be upheld. See Napier v. McDougall, 601 So. 2d 446 (Ala. 1992); Tri-Shelters, Inc. v. A.G. Gaston Constr. Co., 622 So. 2d 329 (Ala. 1993); Bowman v. May, 678 So. 2d 1135 (Ala.Civ.App. 1996).
Based on the facts in the case at hand, Horton’s conduct arose to the “willfulness” standard recognized by the appellate court’s as justifying the dismissal of a case as discovery sanctions. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion, and its judgment against Horton was affirmed.
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