Discovery Failure leads to Serious Sanctions

In civil litigation, discovery is a crucial process that allows parties to exchange relevant information and build their cases. However, when a party fails to comply with discovery demands, the consequences can be severe. A recent decision, Abuzaid v. Almayouf, illustrates the importance of complying with discovery obligations and the potential ramifications of non-compliance.

Discovery is the phase in litigation where parties exchange information that is relevant to the case.  During discovery, the parties use various tools to gather evidence to support their claims or defenses. These include serving document requests to the other side to obtain relevant papers and electronic records from the opposing party or non-parties. Parties also exchange written questions, called interrogatories, which must be answered under oath. The scope of discovery under the CPLR is very broad, encompassing anything that is material and necessary to the prosecution or defense of an action. Discovery is intended to be a transparent process where parties lay their cards on the table to avoid unfair surprise at trial and promote the efficient resolution of disputes.

When a party tries to obstruct the process of discovery, the consequences can be serious, but it takes a lot of effort for the complying party to get to that point, as was shown in Abuzaid v. Almoayouf.  The first discovery request was served in 2020, but only this decision in 2024 gave the plaintiff the requested relief.

In this case, the defendant apparently engaged in dilatory tactics, providing incomplete and evasive responses to the plaintiff’s initial document requests. A deposition of defendant revealed additional undisclosed social media accounts and posts relevant to the claims in the lawsuit. But even after agreeing on the record to supplement, the defendant reneged.

When the defendant subsequently failed to comply with the court’s order directing complete supplemental discovery by a specified deadline, plaintiff’s counsel again asked the court to intervene. The resulting order explicitly warned the defendant of sanctions under CPLR 3126 for any continued non-compliance.

Yet the defendant persisted in withholding relevant discovery, claiming “safety concerns” while refusing a forensic examination of her devices. Plaintiff’s counsel then filed a motion under CPLR 3126 to seek serious sanctions for the defendant’s sustained defiance.

The court stated in its decision:

“CPLR 3126 authorizes the court to sanction a party who “refuses to obey an order for disclosure or willfully fails to disclose information which the court finds ought to have been disclosed” and that “a failure to comply with discovery, particularly after a court order has been issued, may constitute the “dilatory and obstructive, and thus contumacious, conduct warranting the striking of the [pleading].” Kutner v Feiden, Dweck & Sladkus, 223 AD2d 488, 489 (1 st Dept. 1998); see CDR Creances S.A. v Cohen, 104 AD3d 17 (1 st Dept. 2012); Reidel v Ryder TRS, Inc., 13 AD3d 170 (1 st Dept. 2004). The court can infer willfulness from repeated failures to comply with court orders or discovery demands without a reasonable excuse. See LaSalle Talman Bank, F.S.B. v Weisblum & Felice, 99 AD3d 543 (1 st Dept. 2012); Perez v City of New York, 95 AD3d 675 (1 st Dept. 2012); Figiel v Met Food, 48 AD3d 330 (1 st Dept. 2008); Ciao Europa, Inc. v Silver Autumn Hotel Corp., Ltd., 270 AD2d 2 (1 st Dept. 2000). Pursuant to CPLR 3124, the court may compel compliance upon failure of a party to provide discovery”

Given the serious misconduct by the defendant in this case, the court ordered complete supplemental disclosures within 30 days, requiring an expert forensic examination of the defendant’s devices at her own expense; holding that any failure to comply will result in automatic preclusion of undisclosed evidence; awarding the plaintiff attorneys’ fees and costs for the sanctions motion; and warning of potential additional penalties like striking pleadings for any further violations.

The Abuzaid v. Almayouf case serves as a stark reminder of the importance of complying with discovery demands in civil litigation. Litigants must be diligent in their efforts to resolve discovery disputes and should not hesitate to seek court intervention when necessary. The case highlights the importance of transparency, cooperation, and adherence to court orders throughout the discovery process.

Litigants who engage in dilatory tactics or willfully withhold discoverable information risk not only prolonging the litigation but also incurring substantial monetary sanctions and potentially jeopardizing their ability to present evidence in support of their case. By understanding the lessons from this case, litigants can navigate the discovery process more effectively and avoid the pitfalls of non-compliance.