United States: Sanctions For An MDL Bellwether Plaintiff's Discovery Conduct

Last Updated: September 6 2018
Article by Eric Alexander

Stop us if you have heard this before. A novel or movie depicts litigation in which a large corporate defendant is sued for causing a plaintiff or plaintiffs significant injuries through a frivolous or non-beneficial product. In defending the litigation, the corporation and its unscrupulous lawyers hide important documents from the scrappy plaintiff lawyer, who, depending on the fiction's direction, never discovers or miraculously discovers the key evidence. Perhaps informed by this view of corporate defendants and their lawyers as less than honorable, a number of courts have imposed significant sanctions against defendants when, despite producing millions of pages of documents created well before the litigation started and gathered from around the world, fail to preserve and produce some number of documents that the plaintiffs contend should have been produced. The importance of the documents to the case and the overall merits of the case tend not matter to the award of sanctions. To the contrary, the sanctions can themselves affect the outcome of the litigation. We know you have heard about these litigations, as we have described them in a number of posts through the years.

The situation where a plaintiff is sanctioned for her refusal to disclose information and produce documents in litigation is far less common. Mind you, we do not think the conduct is less common. We think it happens all the time, but rarely goes to motion let alone a published decision about a bellwether plaintiff in a product liability MDL. In re Taxotere (Docetaxel) Prods. Liab. Litig.¸ MDL No. 2740, 2018 WL 4002624 (E.D. La. Aug. 22, 2018), presents a sanctions order that may not signal a trend toward equal treatment for plaintiffs and defendants on discovery obligations and sanctions because this plaintiff's conduct was just so obviously bad.

The plaintiff was suing over hair loss from a chemotherapy drug for her cancer. She was also a medical doctor and bellwether plaintiff. (We pause just on these facts in case our readers want to ponder how litigation now is different than the "old days," whenever that might have been.) The MDL had a Plaintiff Fact Sheet requirement and an order explaining discovery obligations for electronically stored information apply to them too. After bringing her suit and for over a year thereafter, the plaintiff treated with, or at least sought advice from, a physician on how to regrow her hair through an unspecified regimen.  She documented her progress with photographs and, when the treating physician asked for permission to use them to promote his treatment, squarely stated she "[w]ould rather not have the lawyers for the other side put two and two together just yet." She failed to identify this physician on her fact sheet, provide authorizations for him, or identify the treatment she was receiving at his suggestion. When she realized that her produced emails—like we said, the court realized plaintiffs have to produce ESI too—included information about this undisclosed physician, she directed him to resist discovery: "just tell them that you weren't really my doctor . . . you don't have any records [and] you never saw me." Meanwhile, plaintiff (who had a lost wages claim) directed her former employer, a particular Veterans Affairs Medical Center, to refuse to produce any employment or medical records.

The decision focused on the plaintiff's conduct regarding her undisclosed physician. Plaintiff's primary defense was that the doctor recommending her a treatment regimen she was utilizing and corresponding with about its progress was not really "her doctor." She supported this argument with an affidavit from the doctor to the effect that he did not consider the plaintiff to be his patient. This argument did not hold water because the PFS required disclosure not just of treating physicians, but any healthcare provider consulted over the prior eight years, including any "hair loss specialist." It also required disclosure of "over-the-counter medications, supplements, or cosmetic aides for your hair loss." We assume it also required production of photographs documenting the extent of any claimed injury (i.e., hair loss over time). It was easy to find that plaintiff had failed to comply with her discovery obligations, especially because "she has encouraged at least [two] potential witness[es] to be less than forthcoming in this litigation."

What was the sanction? She had to produce the stuff she was supposed to produce anyway, sit for further deposition on the withheld evidence, and pay the defendant's cost for the motion for sanctions. Yawn. The order was supposed to be a warning for her or "any other plaintiff who might be considering adopting evasive tactics like those discussed in this opinion." We think she got off light and, particularly in the context of a big MDL—this one has more than 9000 pending cases—the sanction lets plaintiffs and their lawyers make calculated decisions about whether it pays to avoid discovery obligations. We cannot see a defendant in a litigation like this getting off nearly so lightly had it done anything like what plaintiff did here.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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