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Joann F. Christian v. Counseling Resource Associates, Inc. et al., Del. Supr., No.460, 2011, en Banc (January 2, 2013)

The Supreme Court alters the Drejka analysis for case dismissal as a sanction for discovery violation and issues a practice guideline for discovery deadline extensions.

In its January 2, 2013 decision the Delaware Supreme Court considered how to balance the strong policy in favor of deciding cases on the merits against the need to resolve the trial court’s high volume of cases in a timely manner. In doing so, the Court refined the factors it previously laid out in its decision in Drejka v. Hitchens Tire Service Inc. which aid the trial court in deciding whether to dismiss a case for discovery violations. The Court’s decision in this case added what they refer to as a practice guideline that will afford greater predictability to litigants and trial courts with regards to discovery deadlines.

In the case below, the Superior Court precluded appellants’ (Joann Christian and others) expert from testifying because of their failure to provide the experts’ reports in accordance with the trial scheduling order. As a result, the court granted the defendant-below’s motion for summary judgement. Notably, the appellants had requested a conference with the trial court six months before the trial to discuss the need to revise the scheduling order given that conflicts in the case had resulted in substitution of counsel issues as well as discovery delays. Despite this request, the Trial Court refused to convene a conference and failed to step in to resolve the discovery difficulties that were unfolding.

In reversing the decision of the Superior Court, the Supreme Court took issue with the trial court’s failure to address the Christians’ concerns five months prior to trial when requested. The Court held, had the Trial Court held a conference when requested by appellants, the Court then could have determined whether the circumstances warranted a new trial date. Even if a new trial date was not warranted, the court could have set new discovery deadlines that would have maintained the trial date.

Despite the Trial Court’s failure to act in this particular case, the Supreme Court repeatedly cautioned in the decision that, henceforth, parties who ignore or extend scheduling deadlines without promptly consulting the trial court do so at their own risk. While the Court acknowledged the civility that goes along with granting extensions informally and without court involvement, doing so, they warned, will preclude the granting party from seeking relief from the court with respect to any deadlines in the scheduling order.

The Supreme Court advised litigants, if one party misses a discovery deadline, opposing counsel has the choice to proceed informally or notify the court. If counsel chooses to contact the court, he/she may do so in the form of a motion to compel, a proposal to amend the scheduling order, or a request for a conference. If, on the other hand, the opposing counsel chooses not to inform the court, the party will be deemed to have waived the right to contest any late filings from that time forward and will not be allowed to file motions to compel, motions for sanctions, motions to preclude evidence, or motions to continue the trial.

The effect of their decision does not prevent parties from agreeing to reasonable extension requests as in the past, rather it only strongly encourages parties to promptly file a proposed amended scheduling order for the trial court’s signature in order to bring any potential discovery deadline issues to the courts attention in a timely manner.

 

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