While each litigated case in the workers’ compensation court is unique, the standard process of how a case gets to trial is roughly the same. One party files a Petition and the opposing party files an Answer. Days later, the parties typically exchange what are called discovery requests. These requests most commonly include interrogatories and requests for production of documents. In general, interrogatories are questions that the opposing party must answer, while requests for production of documents are just that, a request for tangible records or physical things to be disclosed.
The main purpose of discovery is to allow the investigation of all available and properly discoverable information in order to limit the issues at trial while allowing for an efficient resolution of a legal claim. Moreover, discovery is meant to allow adequate pretrial preparation. Above all, discovery is meant to eliminate an opponent’s tactical surprise with the aim being a result reached upon on the merits of the case rather than legal maneuvering. Norquay v. Union Pacific Railroad, 225 Neb. 527, 407 N.W.2d 146 (1987).
Because discovery occurs in virtually every case, discovery issues are one of the most common disputes the compensation court judges must determine. These disputes include a plethora of issues ranging from failure to timely respond to discovery, to providing incomplete or inadequate answers, or making objections not supported by law. Because discovery disputes are one (if not the most) filed motions in the court, it naturally follows that each judge has formed his or her own unique way of viewing the associated rules. This article specifically focuses on the two of the more common issues: failure to respond to discovery and allegedly “irrelevant” requests.
Before divulging into each judges’ view of these three disputes, it should be noted that every single judge has emphasized the importance of the parties attempting to resolve disputes without involvement of the Court. Indeed, the rules mandate such good faith attempts are made between the parties. See Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Court Rules of Procedure Rule 3(D)(4). Because motions require hearings and court reporters, these disputes can be unnecessarily expensive, and the parties should make every effort to attempt to agree on the extent of discoverable information.
In this author’s opinion, the most commonly filed Motion to Compel results from a party’s complete failure to answer discovery. In these cases, virtually every single judge will first order the non-answering party to respond to discovery within anywhere from 10 to 30 days. If the party still hasn’t responded within the ordered deadline, a split has been created as to what sanctions the Court can assess for the party’s failure to answer discovery. The more historical approach from the bench has been (in cases where the Plaintiff failed to respond) to dismiss his or her Petition with or without prejudice. If the Petition is dismissed with prejudice, it cannot ever be refiled at a later time. A Petition dismissed without prejudice can be refiled as long as the statute of limitations has not run. Judge Coe dismissed an action in August of 2021 with prejudice when the employee failed to respond to an order compelling discovery. Faatz v. American Dream, Doc 221, Page 0196 (Neb. Work. Comp. Court, 2021). Alternatively, Judge Stine in February of this year dismissed a Petition without prejudice for the failure to respond to the Court’s three prior orders compelling discovery. Pauletta v. Crete Carrier Corporation, Doc 221, No 0532 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. 2022). Judge Hoffert took a similar approach when dismissing a 2020 Petition without prejudice. Murphy v. Omaha-League of Human Dignity, Doc 220, No 0404 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. 2020). See also Wilson v. Advance Services, Doc 219, No 1401 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. 2021) (Judge Martin dismissing a Petition without prejudice).
While the various judges have differing views regarding whether to dismiss a Petition with or without prejudice for failure to respond to discovery, there tended to be agreement that the Petition should at least be dismissed. Contrary to that viewpoint, Judge Block, in recent decisions, has shown hesitancy to dismiss the pleadings. While he acknowledges that § 6-337(b) (2)(A-D) of the Nebraska Discovery Rules does allow for the Court to dismiss the present action, he has verbally expressed disagreement that it allows for a dismissal with prejudice. In fact, the exact language of the rule does not address whether the dismissal shall be with or without prejudice. The rules states that sanctions may include “(C) An order striking out pleadings or parts thereof, or staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed, or dismissing the action or proceeding or any part thereof or rendering a judgment by default against the disobedient party.” As contemplated by the rule, Judge Block has elected to instead stay the proceedings until the party fully and completely complies with the order regarding discovery. Logistically, a stay on the proceedings means that the Petition is still considered on file, but the Court will not set it for trial until the stay is lifted. Practically, this approach means an employee doesn’t risk his claim being barred by the statute of limitations because the Petition isn’t actually dismissed. It also tends to allow a litigated case to become stagnant because there is no pending trial date. Thus far, Judge Block seems to be the only sitting judge who is taking the “stay” approach, but it will be interesting to monitor if this trend gains notoriety with other judges who typically preferred to dismiss a Petition without prejudice.
Another common discovery dispute is over what counsel will define as “irrelevant” requests. In a workers’ compensation claim, the issues are relatively well defined. However, it sometimes happens that a party requests discovery on a topic that seems to be wholly irrelevant to the underlying workers’ compensation claim.
The general provisions governing discovery in Nebraska provide that a party may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter. Such inquires will be allowed “if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” § 6-326. In other words, there’s no question that discovery is meant to be construed broadly. This means that arguing something is not relevant to the pending case is not an easy argument to win. Stetson v. Silverman, 278 Neb. 389, 770 N.W.2d 632, (2009). Even so, while the scope of discovery may be broad, it is not unlimited. For example, an employee is certainly entitled to know from the employer the names of every other employee that witnessed the alleged accident. However, knowing the social security number of the witnesses would be highly irrelevant. Chestnut v. Rodney E. Rohde, Doc 221, No 1022 (Neb. Work. Comp. Ct. 2022).
Each judges takes a unique approach to determining whether a discovery request is relevant to the underlying workers’ compensation claim, and the ultimate decision always comes down to the exact type of information requested. However, important trends can be collected from some of the more recent cases. Judge Hoffert, for example, addressed whether an employee’s social media profile was relevant. In holding it was not, Judge Hoffert highlighted the lack of “factual predicate” underlying the request. Stated another way, Judge Hoffert noted the Defendant ought to present some kind of argument as to why the information was remotely relevant (for example, did the employee testify at his deposition that he posted accident-related information on his Facebook?). Judge Fridrich, in early 2022, similarly discussed how the party requesting the information should be prepared to argue how the requested information is expected to lead to discoverable information. Ziegelbein v. Moen Steel Erection, Doc 221, No 0915 (Neb.Work.Comp.Ct. 2022).
Judge Martin perhaps put it best when she verbalized her frustration when a party used the discovery rules to create unnecessary disputes long withdrawn from the true issues of the case. She wrote in a recent Order on Plaintiff’s Motion to Compel Discovery, “In looking at this matter, the Court was left to wonder what plaintiff gained from expending the time and energy to obtain this information on an accepted compensable accident and injury for which benefits are being paid.” Reading between the lines, it’s important that parties use the discovery rules for their intended purpose – to investigate the issues to be presented at trial – not as a matter of unnecessary gamesmanship.
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