Motions for terminating sanctions in California are an important tool that judges can use to compel litigants to comply with discovery rules when they are intentionally withholding information. If one of the parties in a lawsuit repeatedly uses stall tactics and refuses to follow court orders to share evidence and participate in discovery, it may be considered an abuse of the discovery process. In the most extreme cases, this kind of discovery misconduct can prompt the judge to impose case-terminating sanctions that involve dismissal of the case and even a default judgment against the offending party.
To learn more about what happens when motions for terminating sanctions are granted, keep reading this blog.
The Importance of Discovery Evidence in California Civil Cases
“Discovery” is a legal term that refers to the exchange of information between the parties in a legal dispute. It typically involves the sharing of evidence that is expected to be presented at trial. Discovery is a crucial part of the pre-trial stage in a civil court proceeding because it allows both sides to inspect evidence and to present their own answering evidence. When one party’s discovery responses are vague or non-existent, the other party cannot intelligently defend themselves at trial.
There are several methods of discovery, including depositions, interrogatories, and subpoenas. The parties to a lawsuit are expected to participate meaningfully in discovery. If one party ignores the discovery rules and fails to let the other party know what evidence might be presented at trial, it can undermine the entire legal process.
What Are Terminating Sanctions?
A terminating sanction is a harsh remedy that courts may rely on when one party in a legal dispute is deliberately refusing to comply with a court order to respond to discovery. Examples of impermissible conduct that might warrant terminating sanctions include the following:
- Repeatedly attempting to obtain materials that are outside the scope of discovery.
- Not following proper procedures when trying to obtain discovery.
- Intentionally employing discovery methods that cause the other party to suffer annoyance, embarrassment, or undue burden and expense.
- Destruction of evidence.
- Being evasive when responding to a discovery request.
- Disobeying a court order to provide discovery.
- Filing an unjustifiable motion to compel discovery.
- Filing an unjustifiable motion to limit discovery.
- Failing to make a reasonable and good faith attempt to resolve any dispute concerning discovery.
Other Types of Sanctions
Courts are expected to take great care and do everything possible to avoid the imposition of terminating sanctions, but sometimes the behavior of one of the parties to a lawsuit is so egregious that the judge is left with no choice. The judge may consider factors such as the deliberateness or intentionality of the litigant, the litigant’s history of noncompliance and discovery abuse, and whether a less severe sanction would be insufficient to compel the litigant to comply with discovery rules. In fact, courts will often choose to impose lesser sanctions first. These other types of sanctions include:
- Monetary Sanctions: The court can fine the offending party.
- Issue Sanctions: The court can order that certain facts in the case be “taken as established” at trial.
- Evidence Sanctions: The court can prevent a party from introducing certain facts into evidence.
- Contempt Sanctions: The court may charge the offending party with contempt of court.
Of course, terminating sanctions are the most severe because they can bring the lawsuit to an early conclusion. Ultimately, the court will consider the totality of circumstances when determining the appropriateness of terminating sanctions.
Requirements for Filing a Motion for Terminating Sanctions in California
One very important requirement in these cases is that the court must find that the offending party’s failure to comply with a discovery order was willful. If the litigant understood their discovery obligation and still failed to comply, their actions will likely be deemed willful. Moreover, the offending litigant will have the burden of showing that their failure was not intentional. Although the moving party has the initial burden of proof to establish willfulness, this merely requires a showing that the offending party failed to obey the court’s previous discovery orders. At that point, the burden of proof shifts to the offending party, who must establish that they had a valid excuse.
An additional procedural requirement is that the moving party who is seeking sanctions must provide notice to the offending party and/or their attorney before the court will impose terminating sanctions. This notice should include identification of all persons against whom the sanction is sought, as well as the specific type of sanction being sought.
What Happens When a Motion for Terminating Sanctions Is Granted?
California Code of Civil Procedure § 2023.030(d) grants courts the statutory authority to impose terminating sanctions in a number of ways:
- Striking out the pleadings of the party who has engaged in conduct that is a misuse of the discovery process.
- Staying the legal proceedings until the party obeys a previous order for discovery.
- Dismissing the complaint of the party who is being sanctioned.
- Rendering a default judgment against the party who is being sanctioned.
Significantly, when a party in a lawsuit abuses the discovery process in a glaring way (e.g., persistently ignoring discovery requests), the judge may enter terminating sanctions against them and essentially dismiss their complaint. This is known as “case termination,” and it is the most extreme type of sanction that can be imposed by the court.
The justification for this severe penalty is that a party who fails to provide discovery has created a presumption that their claim lacks merit, particularly when their conduct is egregious and involves a chronic pattern of delay. Additionally, the severity of case-terminating sanctions may be justified as a strong deterrent for anyone who might be tempted to ignore discovery orders in future cases.
Contact an Experienced Los Angeles Civil Litigator Today
The Los Angeles civil litigators at Tauler Smith LLP have successfully represented countless clients in both federal courts and California state courts. Our experienced attorneys help clients throughout the litigation, including the pre-trial stage involving discovery requests, motions for terminating sanctions, and motions for summary judgment. Call 310-590-3927 or email us today to discuss your legal options.