California Court of Appeal Clarifies Scope of Trial Courts' Authority to Issue Protective Orders and Impose Sanctions for Misuse of the Discovery Process

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This article discusses the California Court of Appeal's decision in Pratt v. Union Pac. R.R Co., Case No. C055656 (3d Dist., November 12, 2008). The Court held that the federal Railroad Labor Act (“RLA”) does not preempt the California Civil Discovery Act’s limitations on an employer’s right to seek extra-judicial discovery under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement where: (1) the Discovery Act makes the same information equally available through the judicial discovery process; and (2) the extra-judicial discovery is a pretext to gain an unfair advantage in litigation. Pratt has at least two broader implications for other types of civil actions in which parties attempt to use both judicial and non-judicial procedures to obtain the same information from their opponents. First, it confirms that the Discovery Act empowers a court to issue a protective order barring a litigant from pursuing information even through extra-judicial procedures that are independently permitted by other laws. Second, it clarifies that, if a party to a discovery dispute continues to maintain a legal position over the opponent’s objection and a court later finds that position to be indefensible on the merits, the Discovery Act allows the court to sanction the litigant for misuse of the discovery process regardless of whether the position has been rejected by any previous controlling authority.

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