After the initial stages of filing a lawsuit, the pleading stage, is complete, the parties will have an opportunity to obtain information to each other regarding factual and legal basis for their respective claims and defenses. This is known as the discovery phase of litigation.
What is the discovery phase?
During the discovery phase, each party has an opportunity to use the various discovery “tools” to obtain information regarding the other party’s claims or defenses. The most common discovery tools are:
“Rule 26” Disclosures
In federal court, the parties are required to exchange “Rule 26” disclosures with one another. These disclosures require that each party provide basic information on what discoverable information it possesses. For example, “Rule 26” disclosures require that a party identify individuals that may have knowledge regarding the facts of a case and requires parties to identify relevant documents in their possession. The purpose of the “Rule 26” disclosures is to streamline the discovery process for all parties involved.
There is no state court equivalent for “Rule 26” disclosures. Instead, parties typically utilize other discovery tools to obtain the same information.
Requests for Production of Documents and Things
A request for production of documents and things is precisely what the name implies. Such a request is made in writing to an opposing party which must respond in the time period provided under the rules. Requests for production now typically include request for electronic records, such as e-mails, text messages and information from social media.
Interrogatories are written questions which are directed from one party to another. The receiving party is required to respond with written answers within the period of time provided under the rules. Typically, counsel is heavily involved in providing the responses to interrogatories and rarely yields “smoking gun” information.
Depositions are the center piece of the discovery process and involve a real time interchange between individuals and counsel. During a deposition, counsel asks a series of questions and the deponent provides a series of answers.
Depositions typically takes place in a law firm conference room but are sometimes held at a court house or other location. The interchange between counsel and deponent is recorded verbatim by a stenographer who produces a written transcript that can be used at trial or in the context of a motion.
Because of the preparation time required to conduct a deposition or defend a client who is being deposed, a deposition is typically the most expensive discovery tool available. Moreover, stenographers charge by the page and their rates range from four to ten dollars per page depending on the speed in which the transcript is needed.
Notwithstanding the costs, a deposition is often the most effective discovery tool as it requires the deponent to provide information without the softening effect of counsel. The deposition also allows a preview of how a witness may behave at trial.
A subpoena is a device used to compel information from individuals or entities that are not parties to litigation. A subpoena is used in combination with some other discovery tool. For example, you may send a subpoena to a third party in order to compel them to produce documents or appear for a deposition.
How long does the discovery phase last?
The length of the discovery phase depends primarily on the jurisdiction and venue where the case is being litigated. The discovery phase in federal court is typically much shorter than in state court. The discovery phase in federal court is typically less than one year.
The discovery phase in state court can be extremely long as judges in state court do not set deadlines for propounding discovery. Many parties use delays in discovery as a tactic to exhaust the opposing party.
Although state courts typically have long discovery phases, the Court of common pleas in Philadelphia has a sophisticated case management system that significantly reduces that time. The discovery phase of the majority of cases in Philadelphia is completed in less than eighteen months.
What will I need to disclose in discovery?
Although the specific documents and information that you will need to produce depend heavily on the particular circumstances of your case, the scope of discovery is generally quite broad. A party may obtain discovery regarding any matter, that it not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter in the pending litigation. Moreover, even irrelevant information is subject to disclosure if the information appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of “appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of [admissible] evidence.”