Important decision on federal rule amendments favors the “little guy” versus corporations

Many people's eyes probably start to glaze over at the mention of amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But a recent action by the federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules bears mentioning, and not just for civil procedure nerds.

First, the context: the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure govern civil cases in federal court. They determine what a plaintiff must claim to get in the courthouse door, what procedures and time limits apply to steps that move the litigation forward, and (of particular importance to this set of amendments) the rules governing discovery — that is, what information the opposing sides must share with each other through written questions, requests for documents, and in-person questioning of witnesses under oath.

Next, consider the proposals before the Committee: for several months, the Committee has been considering amending the rules to limit discovery (specifically, to reduce the presumptive numbers of depositions and interrogatories; to limit the number of requests to admit; and to reduce deposition length). What these amendments would mean in practical terms is that the opposing sides are entitled to ask fewer questions of each other, question fewer witnesses under oath, and generally obtain less information.

Limiting discovery would, in general, impose significant burdens on individuals facing off in court against big corporations. Often, the individual has little information of relevance to the case — it is the conduct of the corporation, with its many departments, employees, and policies, that is at issue. All the information about the corporation, of course, is in the hands of the corporation, not the individual. So if it's the individual who needs the information and the corporation who has it, limiting discovery is going to work to the detriment of the individual.

Now, the news: the Advisory Committee recently rejected the proposed limits on discovery. This is an important victory for the "little guy" — be it a consumer, an employee, or a civil-rights plaintiff — because it avoids placing new restrictions on the lesser-informed party's ability to gather the information she needs to litigate her case. The Committee's report, available here (all 580 pages of it; focus on Tab 2, beginning at page 79), reflects that the Committee took very seriously the public comments it received, including significant opposition to the proposed discovery limits.

This is a noteworthy development to our system, in which procedures so often drive outcomes.