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London Subscribing to Policy Number B0823PP1308460 v. Advanfort Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

July 25, 2019




         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Discovery Sanctions (Dkt. 76).[1] Plaintiffs ask the Court to sanction Defendant and impose default judgment for Defendant's failure to comply with this Court's earlier discovery order. For the reasons stated herein, the Court shall GRANT IN PART Plaintiffs' Motion for Discovery Sanctions.[2]

         I. Procedural and Factual Background

         A. Case History

         On or about October 12, 2013, the Indian government seized the M.V. Seaman Guard Ohio ("0/7/0"), a vessel chartered by Defendant, and detained the guards and crew aboard the OHIO (the "Guards" and "Crew"), charging them with illegally importing weapons into the country ("the Incident"). (Dkt. 35 at 1.)

         On November 16, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory judgment against Defendant. (Dkt. 1.) Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint several weeks later. (Dkt. 5.) The Amended Complaint seeks declaratory judgment that a now-expired marine liability insurance policy ("the Policy") does not cover any of Defendant's alleged damages arising from the Incident.

         On December 19, 2018, Defendant moved for partial summary judgment with respect to counts 1-4, 6-8 of the Amended Complaint. (Dkt. 11.) After complete briefing and oral argument, the Court denied Defendant's summary judgment motion on March 5, 2019. (Dkt. 33.)

         Though denying summary judgment, the Court did permit the parties to conduct limited discovery into a number of delineated topics. (Id. at 6.) Discovery was to be concluded by Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (Id.) However, because Defendant informed the Court that it intended to file a Motion for Reconsideration, the Court stayed discovery pending resolution of Defendant's motion. (Dkt. 35 at 4.) On March 15, 2019, Defendant filed its Motion for Reconsideration, which the Court denied on March 25, 2019. (Dkts. 37, 46.) On June 4, 2019, the Court amended its earlier order, extending the end of discovery until Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Dkt. 73.)

         Defendant also brought counterclaims against Plaintiffs on three separate occasions. The Court twice dismissed those claims with leave to amend. (Dkts. 35, 50.) In dismissing Defendant's Second Amended Counterclaims, the Court provided Defendant leave to amend but warned that no "further amendments" would be granted. (Dkt. 50 at 3.) Plaintiffs' Motion to Dismiss Defendant's Third Amended Counterclaims remains pending. (Dkt. 68.)

         B. Discovery Motions

         On March 27, 2019, shortly following the denial of Defendant's Motion for Reconsideration, Plaintiffs served their First Interrogatories and First Requests for Production on Defendant. (Pl.'s Mot. to Compel Mem. Supp. at 3, Exs. 1-2.) On April 24, 2019, Defendant served its responses and objections to Plaintiffs' discovery requests. (Id. at 3, Exs. 3-4.) After meet-and-confer efforts failed, Plaintiffs filed a Motion to Compel on May 24, 2019.

         Among other requests, Plaintiffs' motion to compel sought amended responses to Interrogatories 1-10, 13, 14, and 18-20. (Id. at 7-12.) For Interrogatories 3-10, Plaintiffs argued Defendant either failed to answer or provided completely evasive responses. (Id. at 9-11.) Plaintiffs' interrogatories requested foundational information about Defendant's claims. For instance, Plaintiffs' interrogatories asked Defendant to identify individuals with knowledge of claims against Defendant (Interrogatory 3), to identify and describe all property damage and bodily injury claims (Interrogatory 4), and to identify claims against Defendant brought by its customers (Interrogatory 5). (Id. at 9-10, Ex. 1.) Other interrogatories focused on the circumstances surrounding the Incident. For example, Plaintiffs requested that Defendant identify all contracts the Guards were engaged with at the time of the Incident (Interrogatory 6), the contracts the OHIO was transporting any of the Guards to (Interrogatory 7), and the activities of the Crew during and in the twenty-four hours leading up to the Incident (Interrogatory 10). (Id. at 10-11, Ex. 1.)

         In response, Defendant characterized Plaintiffs' motion as "substantively baseless." (Def.'s Compel Opp'n at 1.) Defendant first reasserted its objections; objections it did not file until nearly a month after being served with Plaintiffs' discovery requests. (Id. at 1, 3-4.) Defendant then proceeded to argue that it properly responded to each of the Interrogatories at issue. (Id. at 4-7.) According to Defendant, it either provided an appropriate narrative response, a citation to produced documents where the information was located, or simply did not know the information requested. (Id.)

         At the hearing held on May 31, 2019, the Court, with a minor exception, granted Plaintiffs Motion to Compel, (Hr'g Tr. 18:8-12, Dkt. 75), ordering Defendant to reanswer Interrogatories 3-14, and 18-20 in narrative form (Hr'g Tr. 17:10-13). In so ruling, the Court held that Defendant's initial responses were "clearly inadequate" as the Interrogatories merely requested "basic information." (Hr'g Tr. 16:10-11.) The Court instructed Defendant to, in its amended responses, "state clearly what you do not have" should the interrogatories ask "for information that you do not have." (Hr'g Tr. 16:21-23.) Defendants were also told that, should they refer to and identify documents in their amended responses, they "must specifically refer to the Bates number. Not just the group, but the Bates number." (Hr'g Tr. 17:20-23.) Later that same day, the Court entered an order granting in part and denying in part Plaintiffs Motion to Compel. (Dkt. 67.)

         On June 7, 2019, Defendant provided an amended response to Plaintiffs' interrogatories ("First Amended Response"). (Pl.'s Mot. Sanctions Mem. Supp. at 3, Ex. 1.) Three days later, Plaintiffs sent Defendant's counsel a deficiency letter outlining remaining problems with Defendant's discovery response. (Id., Ex. 2.) The next day, on June 11, 2019, Defendant's counsel refused to amend any of Defendant's responses, asserting that after spending "countless hours reviewing its records and all the relevant documents that it had produced," Defendant provided the most detailed responses it could with "all of the information that it could find that was responsive to the requests." (Id., Ex. 3 at 1.) Given that response, Plaintiffs filed the instant motion for sanctions on June 18, 2019.

         In their motion for sanctions, Plaintiffs argue Defendant's First Amended Response to Interrogatories 4-10, 13, and 18 failed to comply with the Court's earlier order.[3] (Pl.'s Mot. Sanctions Mem. Supp. at 6-18.) The motion again raises concerns pertaining to Defendant's failure to provide specific, clear responses to some interrogatories, insistence on asserting waived objections, and refusal to cite to specific documents. (Id.)

         In response, Defendant claims it provided Plaintiffs with all the information available to it. (Def.'s Sanctions Opp'n at 2.) Defendant asserts it satisfied its obligations under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, providing as complete answers as it could given the information it had access to. (Id. at 3-7.) Defendant also directly claims, without evidence, that Plaintiffs brought the instant motion for sanctions to "maximize" Defendant's litigation costs. (Id. at 9-10.)

         On July 8, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a reply in support of their motion for sanctions. In the reply, Plaintiffs rely heavily on the deposition testimony of several of Defendant's witnesses. (Pl.'s Reply Sanctions at 2-11.)

         On July 12, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Plaintiff s motion for sanctions. After hearing oral argument, the Court found that "the defendant clearly failed to comply with my prior order." (Hr'g Tr. 25:8-9, Dkt. 88.) The Court faulted Defendant for not "answer[ing] interrogatories as 'I don't know" when [it] didn't know," and for "still equivocat[ing] and [engaging in] double-speak all over the place without actually .. . stating what exactly the facts are." (Hr'g Tr. 25:9-13.) The Court also noted that the answers actually provided by Defendant were "misleading at best, but more likely, obviously, just plain false based on the testimony in the depositions." (Hr'g Tr. 25:16-18.) As a result, finding that the "amended discovery responses are really no better than the first set," the Court ordered Defendant to "fully and completely comply with the discovery requests" by July 17, 2019. (Hr'g Tr. 25:14-27:2.) Following the hearing, the Court entered an Order continuing the motion for sanctions until July 19, 2019. (Dkt. 83.)

         On July 17, 2019, Defendant filed another amended response to the disputed interrogatories ("Second Amended Response"). (Dkt. 84.)

         The Court then held another hearing on the sanctions motion on July 19, 2019. Although prepared to rule from the Bench, Defendant's counsel insistence on making delayed, additional arguments caused the Court to delay its ruling and to take this matter under consideration to prepare and issue this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

         II. L ...

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