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IN RE SULFURIC ACID ANTITRUST LITIGATION

September 6, 2005.

In Re SULFURIC ACID ANTITRUST LITIGATION.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JEFFREY COLE, Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER RE: PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO COMPEL GAC CHEMICAL CO. TO COMPLY WITH CERTAIN DISCOVERY REQUESTS
INTRODUCTION
Throughout the range of the law, there are time limits imposed on litigants at every stage of the case: some are mandatory and admit of no deviations; others are more flexible. But in each instance, lawyers who do not pay heed to them do so at substantial peril to their and their clients' interests. See, e.g., Brosted v. Unum Life Insurance Co. of America, ___ F.3d ___, 2005 WL 2043820 (7th Cir. August 26, 2005). This is such a case. On July 1, 2005, the day discovery closed — following two prior extensions of discovery — the plaintiffs filed a series of motions to compel compliance with outstanding discovery. Not surprisingly, GAC has objected that the motion directed to it is untimely.

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure place no prescribed time limit on the outside date for filing a motion to compel discovery. In one regard, however, a line of sorts has been sketched by a series of decisions: motions to compel filed after the close of discovery are almost always deemed untimely. Packman v. Chicago Tribune Co., 267 F.3d 628, 647 (7th Cir. 2001).*fn1 Greater uncertainty occurs where the motion is made very close to the discovery cut-off date. Some districts by local rule have imposed time limits within which motions to compel must be brought. See, e.g. United States ex. rel. Becker v. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., 305 F.3d 284, 290 (4th Cir. 2002) (Local Rule 37.01 of the District of South Carolina requires that motions to compel must be filed within 20 days after receipt of the discovery response); Sonnino v. University Kansas Hospital Authority, 220 F.R.D. 633, 636 (D.Kan. 2004) (Local Rule 37.1(b) of the District of Kansas requires that the motion to compel be filed within 30 days after receipt of the discovery response). Most, however, have no such rules, and the matter is left to the broad discretion possessed by the district courts to control discovery.

  How is that discretion to be exercised? Is a motion to compel filed four days before the close of discovery too late? At least one court has said it is. Ridge Chrysler Jeep, LLC v. Daimler Chrysler Services North America, LLC, 2004 WL 3021842 (N.D. Ill. 2004). What if the motion had been made six or perhaps twelve days before the close of discovery? Would the result have been different? Is a week the proper cut-off point, or perhaps two weeks? To pose the question is to demonstrate that there is no principled or mathematical way of determining in advance in every case when a motion to compel should be deemed untimely based upon an arbitrarily prescribed number. As Justice Cardozo said in another context, "[w]here the line is to be drawn between the important and the trivial cannot be settled by a formula." Jacobs & Young v. Kent, 230 N.Y. 239, 243 (1921). Compare, Louisville Gas & Electric v. Coleman, 277 U.S. 32, 41 (1928) (Holmes, J., dissenting). The answer then must necessarily be found in the entire complex of circumstances that gave rise to the motion, and what is untimely in one case may not be in another.

  FACTUAL BACKGROUND

  The complaint in this multi-district, antitrust case charges the defendants with having conspired to raise, fix, maintain, or stabilize the price of sulfuric acid in the United States in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1.A consolidated amended class action complaint was filed on September 5, 2003. Six months later, in March 2004, GAC — then a non-party — was served with a document subpoena seeking documents relating to Delta Chemicals, Inc.'s decision to shut down its sulfuric acid plant in 1988. GAC had purchased Delta's assets six years later in 1994. GAC agreed to produce certain documents that it had made available to a federal grand jury.

  Plaintiffs added GAC as a defendant in their second amended consolidated complaint on May 24, 2004. That complaint alleged that, as part of the purported conspiracy, Delta had shut down its sulfuric acid plant in 1988 pursuant to an illicit agreement with defendant, Noranda, Inc. On July 30, 2004, GAC produced approximately three boxes of documents that had been produced to the grand jury and simultaneously filed, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion to dismiss the claims against it for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. On September 15, 2004, plaintiffs served GAC — along with all newly-named defendants — with its first set of interrogatories and documents requests. Shortly thereafter, on October 18th, GAC formally objected in its responses to discovery that it did not have to respond to further discovery requests while its motion to dismiss was pending. (See Objections to First Set of Interrogatories at ¶ 7). It also claimed that the discovery requests covered the same ground as the grand jury documents it had already produced. On November 1, 2004, plaintiffs' counsel wrote to GAC's lawyer disagreeing with GAC's contention it need not respond to the interrogatories. The letter threatened a motion to compel would be filed if this was GAC's final position. The next day, GAC wrote outlining its discovery compliance to date and renewing its objection to responding to additional discovery. The letter expressed a willingness to continue talks if plaintiffs would refine its requests. If not, the letter invited plaintiffs' counsel to file a motion to compel. (Plaintiffs' Exh. G).

  On November 8, 2004, by letter, GAC reaffirmed its position that it should not have to "engage in costly additional discovery." (Plaintiffs' Exhibit G). Nonetheless, it agreed to produce, by November 19, 2004, additional documents that could be gathered without substantial burden, including organizational charts and documents regarding corporate structure, financial reports, documents relating to antitrust compliance policies, and exhibits from the 1994 GAC-Delta asset purchase agreement. There was no agreement to answer any interrogatory.

  On November 9th, plaintiffs' counsel, by letter, indicated that they were interested in deposing Tim and Jim Poure and Barbara Haase, whom plaintiff's counsel stated she understood were GAC employees. She said: "please let me know if you will produce them voluntarily. . . ." Plaintiffs also warned GAC that, despite GAC's additional document production, they were unwilling to await the resolution of GAC's motion to dismiss before proceeding with production and again said they would be filing a motion to compel "as to this discovery."

  On November 19th, GAC's counsel wrote a terse four-line letter attaching an organizational chart, copies of GAC's antitrust compliance policy and the GAC/Delta Assert Purchase Agreement with exhibits. The letter did not respond in words to the question of GAC's voluntary production of the witnesses, nor did it say that counsel's "understanding" as it pertained to Tim Poure was incorrect, as he had left the company years earlier.

  On March 11, 2005, plaintiffs' second set of document requests was sent to all newly-named defendants sought certain electronic records. In its response to the second requests, GAC raised eleven objections, one of which was that it had moved to dismiss the claims against it. GAC initially refused to produce responsive documents to that request unless plaintiffs paid the cost to retrieve the data; plaintiffs offered to pay half of the associated costs. GAC explained that the information was stored on obsolete computer tapes generated by a proprietary computer system no longer in use at GAC. Subject to the parties' agreement on cost-sharing, GAC has forwarded the computer tapes to an outside service for retrieval of responsive data.

  On March 14, 2005, plaintiffs filed a motion to extend the discovery deadline, previously set for April 29, 2005. The supporting memorandum listed fifteen fact witnesses whose depositions the plaintiffs planned to take. The only former or current GAC or Delta employee listed was Michael Harmon, whose deposition has since been completed. The motion was largely based on what the plaintiffs claimed were the "actions on numerous occasions [that] have delayed plaintiffs' completion of fact discovery." (Memorandum, at 7). The list of culpable defendants did not include GAC. Judge Coar granted the motion, extending the discovery deadline to July 1, 2005.

  At about that same time, plaintiffs complained to GAC that there were "gaps" in the grand jury document production. GAC explained that its Ohio counsel, who had handled the grand jury matter, had been unable to locate certain documents that had been produced to the grand jury, and it was speculated that they had not been returned by the government. GAC did, however, produce certain additional documents that it was able to locate. For their part, plaintiffs indicated they would be willing to work with GAC to narrow the scope of certain requests where warranted, but wanted information regarding what documents were being withheld and what burden would be caused by their production. They also requested an index of the missing grand jury documents.

  On April 27, 2005, plaintiffs not only reiterated their request for an index or description of the missing grand jury documents, they insisted that GAC was obligated to fulfill all its discovery obligations regardless of the pendency of its motion to dismiss. The letter cited two cases in support of the claim that the pendency of the motion to dismiss was not a valid objection to proceeding with the discovery requests.*fn2

  On May 5, in a phone conversation, GAC's lawyer again reiterated its position regarding discovery and the pendency of the motion to dismiss. On May 6, 2005, plaintiffs served a third set of document requests to all newly-named defendants, seeking monthly and quarterly billing statements from 1988 through 2003. By this time, as plaintiffs' counsel's letter of May 6 to Dylan Smith (GAC's counsel) notes, "more than nine months" had elapsed from filing of the motion to dismiss, and she accused GAC of having used the pendency of the motion to dismiss "as an excuse to delay its discovery obligations." The letter went on: "With an impending discovery cut-off date of July 1, 2005, Plaintiffs cannot afford to allow discovery to remain at a halt." (Emphasis supplied). But still, the plaintiffs did nothing.

  By May 23, 2005, GAC had not given plaintiffs any information regarding the electronic data or the cost of its retrieval and had not produced an index of the missing grand jury documents. As a result, plaintiffs again threatened to file a motion to compel. The next day, GAC indicated by letter that it would cost $3000 to retrieve the electronic data and provided a rough outline as to the contents of the missing grand jury documents. It also restated its position, which had been unwavering from the outset, that it would not answer interrogatories while its motion to dismiss was pending, and it reminded plaintiffs that many months had passed since they had raised the issue of GAC's refusal to answer interrogatories. GAC also called into question the applicability of Dresser Industries and Kanner. On May 31, 2005, plaintiffs submitted their third set of interrogatories to GAC and all newly-named defendants. On June 8, GAC responded to the third set of documents requests as it consistently had to its predecessors.

  On June 14, 2005, almost eight months after their first expression of interest in Timothy Poure, plaintiffs noticed his deposition for June 30 in Chicago. Discovery was to close on July 1. Mr. Poure lives in Ohio and was no longer employed by GAC. Three days later, on June 17, counsel for GAC, for the first time, told plaintiffs's counsel that Mr. Poure did not work for GAC, and that he would not be appearing in Chicago on June 30. GAC's counsel did attempt to reach him, however, to find out what his availability might be and where he might be willing to be deposed, and on June 28, gave Mr. Poure's last known address to plaintiffs' counsel.

  According to GAC, given plaintiffs' delay in seeking to depose Mr. Poure, it would prove impossible to arrange his deposition before the close of discovery. The parties then jousted a bit over the notices of deposition for Mr. Poure, with GAC contending that it had been months since plaintiffs mentioned Mr. Poure and that they had not listed him in their motion for an extension of the discovery ...


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