The First Department, reversing the verdict in favor of plaintiff employees, determined the sanctions imposed upon the employer (appellants) for a delayed response to discovery demands were too severe and ordered a new trial. The plaintiffs alleged appellants breached oral employment contracts. The appellants in their counterclaims alleged plaintiffs breached their fiduciary duty by violating Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations and destroying and replacing handwritten notes about conversations with one of the appellants. The sanctions effectively prevented the appellants from demonstrating plaintiffs’ violation of SEC violations and destruction of evidence:
Pursuant to CPLR 3126, if a party “refuses to obey an order for disclosure or wilfully fails to disclose information which the court finds ought to have been disclosed . . . , the court may make such orders with regard to the failure or refusal as are just.” Although “[i]t is within the trial court’s discretion to determine the nature and degree of the penalty,” “[t]he sanction should be commensurate with the particular disobedience it is designed to punish, and go no further than that” … . Further, “the drastic remedy of striking a party’s pleading . . . for failure to comply with a discovery order is appropriate only where [it is] conclusively demonstrate[d] that the non-disclosure was willful, contumacious or due to bad faith” … .
Although the court here did not strike a pleading, its ruling could fairly be viewed as having done so, since the precluded evidence was critical to the fiduciary duty claims. Moreover, the court’s drastic sanctions were disproportionate to the alleged discovery malfeasance. It is unclear why a short continuance to give plaintiffs time to review the newly-produced documents would not have been a viable option, or why further curative instructions would not have sufficed. The record as a whole does not support a finding of willfulness or bad faith so as to justify the severe sanctions imposed … . No basis exists to indicate that this was anything other than a disagreement over the scope of discovery. Indeed, the court at trial stated that the alleged discovery omissions “appear not to have been in bad faith.” Beach v Touradji Capital Mgt., LP, 2020 NY Slip Op 00230, First Dept 1-14-20