An Important Discovery Ruling Overcomes a Deferential Standard of Review

For a prospective appellant (or, as in the case profiled here, the prospective writ petitioner), the “abuse of discretion” standard of review can be daunting, and may even convince the party that the pursuit of an appeal or writ is not worthwhile. Not only does it set a high bar for reversal, but it can be very difficult to define within the circumstances of a case. (I’ve written before about the somewhat hazy nature of the “abuse of discretion” standard of review.)

Against this backdrop, Alch v. Superior Court, case no. B203726 (2d Dist. Aug 14, 2008) presents a very interesting discussion of the standard as it introduces its decision reversing the trial court’s refusal to allow discovery (which is not, by the way, immediately appealable, and thus is found in this writ decision).

First, the backdrop of the case:

Television writers filed class action lawsuits against studios, networks, production companies and talent agencies, asserting an industry-wide pattern and practice of age discrimination. The writers served subpoenas on third parties, including the Writers Guild of America, seeking data on Writers Guild members from which they could prepare a statistical analysis to support their claims of age discrimination. A privacy notice was sent to 47,000 Writers Guild members, advising them of their right to object to disclosure of personal information on privacy grounds. Some 7,700 individuals filed objections. The writers moved to overrule the objections. The trial court sustained the objections in their entirety. The writers sought a writ directing the trial court to vacate its order and allow access to certain of the requested information, arguing the information was critical to proving their claims and privacy concerns were minimal. We grant the writ petition.

Before even reaching its analysis, the court of appeal explains why it is able to reverse despite the formidable obstacle usually presented by the abuse of discretion standard applicable to review of orders denying discovery:

We are well aware that a reviewing court may not substitute its opinion for that of the trial court if there is a basis, supported by the evidence, for the trial court’s ruling, and that we may set aside an order denying discovery only if there was no legal justification for the order. (Tien v. Superior Court (2006) 139 Cal.App.4th 528, 535.) We also recognize that the trial court was faced, to some extent, with a moving target: the information initially subpoenaed was more comprehensive – and considerably more sensitive on the privacy scale – than the information the writers requested in their motion to overrule the objections, and the latter, too, was more inclusive than the information ultimately sought when the writers asked for reconsideration. These differences, however, highlight the error in the trial court’s analysis. It used a broad brush to deny the writers access to all data about the objectors out of hand, and wholly failed to consider whether a more nuanced approach to the different categories of data would satisfy the balance that must be struck between privacy interests and a litigant’s need for discovery. (See Valley Bank of Nevada v. Superior Court (1975) 15 Cal.3d 652, 658 (Valley Bank) [considerations which will affect the exercise of the trial court’s discretion in evaluating privacy claims include the “‘ability of the court to make an alternative order which may grant partial disclosure’”; where possible, “‘courts should impose partial limitations rather than outright denial of discovery’”].)

In short, while the trial court purported to weigh the objectors’ privacy rights against the public interest in pursuing the litigation, it failed to follow the dictates of Valley Bank in doing so. In addition to failing to analyze the different categories of data requested, the court gave short shrift to “the public interest in pursuing [the] litigation.” Indeed, it erroneously stated that the writers, in their brief, had indicated “that they may still be able to put together a meaningful statistical study based upon information from non-objectors.” On the contrary, the writers submitted evidence that no meaningful statistical study could take place if data from the objectors were omitted from it. Under these circumstances, we can reach no other conclusion than that the trial court’s orders denying access to any and all data from the objectors were without legal justification.

(Footnotes omitted.)

I suspect, however, that few litigants will be able to take advantage of Alch in the Court of Appeal because the only immediate route for review of discovery orders is via writ petition. The odds are greater than 9 in 10 that your writ petition will be denied summarily without reaching the merits.

The real value of Alch will be to trial attorneys trying to convince the trial court in the first instance that denial of discovery would be an abuse of discretion. Because such orders are not immediately appealable, there has always been a dearth of appellate discovery rulings for trial lawyers to cite when arguing a motion to compel or a motion for protective order. Alch’s application of Valley Bank may lead to greater uniformity in trial court decisions, or at least greater attention being paid to the “nuance” of the scope of information sought.