In a recent opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit took a hardline position as to a plaintiff’s failure to disclose information required by Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as to non-retained experts. Vanderberg v. Petco Animal Supplies Store, Inc., ---F.3d---, 2018 WL 4779017 (8th Cir., October 2, 2018). The result, though harsh, underscores the importance of strict compliance with not only the rules of discovery, but the rules regarding sanctions for non-compliance.
Plaintiff Vanderberg suffered injuries when making a delivery to a Petco store in Sioux City, Iowa, and sued Petco for negligence and premises liability. In his initial Rule 26 disclosures, plaintiff listed his medical provider, Fox Valley Orthopedic Institute, as likely to have discoverable information. In his interrogatory answers, plaintiff provided the name of Dr. Timothy Petsche as a treating physician from Fox Valley, as well as other medical professionals, and produced 573 pages of medical records. Several of those records reflected opinions held by Dr. Petsche, including that certain of plaintiff’s conditions were related to the injury at Petco. Plaintiff did not, however, designate Dr. Petsche or anyone else as an expert witness, or provide any summaries of the facts and opinions to which such experts would testify, as is required by Rule 26(a)(2).
After the deadline for plaintiff’s expert witness disclosures, Petco’s counsel asked plaintiff’s counsel about the failure to designate any experts. Plaintiff’s counsel responded that plaintiff had no retained experts but expected the treating physicians to provide testimony. Plaintiff’s counsel also indicated that if Petco’s position was that treating physicians must be identified through expert witness certification, then it should so advise.
After the close of discovery, Petco filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on the basis that plaintiff had no produced any expert medical opinion evidence, as required by Iowa law, to show that his injuries were caused by the Petco incident. In opposition, plaintiff relied, in part, on Dr. Petsche’s notes to in an attempt to establish causation. Petco moved for sanctions for plaintiff’s failure to make the required Rule 26(a) expert witness disclosures and requested the exclusion of Dr. Petsche’s testimony.
The district court found plaintiff violated Rule 26(a)(2), and ruled that exclusion of the doctor’s statements was the appropriate sanction. Allowing the evidence to be used would almost certainly require a continuance of trial so the doctor could be deposed, and plaintiff provided no valid reason for the failure to disclose. Having excluded the only expert opinion evidence plaintiff had to establish that his injuries were caused by the fall at the Petco store the district court granted summary judgment to Petco. (Plaintiff also attempted to rely upon a report from a second undisclosed physician, but at oral argument plaintiff’s counsel conceded that exclusion of this second physician’s report was not an abuse of discretion, thus removing that issue from the case.)
The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The civil procedure rules are very clear: absent stipulation of the parties or a court order, parties must disclose the identity of non-retained experts who may testify at trial and disclose “the subject matter on which the witness is expected to present” expert opinion testimony and “a summary of the facts and opinions to which the witness is expected to testify.” Rule 26(a)(2)(C).
Rule 26’s disclosure mandates are given teeth in Rule 37. Rule 37(c)(1) provides that when a party fails to comply with Rule 26(a), “the party is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.” This is a self-executing sanction for failure to make a Rule 26(a) disclosure, without need for a motion for sanctions, unless the failure was substantially justified or harmless.
The Court ruled that neither the production of hundreds of pages of medical records, nor the disclosure by plaintiff that Dr. Petsche was a treating physician and potential fact witness, satisfied plaintiff’s duty to disclose experts under Rule 26(a)(2)(A). Nor could plaintiff’s counsel’s letter stating that he expected non-retained physicians to testify on various issues save his claim. The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court that, “[i]n essence, [plaintiff’s] counsel asked Petco if the Rules of Procedure regarding expert disclosures mean what they say.”
The Eighth Circuit also accepted the trial court’s finding that plaintiff’s failure to comply with Rule 26(a)(2) was neither substantially justified nor harmless where, although the record contained no hint of bad faith, there also was no proffered reason for noncompliance. Allowing the evidence after the close of discovery and just two months before trial would almost certainly require a continuance of trial.
Finally, the Eighth Circuit rejected the notion, espoused by the opinion’s dissent, that since the exclusion of the evidence was tantamount to dismissal, the district court should have first considered the possibility of a lesser sanction. Plaintiff never asked for a lesser sanction. The text of Rule 37(c)(1) provides that where a party violates the disclosure requirements of Rule 26(a), an alternative sanction to exclusion may be imposed by the court “on motion.” It was plaintiff’s obligation, as the party facing sanctions, to show that its failure to comply with the Rule deserved a lesser sanction.
The Court explained:
The result of Vanderberg’s failure to comply with his … disclosure requirements may seem harsh. But the burdens on parties who are not adequately appraised of an opposing party’s experts’ identity and expected testimony are also real and costly. In any event, the balance between adequately incentivizing compliance with parties’ disclosure obligations and not unfairly punishing “insignificant, technical violations” has already been struck by the drafters of Rule 37(a)(1). It is our role to conform our analysis to the text of the rule, rather than strike our preferred balance.