Court Does Not Abuse Its Discretion in Refusing to Hold-Camera Document Inspection Prior to Imposing Discovery Sanctions

Keith A. Liker, Esq.
Schwartz Semerdjian Ballard & Cauley LLP
Published:  03.01.2012

The California Court of Appeal, 6th Appellate District, has recently confirmed that it its not an abuse of discretion when the court refuses to hold an in-camera document inspection prior to imposing sanctions against a Defendant for abuses of the discovery process.  

In Jane Doe vs. United States Swimming, Inc., (Nov. 21, 2011; 2011 DJDAR 16829) the Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Court’s decision to impose monetary sanctions related to a motion to compel further answers to deposition questions and the production of documents, without conducting an in-camera inspection of the documents in question.  In Doe, Plaintiff, a minor female, complained of sexual harassment and abuse by her swimming coach employed by the Defendant.  Plaintiff filed a motion to compel further answers to deposition questions, for the production of documents, and for an order imposing monetary sanctions for Defendant’s discovery abuses.  In response to the motion to compel, Defendant moved for a protective order excluding from production documents pertaining to the identity of swim coaches and other minor complainants, who were alleged to have engaged in sexual misconduct.  The Trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion to compel and granted in part Defendant’s Motion for Protective Order.  The Court ordered Defendant to produce its person most knowledgeable for further testimony and to produce and identify documents withheld on the basis of privilege.  In response to the Court’s discovery order, Defendant produced over 150 pages of heavily-redacted documents.  The redactions encumbranced the names and contact information of persons other than accused coaches or complainants, including other coaches, witnesses and swim officials.  The name of the complainants and respondents were blacked out in the redacted documents, making them essentially useless.  

Plaintiff moved to enforce the discovery order claiming that the redacted information greatly exceeded the court’s order limiting redaction only to that which specifically identified the complainant or coach involved.  Defendant opposed the motion and asserted that it had fully complied with the Court’s order, but did not request an in-camera inspection of the documents.  At oral argument, Defendant requested that the documents be reviewed in-camera because of privacy concerns.  The Court granted the motion to compel compliance with its previous order, and ordered Defendant to produce to Plaintiff all documents within 20 days, and to specifically limit the redaction to the name, address, telephone numbers and other specific identifying criteria  of the person making the complaint and the coach subject to the complaint.  The Court found that the Defendant’s failure to comply with the previous order to compel was without substantial justification, and ordered Defendant to pay monetary sanctions of $5,250.00.  The issue on appeal was whether the Trial Court had abused its discretion by determining that Defendant had acted “without substantial justification” and imposing monetary sanctions, without first conducting an in-camera inspection.  

The Court of Appeal held that once Plaintiff had presented a sufficient showing that Defendant had failed to comply with the previous order of the Court by “over-redacting” the documents in question, the burden shifted to Defendant to show that it had “substantial justification” for its actions, by establishing that it had reasonably construed the protective order even if the court had something else in mind.  A party seeking an in-camera inspection of documents to protect privacy interest in discovery has the burden of showing good cause for such an inspection.  Because an in-camera of inspection of numerous documents with multiple redactions is time-consuming and burdensome, Defendant must make some minimal showing for the in-camera inspection, which it failed to do.  Therefore, the Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to hold in-camera the inspection before imposing monetary sanctions against Defendant for its extensive redactions.  

This decision is significant because it reaffirms that the Court does not abuse its discretion in refusing to hold an in-camera inspection of redacted documents, before imposing monetary sanctions for discovery abuses upon a party who violated a prior discovery order.