South Carolina Supreme Court Brings Down the Hammer on Discovery Abuse

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court indicated that it would no longer tolerate impermissible fishing expeditions during the discovery process. In so doing, the court took the extraordinary measure of granting a writ of certiorari to review an administrative law court’s discovery orders and then vacating those orders and remanding the case back to that court. See Oncology & Hematology Assocs. of S.C., LLC v. South Carolina Dep’t of Health & Envtl. Control, — S.E.2d —-, No. 26814., 2010 WL 1756850 (S.C. May 3, 2010). The court described the case as between two “fiercely competitive healthcare providers” involved in a dispute over the “vying for cancer patients in Greer, South Carolina.” The specific facts of the dispute are irrelevant to the cautionary point offered by the case: be careful what you ask for in discovery.

This is a case with which litigators should be familiar. At issue in the opinion were the discovery requests sent by Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System (“SRHS”) to Oncology and Hematology Associates of South Carolina, d/b/a Cancer Centers of the Carolinas (“CCC”), several of which the court quoted in their entirety in the opinion. The central issue in the case, as noted by the Court, was “whether the 2004-2005 South Carolina Health Plan standards applied to the relocation of SRHS’s linear accelerator.” That was a relatively narrow issue, though the discovery requests at issue were quite broad. Indeed, the specific proceeding arose after SRHS submitted a Certificate of Need application to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to relocate the linear accelerator from one facility to another. That request was granted by the governmental authorities, but CCC sought a contested case hearing before an administrative judge on the issue. Ultimately, the Court concluded that SRHS “took a shotgun approach and sought virtually all information concerning every facet of CCC’s operation.”

Nothing good can follow that statement if it was your discovery at issue.

Pausing to quote the rules, and expound upon its scope, the Court observed:

We are keenly aware that the scope of discovery is broad. Rule 26(b)(1), SCRCP, provides:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action . . . [and] [i]t is not ground for objection that the information sought will be inadmissible at the trial if the information sought appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

Yet, there are limits, which we see trial courts generally unwilling to recognize and enforce. SRHS’s discovery requests of CCC and its business partners are abusive and beyond the pale.

Our willingness to review a discovery order by way of a writ of certiorari will be as rare as the proverbial “hen’s tooth.” We have no desire to micromanage discovery orders. It is our hope that in resolving this matter, we will speak to trial courts generally. While discovery serves as an important tool in the truth-seeking function of our legal system, we are concerned that “discovery practice” has become a cottage industry and the merits of a claim are being relegated to a secondary status.

In finding that SRHS had abused the discovery rules, the Court further noted:

SRHS’s discovery requests are not remotely relevant to a resolution of the issue concerning the relocation of the linear accelerator. A challenge to relocation of the linear accelerator does not entitle SRHS to the information it seeks from CCC and affiliated entities. SRHS abused the discovery process with its scorched-earth approach.

We decline to rewrite and narrowly tailor SRHS’s oppressive discovery requests so as to make them proper. That would reward improper conduct. Where, as here, a party abuses discovery, the proper remedy is to vacate the requests and require the party to start over. As a result, we vacate the five discovery orders before us.

Ouch.

If you file motions to compel in South Carolina, or elsewhere, you will likely see the case cited in any responses to your motions. (This opinion could be persuasive authority elsewhere, and in fact, the Court itself invoked a 2003 Texas Supreme Court opinion in support of its conclusion.). If you respond to many such motions, it’s time to update your form response.

Comments

  1. That is a great case! Thank you for posting.