A recent decision by the Appellate Division should serves as an important warning to New Jersey litigants. The court dismissed a plaintiff’s employment discrimination lawsuit after she failed to comply with discovery requests and related court orders.
The Facts of the Case
In Fik-Rymarkiewicz v. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the plaintiff filed a complaint against her former employer, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and two supervisors. The lawsuit alleged employment discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).
During the course of discovery, the plaintiff was unwilling to answer questions and provide discovery. For instance, she refused to provide defense counsel with the name of her immigration attorney and turn over copies of her tax returns. She also stated that she would only “answer only questions which are related to the time I was working for Dr. Sharma and UMDNJ.”
At a subsequent court hearing regarding the discovery issues, the judge dismissed the complaint without prejudice pursuant to 4:23-5(a)(1), subject to a rescheduled deposition. After another unsuccessful deposition, defense counsel again sought to dismiss the case. However, the judge denied the defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice and ordered that plaintiff's complaint could be reinstated if she produced documents regarding her publications, tax returns for 2005-08, and the name of her immigration attorney. Although the plaintiff ultimately produced the tax returns, she unilaterally redacted them. The court eventually dismissed her complaint with prejudice.
The Court’s Decision
On appeal, the Appellate Division found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing the suit. “We are thoroughly satisfied that plaintiff demonstrated contumacious behavior, ignored court orders, and obstructed discovery of information that is directly relevant to her primary emotional distress claim,” the panel concluded.
As further explained by the court, the failure to respond to defendant's document demands can be grounds for dismissal under New Jersey’s rules of discovery. The court further held that compelling the plaintiff to produce certain documents “imposed no more than what the [discovery] rule mandated” by requiring plaintiff to produce "fully and responsive" discovery as a condition to reinstatement of the complaint.
The Appellate Division also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the judge abused her discretion by dismissing the complaint with prejudice under Rule 4:23-5(a)(2). It noted that even though she was warned repeatedly that refusal would result in the dismissal of her case, the plaintiff still made a “deliberate decision to withhold relevant discovery.” Thus, the panel found the sanctions imposed were not unjust or unreasonable.
As this case highlights, the penalties for failing to comply with discovery requests can be severe. Therefore, it is important to work with your attorney to devise reasonable solutions to protect your rights through the use of protective orders, privilege exceptions, and other tools, while maintaining compliance with court rules.