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After a Time-Out, Judge Order Parties to Play Nice (NY)

February 10, 2016

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In <em><a href="" rel="">Pedraza v. NYC Transit Authority</a>,</em> Justice Stallman of Bronx Supreme Court recently admonished attorneys for both parties in a contested deposition. Jose Luis Melendez Pedraza had brought an action for personal injuries, including a lost arm, against NYC and the train operator after he fell onto the tracks in a Manhattan subway station and was struck by a train. The parties went into the Pedraza’s deposition with unsettled discovery disputes, and it shows. The deposition transcript reads like a hypo from a professional responsibility class in law school.
Tensions came to a head when defense counsel questioned Pedraza about photographs that had not been exchanged in discovery. Before defense counsel could ask its questions, Pedraza’s attorney asked to pause the deposition so that he could discuss these new photographs to his client. The defense refused, saying that Pedraza’s attorney had no right to coach his client at that time. Instead of waiting for the defense to get a ruling from the judge, Pedraza’s attorney took his client into the hallway to review the pictures, arguing that because no question was pending, he had a right to confer with his client. When he returned, the defense busted the deposition.
After this abrupt ending, both parties moved for drastic relief. Pedraza moved for an order striking the defendants’ answer, compelling discovery, and compelling the train operator’s deposition. The defense cross-moved for summary judgment and dismissal of complaint, arguing that conduct of Pedraza’s counsel at the deposition violated the Uniform Rules for the Conduct of Depositions. Secondly, the defense sought to compel Pedraza to appear for further depositions regarding objections raised at his deposition and to provide responses to outstanding discovery demands.  The court denied the plaintiff’s motion in its entirety. It granted the Defendants’ cross-motion in part, but it also imposed some very specific caveats and ground rules to ensure that the parties behave when they next met.
The court began by addressing the portion of the Defendants’ cross-motion concerning the alleged violations of the Uniform Rules for the Conduct of Depositions by Pedraza’s attorney. Because the motion had been based on the Uniform Rules for the Conduct of Depositions, which were in the nature of discovery sanctions, the court found that the defendant had not set forth any legal or factual arguments in support of summary judgment, as a matter of law.
Next, the court discussed the portion of the Defendants’ cross-motion that sought an order from the court directing Pedraza to respond to various questions he had been instructed not to answer during the deposition. The court noted that under the Uniform Rules for the Conduct of Depositions, the scope of a deposition was broader than what is admissible at the trial itself. However, the broad scope of depositions was not an invitation to harass a witness, and attorneys should not knowingly ask irrelevant questions simply because relevance objections are disfavored at depositions.
The court seemed to suggest that at least some of the plaintiff’s 59 objections were justified by defense counsel’s irrelevant questions – e.g.: When did Pedraza come the United States? or What was the color of his hair? Even though defense counsel asked many questions that seemed irrelevant, it was also clear that Pedraza’s attorney used these questions as an opportunity to interrupt the deposition. Because the Uniform Rules for the Conduct of Depositions only allow objections which would otherwise be waived, Pedraza’s attorney was wrong to object to so many questions on relevance grounds, especially where the objections served no purpose other than “marking” or “flagging” the deposition transcript.
Ultimately, the court ordered the parties to reconvene to finish Pedraza’s deposition. However, because the defense has asked many irrelevant questions, and Pedraza’s attorney used these questions as opportunities to make (improper) objections based upon relevance, the court set very specific ground rules for the completion of Pedraza’s deposition. To ensure their next meeting didn’t turn into another fiasco, Justice Stallman imposed a five hour time limit to focus the parties. He also severely restricted the ability of Pedraza’s attorney to make any relevancy objections by ruling that for every impermissible objection he raised, defendants would be granted an additional fifteen minutes to complete the deposition.  Thanks to Evan King for his contribution.  Please email <a href="">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.


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