Below is a guest post from a lawyer who prefers to remain anonymous, part of what we hope will be an ongoing series of updates that supplement the Pennsylvania Civil Discovery book I co-wrote with Jim Beasley, Jr.
Not so fast . . .
The Pennsylvania Superior Court just issued an opinion which reverses a trend among some trial courts — like Philadelphia County — to deny most requests to extend discovery beyond the initial deadline set by the case management order. In Anthony Biddle Contractors, Inc. v. Preet Allied American Street, LP, 2011 PA Super. 161 (August 3, 2011)(PDF opinion here), a property dispute action, the trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion for extraordinary relief by which plaintiff sought to extend the discovery deadlines established by the case management order. So far this sounds pretty much routine, right? Wrong.
The case management order was entered on June 17, 2009 and required that all discovery be completed by April 5, 2010. Problem was, plaintiff had joined two additional defendants in November, 2009. The joined defendants filed preliminary objections to the joinder complaint which were denied by the trial court in February, 2010. An answer and new matter were not filed until March, 2010—a month before the established discovery deadline. Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration of the order denying extension of the discovery deadline. That motion was also denied. To make matters worse, the joined defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted in September of 2010. With the possibility of keeping their action alive fading fast, plaintiffs appealed to the Superior Court.
What did the Superior Court do?
The Superior Court ruled that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment before the additional discovery was completed. Despite a “clerical oversight” (plaintiff mistakenly calendared the discovery deadline and as a result, filed its motion for extraordinary relief too late), the Superior Court concluded that the plaintiff’s “substantial compliance” with the case management order precluded a strict enforcement of the discovery deadline. Indeed, strict enforcement of the deadline would serve neither “the interest of fairness nor the interest of justice,” and would transform the trial court’s decision into “the harshest form of discovery sanction available”—termination of the action. The Superior Court explained that by denying the plaintiff’s motion for extraordinary relief (an abuse of discretion) the trial court effectively eviscerated the action as its decision “foreclosed any opportunity for [the plaintiff] to obtain the discovery necessary in order to sustain its claims against [the joined defendants]. The Superior Court made reference to its prior decisions which “unequivocally state” that the intent of Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1035.2 [Summary Judgment] is “not to eliminate meritorious claims prematurely before relevant discovery has been completed.”
Ok, so why should I remember this decision?
Some practical lessons can be learned from all of this. As a colleague has observed, it may well be impossible to tell whether plaintiff’s requested discovery will disclose crucial evidence. Accordingly, this recent Superior Court opinion necessitates that the trial judge err on the side of caution in allowing further discovery. When faced with an action-lethal discovery deadline, plaintiff’s counsel should emphasize in mantra-like fashion that an extension of the deadline may be necessary to develop crucial evidence. Moreover, counsel should promptly alert the court when the defense has attempted to file a dispositive motion.