UPDATES & ANALYSIS

7.07

Iowa Supreme Court holds subpoenas served on a non-party should have been quashed for imposing an undue burden

by Ami Penquite | July 7, 2023

In an opinion filed on February 10, 2023, the Iowa Supreme Court in In the Matter of the Subpoenas Issued to Dethmers Manufacturing Company held subpoenas relating to a Louisiana products liability suit but issued from an Iowa court to a nonparty in Iowa imposed an undue burden under the Iowa Civil Rules of Procedure. The opinion was written by Justice May on behalf of a unanimous Court. Justice Waterman filed a concurring opinion.

The underlying case filed in Louisiana concerned an accident that happened after a U-Haul became detached from the SUV hauling it. A tractor trailer hit the individuals attempting to correct the unattached U-Haul, and one of the seriously injured individuals, Tharun Mittapalli, filed suit against U-Haul and others in Louisiana state court. Mittapalli claimed the coupler used to attach the SUV to the U-Haul was unreasonably dangerous.

In the Louisiana action, Mittapalli asserted that an alternative coupler design from an Iowa company, Dethmers Manufacturing Company, “was (to paraphrase the Louisiana statute) a feasible alternative design that probably would have prevented the detachment and subsequent injuries.” Mittapalli served two subpoenas on Dethmers: one for documents and one for deposition testimony. The document subpoena required Dethmers to produce 22 categories of documents and the deposition subpoena required a corporate representative to testify concerning the same categories. Because Dethmers was not a party to the Louisiana suit, the subpoenas to Dethmers were issue from the Iowa District Court for Osceola County.

Dethmers moved to quash the subpoenas, arguing they would impose an undue burden under the Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure and Mittapalli could obtain the information from other sources. The district court denied Dethmers’ motion to quash, and Dethmers appealed. A unanimous Court reversed the district court’s determination.

First, Justice May determined Dethmers was entitled to an appeal because the only issue before the district court in this special action was the discovery issue. When the district court refused to quash the subpoenas, that amounted to a final appealable order.

Next, Justice May considered the subpoenas, issued under Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure 1.1701 and 1.1702, which allow “attorneys in civil cases [to] require free citizens to produce their private documents, testify in depositions, appear at hearings and trials, and more.” Under these rules, civil litigants must also take steps to avoid imposing undue burden or expense on those to whom subpoenas are issued. If the requests create an undue burden, the issuing court must quash the subpoena.

Justice May adopted a test used by federal courts when considering undue burden. The factors include: “(1) [the] relevance of the information requested; (2) the need of the party for the documents; (3) the breadth of the document request; (4) the time period covered by the request; (5) the particularity with which the party describes the requested documents; and (6) the burden imposed.” Additionally, Justice May noted that courts must consider the need to protect nonparties, that one or two factors within the test could be determinative based on the case, and that attorneys issuing subpoenas must properly tailor them before they are served.

Applying this test, Justice May then considered the document subpoena served on Dethmers, a nonparty to the Louisiana action. Justice May agreed the requests were relevant to showing a safer coupler was available and feasible, which was required for Mittapalli’s Louisiana cause of action. However, every other factor from the test weighed towards a finding that the subpoena imposing an undue burden on Dethmers. Mittapalli offered no evidence concerning his need for the information from Dethmers rather than from a party to the Louisiana litigation, and this alone was fatal for the document subpoena. But other factors also weighed against enforcing the subpoena. Justice May found the subpoena on its face was overly broad (which could alone justify quashing it), almost all the requests lacked temporal boundaries, the particularity of the requests would have left Dethmers guessing what was covered by the subpoena, and the breadth of the request would have imposed “substantial financial burdens” upon Dethmers.

For similar reasons, Justice May also determined the subpoena for deposition testimony was unduly burdensome. Applying the same test, Justice May noted that for corporate depositions, the individual must be prepared concerning all information available to the organization, which is an expensive and onerous task. This means subpoenas for corporate deposition testimony “must be clear and specific about ‘what is called for and what is not,’” but Mittapalli’s requests were overbroad and did not meet this requirement.

Finally, Justice May explained why the Court determined it would have been necessary to quash the subpoenas instead of the preferable option of modifying the requests. Justice May determined nothing in the record indicated Mittapalli needed nonparty Dethmers’ information. Additionally, after the district court entered its order, Mittapalli settled with U-Haul, who was the main defendant involved in the subpoenas served on Dethmers. Quashing the subpoenas would also mean the Court was not required to consider the cost of compliance for Dethmers and determine if the costs were “significant.”

Justice Waterman, joined by Justice Mansfield, filed a concurring opinion to discuss an issue not raised by the parties, but which he believed was significant nevertheless. Justice Waterman wrote, “[o]ur rules of civil procedure generally require lawyers to make a good-faith personal effort to resolve or narrow discovery disputes before filing a motion with the court. That didn’t happen in this case.”

According to Justice Waterman, the Iowa Rules of Civil Procedure require good-faith negotiations before a discovery issue can be brought before an Iowa court, but Dethmers did not comply with this requirement. Justice Waterman wrote that Dethmers’ motion to quash could have been denied for this reason alone. Justice Waterman noted federal courts have held the meet-and-confer requirement does not apply to a nonparty’s motion to quash a subpoena under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but he stated the best practice in Iowa courts is still for parties to try to resolve discovery disputes before bringing them to court.

 

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