By Wendy Musell
A basic premise in our American justice system is that everyone should have to play by the same rule book, and the rules should not be rigged so that one side wins. These basic rules of fairness are being put to the test by the proposed changes to the federal rules of civil procedure.
The federal rules of civil procedure — just the name sounds boring and designed to put you to sleep. But while you’re dozing, there is a plan afoot — driven by attorneys representing employer interests — to change the rules in every federal courtroom across the country to limit access to evidence necessary to prove up violations of your civil rights. How? By drastically limiting discovery — the process by which civil litigants can get access to the other sides’ evidence, documents and witnesses.
Employment, civil rights and consumer cases, unlike contests between large business interests, are fights—where one side has more money, more time to kill, and often controls the evidence, documents and witnesses. Witnesses in employment civil rights cases are most often the supervisors who perpetrated the unlawful conduct, human resources who may not have addressed the complaints adequately and current employees who may fear that telling the truth will result in standing on the unemployment line.
To win an employment civil rights case, the employee-side lawyer
needs to ask a lot of questions of multiple witnesses to find out who did what, who will admit to seeing the unlawful actions, and where the documents are located. It is also necessary to find out if different and changing reasons are given for the employment actions to show the jury that the employer’s actions were based on an unlawful reason, and not a legitimate non-discriminatory reason that the employer professes.
Take for example, a woman fired after she refuses the sexual overtures of her boss on the basis that her work was not competent. If there are only five depositions allowed, the victim of sexual harassment may not be able to get to the bottom of why she was fired, demonstrate her work was competent, or be able to demonstrate that she was fired because she would not give in to her boss and not based upon the quality of her work.
The employer can hide the ball until all five depositions are used up in a game of “gotcha.”After all, employees are often prohibited from taking emails and documents, no matter how important the document is to proving the employer violated the law. And they are shut out from their former employer’s computer system after they no longer work for the company, One of the only ways for a person whose civil rights were violated by their former employer to prove their case is by asking for the evidence about what happened, a process that is governed by the rules of civil procedure.
The proposed new rules slash in half the number of permissible depositions, limit the number of document requests, and limit how many written questions can be asked. These changes are akin to telling David, go ahead and fight Goliath, but we will tie one hand behind your back and only give you only half a slingshot.
The only way to ensure there is any place for employees to seek redress for violations of their civil rights , is to allow adequate access to evidence. Otherwise, we might as well be honest to American workers and tell them the rules have changed. And the number one rule is — you lose.