Interrogatories can serve as a useful tool for parties to obtain basic information about their adversary’s case and drive discovery strategy. Serving interrogatories allows parties to identify individuals with knowledge and information about the issues presented in the case, to gain an understanding of basic facts that support claims and defenses, and to ascertain calculations of damages sought. Too often, however, interrogatories become the subject of discovery disputes generated by boilerplate objections that do not allow parties to realize the benefits of obtaining written information that could significantly streamline the case. Proposed amendments to the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure seek to address the issues presented by the ways that parties commonly respond to interrogatories.
Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 33 governs the exchange of interrogatories between parties during discovery. Rule 33.01, which addresses the procedures for use, currently contains little guidance as to appropriate responses and objections to interrogatories. Instead, the current version of the rule simply provides that “[e]ach interrogatory shall be answered fully and separately in writing under oath, unless it is objected to, in which event the reasons for objection shall be stated in lieu of an answer.”
But the Advisory Commission on the Rules of Practice & Procedure has proposed amendments to Rule 33.01, seeking to provide additional guidance as to the nature of responses and objections to interrogatories. If those amendments are adopted, Rule 33.01 will provide the following:
Each interrogatory shall be answered separately and fully in writing under oath, unless an objection is made to it or to a portion thereof, in which event the reasons and grounds for objection shall be stated with specificity in lieu of an answer for that portion to which an objection is made. An objection must clearly indicate whether responsive information is being withheld on the basis of that objection.
The proposed amendments would require that objections to interrogatories be stated with specificity. They seek to make clear that vague, generalized, or boilerplate objections are improper. Instead, objections should be specific as to the grounds that support them, describing those grounds in a manner that will reasonably inform the adverse party as to what aspect of the interrogatory the objection pertains, thereby facilitating the resolution of discovery disputes without the need for judicial intervention.
In addition, the proposed amendments would require that any objection to an interrogatory make clear whether information is actually being withheld. A responding party may object to part of a request, but a party should answer any part of an interrogatory for which no objection is made, making clear which part is being answered. For example, a responding party may object to an interrogatory as overly broad on the ground that the time period covered is too long, or that the breadth of sources from which documents are sought is unduly burdensome. For any such objection, it should be clear from the objection that responsive information is being limited to the specifically identified time period or sources for which the responding party has no objection.
These amendments should end the confusion that frequently arises when a responding party states several objections, but then still answers the interrogatory by providing information, leaving the requesting party uncertain whether and to what extent relevant and responsive information has been withheld on the basis of the objection. Per the Advisory Commission Comment to the proposed rule, the producing party does not need to provide a detailed description or log of information withheld, but does need to respond in a manner that will alert and inform parties what information is being provided, and what categories or types of information have been withheld pursuant to objection, thereby facilitating an informed discussion of the objection.
The Tennessee Supreme Court currently is soliciting written comments on the proposed amendments to Rule 33.01. The deadline for submitting comments is December 13, 2019. If ultimately adopted by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the proposed amendments would become effective in 2020.