It’s getting more complicated to take and defend depositions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now there is a proposed new change to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that would require parties to confer before a plaintiff takes the deposition of a corporate representative. Specifically, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Civil Rules has proposed an amendment to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 30(b)(6) that requires parties to confer in good faith before the deposition takes place about both the topics and the identity of the witness or witnesses.
In some ways, this change isn’t new. Because many attorneys already have this type of discussion with opposing counsel before a corporate representative deposition, and the Advisory Committee notes make it clear that the parties aren’t required to reach an agreement, many think the amendment won’t change much. And its intentions are good. The Advisory Committee developed the amendment to try to avoid disputes about “overlong or ambiguously worded lists of matters for examination and inadequately prepared witnesses.”
But, as with most things, the devil is in the details. Some fear that the requirement will create more disputes about these depositions than it will prevent.
First, if the parties must confer about the identity of the witness, that could undermine a corporation’s right to choose its witness. The Advisory Committee notes state that the corporation still has the right to choose its deponent, but the rule change could encourage motion practice geared toward preventing a corporation from designating a specific person or trying to force a corporation to designate C-suite executives, rather than the person who the company believes is the right person to testify.
Second, the amendment could incentivize a party to request multiple witnesses so that they can take multiple, seven-hour depositions. These incentives already exist to some extent under the current rules, but the new rules may increase them.
Third, absent from the proposed amendment is any deadline by which the parties must confer or when the discussions should end. The Advisory Committee notes state that “the conference process must be completed a reasonable time before the deposition is scheduled to occur.” Without a set deadline, repeated or eleventh hour requests for a conference could lead to harassment and make it difficult for defense counsel to prepare a witness to testify about ever-changing topics. While this risk can be minimized by communication, it likely can’t be avoided entirely. Finally, the new rule also does not address what happens if the conference does not happen, or if one party refuses to participate.
The proposed amendment to Rule 30(b)(6) is not yet finalized. It must still be approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Court approves, the new rule could take effect as early as December 1, 2020, unless Congress prevents it. If it takes effect, attorneys can expect to spend more time conferring with opposing counsel before a corporate representative witness deposition. Inside and outside counsel for corporations should begin to prepare for this new rule, even while they are facing the additional challenges of today.