Court Rejects Church’s Appeal Upholding Sanction
Padron v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc’y of New York, Inc., No. D070723 (Cal. Ct. App. Nov. 9, 2017).
This negligence and failure to warn case arose from an allegation of childhood sexual abuse in a religious organization. In this opinion, the appellate court soundly rejected the defendant’s arguments, affirming a daily $4,000 sanction for the defendant’s willful refusal to comply with discovery.
The plaintiff, Osbaldo Padron, sued religious nonprofit Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (“Watchtower”). In his complaint, Padron alleged that Watchtower church elder Gonzalo Campos molested him when he was about seven years old. Padron further alleged that Watchtower had been repeatedly informed about Campos’s molestation but did nothing to warn or protect congregation members.
In this opinion, the appellate court considered whether the lower court could “impose a hefty daily monetary sanction” on Watchtower for its refusal to obey a discovery order.
The court began by noting that it had previously addressed the issue of court sanctions against Watchtower for discovery abuses. In Lopez v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (Lopez), 246 Cal. App. 4th 566 (2016), the court rejected terminating sanctions. It found that “a significant monetary penalty for every day” that Watchtower failed to comply would be more appropriate as a first step. Significantly, the court based this recommendation on Watchtower’s own suggestion in that case.
In this case, during discovery, Padron asked Watchtower to produce responses to a 1997 internal church letter that sought written reports about church leaders who molested children. Arguing that the request was “overbroad and oppressive,” Watchtower objected on privilege, privacy and First Amendment grounds. Watchtower additionally sought a protective order.
The trial court denied the protective order and ordered Watchtower to respond. Watchtower and Padron thereafter negotiated a confidentiality and nondisclosure order. Even so, Watchtower still did not respond. After a fruitless meet-and-confer, Padron moved to compel production.
Watchtower opposed that motion, adding the argument that it could not produce anything after March 2001 because a separate corporation, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (“CCJW”), collected those later responses. The court ordered the parties to work with a discovery referee, who submitted a recommendation to which Watchtower, predictably, objected. Nonetheless, the superior court adopted that recommendation and ordered Watchtower to produce its responsive documents.
Thereafter, “Watchtower’s counsel ‘unequivocally informed’ the superior court that it would not comply” with the discovery order.
Padron filed a motion for sanctions. The superior court found Watchtower’s refusal willful and imposed monetary sanctions, in accordance with Lopez. Specifically, the trial court sanctioned Watchtower $2,000 for every day it failed to search for documents and an additional $2,000 for every day it failed to produce responsive documents. In doing so, the trial court noted that Watchtower had real property holdings valued at $1.3 billion, such that the sanction was “not overly harsh.”
Watchtower appealed, leading to this opinion.
The appellate court began by pointing out the “broad discretion” that a trial court has in overseeing discovery and imposing discovery sanctions, “subject to reversal only for abuse” of that discretion. The court noted that it was “troubled that Watchtower has taken two inconsistent positions” about the appropriateness of monetary sanctions. Indeed, the court stated that it could not “rectify these diametrically opposed positions.”
In this case, contrary to its position in Lopez, Watchtower argued that the trial court “lacked the authority” to impose monetary sanctions. The appellate court rejected this assertion, concluding that Watchtower was “judicially estopped from arguing the monetary sanctions here were unauthorized.” Because Watchtower had successfully argued that monetary sanctions would be appropriate in Lopez, it could not adopt an entirely contrary position.
Further, the court noted that “Watchtower has abused the litigation process,” such that monetary sanctions were wholly appropriate. Watchtower had unsuccessfully opposed this request for production at least five times. Still, Watchtower refused to acknowledge the court’s authority and “maintain[ed] the court was just wrong” in each ruling. As such, Watchtower “repudiate[d] the procedures and rules” that all litigants are held to.
The appellate court ultimately noted that if Watchtower’s “egregious” conduct continued, terminating sanctions would be appropriate.
Watchtower made additional “multifaceted” challenges, arguing that it could not produce documents in CCJW’s possession, that the court could not interfere with “issues of religious polity and administration” and that its refusal to comply was justified. The appellate court rejected each argument.
In conclusion, the appellate court found that “Watchtower has abused the discovery process” by “cavalierly refus[ing] to acknowledge” its losses or the “validity of the court’s orders” regarding discovery. Therefore, the court affirmed the monetary sanctions.
Takeaways on discovery compliance
Resistance is futile when it comes to discovery. Parties that ignore their discovery responsibilities should expect severe consequences, particularly when they take inconsistent positions, refuse to cooperate with the opposing party and ignore court orders repeatedly.