Sunday, October 19, 2014
Susman Godfrey, the Houston subpoenas to nonparty pastors, and the utter ordinariness of burdensome third-party civil discovery
The City of Houston has filed a preliminary response to the motion to quash subpoenas it served on five nonparty pastors seeking discovery, among other things, of these pastors' sermons. Like the mayor's initial "blame it on the pro bono lawyers" defense, the response is hard to credit as anything other than a public relations move. The response removes the word "sermons," but even as amended, Houston's subpoenas are still asking for sermons and for much more.
Consider request number 4: "All communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the petition." Now consider the definition of "communications": "[E]very direct or indirect disclosure, receipt, transfer, or exchange of information, inquiry or opinion, however made, whether oral, visual, in writing or otherwise, including without limitation any conversation or discussion by means of letter, note, package, invoice, statement, notice, memorandum, inter-office correspondence, telephone, telegraph, email, telex, telecopies, text message, instant message, cable communicating data processors, or some other electronic or other medium."
There is no hard and fast rule at work here, but generally speaking discovery requests like these begin with the broadest claims and then narrow from there. The word "sermons" was originally in request number 12. By the time the recipient would have arrived at that point, however, it would have been obvious that even coming close to full compliance with these broad requests would take dozens of hours. If you don't believe me, take a look at request number 1 yourself.
The specific mention of "sermons" was an unforced error that allowed recipients to provide a hook that would draw public attention to the burdensome nonparty discovery requests sent by the city. But getting rid of that one word does not change the substance of the city's requests one bit. They remain as burdensome as they were from the beginning.
An underreported angle of this whole story thus far is the nature of the legal representation provided to the city. In particular, the Mayor's "blame the pro bono lawyers" response is hard to take seriously when the pro bono lawyers include a lead counsel team from Susman Godfrey, L.L.P. The subpoena request posted by plaintiffs' counsel went out under the signature of a Susman Godfrey associate and two partners. According to Susman Godfrey's website, the more senior partner is "lead counsel for the City of Houston in its lawsuit against a Xerox affiliate for breach of contract, fraud, and other wrongdoing in connection with billing and collection for hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency medical services provided by the City's Fire Department" and also "lead counsel for the City in its multi-hundred million dollar lawsuit against actuarial firm Towers Watson for gross negligence and professional malpractice in connection with benefits under the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund." The other partner is a former EIC of the Texas Law Review and law clerk for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, currently serving as "Susman Godfrey's docket partner with responsibility for staffing client engagements across our five offices." These are very capable, experienced lawyers. At least one of them is currently handling litigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars for the city. Whether Mayor Parker was previously aware of the specific wording of specific subpoenas is beside the point. She knows full well how lawyers like these, with the kinds of practices that they have, would have approached third-party discovery in the City's HERO case. It is therefore not credible for Mayor Parker to put distance between herself and the city's litigation strategy as pursued by Susman Godfrey. The cosmetic and minuscule amendment offered by the city in its preliminary response after Mayor Parker's attention was drawn to these particular subpoenas suggests that the city's overall litigation strategy includes deliberately imposing substantial burdens on the plaintiffs' allies.
Mayor Parker and the city's lawyers seem to have been frustrated for months by what the city's lead counsel from Susman Godfrey has termed "the public hoopla" surrounding their case. (This characterization, for example, came in an August 2014 press release.) And by the standards of the typical business litigation dispute handled by the firm, this case does seem a bit of a circus on both sides. But the dispute over "sermons" in the subpoenas is itself a sideshow against the utter ordinariness of the burdens that lawyers inflict on nonparties every day through broad civil discovery requests. When everything settles down and the culture-war commentariat moves on, one can only hope that firm judicial management will lessen the burdens imposed by Houston's requests.