Why proportionality is important

Submitted Article
Much has been written and discussed in the media about frivolous lawsuits.  Everyone seems to think of the hot McDonald’s coffee lawsuit as being “frivolous,” when, in fact, the injured customer sustained serious burns to her body as a result.  It seems a frivolity is the lawsuit of someone other than yourself.
The Minnesota Rules of Court were recently amended to include the following requirement as to “proportionality:”
It is the responsibility of the court and the parties to examine each civil action to assure that the process and the costs are proportionate to the amount in controversy and the complexity and importance of the issues. The factors to be considered by the court in making a proportionality assessment include, without limitation: needs of the case, amount in controversy, parties' resources, and complexity and importance of the issues at stake in the litigation
This can best be explained by an example.  Two companies are involved in a lawsuit over Company A allegedly stealing trade secrets from Company B.  During the course of discovery, that is, one party asking the other for certain documents they feel are relevant to the lawsuit, Company A’s attorney asks Company B to produce the name, address, and Social Security number of every employee and the contents of their personnel files going back 30 years.  The attorneys for Company B refuse to produce these records because of confidentiality and the request being overly broad and burdensome to comply with.  A hearing is held and Company B argues that it would cost them thousands of hours of employee time to accumulate and duplicate the information sought, expending millions of dollars in wages, and producing records which are, for the most part, irrelevant to the lawsuit.  Company A argues that these records are necessary for it to prove its claims at trial.   A judge would likely find that the requests are vastly disproportionate to the relevant issues in the case and may order monetary sanctions (fines) against the attorneys for Company A.
The “proportionality” rule doesn’t apply in family court, even though it probably should, but an example will further explain the concept of proportionality.  
Before becoming a judge I observed a Hennepin County court hearing where the attorneys for the parents of a 12-year-old boy were arguing over where he played Little League baseball the following summer.  Was his coach to be his father in Suburb A or his stepfather in adjacent Suburb B?  Clearly this dispute was not about who would be the better coach but which parent was in control.  The costs of the dispute in attorney’s fees, judicial resources and emotional toll to the boy were greatly disproportionate to the nature of the dispute.
In summary, parties and their attorneys in lawsuits must always keep in mind the proportionality of the issues to the resources to be devoted.  Failure to do so violates the rules and can result in monetary sanctions.  The vast majority of minor disputes should be resolved through mediation or negotiation and not brought to court.


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