I recently posted about a new article in the Defense Research Institute’s For the Defense publication, addressing the apex doctrine, in which courts have placed limits on depositions of senior executives of corporations and high-ranking government officials.  Shortly after publishing that post, I came across a new decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on this issue in an insurance case (albeit not a class action).  West Virginia’s highest court adopted the apex deposition doctrine and granted a writ prohibiting enforcement of a lower court order requiring the deposition of MassMutual’s chairman, president and CEO.

In State ex. rel. Massachusetts Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Sanders, No. 11-1514, 2012 W. Va. LEXIS 94 (W. Va. Feb. 24, 2012), an individual case alleging fraud and tax fraud in connection with an IRS 412i plan, the plaintiffs sought to depose Roger Crandall, chairman, president and CEO of MassMutual.  Mr. Crandall had no personal involvement with the plaintiffs.  The reasons cited by the plaintiffs for taking his deposition were:

1) the annuity contract was signed with Mr. Crandall’s facsimile signature; 2) MassMutual publicly proclaims its commitment to investigating and reporting fraud; 3) Mr. Crandall is MassMutual’s “face” of compliance regarding reporting and investigating any suspected fraud or wrongdoing because he has publicly proclaimed that MassMutual is an ethical company and because, as MassMutual’s president, he signs Internal Control Certifications in accordance with the Sarbones-Oxley Act; 4) Mr. and Mrs. Demory [the plaintiffs] wrote a letter to Mr. Crandall regarding their dispute; and, 5) there have been similar lawsuits filed regarding the “defective 412i Plans.”  

 Id. at *8-9. 

The court, on an issue of first impression in West Virginia, adopted the apex deposition rule applied in Texas and other jurisdictions, setting forth the following protocol:

[T]he Court holds that when a party seeks to depose a high-ranking corporate official and that official (or the corporation) files a motion for protective order to prohibit the deposition accompanied by the official’s affidavit denying any knowledge of relevant facts, the circuit court should first determine whether the party seeking the deposition has demonstrated that the official has any unique or superior personal knowledge of discoverable information. If the party seeking the deposition cannot show that the official has any unique or superior personal knowledge of discoverable information, the circuit court should grant the motion for protective order and first require the party seeking the deposition to attempt to obtain the discovery through less intrusive methods. Depending upon the circumstances of the particular case, these methods could include the depositions of lower level corporate employees, as well as interrogatories and requests for production of documents directed to the corporation. After making a good faith effort to obtain the discovery through less intrusive methods, the party seeking the deposition may attempt to show (1) that there is a reasonable indication that the official’s deposition is calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and (2) that the less intrusive methods of discovery are unsatisfactory, insufficient or inadequate. If the party seeking the deposition makes this showing, the circuit court should modify or vacate the protective order as appropriate. As with any deponent, the circuit court retains discretion to restrict the duration, scope and location of the deposition. If the party seeking the deposition fails to make this showing, the trial court should leave the protective order in place.

Id. at *33-35.

A few more thoughts on using this doctrine:  I have seen some instances where defendants have tried to seek relief under this doctrine without providing an affidavit from the senior executive attesting to a lack of knowledge, perhaps because the people managing the lawsuit did not want to trouble the executive with reviewing and signing an affidavit.  I have not seen a case where that approach succeeded, nor would you want to be in the position of filing the affidavit only at the time of seeking reconsideration.  It is also essential to make sure that the affidavit does not make statements that are overly broad and could be contradicted by documents that may exist but not yet have been located.  You don’t want to get a senior executive in hot water because of what was signed in trying to keep him or her out of the deposition room.

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Photo of Wystan Ackerman Wystan Ackerman

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you…

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you have something to say.  For those looking for my detailed law firm bio, click here.  If you want a more light-hearted and hopefully more interesting summary, read on:

People often ask about my unusual first name, Wystan.  It’s pronounced WISS-ten.  It’s not Winston.  There is no “n” in the middle.  It comes from my father’s favorite poet, W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.  I’ve grown to like the fact that because my name is unusual people tend to remember it better, even if they don’t pronounce it right (and there is no need for anyone to use my last name because I’m always the only Wystan).

I grew up in Deep River, Connecticut, a small town on the west side of the Connecticut River in the south central part of the state.  I’ve always had strong interests in history, politics and baseball.  My heroes growing up were Abraham Lincoln and Wade Boggs (at that time the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox).  I think it was my early fascination with Lincoln that drove me to practice law.  I went to high school at The Williams School in New London, Connecticut, where I edited the school newspaper, played baseball, and was primarily responsible for the installation of a flag pole near the school entrance (it seemed like every other school had one but until my class raised the money and bought one at my urging, Williams had no flag pole).  As a high school senior, my interest in history and politics led me to score high enough on a test of those subjects to be chosen as one of Connecticut’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which further solidified my interest in law and government.  One of my mentors at Williams was of the view that there were far too many lawyers and I should find something more useful to do, but if I really had to be a lawyer there was always room for one more.  I eventually decided to be that “one more.”  I went on to Bowdoin College, where I wrote for the Bowdoin Orient and majored in government, but took a lot of math classes because I found college math interesting and challenging.  I then went to Columbia Law School, where I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the minions who spent their time fastidiously cite-checking and Blue booking hundred-plus-page articles in the Columbia Law Review.  I also interned in the chambers of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor when she was a relatively new judge on the Second Circuit, my only connection to someone who now has one-ninth of the last word on what constitutes the law of our land.  I graduated from Columbia in 2001, then worked at Skadden Arps in Boston before returning to Connecticut and joining Robinson+Cole, one of the largest Connecticut-based law firms.  At the end of 2008, I was elected a partner at Robinson+Cole.

I’ve worked on class actions since the start of my career at Skadden.  Being in the insurance capital of Hartford, we have a national insurance litigation practice and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on some prominent class actions arising from the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and later Hurricane Katrina, including cases involving the applicability of the flood exclusion, statutes known as valued policy laws, and various other issues.  My interest and experience in class actions gradually led me to focus on that area.

In Connecticut courts I’ve defended various kinds of class actions that go beyond insurance, including cases involving products liability, securities, financial services and consumer contracts.

My insurance class action practice usually takes me outside of Connecticut.  I’ve had the pleasure of working on cases in various federal and state courts and collaborating with great lawyers across the country.  While class actions are an increasingly large part of my practice, I don’t do exclusively class action work.  The rest of my practice involves litigating insurance coverage cases, often at the appellate level.  That also frequently takes me outside of Connecticut.  A highlight of my career thus far was working on Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Class Action Fairness Act case.  I was Counsel of Record for Standard Fire on the cert petition, and had the pleasure of working with Ted Boutrous on the merits briefing and oral argument.

I started this blog because writing is one of my favorite things to do and I enjoy following developments in class action law, writing about them and engaging in discussion with others who have an in interest in this area.  It’s a welcome break from day-to-day practice, keeps me current, broadens my network and results in some new business.

When I’m not at my desk or flying around the country trying to save insurance companies from the plaintiffs’ bar, or attending a conference on class actions or insurance litigation (for more on those, see the Seminars/Programs page of this blog), I often can be found playing or reading with my young daughter, helping my wife with her real estate and mortgage businesses, reading a book about history or politics, or watching the Boston Red Sox (I managed to find bleacher seats for Game 2 of the 2004 World Series when Curt Schilling pitched with the bloody sock).  When the weather is good I also love to take the ferry to Block Island, Rhode Island and ride a bike or walk the trails there. If you go, I highly recommend the Clay Head Trail.