Rule 33 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets out the proper procedure with respect to interrogatories in federal actions. With one exception, the answer to the question “Can you refuse to answer interrogatories?” is a resounding, “No!”
In short, Rule 33 requires that each received interrogatory must be either answered, or objected to, within 30 days of being served with the interrogatory.
You might be wondering what sorts of interrogatories are objectionable or what a valid objection would look like. Continue reading below to learn more about when you can refuse to answer interrogatories and when you must answer them.
As mentioned above, you have 30 days to respond when you receive an interrogatory pursuant to Rule 33. That response must either grant permission to inspect the information being requested or set out a specific objection as to why the information is not being provided.
You may not simply fail to respond to an interrogatory or allow the 30 days to pass without either permitting access to the information or specifically objecting. To do so is to invite sanctions pursuant to Rule 37.
Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a court to impose sanctions on a party who fails or refuses to answer interrogatories. See Rule 37(d)(1)(A)(ii):
Motion; Grounds for Sanctions. The court where the action is pending may, on motion, order sanctions if…a party, after being properly served with interrogatories under Rule 33 or a request for inspection under Rule 34, fails to serve its answers, objections, or written response.
Rules 37(b)(2)(A)(i)-(vii) set out the sanctions available to a judge:
(i) directing that the matters embraced in the order or other designated facts be taken as established for purposes of the action, as the prevailing party claims;
(ii) prohibiting the disobedient party from supporting or opposing designated claims or defenses, or from introducing designated matters in evidence;
(iii) striking pleadings in whole or in part;
(iv) staying further proceedings until the order is obeyed;
(v) dismissing the action or proceeding in whole or in part;
(vi) rendering a default judgment against the disobedient party; or
(vii) treating as contempt of court the failure to obey any order except an order to submit to a physical or mental examination.
You’ll notice immediately that many of the sanctions are quite draconian and would have a significant impact on a party’s ability to prosecute or defend a case. In fact, in the most egregious cases, judges are permitted to render default judgment against a disobedient party or dismiss the entirety of an action, bringing an end to proceedings.
In 2015, amendments to Rule 34 came into effect that require a party objecting to an interrogatory to provide specific reasons for the objection. Rule 34(b)(2)(B) states:
Responding to Each Item. For each item or category, the response must either state that inspection and related activities will be permitted as requested or state with specificity the grounds for objecting to the request, including the reasons. (Emphasis added.)
In short, simply noting an unspecified objection and refusing to answer the interrogatory is no longer an option (and hasn’t been since 2015). You’ll need to set out exactly what part of the interrogatory you’re objecting to and for what reason.
You should also make note of Rule 34(b)(2)(C), which states that:
Objections. An objection must state whether any responsive materials are being withheld on the basis of that objection. An objection to part of a request must specify the part and permit inspection of the rest. (Emphasis added.)
This rule requires you to make explicit whether you possess any material you would be producing were it not for the objection. This puts the other side on notice of whether it’s worth responding to your objection at all.
Fischer v. Forrest is an excellent example of how not to object to an interrogatory. The attorney in that case set out a boilerplate objection to a number of interrogatories his client had received. In a scathing decision, the judge ordered that the attorney provide specific reasons for making the objections he had made. In his decision, he noted that the 2015 amendments to Rule 34 were (at that time) over 15 months old and that many lawyers had still not changed their precedent files to reflect the specificity requirements.
So, can you refuse to answer interrogatories? The answer is, no, you may not. You must answer a Rule 33 interrogatory within 30 days of being served with it. That answer must either permit inspection of the requested information or object to the production of the information for a specific reason.
Such a reason might include that a part of the request is overbroad, that it would be unduly burdensome to produce the information, or some other specific and verifiable reason why the information can’t be made available.
Whatever objection you have, it must conform to the specificity requirement found in Rule 34, lest you be subject to the same criticisms found in Fischer v. Forrest.
Read our other educational blogs on Discovery Law and Sanctions: