Daniel Shevtsov is an associate in the firm’s Walnut Creek office. His practice focuses on construction litigation, real estate, personal injury, products liability, and general civil litigation.

Have you ever taken a deposition where nearly every single one of your questions is met with a barrage of seemingly meritless objections?  How about one where your opponent decides to take a more laissez faire approach and repeatedly instructs their witness not to answer?

If you answered yes, rest assured you are not alone.  Personally, there is nothing that interrupts the “flow” of my deposition more than when I am on the receiving end of these scenarios.  The former scenario is at least somewhat manageable to the extent that it may result in having to reword or repeat a few questions.  The latter scenario, however, is much more disruptive as it effectively stops the deposition in its tracts.

So what should you do when opposing counsel instructs their witness not to answer?

First, you should ask yourself whether your question is in proper form.  You generally do not want to ask the deponent “contention” questions, i.e., those seeking all facts, witnesses, and document that support a legal contention.  Such questions are proper in interrogatories, but not in depositions.

In Rifkind v. Superior Court (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 1255, the deponent was instructed not to answer various “contention” questions. In response, the deposing party brought a motion to compel, which the court denied.  The court held that such questions were unfair in the context of a deposition because “they call upon the deponent to sort out the factual material in the case according to specific legal contentions, and to do this by memory and on the spot.” (Id. at 1262.) It further noted that such questions should be posed in the form of interrogatories so that the party, with the aid of its counsel, can “apply the legal reasoning involved in marshaling the facts relied upon for each of its contentions.” (Id.)

In light of the above, if an opponent instructs their client not to answer, look at your question first and see if it passes muster under Rifkind.  If your question is something along the lines of “Why do you believe you are entitled to damages” or “tell me everything that happened that day,” then you might want to rephrase the question.

Assuming your question is proper, you should next evaluate whether opposing counsel asserted a valid objection.  Under California law, you can only instruct your witness not to answer when the information sought is privileged (e.g., “attorney-client” (Evid. Code § 950-962),”work-product” (CCP §§2018.010-2018.080)).

In Stewart v. Colonial Western Agency, Inc. (2001) 87 Cal.App.4th 1006, the defense attorney instructed his witness not to answer on the grounds that the information sought was not relevant.  The plaintiff brought a motion to compel.  The court granted the motion, and ordered defense counsel as follows: “you are ordered not to instruct the witness not to answer a question during any deposition in this case unless the matter is privileged.  The proper procedure is to adjourn the deposition and move for protective
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