Are Draft Expert Reports “Discoverable” in Water Court Proceedings?

     Pretrial discovery (where a party to a legal proceeding can see the evidence the other side will use) has been undergoing big changes in Colorado. One of the most significant recent changes to the Colorado rules of civil procedure is that draft expert reports and communications between experts and attorneys are now protected from discovery under C.R.C.P. 26 as trial preparation materials. For background see http://www.wsmtlaw.com/blog/changes-in-colorado-s-rules-of-civil-procedure-aimed-at-frontloading-litigation-to-decrease-costs.html.

     The question addressed at the annual Water Division One Bench-Bar Meeting, held on August 17, 2015, was whether this change in civil discovery would apply to Water Court proceedings. From the discussions, it appears that there is some uncertainty about whether the new C.R.C.P. 26(b)(4)(D) will protect draft water expert reports in a water court proceeding. For example, some take the position that this rule does not apply in water court proceedings because the official comment to Rule 26 expressly excludes water law from its scope. Others counter that Rule 26 generally applies in water court proceedings because the Uniform Local Rules for All State Water Court Divisions incorporates Rule 26, except as expressly modified by Local Rule 11. Arguably, the new rule protecting draft expert reports from discovery is not in direct conflict with a specific water court rule or the modifications expressed in Local Rule 11 and should therefore apply in water court proceedings.

     The water court has not had the opportunity to express its opinion on this issue yet. At the meeting, it was noted that where the general rules of civil procedure are discretionary in water court proceedings, the court would apply them unless it is convinced by the facts of a particular case that the general rule should not apply. This approach is consistent with either interpretation of the applicability of Rule 26. The comment to Rule 26 regarding its scope, which provides that a water court may use those rules, suggests that the rules are discretionary. Local Rule 12, which provides that a water court may modify the local rules on a case-by-case basis “to avoid substantial injustice or great hardship,” suggests that the local rules and those general rules, incorporated through the local rules and not independently applicable, are subject to modification on a case-by-case basis by the court. Thus, even if applicable, the new rule is subject to modification by the court.

     At the meeting, the question was asked whether the attorneys present were for or against applying this rule in water court proceedings. A number of attorneys expressed their support for the rule protecting draft expert reports from discovery, and no one expressed opposition to the rule. Thus, there may not be many challenges to the position that draft expert reports will be protected from discovery in water court proceedings, but there is room for a contrary interpretation.

     Experts and attorneys should be aware of this possibility for disclosure in water court proceedings and take some steps to ensure their draft reports and communications are protected. Given the strong support expressed by water lawyers at the Division One Bench-Bar Meeting for this protection from discovery, it may be possible for experts and attorneys to protect themselves against this uncertainty by getting all parties to stipulate that Rule 26(b)(4)(D) will apply to their case.

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