Give me your facts: Why Form Interrogatory 15.1 is the most important discovery question in California
California Form Interrogatory 15.1 (an “Interrogatory” is just a question) is the most important interrogatory to serve on your opposing party in a lawsuit. And the law requires they answer it fully and completely. Yet, so many attorneys refuse to answer the question properly.
A typical use of 15.1 follows:
You file a Trust Contest or a Will Contest (or any other type of lawsuit) alleging three causes of action: (1) Undue Influence, (2) Lack of Capacity, and (3) Financial Elder Abuse. The opposing party files an answer to the Trust Contest or Will Contest denying most, or all, of your allegations, and on top of that includes 15 affirmative defenses (an affirmative defense, if proven by the opposing party, operates to defeat your claims even if the facts supporting the claim are true).
The opposing party’s denials and affirmative defenses must ultimately be tried, which can make for a long, costly and confusing trial. But what if the denials and affirmative defenses could be trimmed down before trial? That’s the purpose of 15.1—you can narrow the issues, and force the opposing party to show their cards—factual cards—before trial. Once you narrow the issues in a case, you are able to clearly and forcefully present the true facts of the case at trial, which generally equals a win for you.
I am surprised when I have litigated in California state court and the other side doesn’t serve a set of form interrogatories. All it takes is 15 minutes or less to check the right boxes, and you can get a decent sense of the other side’s case. OK, fifteen minutes is a bit of an exaggeration because form interrogatories are best used in conjunction with Requests for Admission (RFAs) and requests for Production of Documents (RFPs), which can take awhile to draft, but form Interrogatories or rogs, still provide the best bang for your discovery buck as far as I am concerned.
I am particularly fond of Form Interrogatory 15.1 (regarding affirmative defenses and denials of allegations in the pleadings) and 17.1 (regarding denials of requests for admission). These interrogatories are so powerful because they get you a lot of information about the other side’s position in the lawsuit (divorce, partnerships, business, etc…) Each interrogatory has several components. Each calls for the responding party to state the facts supporting their position, to identify the witnesses who know something about those facts, and to describe the documents that support what they are claiming. Responses to these interrogatories that are thin on details (or even that state no facts at all and just say something like “this interrogatory is premature; discovery is continuing”) are good signals that the other side’s position has been pulled out of . . . thin air.
Number 15.1 is particularly useful for calling BS when a defendant uses the “kitchen sink” approach in their answer to the complaint, asserting 57 different affirmative defenses, the vast majority of which certainly do not apply. (You’re saying that my client’s claim for breach of contract is barred by the statute of limitations even though your client just breached the contract last month?! OK, then tell me every fact that supports that defense, the identity–and contact information–of every witness that has knowledge of the facts, and identify every single document that supports the defense, as well as who has it. Let’s be serious.)
Unlike Number 15.1, which only is useful for plaintiffs to ask defendants, Number 17.1 works just as well for both sides. Number 17.1 effectively turns every single RFA served with the form rogs into a contention interrogatory. Like 15.1, it is a useful tool to assess the other side’s position on the critical facts of the case. But with 17.1, you can go deeper; 15.1 is just limited to the allegations in the complaint and responses in the answer. With 17.1, you can seek information about key facts that support the story you plan to tell at trial, regardless of whether those facts are stated cleanly in the pleadings.
Because both 15.1 and 17.1 require the responding party to identify documents supporting their position, these interrogatories pair nicely with a document request seeking “all documents identified in [the responding party’s] responses to [the asking party’s] form interrogatories served with these requests.” This is generally a good first step for document discovery. While it is wise to circle back with more detailed RFPs to capture the broader universe of documents relevant to the case, this simple request can get you started for a minimal expense.
When used with the right RFAs and RFPs, Form Interrogatories 15.1 and 17.1 make discovery so easy a caveman can do it!