What Are Interrogatories, and How Do I Respond to Them?
**NOTE: This article primarily references Indiana law. Please check the laws of your local jurisdiction if you live in another state.
If you have recently been sued or have a case pending in court, you may have received interrogatories. Interrogatories are a form of what is known as “discovery.”
OverviewIf you have recently been sued or have a case pending in court, you may have received interrogatories. Interrogatories are a form of what is known as "discovery." Discovery is a process by which all parties to a case may know what the other parties have in terms of evidence. Discovery is permitted under the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure.
Trial Rule 33 provides the parameters for sending and answering interrogatories. That rule provides that "Any party may serve upon any other party written interrogatories to be answered by the party served or, if the party served is an organization including a governmental organization, or a partnership, by any officer or agent, who shall furnish such information as is available to the party." IRTP 33(A). Although the Indiana Rules do not go into great detail about the formatting, structure, and content of interrogatories, most interrogatory sets will follow a pattern similar to the outline below:
I. Opening paragraph, referencing the relevant Rules of Trial Procedure, and setting a deadline to answer.
II. Specific instructions on how to complete the interrogatories.
III. Definitions of key terms.
IV. The actual question set.
V. A place for the answerer to sign and attest to the truth of the answers, under oath.
VI. A certificate of service, showing that the attorney properly served the document on the opposing party.
Be TruthfulHow should you go about answering interrogatories? The first requirement is that you be truthful. Nothing will sink your case faster - or land you in more hot water with the court - than knowingly providing an untruthful answer either in discovery or at trial. The law and legal procedure are all based on the expectation that the parties involved will give honest information about case facts. Interrogatories are no exception to this rule. Even though they are answered outside of a courtroom and beyond the eyes of a judge or jury, interrogatories are still to be answered under oath, meaning that you are presenting facts as truthful to the court. Interrogatories represent an opposing party's attempt to glean sensitive information from you which may bolster their case against you; therefore, they are not designed to be pleasant, and you will probably be rather uncomfortable in answering them. However, hiding facts or misrepresenting the truth in your answers is not only immoral and unethical, but it is illegal, and could cause severe problems for you. You can avoid those problems simply by answering truthfully.
Be Strategic: Limit AnswersHaving said that, the next consideration - and one that is very close in importance to being truthful - is the matter of strategy. An opponent will be submitting interrogatories to you to try to get critical information from you, and to help them build their case. You should therefore take two defensive approaches when answering interrogatories from an opposing party, wherever possible: be cautious to limit the amount of information given, and where possible, block your opponent's questions, through objections, so that you don't have to answer them at all.
Limiting the amount of information given in answers is critical in this process, because the rules of civil procedure in most states are designed to allow parties to get a large amount of information from opposing parties. Interrogatories are often very broad in their requests, and are seeking as much information as possible. Often, because there may be a lot of emotion or tension wrapped up in a case, responding parties tend to go overboard in their interrogatory answers, seeing it as a way to communicate their frustration or anger to the other side. This, however, is often a poor strategy. Usually the best bet is to give a concise, brief, truthful answer that gets at the heart of the question, but gives little else.
As an example, we can use a sample question from a divorce case, such as "state the reasons why you believe you would be the better parent to have full custody of the children, and why X (the opposing party) should not have full custody of the children." Many times in this situation, the party receiving the question - who may be emotionally stressed and fatigued as a result of going through the process of a divorce - will go on a rampage in their answer, and blurt out all of their feelings towards the other party. They may give an answer similar to this: "I am definitely the better parent to have custody of our children. X has a drinking problem and they were never there for me or the kids! X was not faithful in our marriage and sets a horrible example, whereas I never cheated even once! I care only about my children and do everything I can for them, they are the focus of my world. All of our friends say that I should have the kids and that X would be lucky to even get visitations. I have never been drunk or done drugs, and everyone knows that I'm the better parent ..."
This is not a good answer. Remember that interrogatories are not trials, and even though they are to be answered under oath, the answers given in interrogatories are not the basis for deciding the outcome of a trial. Interrogatories are merely tools to be used to prepare for trial, and a long, angry, unwieldy answer such as the one given above could expose the answerer to additional inquiries and credibility problems (for example, if it turns out you actually had done drugs or been drunk in the past, that could come back to haunt you), or provide information to the other side that they didn't even know (such as the fact that the answerer had been discussing the divorce case with several friends). You will have plenty of time to voice your frustration and tell your side of the story at a later point in the process, but for the interrogatories, keep it cool and simple. A better answer to the above question would have been as follows: "I believe that X is not suited to have full custody, due to a track record of inconsistent parenting, a questionable level of commitment to the children's academic success, and a documented drinking problem which creates an unsafe and unstable environment for the children. I believe that I would be the best parent to have full custody, because I am steadily employed, I have no record of abuse of alcohol or drugs, and my commitment to my children's schooling and extracurricular activities is well-established."
Be Strategic: Use ObjectionsThe second piece of strategy comes in the form of objections. Objections are better than merely limiting answers, because a successful objection will often allow a party to refrain from answering the question altogether, so that no limitation is needed. Parties may object to interrogatories on several grounds. Some examples of common interrogatory objections are as follows:
1. Interrogatories exceed allowable number: Some state and local rules put a cap on the number of interrogatory questions that may be asked by each party. Usually this number is between 20 and 30. If the opposing party goes over that limit, a successful objection may be raised.
2. Information already supplied, or repetitive request: Often interrogatories will contain redundant or repetitive questions. This objection prevents the answering party from having to submit the same information over and over.
3. Improper purpose: This objection can be used if the answering party believes the question is being asked for ulterior motives (for example, to glean personal information not pertinent to the case).
4. Irrelevant inquiry: Objections under this category may be phrased a number of different ways, including "will not lead to admissible evidence," "irrelevant evidence," "will not lead to discoverable evidence," or "not relevant." However, the essence of each of these objections is similar: that is, they pose an objection to the question being asked on the grounds that it is not relevant to the case at hand.
There are many other powerful objections that may be used for the purpose of defending against interrogatories, which can be found by either researching online or in trial practice resources, or consulting with an experienced attorney. Skillfully employing targeted objections to interrogatory requests can go a long way towards minimizing the number and scope of the answers which must be provided, and limiting the interrogatories' effectiveness to the opposing party.
SummaryReceiving interrogatories can be an intimidating and mysterious experience for non-lawyers. However, with some hard work, research, and, if possible, the assistance of a good attorney, the process can be effectively completed without too much stress. If you have questions or would like assistance with your legal matter, please contact the Tyson Law Firm, P.C. at any time.