The extraterritorial reach of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure’s (Federal Rules) evidence-gathering provisions has long been a source of tension in foreign relations. The world we live in is increasingly interconnected and litigation between parties subject to multiple sovereigns has become more commonplace. Often, the discovery provisions of the Federal Rules come into conflict with foreign laws, such as banking secrecy or blocking statutes. Under such a predicament, a litigant that operates both abroad and in the United States is placed in a catch-22: produce discovery in violation of foreign law (and be subject to liability) or refuse to produce discovery (and be subject to sanctions). These types of scenarios can arise in almost every context and implicate the laws of many of nations. For example, consider the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) recent conflict with Deloitte’s branch in China regarding the production of documents. The SEC sought documents related to Deloitte’s audit of Longtop Financial Technologies, but Deloitte claimed it was barred from doing so by Chinese secrecy laws.
Courts have attempted to resolve these conflicts in a variety of ways. The United States Supreme Court has even offered guidance. Federal courts, however, continue to apply an inconsistent standard that balances various interests. Thus, it is common for courts to decide cases in this area in conflicting fashion. The conflicting decisions, however, run further than a typical circuit split. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York recently decided virtually identical cases involving the discovery obligations of Chinese banks differently. Neither judge was wrong in either of those cases; rather, the legal standard itself provides the judiciary with almost unlimited discretion to make subjective policy judgments.