An interrogatory is a method of discovery that is used to gather or obtain facts and information that may be relevant to a pending suit. An interrogatory is a written question about the case that is prepared by one party to a case—or, more commonly, the party’s attorney—and served on the other party or the other party’s witnesses. An interrogatory is generally served as a part of a larger set of interrogatories, which consists of a series of written questions about the case. Answers to the interrogatories are given under oath. Put another way, answering parties or witnesses are usually required to sign sworn statements stating that the answers that they provided are true and correct.

In general, each interrogatory must be a simple, direct question that is aimed at a discrete topic or set of facts. However, each set of interrogatories may cover any range of topics that are either directly relevant to a case or reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of additional relevant information. Most jurisdictions limit the number of interrogatories that parties may serve on witnesses. For example, under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, absent court orders or written agreements from other parties, one may not serve more than 25 written interrogatories on a particular witness.

Answering parties must ordinarily provide their answers within prescribed time limits, usually within 30 days of receipt. More often than not, answers to interrogatories are crafted by a party’s attorney, who may pose objections to certain questions. Interrogatories that are not objectionable must be answered, and incomplete or evasive answers may subject answering parties or their attorneys to judicial sanctions. The grounds for objecting to specific interrogatories may include, among other things, that they seek privileged information, that they request information that is neither relevant nor likely to lead to the discovery of relevant information, or that they wish to obtain information that is readily available to the opposing party. If a certain interrogatory is met with an objection, the party serving the interrogatory must either abandon the question or seek the court’s assistance in compelling the witness to answer.

As noted above, interrogatories are a method of discovery. They, along with depositions, requests for documents, requests for admissions, and mental and physical examinations, are used during the pretrial discovery phase of suits. The discovery phase begins after the initial pleadings are filed, in other words, after a plaintiff’s complaint and the defendant’s answer, and it is the period in which the parties gather facts, testimony, documents, and other physical evidence that may be useful for trial or for preparing dispositive motions such as requests for summary judgment.

Interrogatories as a method of discovery serve a number of useful purposes and can be expected in almost every suit that proceeds to the discovery phase. Interrogatories can be extremely useful in obtaining essential background facts and information, the names and contact information of other witnesses or individuals with relevant information, the location or existence of relevant documents and physical evidence, and the exact dates and locations of important events. However, because answers to interrogatories are usually crafted by a party’s attorney and lack the spontaneity of a deposition, they do not provide the same opportunity to control evasive answers, gauge a witness’s credibility, or pursue new lines of questioning that are prompted by a witness’s answers. For this reason, interrogatories are often served on witnesses before taking their depositions. The answers that witnesses provide in their interrogatories may then serve as a foundation for depositions, while the witnesses’ answers to interrogatories can be challenged or expanded on during depositions.

Insofar as interrogatories are so widely used to gather facts, information, and testimony before trial, they should be expected in any education-related suit that proceeds to the discovery phase. Teachers, administrators, and other school officials that have facts or information regarding the incident or incidents that prompted litigation may be asked to answer written interrogatories. Those same individuals may also be asked to review the answers to interrogatories of other witnesses to evaluate whether their own understandings of the relevant events matches that of the other witnesses.

Christopher D. Shaw

See also Deposition; Electronic Document Retention

Further Readings

  • Garner, B. A. (Ed.). (1999). Black’s law dictionary (7th ed.). St. Paul, MN: West. 
  • Litigation. (2006). In H. S. Suskin, J. S. Solovy, J. Shaw, M. Neuemeier, B. Levenstam, J. C. Koch, et al. (2006). Federal litigation guide. New York: Mathew Bender.