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Jenkins v. Miller

United States District Court, D. Vermont

October 29, 2019

JANET JENKINS
v.
KENNETH L. MILLER ET. AL., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER: PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY (DOC. 361)

          William K. Sessions, III District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff Janet Jenkins, for herself and as next friend of her daughter Isabella Miller-Jenkins, has brought suit against several individuals and organizations, alleging that they kidnapped and conspired to kidnap Isabella. Plaintiffs assert claims of commission of, and conspiracy to, commit an intentional tort of kidnapping and conspiracy to violate civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3).

         On July 23, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a motion to compel discovery pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 26, 34, and 37. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs served a request for discovery on the Liberty Counsel Defendants on June 27, 2018. ECF 361-1, 2. On October 15, 2018, Defendants Liberty Counsel and Rena Lindevaldsen provided substantially identical responses and objections to those Requests, but produced no documents. ECF 361-3, 4. On January 15, 2019, Defendant Lindevaldsen made an initial production of documents totaling 346 pages, 315 of which were grayscale printouts from Facebook. After conferences in February and April of 2019, Defendants agreed to produce responsive documents on May 10, 2019. ECF 361-55.

         On June 10, 2019, Liberty Counsel provided substantially identical responses and objections to Plaintiffs' Requests. ECF 361-7. Liberty Counsel also made a production of 225 pages, 224 of which consisted of grayscale printouts from Facebook, YouTube, and Liberty Counsel's own websites. ECF 361-8 at 2. Lindevaldsen produced no additional documents. Id. Defendants did not produce privilege logs for either production. Id. Liberty Counsel and Lindevalsen have produced a combined total of 571 pages in response, of which 539 pages are printouts from publicly available websites.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure defines the scope of discovery as including “any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” The Supreme Court has broadly construed the scope of discovery “to encompass any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to another matter that could bear on” the claims or defenses, and that is proportional to the needs of the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1); Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340, 351 (1978). Discovery is neither limited to the issues raised by the pleadings, nor to the merits of a case. Oppenheimer, 431 U.S. at 351.

         In determining whether a discovery request is proportional to the disputed issues, Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1) directs trial courts to consider “the importance of the issue at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Rule 26 vests the trial judge with broad discretion over making these determinations. Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 598 (1998).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Requests 4 - 7

         Requests 4, 5, and 6 seek all of Defendants' documents and communications concerning Janet Jenkins, Isabella Miller-Jenkins, and Lisa Miller. ECF 361-1, 2. Request 7 seeks all communications with Isabella Miller-Jenkins. Defendants object to each of these requests as “vague, overbroad, and unduly burdensome . . . [and] not proportional to the needs of this case.” ECF 361-3, 4. Defendants further contend that Plaintiffs' Requests would force Liberty Counsel to review thousands of documents, straining the organization's resources; they suggest that the volume of requested materials indicates bad faith on the part of Plaintiffs and Plaintiffs' Counsel. ECF 365. Hence, Defendants refuse to conduct any search until Plaintiffs narrow them by subject matter. Plaintiffs argue, however, that the Request is proportional to the case, and that Defendants have failed to base their objection to these Requests in any particularized facts. Plaintiffs have also offered to narrow Requests 4 - 7 based on the number and type of documents found during Defendant's search, but contend that any narrowing before an actual search is conducted would be premature.

         Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1) requires the court to ensure that all discovery requests are proportional to disputed issues. In making this determination, courts are directed to consider “the importance of the issue at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Rule 26(b)(2)(C)(i)-(iii) authorizes a court to limit otherwise permissible discovery where, among other things, the discovery sought is “unreasonably cumulative, ” the party seeking the discovery has had “ample opportunity” to obtain the information sought, or “the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.”

         Decisions regarding proportionality are squarely within a trial court's discretion; a court must consider a wide range of factors and make common sense decisions about whether or not the discovery in question goes too far. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26 Advisory Committee's Note (2015). “A party claiming that a request is important to resolve the issues should be able to explain the ways in which the underlying information bears on the issues as that party understands them.” Id; see N. Shore-Long Island Jewish Health Sys., Inc. v. MultiPlan, Inc., 325 F.R.D. 36, 47-48 (E.D.N.Y. 2018), John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Book Dog Books,LLC, 298 F.R.D. 184, 186 (S.D.N.Y 2014). Once a party requesting discovery has satisfied this threshold burden, the party resisting discovery must show specific facts demonstrating that the discovery is irrelevant or disproportional under Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). See McKissick v. Three Deer Ass'n Ltd. P'ship, 265 F.R.D. 55, 56-57 (D. Conn. 2010). Formulaic "boilerplate" language in a discovery objection on proportionality grounds cannot overcome the broad scope of discovery under Rule 26. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26 Advisory Committee's Note (2015). See also Mancia v. Mayflower Textile Servs. Co., 253 F.R.D. 354, 358 (D. Md. 2008) (Grimm, M.J.) (“[B]oilierplate objections that a ...


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