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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: DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY (DOC. 352)

          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 June 20, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to compel discovery and provide complete, responsive answers to interrogatories pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 26 and 37(a). Specifically, Defendants request that Ms. Jenkins supplement Interrogatories 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 14, 19, and 25, as well as Document Requests 1-19. ECF 352 at 3.

         For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion to compel discovery is granted in part and denied in part.

         Defendants' request for costs and fees is denied. Additionally, the Court will grant a protective order surrounding Plaintiffs' medical, mental health, financial, and other personal records, as well as around information pertaining to minor Isabella Jenkins-Miller. Plaintiffs must submit a protective order to the Court within ten days.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 25, 2019, Defendants served a first set of interrogatories and discovery requests on Plaintiff Janet Jenkins. ECF 352-1 at 1. Ms. Jenkins served her responses on May 3, 2019. Id. Defendants aver that these responses were incomplete and did not include any responsive documents. Id. at 2. On April 10, 2019, Plaintiffs' counsel delivered to all opposing counsel a proposed stipulated two-tier blanket protective order to keep certain documents, information, and other items produced or obtained in the course of discovery confidential. ECF 358 at 3. Defendants did not agree to this proposed protective order. Id. On May 23, 2019, counsel for both parties met and conferred, and Plaintiffs' counsel agreed to supplement seven interrogatories and clarify several objections. ECF 352-1 at 2. Defendants contend that they never received these responses. Id.

         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). “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).

         Regarding interrogatories, Fed.R.Civ.P. 33 states that, “[a]n interrogatory may relate to any matter that may be inquired into under Rule 26(b). An interrogatory is not objectionable merely because it asks for an opinion or contention that relates to fact or the application of law to fact, but the court may order that the interrogatory need not be answered until designated discovery is complete, or until a pretrial conference or some other time . . . The grounds for objecting to an interrogatory must be stated with specificity.” Id.

         DISCUSSION

         A.) INTERROGATORIES

         I. Interrogatory 2

         Interrogatory 2 requests Ms. Jenkins “[i]identify each job, including the annual gross income of that job [Ms. Jenkins has], held from 2004 to the present.” ECF 352-2 at 5. Plaintiff objects to this inquiry as irrelevant, causing embarrassment and annoyance, and that it is unduly intrusive. Id. In her response to the interrogatory, Ms. Jenkins has answered that “since 2004, Plaintiff has been self-employed and operated a child care and preschool, or has been a stay-at-home parent.” Id. Defendants claim that this is an insufficiently thorough response to the inquiry.

         Defendants have met their burden of showing that the information sought is relevant to an issue in this case, and proportional to its needs. As they argue, Ms. Jenkins seeks compensatory damages for lost business as a result of having to close her daycare center in order to attend court hearings and meetings with law enforcement surrounding her daughter's disappearance. ECF 168 at 11. Ms. Jenkins' overall financial situation, and specifically her income before and after the events at issue in this case, is a relevant inquiry to determine how Defendants' alleged actions impacted her finances and led her to close the daycare center. Given the importance of such an assessment to this case, this discovery is proportional to its needs. Besides relevance, Plaintiffs' main objection to this request appears to lie in the confidential nature of the information sought. ECF 358 at 11. However, the entrance of a protective order that would limit the dissemination of this information (discussed below) should mitigate these concerns. Defendants' motion on this request is granted.

         II. Interrogatories 4 and 25

         Interrogatories 4 and 25 request information regarding Ms. Jenkins' mental health and mental health treatment. ECF 352. Defendants argue that this information directly bears on Ms. Jenkins' claims of emotional distress, and is thus relevant and proportional to the case. Id. at 6-7. Plaintiff objects to the interrogatory as irrelevant, causing embarrassment and annoyance, and unduly intrusive. Id.

         Defendants have properly shown that the information sought bears on key issues in the case. Id. In a matter concerning tortious infliction of emotional distress, the claimant's mental health records directly bear on the key issue of damages. The information sought could contain helpful evidence as to the effects of Isabella's disappearance on Ms. Jenkins. Plaintiffs do not provide specific facts demonstrating that this information would be irrelevant or disproportionate to the inquiries in the case. ECF 358. While Ms. Jenkins does raise appreciable concerns regarding the sensitivity of this information, the enactment of a protective order should mitigate their seriousness. Hence, Defendants' motion to compel Interrogatories 4 and 25 is granted.

         III. Interrogatory 6

         Interrogatory 6 requests information regarding Jenkins' dating history upon separation from Lisa Miller. ECF 352 at 5. Defendants aver that this information is relevant to evaluate Plaintiffs' emotional distress claim. Id. Plaintiffs object to this request as irrelevant to the case, and as causing embarrassment and annoyance. Id.

         The relevant inquiry here is whether information as to Ms. Jenkins' romantic history is relevant to determining whether she incurred emotional distress as a result of Isabella's disappearance. “If the evidence sought is not relevant, and thus inadmissible, and it does not appear that the evidence sought will lead to evidence that is admissible, then the court can properly limit discovery.” Mitchell v. Hutchings, 116 F.R.D. 481 (D. Utah 1987). Pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 401, “evidence is relevant if it has any tendency ...


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