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Sippel Development Co., Inc. v. Western Surety Co.

April 13, 2007

SIPPEL DEVELOPMENT CO., INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
WESTERN SURETY COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge McVerry Magistrate Judge Hay

MEMORANDUM ORDER

The instant case arises out of the construction project of a Sam's Club in Warren/Niles, Ohio. The owner of the project was Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. ("Wal-Mart"); the general contractor was Westra Construction Inc. ("Westra"); and Sippel Development Company, Inc. ("Sippel") was a subcontractor. The Warren/Niles contract was one of several contracts awarded to Westra by Wal-Mart for work on stores in various locations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Wal-Mart required Westra to obtain payment and performance bonds on each project. Western Surety Company ("Western") bonded the Warren/Niles project.

Prior to the completion of the Warren/Niles project, Westra ceased its business operations. Thereafter, Sippel filed the instant suit against Western on the payment bond, alleging an unpaid contract balance of $1,782,422.21. A substantial portion of this sum relates to a change order request by Westra for extra work by Sippel, which Wal-Mart apparently contested.*fn1

Western joined Wal-Mart as a third-party defendant in this action. In turn, Wal-Mart filed a counterclaim against Western on this project and a third-party complaint against National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford ("National") on the performance bond on another project, namely Harbor Creek, Pennsylvania. Wal-Mart and the sureties settled all claims against each other on all of the Westra projects, including the Warren/Niles and Harbor Creek projects, and all claims filed by Western, National and Wal-Mart against each other in this action were dismissed with prejudice by Order dated June 21, 2006, effectively removing Wal-Mart and National from the suit.

During the course of discovery, Sippel requested that Western produce the following documents:

Requested Production No. 1:

Please produce any and all agreements between Western and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.[] relating to any and all settlements, global or otherwise, of the disputed matter between them relating to this and/or any and all other lawsuits relating to Westra's entire book of contracts with Wal-Mart.

Requested Production No. [2]: Please produce any and all correspondence relating ant and all agreements between Western and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.[] relating to any and all settlements, global or otherwise, of the disputed matters between them relating to this and/or any and all other lawsuits relating to Westra's entire book of contracts with Wal-Mart.

See Western Surety Company's Response to Request for Production of Documents by Sippel Development Company, Inc. [Exh. A to dkt. 56]. Western objected to these requests on several grounds, including relevance and privilege. Id.

This court conducted a telephone discovery conference to determine the sufficiency of Western's objections. In the course of this conference, Sippel agreed to limit its request for production to a single document, i.e., the settlement agreement between Western and Wal-Mart that resolved all of the above-noted projects, including the Warren/Niles project, and ultimately led to the dismissal of all claims between Western and Wal-Mart in this action. This court then ordered the parties to brief the issue of production of the specific settlement agreement. See dkt. entries 56 and 57. Western provided a copy of the settlement agreement at issue to the court for in camera review.

Western argues that the settlement agreement is protected by the settlement privilege. Western has not pointed to any authority to support the existence of a settlement privilege. In our view, the courts which have addressed this question have correctly determined that Federal Rule of Evidence 408 does not create a discovery privilege but, rather, addresses whether evidence relating to settlement discussions is admissible at trial. Morse/Diesel, Inc. v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland, et al. ("Jackson"), 122 F.R.D. 447, 449 (S.D.N.Y. 1988)(" 'The policy of allowing open and free negotiations between parties by excluding conduct or statements made during the course of these discussions is not intended to conflict with the liberal rules of discovery embodied in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ... Therefore, a party is not allowed to use Rule 408 as a screen for curtailing his adversary's rights of discovery.' ") (quoting 2 J. Weinstein & M. Berger, Evidence ¶ 408[1] at 408-15 to 408-16 (1986)); Morse/Diesel, Inc. v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland, et al. ("Trinity"), 142 F.R.D. 80, 83-85 (S.D.N.Y. 1992); Center for Auto Safety v. Department of Justice, 576 F.Supp. 739, 749 n. 23 (D.D.C. 1983)("While [Rule 408's] intent is to foster settlement negotiations, the sole means chosen to effectuate that end is a limitation on their admission ... for the purpose of proving liability at trial, not the application of a broad discovery privilege. Otherwise, parties would be unable to discover compromised offers which could be offered for a relevant purpose."); NAACP Legal Defense Fund v. Department of Justice, 612 F.Supp. 1143, 1146 (D.D.C. 1985)(Rule 408 "was never intended to be a broad discovery privilege"). Accordingly, we reject Western's claim of settlement privilege.

Western also claims that the settlement agreement is confidential and not subject to disclosure. As Sippel notes, the mere fact that settling parties have agreed to maintain the confidentiality of their agreement does not automatically serve to shield the agreement from discovery. Directv, Inc. v. Puccinelli, 224 F.R.D. 677, 685 (D. Kansas 2004). We note that several courts have addressed the question of whether a non-settling party should have access to a settlement agreement that is confidential by agreement of the signatories, as is the case here. "None of these courts have blithely permitted discovery, but rather require some heightened showing of relevance or need." Doe v. Methacton School District, 164 F.R.D. 175, 176 (E.D.Pa. 1995)(citing cases).

Sippel asserts that the settlement agreement is relevant for the following reasons:

(1) to demonstrate that Western and Wal-Mart have conferred upon Sippel the status of a third-party beneficiary; (2) to counter Western's defenses, specifically, the "pay when paid" defense; (3) to show bias or prejudice; and (4) to demonstrate whether Western has taken a course of action in the settlement agreement that now makes it impossible for a resolution to be had on ...


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