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Philip Maier v. Rev. James W. Pall

May 17, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rambo


Presently before the court is a motion to compel responses to several discovery requests filed by Plaintiff Philip Maier, an inmate incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Dallas"). (Doc. 68.) Specifically, Plaintiff is seeking responses to three sets of interrogatories and a request for production of documents he previously served upon Defendants. For the reasons that follow, the motion to compel (Doc. 68) will be granted in part, deferred in part, and denied in part.

I. Background

Plaintiff initiated this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on July 23, 2009, as amended, April 1, 2011, against various Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC") employees. (Doc. 49.) In the amended complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendants are violating his First Amendment rights by refusing to give him access to certain religious materials.

Defendants filed an answer to the amended complaint on June 15, 2011. (Doc. 56.) On August 29, 2011, the court issued an amended order setting the deadline for completion of discovery for October 7, 2011. (Doc. 63.) After discovery closed, Plaintiff filed the instant motion to compel on November 1, 2011. (Doc. 68.) Outstanding are issues relating to discovery disputes regarding three separate interrogatories and a request for production of documents served upon Defendants. Those issues will be discussed herein.

II. Discussion

Generally, courts afford considerable latitude in discovery in order to ensure that litigation proceeds with "the fullest possible knowledge of the issues and facts before trial." Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495, 501 (1947). The polestar of discovery is relevance. Relevance for discovery purposes is defined broadly. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit discovery "regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense . . . . Relevant information need not be admissible at the trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). "[A]ll relevant material is discoverable unless an applicable evidentiary privilege is asserted. The presumption that such matter is discoverable, however, is defeasible." Pearson v. Miller, 211 F.3d 57, 65 (3d Cir. 2000). Rule 26(b)(2) authorizes a court to limit discovery where:

(i) the discovery sought is unreasonably cumulative or duplicative, or is obtainable from some other source that is more convenient, less burdensome, or less expensive; (ii) the party seeking discovery has had ample opportunity to obtain the information sought by discovery in the action; or (iii) the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit, considering the needs of the case, the amount in controversy, the parties' resources, the importance of the issues at stake in the action, and the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(c)(i)-(iii). However, when there is no doubt about relevance, a court should tend toward permitting discovery. Stabilus v. Haynsworth, Baldwin, Johnson & Greaves, P.A., 144 F.R.D. 258, 265-66 (E.D. Pa. 1992).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 allows a party who has received evasive or incomplete discovery responses to seek a court order compelling additional disclosure or discovery. The party seeking the order to compel must demonstrate the relevance of the information sought. The burden then shifts to the opposing party, who must demonstrate in specific terms why a discovery request does not fall within the broad scope of discovery or is otherwise privileged or improper. Goodman v. Wagner, 553 F. Supp. 255, 258 (E.D. Pa. 1982).

On at least three occasions during the discovery process in the instant matter, Plaintiff served interrogatories and a request for production of documents on the Defendants. Defendants responded to the requests by providing documentation or reserving the right to supplement their response at a later date, or by objecting on the basis of relevancy, privilege, or security concerns. (See Doc. 75.) At issue here are Defendants' objections to Plaintiff's first, second, and second supplemental interrogatories and one request for production of documents. The court will review the separate requests and responses thereto in order to resolve the instant discovery dispute and place the case back in a posture to be resolved.

A. Plaintiff's First Set of Interrogatories

Defendants have objected to several of Plaintiff's interrogatories from his first set of interrogatories. Those requests and objections are detailed as follows.

1. Interrogatory No. 6(b)(2)

In Interrogatory No. 6(b)(2), Plaintiff asked Defendant Pall to state whether he wrote by hand his name ("Chaplain Pall") on the envelope that was mailed to Plaintiff containing a Thor's Hammer, a religious item. (Doc. 68-1 at 8.) In his response, Defendant Pall objected, stating, "I cannot read the notation on the envelope." (Id.)

In the instant motion, Plaintiff asserts that he asked counsel for Defendants to arrange to have Defendant Pall examine the original envelope, presumably in the possession of SCI-Dallas officials, but this was not done. (Doc. 68 at 1.) In their response to the instant motion, Defendants argue, "Defendant Pall cannot be forced to respond, under oath, to an inquiry when he is unable to comprehend what he is being asked to identify." (Doc. 76 at 2.) However, in a set of exhibits filed by Plaintiff in connection with his reply briefing, Plaintiff attaches two photocopies of the envelope, one darker than the other, but both showing "Chaplain Pall" on the envelope. (Doc. 82 at 10-11.) Because the court has determined that the lighter-shaded hardcopy of this exhibit is clear enough to enable Defendant Pall to respond to Plaintiff's interrogatory here, the court will forward to Defendants a hardcopy of this exhibit and direct Defendants to further respond to this interrogatory after Defendant Pall has examined it.

2. Interrogatories Nos. 16(d)-(f), 16(i)

In Interrogatory No. 16(d), Plaintiff asked Defendant Klem for a definition of the designation "Security Threat Groups." (Doc. 68-1 at 12.) In Interrogatory No. 16(e), Plaintiff asked for an explanation of how a determination was made that the Thor's Hammer sent to him is a symbol used by Security Threat Groups. (Id. at 13.) In Interrogatory No. 16(f), Plaintiff asked for the identity of the Security Threat Groups that use the Thor's Hammer as a symbol. (Id.) In Interrogatory No. 16(i), Plaintiff asked for information on how runes could be used to pose a security threat or to manipulate other inmates. (Id. at 13-14.) In each response to these interrogatories, Defendants objected on the basis that the information sought by Plaintiff is kept confidential for security reasons. (Id. at 13-14.)

In the instant motion, Plaintiff requests that this information be provided to the court for in camera review. (Doc. 68 at 1.) In response, Defendants argue that disclosure of this information to Plaintiff would compromise the security of DOC institutions and the public. (Doc. 76 at 2-3.) In light of Plaintiff's request for in camera review, the court will direct Defendants to provide to the court the requested information for in camera review. As such, a ruling on this issue is deferred until the court has examined the submitted information.

3. Interrogatory No. 19(d)

In Interrogatory No. 19(d), Plaintiff asked Defendant Demming for evidence the Religious Accommodation Review Committee relied upon for its "negative decision that one inmate may use runes to manipulate another inmate." (Doc. 68-1 at 16.) In their response, Defendants objected on the basis that Defendant Demming is not authorized to speak for the entire Religious Accommodation Review Committee. (Id.)

In the instant motion, Plaintiff asserts that when he received Defendant Demming's response to this interrogatory, he rephrased the interrogatory in a later request, and Defendant Demming objected again, this time based on the fact that any response would pose a security risk. (See Doc. 71 at 10.) In their response, Defendants object on the basis of both of its previous responses to Plaintiff's interrogatory. (Doc. 76 at 3-4.) More specifically, Defendants claim that responding to this interrogatory would give Plaintiff an instruction manual on how to use contraband to manipulate other inmates. (Id. at 4.) Based on the court's decision above to review in camera any DOC manuals or other information on Security Threat Groups, see supra, a ruling on this issue will be deferred until the court has examined the submitted information.

4. Interrogatory No. 20

In Interrogatory No. 20, Plaintiff asked Defendant Demming to explain the comments made on a DC-53 form, Evaluations of Requests for Religious Accommodation, dated September 20, 2007. (Doc. 68-1 at 16.) In response, Defendants objected, stating that the comments on the DC-53 evaluation speak for themselves. (Id. at 17.)

In the instant motion, Plaintiff asserts, "Defendant Demming's response to this interrogatory is nonsensical in that there are no comments on Plaintiff's DC-53 on Sept. 20, 2007, by Demming. Plaintiff seeks an order compelling Defendant Demming to disclose his written comments on this document. Perhaps the comments are in invisible ink or type." (Doc. 68 at 2.) In their response, Defendants assert that Defendant Demming cannot be compelled to explain comments that do not exist, nor can he be compelled to explain the comments of other individuals. (Doc. 76 at 4.)

The court finds that this is an adequate response to the interrogatory and will not direct further response. Therefore, the motion to compel will be ...

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