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Frazier v. Shinseki

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 22, 2014

JAMES FRAZIER, JR., Plaintiff,
ERIC K. SHINSEKI Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Defendant.


TERRENCE F. McVERRY, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION (ECF No. 38) of the Court's March 14th Order granting DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY (ECF No. 36). Defendant filed a response in opposition to the Motion for Reconsideration (ECF No. 42). Plaintiff, with leave of Court, submitted a reply brief (ECF No. 46). The Motion is ripe for disposition.

On March 13, 2014, Defendant filed a Motion to Compel discovery responses from Plaintiff. On March 14, 2014, the Court granted the Motion, though it did so without having permitted Plaintiff to have an opportunity to file a response. Plaintiff filed this Motion on March 24, 2014, requesting that the Court reconsider its prior Order granting the Motion to Compel. The following day, the Court temporarily suspended its March 14th Order, pending the resolution of the Motion for Reconsideration.

Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) governs the scope of discovery and provides, in relevant part, that the parties are permitted to "obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the claim or defense of any party." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26. The inquiry is not, however, whether the material acquired will later be admissible at trial. Id. Information is relevant for the purpose of discovery if "the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Id. Rulings regarding the proper scope of discovery, and the extent to which discovery may be compelled, are matters consigned to a court's discretion and judgment. Thus, issues relating to the scope of discovery permitted under Rule 26 rest in the sound discretion of the Court, Wisniewski v. Johns-Manville Corp., 812 F.2d 81, 90 (3d Cir. 1987), and a court's decisions regarding the conduct of discovery, and whether to compel disclosure of certain information, will be disturbed only upon a showing of an abuse of discretion, Marroquin-Manriquez v. I.N.S., 699 F.2d 129, 134 (3d Cir. 1983).

Legal Analysis

Defendant's Motion sought to compel the production of two categories of information: (1) records related to Plaintiff's claim for emotional-distress damages; and (2) employment-related records. In his Motion for Reconsideration, Plaintiff objects to the Court's decision granting Defendant's Motion for several reasons, which will be addressed seriatim.

1. Medical and Psychotherapist Treatment Records

Plaintiff argues that information and documents related to medical or psychotherapeutic treatment he may have received for his alleged emotional distress are not subject to discovery because he has only alleged a "garden variety" emotional distress claim. Thus, he contends, he has not placed his mental health "at issue, " and the sought-after materials are privileged. The Court cannot agree, as the information is relevant and not protected by privilege.

First, the information and records clearly may "become relevant to establish, depending on the evidence Plaintiff presents at trial to support a claim for emotional distress damages, that there were causes other than [his] termination that caused her emotional distress." Eggering v. MHP, Inc., No. 10-1794, 2011 WL 6029956, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 5, 2011) (citations omitted). Second, Plaintiff's privilege argument misses the mark. "It is clear that, when a party places [his] mental status at issue in litigation, [he] waives the therapist-patient privilege." Waggaman v. Villanova Univ., No. 04-4447, 2006 WL 2045486, at *2 (E.D. Pa. July 14, 2006). While "[i]t is less clear that a plaintiff places [his] mental status at issue simply by including in [his] complaint a prayer for garden variety' emotional distress damages (as opposed to asserting as a claim an element of which is emotional distress or calling the therapist as a witness), " district courts in this Circuit have "consistently espoused a broad view of waiver and held that a request for damages based on emotional distress, without more, places the plaintiff's mental state at issue and waives the privilege." Id. (citations omitted) (emphasis added). This Court is convinced that this is the correct view. Otherwise, a plaintiff would be permitted "to assert a claim for emotional distress damages and simultaneously disallow Defendants to discover information into the possible causes of that stress." McKinney v. Delaware Cnty. Mem'l Hosp., No. 08-1054, 2009 WL 750181, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 20, 2009).

The case upon which Plaintiff primarily relies, Kuminka v. Atlantic Cnty., ___ F.Appx. ___, 2014 WL 44046 (3d Cir. Jan. 7, 2014), does not command a different result. In that case, the Court of Appeals was tasked with resolving a question about whether a plaintiff had placed her mental condition "in controversy" for the purpose of conducting a court-ordered independent medical exam ("IME") under Fed.R.Civ.P. 35(a)(1).[1] Id. at *1-2. "The general consensus, " the Court of Appeals explained, "is that garden variety emotional distress allegations that are part and parcel of the plaintiff's underlying claim are insufficient to place the plaintiff's mental condition in controversy for purposes of Rule 35(a)." Id. at *1 (citation and quotation marks omitted). The Court of Appeals' language, however, cannot be read as broadly as Defendant desires, for "courts have consistently made a distinction between the in controversy' requirement in the context of Rule 35(a) and Rule 26(b). " McKinney, 2009 WL 750181, at *5 (citing Turner v. Imperial Stores, 161 F.R.D. 89, 95 (S.D. Cal.1995)) (emphasis in original); accord Bowen v. Parking Auth. of City of Camden, 214 F.R.D. 188, 195 (D.N.J. 2003). "Thus, while demonstrating the presence of an additional element, other than the mere filing of a claim for emotional distress damages, may be necessary to satisfy the in controversy' prong when a Defendant moves pursuant to Rule 35(a), such is not necessarily the case when a Defendant moves, as here, pursuant to Rule 26(b). " Id. (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the Court reaffirms its ruling that Defendant is entitled to discovery of information that could reasonably bear on his claim for emotional distress damages, including any medical and psychotherapeutic treatment records. Defendant should not, however, interpret this as an invitation to engage in a fishing expedition into Plaintiff's past medical history. "The scope of the inquiry must be limited to whether, and to what extent, the alleged [discriminatory conduct] caused [Plaintiff] to suffer emotional harm" or whether other sources could have caused that harm. Bowen, 214 F.R.D. at 195-96 (internal citations, quotation marks, and alterations omitted).

2. Employment-Related Records

In his motion, Defendant sought to compel the production of three types of employment-related records: (1) information related to Plaintiff's prior employment history (Interrogatory Nos. 16 and 19); (2) information related to discrimination, retaliation, or other employment-related complaints filed by Plaintiff against prior employers (Interrogatory No. 15); and (3) information related to Plaintiff's attempts to seek other employment since the alleged adverse employment actions in this case took place (Interrogatory No. 18).[2] Plaintiff contends that the Court wrongly decided Defendant's Motion to Compel because the requested materials are irrelevant. Defendant responds that

[t]he information and documents Defendant is specifically seeking-which is discoverable, relevant to Plaintiff's claims for damages, could lead to evidence regarding Plaintiff's character for truthfulness, and would be necessary for review by a Rule 35 expert-includes (1) whether Plaintiff has previous discipline related to threatening or violent behavior; (2) whether any previous discipline led to his filing administrative or civil actions which would contain sworn statements by Plaintiff; (3) whether Plaintiff has been subject to any fitness for ...

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