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Stiffler v. Frontline Asset Strategies, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 26, 2019

CHARLES STIFFLER a/k/a CHARLIE STIFFLER, Plaintiff,
v.
FRONTLINE ASSET STRATEGIES, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          Joseph F. Saporito, Jr., United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion to Compel and for Sanctions (Doc. 40), filed pursuant to Rule 37(a) and (b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Originally, the plaintiff sought an order compelling the defendant to answer a particular interrogatory and produce documents responsive to a particular request for production, plus an award of reasonable attorney fees incurred by the plaintiff as a result of the defendants' discovery nonfeasance. Since the motion was filed, the defendant has apparently complied with its discovery obligations, belatedly, but the plaintiff continues to request that the defendant be sanctioned with an award to the plaintiff of his reasonable attorney fees.

         On August 22, 2018, the plaintiff served the defendant by mail with a set of written discovery requests. Interrogatory No. 11 requested that the defendant: “State your net worth for calendar years 2016, 2017 and 2018.” Document Request No. 10 requested that the defendant produce: “Defendant's financial reports, financial statements and tax returns for calendar years 2016, 2017 and 2018, including but not limited to any Documents concerning the Defendant's net worth for each said year.” Because these discovery requests were served by mail, the defendant's response was due on or before September 24, 2018. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 6(d); Fed.R.Civ.P. 33(b)(2); Fed.R.Civ.P. 34(b)(2)(A); Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(3).

         On September 28, 2019, having received no timely response to his interrogatories and requests for production, [1] the plaintiff contacted the Court to request a discovery conference. (Doc. 13.) The Court scheduled a telephonic conference on the discovery dispute and ordered the parties to continue to engage in good faith efforts to resolve the dispute in the meantime. (Doc. 14.)

         In lieu of proceeding with the scheduled discovery conference, the parties submitted a stipulation resolving the discovery dispute on October 18, 2019. (Doc. 23.) Later that same day, the Court entered an order approving the terms of the stipulation. (Doc. 24.) In relevant part, the stipulated order provided that responses to certain discovery requests not at issue here would be deferred, but that: “Defendant withdraws all objections to all other discovery that Plaintiff has served and will serve full and complete responses to that discovery, without further objection of any kind, by October 25, 2018.” (Id. ¶ 2.)

         On October 25, 2018, the defendant served its responses to the outstanding written discovery, together with a proposed confidentiality order. These responses are not in the record before us but, based on the materials that are, the defendant apparently asserted both new and previously withdrawn objections to the plaintiff's discovery requests, despite its stipulation that all objections had been withdrawn and no further objections would be raised. In addition, no documents were produced, with the defendant advising that documents would not be produced until the plaintiff executed the proposed confidentiality order. (See Doc. 28; Doc. 28-3.)

         On October 30, 2018, the plaintiff contacted the Court to request permission to file a formal Rule 37 motion to compel and for sanctions. (Doc. 28.) On November 8, 2018, the parties participated in a telephonic conference concerning the discovery dispute and the proposed confidentiality order. (Doc. 32.) The Court entered the confidentiality order requested by the defendant. (Doc. 33.) The Court also ordered the defendant to “provide to plaintiff all outstanding responses to requests for production of documents and answers to interrogatories on or before November 15, 2018.” (Doc. 34.) During the discovery conference, the Court advised that, if the plaintiff was not satisfied with those responses, he could engage in formal discovery motion practice. (Doc. 32.)

         That same day, Thursday, November 8, 2018, the defendant served its revised or amended written discovery responses. (Doc. 40-2.) In response to Interrogatory No. 11, the defendant answered with a general reference to its forthcoming document production: “Frontline refers Plaintiff to the documents produced in response to Plaintiff's Request for Documents.”[2] (Id. at 10.) The defendant responded to Document Request No. 10 in substantially the same fashion: “Frontline refers Plaintiff to the documents produced herein.” (Id. at 3.) The defendant provided the promised document production as an email attachment on Monday, November 12, 2018. (Doc. 40-3.) In that same email, counsel for the defendant provided an informal, unsworn representation with respect to the then-current net worth of the defendant, apparently in response to Interrogatory No. 11, which had requested the company's net worth for 2016, 2017, and 2018.[3]

         On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, the plaintiff emailed the defendant to request supplementation of its discovery responses. In particular, the plaintiff complained that the defendant had failed to specify which documents produced were responsive to Document Request No. 10, and that it had failed to sufficiently respond to Interrogatory No. 11.[4] On Monday, November 19, 2018, the defendant responded by letter, advising that it would not amend its discovery responses to identify responsive documents with any greater specificity, but it would supplement its answer to Interrogatory No. 11 “immediately with the appropriate documents.” (Doc. 40-4, at 2.)

         On December 5, 2018, the plaintiff emailed the defendant to inquire about the promised supplemental document production. (Doc. 44, at 6- 7.) It is unclear from the record before us whether the defendant responded to this inquiry, but it did not at that time produce the promised documents or disclose the requested information.

         On December 14, 2018, having received no further disclosure or production with respect to the defendant's net worth, the plaintiff filed the instant motion to compel and for sanctions. (Doc. 40; see also Doc. 41.) On December 15, 2018-thirty days after “all outstanding responses to requests for production of documents and answers to interrogatories” were due to be served-the defendant produced the responsive financial documents in its possession. (Doc. 44, at 7.)

         On January 28, 2019, the defendant filed its brief in opposition to the motion to compel and for sanctions. (Doc. 44.) In addition to providing its own version of the events leading up to the plaintiff's motion to compel and for sanctions, arguing that it substantially complied with the October 18, 2018, stipulated order and that it was substantially justified in withholding discovery while it sought a confidentiality order, the defendants also argued against the imposition of sanctions based on the plaintiff's allegedly similarly untimely and defective responses to the defendant's discovery requests.[5]

         On February 11, 2019, the plaintiff filed its reply brief. (Doc. 45.) The plaintiff noted that, since filing his motion, the requested information and documents had been produced. Nevertheless, the plaintiff argued that sanctions should be imposed. Specifically, the plaintiff requested an award of reasonable attorney fees pursuant to Rule 37(a) and (b).

         Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides the enforcement mechanism for what generally are otherwise self-executing discovery procedures. Under Rule 37(a), a party seeking discovery may move for an order compelling the responding party to answer Rule 33 interrogatories or to produce documents responsive to a Rule 34 request for production. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(a). In addition, this rule provides that, if the requested discovery is provided after a Rule 37(a) motion is filed, we must require the responding party or its attorney to pay the movant's reasonable expenses incurred in making the motion, ...


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