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Chavis v. Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 486 Pension Plan

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 3, 2019

MICHAEL CHAVIS ET AL., Plaintiffs,
v.
PLUMBERS & STEAMFITTERS LOCAL 486 PENSION PLAN ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          J. Mark Coulson United States Magistrate Judge.

         On September 13, 2017, Michael Chavis and Stanley Taylorson, Jr. (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) filed suit against the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486 Union's Pension Plan (“the Plan”) and members of the Plan's Board of Trustees (“the Board”) (collectively “Defendants”). (ECF No. 1). Plaintiffs brought six claims for relief under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). Id. In addressing an earlier dispositive motion (ECF No. 33), Judge Hollander summarized the basis for these claims as Plaintiffs' assertion that their benefits were wrongfully suspended when Defendants erroneously concluded that Plaintiffs pursued “unauthorized employment” post-retirement, such that their benefits could not resume until they reached age 62 or until their unauthorized employment terminated, pursuant to certain IRS provisions linking benefits to “bona fide retirement.” (ECF No. 33 at 4-6).

         This case was referred to me for discovery and related scheduling matters.[1] I have reviewed Defendants' Motion for Protective Order, Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion to Compel Discovery, and the related Oppositions and Replies thereto. (ECF Nos. 57-60). The Court also held a brief conference call with Counsel on September 25, 2019 to discuss the pending discovery dispute. On both Motions, I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion for Protective Order and Plaintiffs' Motion to Compel Discovery each will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs allege that they are members of the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 486 Union (“the Union”) and participants in the Union's Pension Plan. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 1-2, 20, 74). Each Plaintiff claims that, after retiring from Union employment, the Defendant-Board initially approved their applications for pension benefits under the Plan, but later suspended those benefits wrongfully. Id. ¶¶ 28-32, 38-43, 80-82, 89-94. Plaintiffs also allege that the claims procedures they encountered in their appeals process were not “reasonable” under the Plan's terms, and therefore the Board's decisions are “entitled to no deference.” Id. ¶¶ 71-72, 134-35.

         Plaintiffs brought six claims for relief under ERISA. Id. ¶ 18. Defendants moved to dismiss all claims. (ECF No. 24). Judge Hollander dismissed two of Plaintiffs' claims on August 23, 2018 upon Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 34). Plaintiffs' remaining claims seek to: (1) recover benefits due, and enforce rights, under the Plan (Id. ¶¶ 136-45); (2) remove members of the Board of Trustees because they breached their fiduciary duties under ERISA (Id. ¶¶ 147-52, 160-67); and (3) to recover attorneys' fees (Id. ¶¶ 178-79). On March 29, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a Joint Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 45). Defendants filed a Cross Motion for Summary Judgment on April 12, 2019. (ECF No. 46). Both motions remain pending. On June 13, 2019, Defendants moved to stay discovery pending the Court's ruling on the motions for summary judgment. (ECF No. 51). The Court denied this request but agreed to extend the discovery deadlines to August 28, 2019. (ECF No. 56 at 1). On August 26, 2019, Judge Hollander granted the parties' Joint Motion to Amend the Scheduling Order and extended: the Requests for Admissions deadline until 30 days after this Court's Order on the pending discovery motions (ECF Nos. 57, 58, 59, 60); the Discovery Deadline for sixty days after this Court's Order regarding the same; and the Dispositive Motions deadline for 90 days after this Court's Order on the same. (ECF No. 63).[2]

         The current discovery disputes relate to redacted documents produced by Defendants in discovery, Defendants' objections to ten interrogatories served by Plaintiff Chavis, and the permissible scope of depositions. (ECF No. 57 ¶¶ 12-14, 16-17). The nature of these disputes will be outlined in turn.

         First, in response to Plaintiffs' Requests for Production, Defendants served upon Plaintiffs redacted versions of the following documents: communications between the Board and other plan participants regarding those plan participants' suspension of benefits; a report from Johnson & Krol, LLC (“the Report”) that contained recommendations concerning the suspension of both Plaintiffs' and other plan participants' benefits; and a copy of the Board's minutes from April 27, 2009 to September 28, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 12-14. Plaintiffs seek to compel Plaintiffs to produce the unredacted versions of these documents, particularly seeking the name, address and phone number of other Plan participants. (ECF No. 58-1 at 5).

         Second, on March 29, 2019, Plaintiff Chavis served his first set of Interrogatories on the Defendant Plan. (ECF No. 57-2 ¶ 16; ECF No. 58-2 ¶ 14). The first ten interrogatory questions sought information regarding the suspension of other Plan participants' benefits, and again centered around identifying those participants. (ECF No. 60-2 at 6-10). On June 6, 2019, the Defendant Plan sent a letter requesting that Plaintiff Chavis withdraw these ten Interrogatories. (ECF No. 57-2 ¶ 18; ECF No. 57-7 at 2). Plaintiff Chavis, by letter the same day, denied this request. (ECF No. 58-2 ¶ 16; ECF No. 58-3 at 2-4). On June 28, 2019, the Defendant Plan served its Response to Plaintiff's First Set of Interrogatories, wherein the Plan objected to each of the ten challenged Interrogatories. (ECF No. 60-2 at 6-10).

         Finally, Plaintiffs served upon various Defendants Notices to Take Depositions. (ECF No. 57-2 ¶ 17). Defendants object to the questioning of these witnesses, to the extent that those questions pertain to matters outside of the AR. (ECF No. 57-1 at 9, 16).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Motion for Protective Order

         Parties may obtain discovery “regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and otherwise proportional to the needs of the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), relevance, rather than admissibility, governs whether information is discoverable. Id. Importantly, the 2015 revisions to Rule 26(b)(1) removed the often-misconstrued phrase “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.”[3] This Amendment reminds parties that discovery must also be 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.” Id. Notably both parties and the Court have a shared responsibility to consider proportionality in resolving discovery disputes. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1) advisory committee's note to 2015 amendment.

         Rule 26(c)(1) permits courts to, “for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense. . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(c)(1). Further, both Rule 26(c)(1) and Local Rule 104.7 require that prior to requesting court action, the moving party confers with the other side in good faith to resolve the dispute and provide certification to that effect. Id. Where a protective order is sought, the moving party bears the burden of establishing good cause. CX Reinsurance Co. Ltd. v. City Homes, Inc., 2018 WL 5080944 (D. Md. Oct. 18, 2018) (citing Webb v. Green Tree Servicing, LLC, 283 F.R.D. 276, 278 (D. Md. 2012)). This burden requires more than “stereotyped and conclusory statements, ” but rather the “movant must present a ‘particular and specific demonstration of fact' as to why a protective order should issue.” Webb, 283 F.R.D. at 279 (quoting Baron Fin. Corp. v. Natanzon, 240 F.R.D. 200, 202 (D. Md. 2006)). “To determine whether the movant has met his burden, a court must balance the ‘interest of a party in obtaining the information versus the interest of his opponent in keeping the information confidential or in not requiring its production.'” Fidelity & Guaranty Life Ins. Co. v. United Advisory Grp., Inc., 2016 WL 632025, at *4 (D. Md. Feb. 17, 2016) (quoting UAI Tech, Inc. v. Valutech, Inc., 122 F.R.D. 188, 181 (M.D. N.C. 1988)). “In other words, the district Court ‘must weigh the need for the information versus the harm in producing it.'” Slager v. Southern States Police Benevolent Ass'n, Inc., 2016 WL 4123700, at *2 (D.S.C. Aug. 3, 2016) (quoting Helping Hand, LLC v. Balt. Cty., 295 F.Supp.2d 585, 592 (D. Md. 2003)).

         Despite the broad discretion conferred on trial courts to decide when a protective order is appropriate, and what degree of protection is required, the standard for issuance of a protective order is high. CX, 2018 WL 5080944, at *3.[4]

         B. Motion to Compel

         As with a motion for protective order, Local Rule 104.7 and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 require that counsel confer regarding discovery disputes and make a good faith effort to settle disputes without court intervention. Fed. R. Civ. P 37(a)(1); R. 104.7 (D. Md. 2018). This Court will not contemplate discovery motions unless the moving party files a certificate either: (a) reciting the date, time, and place of the discovery conference between the parties, and the names of the participants therein, or (b) counsel's attempts to hold such a conference without success; and (c) an itemization of the issues requiring resolution by the Court. L.R. 104.7. Additionally, Local Rule 104.8 provides, in relevant part:

If a party who has propounded . . . requests for production is dissatisfied with the response to them and has been unable to resolve informally . . . any disputes with the responding party, that party shall serve a motion to compel within thirty (30) days of the party's receipt of the response. . . . The parties shall serve motions and memoranda under L.R. 104.8 in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(a) and shall not serve them through the Court's electronic filing system nor file with the Court notices of service of the motion or memoranda.

L.R. 104.8(a). This Rule also requires that the parties “hold [a] conference required by L.R. 104.7 after serving upon one another all of the documents relating to the motion to compel.” L.R. 104.8(b). As with a motion for protective order, the burden is on the party resisting discovery. United Oil Co. v. Parts Ass'n, 227 F.R.D. 404, 411 (D. Md. 2005); Hake v. Carroll County, 2014 WL 3974173, at *5 (D. Md. Aug. 14, 2014) (stating the party opposing a motion to compel carried the burden “to establish that the information is not relevant, or that the discovery request should be denied”).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Compliance with the Local Rules

         Defendants first argue that “at least with respect to Defendants' document production, ” Plaintiff's Motion to Compel should be denied as untimely. (ECF No. 59 at 9-10). Citing Local Rule 104.8(a), Defendants contend that Plaintiffs should have filed their Motion to Compel within thirty days of March 20, 2019 (the day that Defendants served their final document production on Plaintiffs). Id. at 9. As Plaintiffs received these responses over three months ago, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' Motion is untimely. Id. at 9-10. Plaintiffs counter that their Motion is timely because “Defendants did not unequivocally refuse to produce the requested discovery until June 13, 2019.” (ECF No. 60 at 11-12).[5]

         While Plaintiffs did not fully comply with Local Rule 104.8(a), as described above, that failure is not fatal to their Motion. Failure to comply with Local Rule 104.8 does not per se require dismissal of a party's motion to compel. Tucker v. Ohtsu Tire & Rubber Co., Ltd., 191 F.R.D. 495, 497 (D. Md. 2000) (“[A]n absolute rule requiring [dismissal] without first determining whether the opposing party would suffer any real prejudice if the motion is granted would be too harsh a construction of the local rule.” (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 1)). If the non-moving party will not suffer any undue prejudice as a result of the moving party's failure to comply with Local Rule 104.8, and there is good cause to excuse the failure to comply, then the moving party's motion will not be dismissed because of the procedural defect. See Blind Indus. & Servs. v. Route 40 Paintball Park, 2012 WL 4470273, at *1-2 (D. Md. Sept. 26, 2012) (finding Motion was not timely filed, and such technical tardiness was fatal, as it was unjustified). Of note, here, Judge Hollander has extended Discovery Deadlines awaiting the resolution of this discovery dispute, and thus, such a Motion to Compel will not disrupt the Scheduling Order. See Webb, 2012 WL 3139551, at *1 (emphasizing plaintiff's belated motion was particularly troubling because if granted, it would disrupt the Scheduling Order by extending the discovery deadline, and thus denying plaintiff's motion to compel).

         Here, there is evidence that the parties communicated about the disputed discovery matters. See Defs.' Letters to Pls.' Counsel (ECF No. 57-7); Pls.' Letters to Defs.' Counsel (ECF No. 58-3); and ECF No. 58-1 ¶ 16(b) (attesting to an in-person conference between Pls.' and Defs.' counsel on March 25, 2019, prior to Plaintiff Chavis serving his First Set of Interrogatories upon Defendant Plan). However, there is no evidence that Plaintiffs served their Motion to Compel upon Defendants prior to involving the Court in the dispute.[6] Nor ...


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