Case Analysis: What is Discoverable in Litigation?

In litigation, opposing parties can sometimes get carried away with the quantity and quality of the information requested in discovery, raising doubts about the relevancy and necessity of the requested information.  In Terrell v. Memphis Zoo, Inc., No. 17-cv-2928-JPM-tmp (W.D. Tenn. July 20, 2018), the Court grappled with several fascinating questions regarding what was discoverable in the litigation.

The case concerns a wrongful termination based on gender discrimination and the defendant employer requested the following information from the plaintiff, Dr. Terrell: 1) evidence regarding her violations of the defendant's policies; 2) travel history; 3) job searches; 4) tax returns; and 5) social media accounts.

I. BACKGROUND

Dr. Terrell was hired by Memphis Zoo on August 31, 2015, to serve as the Director of Research and Conservation. She reported directly to Dr. Chuck Brady, Memphis Zoo's President and CEO.  Dr. Terrell claims that, beginning in July of 2017, she grew concerned that Dr. Brady was treating her differently from the men who worked for him.  Among various examples of this behavior, she alleges that he arbitrarily criticized her work, made comments indicating that gender colored how he viewed her and other female employees, and subjected her to a performance review when none of the current or former male employees at her level were required to undergo such a review.  Dr. Terrell claims that she complained about this treatment to Dr. Brady and to the Chairman of the Board for Memphis Zoo.  She asserts that, after making her concerns known, Dr. Brady withheld a standard salary increase, was excessively critical of her work, and undermined her authority.  

On November 1, 2017, Memphis Zoo either ordered or requested that Dr. Terrell not return to her office and that she work remotely. On November 13, 2017, Dr. Terrell filed a charge of gender discrimination and retaliation with the EEOC.  On November 27, 2017, Memphis Zoo terminated Dr. Terrell's employment.  Memphis Zoo has indicated one of its reasons for terminating Dr. Terrell was her violation of Memphis Zoo policies requiring her to cooperate with other employees, to perform her work in a respectful and timely manner, and to act in a manner that is not obviously detrimental to the best interest of Memphis Zoo. 

Dr. Terrell filed her lawsuit against Memphis Zoo on December 22, 2017. She asserts that Memphis Zoo's actions constitute gender discrimination and unlawful retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the State of Tennessee's Human Rights Act.  

  1. MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY

In its motion to compel discovery, Memphis Zoo argued, inter alia, that Dr. Terrell  provided unsatisfactory responses to several of its interrogatories and document requests. 

  1. Violations of Memphis Zoo Policies

In Interrogatory No. 11, Memphis Zoo asked Dr. Terrell to describe in detail every instance during her employment when she violated one of its policies or procedures. Dr. Terrell responded, "None."  Memphis Zoo argues that this response is in bad faith because Memphis Zoo has proof that it previously reprimanded her for violating its social media policy. 

The court found that Dr. Terrell cannot be compelled to admit she violated a policy that she does not believe she violated and, therefore, Dr. Terrell's concise response is sufficient, citing case law that parties cannot be compelled to produce something that does not exist and that it is sufficient for a party to respond by saying that a particular document is not in existence or that it is not in the responding party's possession, custody, or control.

Accordingly, this section of Memphis Zoo's motion to compel was denied.

  1. Travel History

In Interrogatory No. 15, Memphis Zoo asked Dr. Terrell to describe in detail all work-related trips that she took in 2017, including her destination, reason for traveling, identification of her travel companions, and identification of the individuals who played a part in planning the trip.  Dr. Terrell objected that the interrogatory was overly broad, unduly burdensome, and vague, but nonetheless, provided Memphis Zoo with emails describing aspects of her past travels and informed Memphis Zoo where it might find travel receipts and airfare itineraries already in its possession. Memphis Zoo argues that this response was insufficient because the documents Dr. Terrell cited provided incomplete answers to the interrogatory. 

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require courts to limit the scope of discovery to "any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case." Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1) . Memphis Zoo argues that information about Dr. Terrell's travel history is relevant because Dr. Terrell's decision to travel to Panama, and elsewhere, instead of remaining on property left the Memphis Zoo understaffed.

With respect to Dr. Terrell's trip to Panama, the Court granted Memphis Zoo's motion to compel. However, Memphis Zoo's motion did not explain how information regarding other unidentified trips relates to any of the claims or defenses in the case.  Thus, this section of Memphis Zoo's motion to compel was granted in part.

  1. Job Searches

In Document Request No. 7, Memphis Zoo asked that Dr. Terrell provide it with all documents related to her attempts to obtain employment from the day Memphis Zoo hired her to the present. Dr. Terrell responded by directing Memphis Zoo to certain documents and has also supplemented her response by submitting additional documents.  Memphis Zoo argues that Dr. Terrell's responses are insufficient because it knows she applied to more positions than the ones for which she has provided documentation.  According to Memphis Zoo, this information is relevant because it shows Dr. Terrell was aware that she was unable to adequately perform in her role as a Director of Memphis Zoo.

Contrary to Memphis Zoo's argument, the court found that this information was not relevant to any of the claims or defenses in the case. As evidenced by some of the emails Dr. Terrell provided in discovery, individuals search for jobs for numerous reasons unrelated to their personal opinions about their qualifications for their current position. Furthermore, to the extent that any of the information Memphis Zoo seeks could be construed as relevant, Dr. Terrell has provided Memphis Zoo with all of the documents she could find related to its request. 

Therefore, this section of Memphis Zoo's motion to compel was denied.

  1. Tax Returns

In Document Request No. 12, Memphis Zoo asked Dr. Terrell to provide copies of her tax returns for the past three years. Dr. Terrell refused to disclose this information.  Memphis Zoo argues that the information is relevant because Dr. Terrell has placed her financial earning capacity at issue by indicating that she will seek lost pay and benefits.  Dr. Terrell argues that only her 2017 tax return is relevant to the case and, even then, requiring her to disclose it would be redundant when she has already disclosed W-2 and 1099 forms for 2017. 

Dr. Terrell further argued that the court should adopt a two-part test that several other courts have applied when analyzing the discoverability of tax returns. The test requires the moving party to show both that the tax returns are relevant and that the information in them is not obtainable elsewhere.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the applicability of the test but has noted that financial documents "are not 'confidential' in the legal sense." DeMarco v. C & L Masonry, Inc., 891 F.2d 1236 , 1240 (6th Cir. 1989).

In the absence of a Sixth Circuit opinion, the court cited Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26 as providing sufficient guidance on this issue.  Courts typically find that tax returns fall within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) where a party's income is in issue, as, for example, where a claim for lost wages has been asserted. 

Dr. Terrell's claim for lost wages and her duty to mitigate did not arise until her termination on November 27, 2017. Thus, the court required that Dr. Terrell disclose only her 2017 tax return. Per her request, the court allowed her to redact her spouse's information from her 2017 tax return. 

  1. Social Media Accounts

In Document Request No. 24, Memphis Zoo asked Dr. Terrell to provide complete copies of all her social media accounts.  Dr. Terrell refused on the grounds that the request sought information beyond the scope of the issues and was unduly burdensome.  Memphis Zoo argues that this information is discoverable and relevant to the case because Dr. Terrell treated social media as an important tool during her employment and, also supposedly, violated Memphis Zoo's social media policy. 

There is no dispute that social media information may be a source of relevant information that is discoverable. Georgel v. Preece, No. 0:13-CV-57-DLB, 2014 WL 12647776  (E.D. Ky. Feb. 28, 2014). Nonetheless, this discoverability does not grant parties "a generalized right to rummage at will through information that an opposing party has limited from public view." T.C on Behalf of S.C. v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville, No. 3:17-CV-01098 (M.D. Tenn. July 9, 2018).  To obtain an opposing party's private social media information, the party seeking the information must still comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26 by showing that the information it seeks is relevant and proportional to the needs of the case.  Consequently, courts have denied blanket requests for the contents of social media accounts and instead required that parties bring narrowed requests for information related to the issues in the case. 

Here, the court found that Memphis Zoo did not show how the information it sought from Dr. Terrell was relevant and proportional to the needs of the case. The scope of Memphis Zoo's request was far too broad, seeking what was likely to be a vast quantity of private information that would have no bearing on the case. Thus, this section of Memphis Zoo's motion to compel was denied.

 

 

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