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Stradtman v. Republic Services, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

May 21, 2015

STEPHEN M. STRADTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
REPUBLIC SERVICES, INC., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES C. CACHERIS, District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on Defendants Republic Services, Inc., Ronald Krall, and Republic Services of Virginia, LLC's (collectively "Defendants") Objections to Magistrate Judge John F. Anderson's April 10, 2015 Order. [Dkt. 121.] For the following reasons, the Court will overrule the objections.

I. Background

Plaintiff Stephen M. Stradtman ("Stradtman") claims that Defendants tortiously interfered with contractual relations and business expectancies regarding his former employment as the Chief Executive Officer ("CEO") of Otto Industries North America, Inc. ("Otto"). (Compl. [Dkt. 1-3] at ¶¶ 121-140.) In general, Stradtman claims that Defendants caused his resignation from Otto in retaliation for a discrimination lawsuit that Stradtman's wife, Jennifer Taylor ("Taylor") had filed against Defendants. ( See generally id. )

During discovery, Defendants moved to compel communications prior to September of 2012 between Stradtman and Charlson Bredehoft Cohen Brown & Jones P.C. ("Charlson Bredehoft"), the law firm that represented Taylor in her lawsuit and currently represents Stradtman in this lawsuit. (Defs.' Mot. to Compel [Dkt. 73] at 1.) Stradtman opposed, arguing that the communications were protected by the attorney-client privilege. (Pl.'s Opp. [Dkt. 83] at 4-5.) After considering the written briefs and hearing oral argument on the motion, Judge Anderson denied the motion to compel, finding that there was an attorney-client relationship between Stradtman and Charlson Bredehoft beginning in the spring of 2012. (4/10/15 Order [Dkt. 101].) Defendants timely noted their objection to that Order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 and 28 U.S.C. § 636. [Dkt. 121.] Having been fully briefed and argued, this motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Rule 72(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a magistrate judge to hear and decide non-dispositive motions. Rule 72(a) also permits a party to submit objections to a magistrate judge's ruling on such motions, like discovery orders. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A); Fed. Election Comm'n v. The Christian Coal., 178 F.R.D. 456, 459-60 (E.D. Va. 1998) (citing Thomas E. Hoar, Inc. v. Sara Lee Corp., 900 F.2d 522, 525 (2d Cir. 1990)).

Only if a magistrate judge's decision is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law" may a district judge modify or set aside any portion of the decision. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). The alteration of a magistrate judge's order is "extremely difficult to justify." Bruce v. Hartford, 21 F.Supp. 3d 590, 593 (E.D. Va. 2014) (citing 12 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 3069 (2d ed. 1997)).

The "clearly erroneous" standard applies to questions of fact. In applying this standard, a reviewing court will not reverse a lower court's findings of fact "simply because we would have decided the case differently." Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "Rather, a reviewing court must ask whether, on the entire evidence, it is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The "clearly erroneous" standard is therefore deferential. The Christian Coalition, 178 F.R.D. at 460.

Where pure questions of law are involved, "that review is plenary under the contrary to law' branch of the Rule 72(a) standard.'" HSBC Bank USA, Nat'l Ass'n v. Resh, No. 3:12cv668, 2014 WL 317820, at *7 (W.D. Va. Jan. 28, 2014) (citing PowerShare, Inc. v. Syntel, Inc., 597 F.3d 10, 15 (1st Cir. 2010) (collecting cases)). "This means that, for questions of law, there is no practical difference between review under Rule 72(a)'s contrary to law' standard and [a] de novo standard.'" Id. (citing PowerShare, 597 F.3d at 15). Therefore, the Court will review the factual portions of the magistrate judge's order under the clearly erroneous standard but will review the legal conclusions de novo.

III. Analysis

Defendants seek a review of Judge Anderson's ruling that an attorney-client privilege existed between Stradtman and Charlson Bredehoft prior to September 2012. (Defs.' Mem. in Supp. [Dkt. 121] at 1.)

The attorney-client privilege applies only if:

1) the asserted holder of the privilege is or sought to become a client; (2) the person to whom the communication was made (a) is a member of the bar of a court, or his subordinate and (b) in connection with this communication is acting as a lawyer; (3) the communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed (a) by his client (b) without the presence of strangers (c) for the purpose of securing primarily either (i) an opinion on law or (ii) legal services or (iii) assistance in some legal proceeding, and ...

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