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Cooper v. Fedex Ground Package System Inc.

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

February 14, 2017




         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Tawana Jean Cooper's Objections under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72 regarding orders entered by U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan [Dkts. 32, 54, 68, 75, 76]. Also before the Court is Judge Buchanan's Report and Recommendations [Dkt. 74], which recommends that the Court dismiss this case due to Plaintiff's failure to meet her discovery obligations. For the reasons that follow, the Court will overrule Plaintiff's Objections, adopt Judge Buchanan's Report and Recommendations, and dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint with prejudice.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff is a former employee of Defendant FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. The chain of events giving rise to this suit began when one of Plaintiff's coworkers criticized her work performance in a manner that she deemed “intentionally hurtful, spiteful, and cruel, and extremely disrespectful and indecorous.” Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ 16. This ultimately led to Plaintiff lodging a series of complaints that she believed were not taken seriously due to her gender. After a number of confrontations with her superiors regarding her complaints and a complaint lodged by a coworker against her, Plaintiff was terminated. On May 17, 2016, Plaintiff filed suit pro se against Defendant alleging violations of Title VII.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a) authorizes magistrate judges to enter final orders on non-dispositive pretrial matters. If a party objects to a magistrate judge's ruling on a non-dispositive matter, a district court judge may set it aside if it is “clearly erroneous or contrary to law.” Id.; FEC v. Christian Coalition, 178 F.R.D. 456, 459 (E.D. Va. 1998). This standard is deferential, and the magistrate judge's ruling will be affirmed unless the entire record leaves the Court with “the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Harman v. Levin, 772 F.2d 1150, 1153 (4th Cir. 1985). Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), when a magistrate judge issues a Report and Recommendations on a dispositive matter, the district court reviews it de novo.

         In evaluating Plaintiff's Objections, the Court is mindful that Plaintiff is proceeding in this matter pro se. Be that as it may, “[a]lthough pro se litigants are given liberal treatment by courts, even pro se litigants are expected to comply with time requirements and other procedural rules ‘without which effective judicial administration would be impossible.'” Dancy v. Univ. of N. Carolina at Charlotte, No. 3:08-CV-166-RJC-DCK, 2009 WL 2424039, at *2 (W.D. N.C. Aug. 3, 2009) (quoting Ballard v. Carlson, 882 F .2d 93, 96 (4th Cir.1989)).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff objects to virtually every Order entered by Judge Buchanan in the course of these proceedings, as well as Judge Buchanan's Report and Recommendations. As the merits of Plaintiff's various Rule 72 Objections turn on the procedural history of this case, the Court discusses both together.

         A. Defendant's First Motion to Compel and Plaintiff's First Objection

         This saga began in earnest on October 21, 2016, when Defendant filed a Motion for Protective Order and to Compel [Dkt. 18]. At the time, both parties had propounded discovery requests, and Defendant had asked that a protective order be entered before turning over proprietary business information. Plaintiff refused to consent to a protective order, claiming that she intended to publicize materials received in discovery through a book and blog. Plaintiff further refused to provide any responses to Defendant's discovery requests or schedule her own deposition until Defendant turned over its sensitive materials “[a]nd not a moment sooner.” Opp. [Dkt. 24] at 6. Defendant's Motion sought the entry of what, in most cases, would have been a stipulated protective order, and to compel Plaintiff's discovery responses.

         On October 28, 2016, Judge Buchanan held a hearing and granted Defendant's Motion. Judge Buchanan thereafter entered an Order [Dkt. 27] instating Defendant's requested protective order, requiring Plaintiff to submit her discovery responses within a week, and further requiring Plaintiff to cooperate with Defendant to schedule her own deposition.

         Plaintiff filed a Rule 72(a) Objection [Dkt. 32] to Judge Buchanan's Order on November 7, 2016. In it, Plaintiff argues first that Defendant did not show good cause for a protective order. In light of the sensitive business documents requested by Plaintiff, see Mem. in Supp. of Mot. [Dkt. 19] at 4, the Court concurs with Judge Buchanan's finding that good cause existed for the protective order. See, e.g., Sheets v. Caliber Home Loans, Inc., No. 3:15-CV-72 (GROH), 2015 WL 7756156, at *5 (N.D. W.Va. Dec. 1, 2015). As Judge Buchanan noted, Plaintiff remained free to contest the designation of specific documents she believed to be improperly designated as confidential.

         Plaintiff argues further that the protective order violated her rights under the First Amendment. As Plaintiff acknowledges in her Objection, however, “a protective order [that is] entered on a showing of good cause as required by Rule 26(c), is limited to the context of pretrial civil discovery, and does not restrict the dissemination of the information if gained from other sources, . . . does not offend the First Amendment.” Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 37 (1984). Such is the case here.

         Plaintiff further objects to Judge Buchanan's Order insofar as it required that she provide discovery responses and schedule her own deposition. Plaintiff argues that she should not have been required to do so until Defendant provided its own discovery responses. Plaintiff, however, is incorrect that her own discovery obligations are or have at any point been contingent upon Defendant's performance of its discovery obligations. Moreover, as Judge Buchanan noted, Defendant had reasonably withheld sensitive materials pending the entry of a protective order and agreed to turn them over once the order was entered. Plaintiff, on the other hand, had no comparable reason to withhold discovery responses. Judge Buchanan therefore rightly ordered Plaintiff to abide by her own discovery obligations.

         Finally, Plaintiff argues that Judge Buchanan's Order should be set aside because Judge Buchanan “discriminated against Plaintiff” and struck a “disrespectful, hostile, aggressive, and authoritarian” tone during the hearing on this matter. Having reviewed the recording of the hearing, however, the Court finds that it was in fact Plaintiff who acted in a disrespectful, hostile, and aggressive manner:

Judge Buchanan: What about your answers?
Plaintiff: I will give them my responses when they give me their responses.
Judge Buchanan: That's not the way it works. If their responses - their responses are going to be given to you now. But yours are overdue.
Plaintiff: Theirs is overdue.
Judge Buchanan: I understand that, but you wouldn't sign a protective order. They're I'm sure going to file their responses or give you their responses promptly. When are they going to be provided?
Defendant's Counsel: Oh yeah, definitely within a week your honor.
Judge Buchan: OK. So I assume that you can provide your responses within a week as well, not waiting for them, but by next Friday.
Plaintiff: Absolutely not.
Judge Buchanan: Why?
Plaintiff: Because, I gave them my -
Judge Buchanan: Ma'am, OK, I'm not going to repeat this -
Plaintiff: OK, OK.
Judge Buchanan: You have to produce your discovery -
Plaintiff: Well I'm not going to do it.
Judge Buchanan: - responses. You did not bring a motion to ...

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