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Minke v. Page County

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

July 29, 2019

LYNDA L.MINKE, Plaintiff,
v.
PAGE COUNTY, VIRGINIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL F. URBANSKI CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant Page County, Virginia ("County") and County Administrator Amity Moler's ("Moler") various objections, ECF No. 61, to and partial appeal of United States Magistrate Judge, Joel C. Hoppe's order, ECF No. 59, of June 7, 2019, brought pursuant to Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This case arises from the diminution in supervisory duties in 2016 and later termination in June 2017 of Lynda L. Minke as the solid waste manager and landfill director for Page County, Virginia. Minke alleges that her termination was impermissibly based on gender discrimination and retaliation. The County asserts that Minke was a poor supervisor and manager who mistreated numerous subordinates, causing them to walk off the job or otherwise quit. On June 7, 2019, Judge Hoppe ruled on three discovery motions: (1) Third Party Amity Moler and Defendant's Motion to Quash Subpoena, ECF No. 37; (2) Plaintiffs Motion to Compel Production of Certain Personnel Records, ECF No. 46; and (3) Plaintiffs Motion to Compel Interrogatory Responses to Three Interrogatories, ECF No. 47. The County and Moler jointly object to portions of Judge Hoppe's rulings with respect to the (1) Motion to Quash Subpoena, ECF No. 37, and the County objects to a portion of the ruling on the (2) Motion to Compel Production of Certain Personnel Records, ECF No. 46.

         I.

         Rule 72(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to submit objections to a magistrate judge's ruling on nondispositive matters, such as discovery orders. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a); see 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). As a non-dispositive matter, the review of a magistrate judge's discovery order is governed by the "clearly erroneous" or "contrary to law" standard of review. Id Only if a magistrate judge's decision is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law" may a district court judge modify or set aside any portion of the decision. Id. A court's "finding is 'clearly erroneous' when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." United States v. United States Gypsum Co.. 333 U.S. 364, 395 (1948); see also Harman v. Levin. 772 F.2d 1150, 1152 (4th Or. 1985). "In light of the broad discretion given to a magistrate judge in the resolution of nondispositive discovery disputes, the court should only overrule a magistrate judge's determination if this discretion is abused." Shoop v. Hott, 2010 WL 5067567, *2 (N.D.W.Va. Dec. 6, 2010) (citing Detection Sys.. Inc. v. Pittway Corp.. 96 F.R.D. 152, 154 (W.D.N.Y. 1982)).

         A.

         There are three major objections to Judge Hoppe's rulings, each of which the court will address in turn. The first major objection is related to Judge Hoppe's rulings on Topics 5 and 6, as well as Topics 7 and 8 of the County and Moler's Motion to Quash;, ECF No. 37, Minke's subpoena, see ECF No. 39-1, at 1-4. In Topics 5 and 6 of Minke's subpoena, she requested all documents and communications, including electronically stored information, created since January 1, 2016, related to Minke, her employment by the County, her work performance, her lawsuit against the County, and the "elimination of positions." ECF No. 59, at 2-3. With respect to Topics 7 and 8, Minke requested "communications between Moler and six individuals relating to work, work performance, or management issues at the landfills" created since January 1, 2016. Id. at 4. Judge Hoppe held that Minke's discovery requests as to Topics 5-8 were "somewhat overbroad" in that they did not specify an end date. Id. at 3. To correct for this deficiency, Judge Hoppe held that "to be relevant, documents or communications must relate to actions that occurred on or before Minke's termination on June 21, 2017." Id. at 3. Minke's requests were narrowed temporally to this extent.

         More importantly, Judge Hoppe rejected the County's objection as to the relevancy of Minke's requests in Topics 5-8, holding that the "subject matter of Minke's requests [as to Topics 5-8] is, for the most part, tailored to obtain relevant information." Id. Judge Hoppe noted that "[a]s a manager of the landfills, Minke's individual performance would have some correlation to the overall operational performance of the landfills." Id at 4. Judge Hoppe held that as to Topics 5 and 6, Moler must produce all documents and communications relating to Minke's employment by the County and her job performance, the performance of landfill operations, and the elimination of Minke's position from January 1, 2016, to June 21, 2017. Id. Judge Hoppe noted, however, that:

[although] [d]ocuments about Minke, her job performance, and the elimination of her position are plainly relevant. .. [n]ot every document or communication about the operation of the landfill, ... is relevant. That subject must be limited to documents or communications related to the management of the landfills and overall performance of operations at the landfills, Le., whether there were problems or whether things at the landfills were going well.

Id. at 4. Judge Hoppe held that such documents related to significant issues in the case, and their importance to Minke outweighs the burden placed on Moler and the County in producing them given that searching electronically stored information is "common in litigation." Id Judge Hoppe also indicated that "Moler must. . . produce documents about the lawsuit, but may withhold privileged communications identified in a privilege log." Id.[1]

         The County and Moler object to Judge Hoppe's rulings as to Topics 5-8 to the extent they require Moler to search her personal cell phone[2] and furnish all text messages or documents in applications on her phone from January 1, 2016 to June 21, 2017, which relate "in any way" to Minke or the performance of landfill operations. ECF No. 61, at 1. Their argument, distilled to its essence, is that this information is irrelevant because neither the County nor Moler "have ever taken the position that Minke did not operate the landfill well, from a technical standpoint." Id at 1. Instead, Minke's termination was due to her "lack of interpersonal skills," i.e., her "poor ability to supervise and work with employees and others," rather than technical mismanagement of the landfills. Id. at 2. Thus, because information related to the overall performance of the landfills is not germane to this case, requiring Moler to "search and produce every communication for a period of eighteen months that have anything at all to do with operation of the landfill far exceeds what is reasonable or proportional to the needs of this case." Id. The County also contends that compliance with Judge Hoppe's order "would also potentially result in disclosure of proprietary or sensitive information about the operations of the landfill and relationships with outside contractors, none of which bears on this case to any degree." Id.

         To be clear, although the County and Moler "take issue" with other portions of Judge Hoppe's rulings vis-a-vis Topics 5-8 which require Moler to search her personal cellphone and release information pertaining to Minke's job performance, elimination of her position, and this lawsuit, they nevertheless indicated their intent to comply with the order as to these issues. The core of the objection concerns discovery from Moler's cellphone of information related to the overall performance and "operation of the landfill." Id. The County and Moler assert that the order is erroneous because it requires Moler to produce communications having "anything at all to do with operation of the landfill." Id.

         In its thorough review of Judge Hoppe's rulings as to Topics 5-8, the court agrees with Minke that the County and Moler appear to have misunderstood the scope of these rulings. The County and Moler repeatedly state that they object to Judge Hoppe's order to the extent it compels Moler to search her personal cellphone and furnish communications which relate "in any way" or have "anything at all" to do with the operation of the landfill. Id. at 1-2. Judge Hoppe forthrightly explained that discovery concerning the subject of the operation of the landfill must be limited to documents or communications related to the "management of the landfills and the overall performance of operations of the landfills, Le whether there were problems or whether things at the landfills were going well." ECF No. 59, at 1. Further, because it is undisputed that Moler used her personal cellphone for work-related matters, Judge Hoppe's order correctly extended discovery to cover relevant communications and documents found on the device in question. In short, Judge Hoppe expressly tailored his discovery order to be limited in time and subject matter relevant to Minke's employment and termination. The court is unpersuaded that Judge Hoppe's ruling as to Topics 5-8 sweeps as broadly as the County and Moler contend.

         Furthermore, as to the contention that information about the operation of the landfills is irrelevant, Judge Hoppe explained that such information concerns "significant issues in the case," a finding with which the court agrees given a number of assertions made in the County's answer, ECF No. 5, to Minke's complaint. See, e.g., ECF No. 6, at 1 (denying that Minke had been a "top performer" and stating that "[i]n fact, plaintiff had been disciplined and counseled on numerous occasions . . ."); Id. at 2 (denying Minke's claim that her promotions were due to her "good performance"); Id. at 4 (denying that Minke, as stated in the complaint, ECF No. 1, at 5, "performed her duties in a competent and satisfactory manner"); Id. at 6 (stating that "plaintiff has 'cherry-picked' some parts of her performance evaluation to make it appear that her evaluation was better than it actually was in actuality"); Id. at 7 (stating that Minke was termination due to her "poor management style and issues which she had with accurately conducting her work"); Id. at 8 (stating the Minke was removed from supervising others "since she was not skilled at doing so"). It is pellucidly clear that despite claiming that Minke was fired due to a "lack of inter-personal skills" rather than her mismanagement of the landfill from a "technical standpoint," information regarding the latter is relevant to, inter alia, assessing the legitimacy of the County's claim regarding the former.

         It is clear both that Minke intends to assert her performance as evidence of unlawful discrimination and retaliation, and that the County appears poised to dispute Minke's performance-related claims. Under these circumstances, it simply cannot be said that discovery concerning the performance of the "management .... and overall performance" of the landfills she supervised is irrelevant. Indeed, information pertaining to die "management" and "overall performance" of the landfills in question directiy bears on claims and defenses related to Minke's own performance as supervisor. This information likely speaks to Minke's managerial effect on the landfill and whether she was meeting the operation's metrics, goals, and standards. Judge Hoppe's order acknowledges as much, expressly stating that "Minke's individual performance would have some correlation to the overall operational performance of the landfills." ECF No. 59, at 4. Moreover, the ...


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