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United States v. Real Property and Improvements Located at 2366 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley

United States District Court, N.D. California

May 22, 2014


ORDER RE: DISCOVERY LETTERS Re: Dkt. Nos. 78, 79, 80

MARIA-ELENA JAMES, Magistrate Judge.


This is an in rem action for forfeiture of real property pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881(a)(7), brought by Plaintiff United States of America (the "Government") against the defendant real property located at 2366 San Pablo Avenue, in Berkeley, California (the "Property"), on May 2, 2013. Compl., Dkt. No. 1. Claimant Berkeley Patients Group ("BPG") is a licensed medical cannabis dispensary that has operated in the City of Berkeley since 1999. Jt. Ltr. at 3 ("Inter. Ltr."), Dkt. No. 78. BPG currently operates a medical cannabis dispensary at the Property.

The Government first commenced its efforts to force closure of BPG in late 2011 or early 2012, by sending a "landlord letter" to BPG's former landlord at its former location at 2747 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. Inter. Ltr. at 3. The former landlord was represented by attorneys Ramsey & Ehrlich. Id. Representations were made at that time that a primary reason for the Government's actions was the proximity of BPG to schools in Berkeley. Id. In May 2012, BPG agreed to close its former location as a result of the Government's pressure and its representations. Id. In November 2012, BPG reopened at its present location at the Property, but only after extensive vetting by Berkeley officials to ensure it was located outside the vicinity of any schools. Id.

On April 30, 2013, the Government commenced this action seeking to forfeit BPG's new location, alleging that BPG was located within 1000 feet of Nia House Learning Center and Color Me Children Preschool, which BPG contends are daycare facilities for toddlers and preschoolers, not schools. Id. BPG has filed claims asserting a leasehold interest in the property and contests foreclosure of its interest via the forfeiture action. Id.

BPG asserted sixteen affirmative defenses to the forfeiture action. These defenses include: (1) failure to state a claim; (2) statute of limitations; (3) laches; (4) estoppel; (5) unclean hands; (6) waiver; (7) excessive fines; (8) vindictive prosecution; (9) selective prosecution; (10 unconscionable police conduct; (11) violation of due process; (12) violation of equal protection; (13) another action pending; (14) unconstitutional taking; (15) violation of the Tenth Amendment; and (16) other unknown defenses. Answer, Dkt. No. 42.

On November 27, 2013, BPG served the Government with Interrogatories, Requests for Admissions ("RFA"), and Requests for Production ("RFP") relating to each of its affirmative defenses, and on January 29, 2014, the parties filed three joint discovery letters regarding the Government's responses. Dkt. Nos. 78-80. The Court will consider each in turn.


A. Dkt. No. 78: Interrogatories Nos. 1-20

On November 27, 2013, BPG served a set of 20 interrogatories aimed at discovering information relevant to the 16 affirmative defenses it asserted to the forfeiture action. Inter. Ltr., Ex. 1. The Government objected to the entire set of Interrogatories on the basis of relevance, arguing that it need not provide discovery related to affirmative defenses that are insufficient as a matter of law. Inter. Ltr. at 7. The Government further maintains that in order to overcome its objection, BPG must prove that the requested discovery is relevant by making a plausible showing that it can prove each defense, which BPG cannot do. Id. BPG maintains that the Government's relevance objection is improper because the discovery it seeks pertains to its affirmative defenses. Id. at 5.

The Federal Rules generally allow for broad discovery in civil actions: "Parties may obtain discovery regarding any matter, not privileged, that is relevant to the claim or defense of any party.... Relevant information need not be admissible at trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). This provision is liberally construed to provide wide-ranging discovery of information necessary for parties to evaluate and resolve their dispute . Flintkote Co. v. General Acc. Assur. Co. of Canada, 2009 WL 1457974, at *2 (N.D. Cal. May 26, 2009) (citing Oakes v. Halvorsen Marine Ltd., 179 F.R.D. 281, 283 (C.D. Cal. 1995)). "The party who resists discovery has the burden to show that discovery should not be allowed, and has the burden of clarifying, explaining, and supporting its objections." Oakes, 179 F.R.D. at 283.

Here, the Government argues that BPG is not entitled to discovery because it will not be able to establish any of its affirmative defenses at trial. However, BPG's ability to prove its defenses is not the standard against which relevance is determined. A relevant matter is "any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matters that could bear on, any issue that is or may be in the case ." Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340, 351 (1978). Accordingly, the Court finds that BPG has made a sufficient showing that the discovery it seeks is relevant, as it pertains to each of its affirmative defenses, and is thus entitled to relief. See Oppenheimer Fund, 437 U.S. at 351-52; Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). These affirmative defenses pertain to the core issues in the case and represent BPG's only avenue to challenge the forfeiture action. Given the importance of these issues to BPG's ability to maintain a defense, and considering the lack of any burden to the Government[1], the Court GRANTS BPG's request to compel responses to these interrogatories.

B. Dkt. No. 79: RFAs Nos. 6-9

RFAs Nos. 6-9 seek admissions regarding whether the Government received any complaints from parents or administrators of the Color Me Children Preschool or Nia House Learning Center about the location of BPG in relation to their facilities. Dkt. No. 79 ("RFA Ltr."), Ex. 2. The Government objected to these requests as "immaterial to the forfeiture of the defendant real property or the asserted affirmative defenses and not likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence in this matter. RFA Ltr. at 7. Specifically, the Government argues that these requests are not relevant because they relate only to the issue of harm, which is not an element of a complaint for forfeiture based on violations of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841[2] and 856[3]. Id. Nor is harm an element to prove a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 860[4], because there is an irrebuttable presumption that drug sales harm children. Id. (citing United States v. Niev es, 608 ...

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