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Vickers v. Thompson

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 31, 2017

JEREMIAH D. VICKERS, Plaintiff,
v.
THOMPSON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER REGARDING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO COMPEL DISCOVERY (ECF NO. 60)

         Plaintiff Jeremiah D. Vickers (“Plaintiff”) is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and in forma pauperis in this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This action currently proceeds on Plaintiff's second amended complaint alleging excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment against Defendants Smith, Sandoval and Akin, the failure to intervene in violation of the Eighth Amendment against Defendant Alvarez, and deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment against Defendants Thompson, Smith, Sandoval, Akin, Alvarez, Stelow and Williams.[1]

         Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion to compel discovery filed on January 9, 2017. (ECF No. 60.) Defendants Smith, Sandoval, and Thompson filed an opposition to Plaintiff's motion on August 2, 2017. The time for filing any reply has passed, and none was filed. The motion is deemed submitted without oral argument. Local Rule 230(1).

         I.

         MOTION TO COMPEL

         Plaintiff's motion to compel concerns his requests for admissions dated October 3, 2016, his first set of requests for production dated October 10, 2016, and his first set of interrogatories dated October 10, 2016. Plaintiff first seeks for certain requests for admissions to be deemed admitted. Plaintiff argues that Defendant Thompson's and Smiths' responses to those requests for admission were evasive, insufficient, or consisted of “meritless denials/responses.” (ECF No. 60, at p. 3.) Plaintiff also argues that certain defined terms he employed were improperly ignored.

         Plaintiff next seeks to compel Defendants to produce all documents requested in his first set of requests for production, and to fully respond to his first set of interrogatories. Plaintiff argues that Defendant Thompson's and Smit's responses to these document requests and interrogatories were also evasive and insufficient, that the objections consisted of mere boilerplate, and that the responses were generally meritless. (Id. at 3-4.) Plaintiff also argues that any objections Defendants made were waived because the responses were not timely served.

         Defendants oppose the motion, arguing as a threshold matter that at the time the discovery requests were propounded, only Defendants Smith and Thompson had been served, and that only a claim for deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment was pending against them. (ECF No. 77, at pp. 6-7.) Therefore, they assert that the scope of discovery was limited to Defendants Smith and Thompson and the claims pending against them.

         Regarding Plaintiff's requests for admission, Defendants argue that they responded fully and completely, using Plaintiff's defined terms and “by narrowing and/or defining terms undefined by Plaintiff when possible.” (Id. at 9.) They further argue that certain of the requests were improper because they seek to establish irrelevant facts.

         Regarding Plaintiff's interrogatories and requests for admissions, Defendants argue that their responses were timely in light of the Court's orders. Defendants further argue that they responded as appropriate, and that many of Plaintiff's discovery requests sought irrelevant information, were overbroad, sought information or documents not in their possession, custody, or control, and were otherwise improper. (Id. at 12-25.)

         II.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         The discovery process is subject to the overriding limitation of good faith, and callous disregard of discovery responsibilities cannot be condoned. Asea, Inc. v. Southern Pac. Transp. Co., 669 F.2d 1242, 1246 (9th Cir. 1981) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Fed R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).

         Generally, if the responding party objects to a discovery request, the party moving to compel bears the burden of demonstrating why the objections are not justified. Grabek v. Dickinson, No. CIV S-10-2892 GGH P, 2012 WL 113799, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2012); Womack v. Virga, No. CIV S-11-1030 MCE EFB P, 2011 WL 6703958, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 21, 2011); Mitchell v. Felker, No. CV 08-119RAJ, 2010 WL 3835765, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Sep. 29, 2010); Ellis v. Cambra, No. 1:02-cv-05646-AWI-SMS PC, 2008 WL 860523, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 27, 2008). This requires the moving party to inform the Court which discovery requests are the subject of the motion to compel, and, for each disputed response, why the information sought is relevant and why the responding party's objections are not meritorious. Grabek, 2012 WL 113799, at *1; Womack, 2011 WL 6703958, at *3; Mitchell, 2010 WL 3835765, at *2; Ellis, 2008 WL 860523, at *4.

         However, the Court is vested with broad discretion to manage discovery and notwithstanding these procedures, Plaintiff is entitled to leniency as a pro se litigant. Therefore, to the extent possible, the Court endeavors to resolve this motion to compel on its merits. Hunt v. County of Orange, 672 F.3d 606, 616 (9th Cir. 2012); Surfvivor Media, Inc. v. Survivor Productions, 406 F.3d 625, 635 (9th Cir. 2005); Hallett v. Morgan, 296 F.3d 732, 751 (9th Cir. 2002).

         III.

         DISCUSSION

         A. Scope of Discovery

         The Court begins with the threshold issue raised by Defendants regarding the proper scope of discovery. Defendants assert that their responses were properly limited only to Defendants Smith and Thompson, as they were the only parties to have been served and to have appeared and answered the operative complaint in this case at the time that Plaintiff propounded his discovery. Further, they argue that the only claim that the Court found was cognizable against those Defendants at the time was for deliberate indifference to a serious medical need.

         This case was initiated on January 26, 2015, when Plaintiff filed his original complaint, (ECF No. 1), which was first amended on August 31, 2015, (ECF No. 18.) The first amended complaint was the complaint which this matter proceeded upon at the time that the discovery which is the subject of this motion was propounded.

         Contrary to Defendants' argument, the Court screened the first amended complaint, and found that Plaintiff's allegations stated a claim of excessive force against both Defendants Sandoval and Smith, not just Defendant Sandoval. (ECF No. 20, at p. 6) Regarding Defendant Smith specifically, Plaintiff alleged that Defendant Smith “grabbed Plaintiff's arm and hand with both of his hands and began “twisting, turning and pulling them violently in different directions in an attempt to dislocate and/or break them/it” when Plaintiff failed to comply with an order to take his arm out of the food port on his cell door. (Id. at 3 (quoting First Am. Compl., ECF No. 18, at p. 8).) Plaintiff also alleged that while he was silent, still and calm, Defendant Smith pulled at him, shoved him, lifted him off the floor and pushed down on his shoulders. (Id. at p. 4.) The Court further found that Plaintiff's allegations that he was injured after the officers' use of force and asked to see a nurse, but did not receive any care, were sufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference to a serious medical need against Defendants Sandoval, Thompson, and Smith. (Id. at 6-7.)

         On January 26, 2016, the Court ordered documents for service of process to be sent to Plaintiff. (ECF No. 21.) On March 30, 2016, following some delays by Plaintiff in submitting the necessary documents, the Court ordered the United States Marshal to serve a summons and first amended complaint on Defendant Smith, Sandoval, and Thompson. (ECF No. 28.)

         On June 9, 2016, Defendants Smith and Thompson filed an answer to the first amended complaint. (ECF No. 35.) On June 10, 2016, the Court issued a discovery and scheduling order. (ECF No. 36.)

         A few months later, on September 6, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion stating that counsel had informed him that Defendant Sandoval could not be served by the Marshal using the information he provided. (ECF No. 46.) On September 15, 2016, the Marshal returned to the Clerk of the Court the summons and first amended complaint unexecuted as to Defendant Sandoval. (ECF No. 48.)

         Shortly thereafter, on October 3, 2016 Plaintiff propounded the requests for admission to Defendants, and on October 10, 2016 Plaintiff propounded his requests for production and interrogatories to Defendants. At that time, Defendant Sandoval had not been served with process in this case. Instead, as the parties are aware, there were numerous motions, orders to show cause, orders to the United States Marshal, filings by the parties, rulings on requests for default, and multiple attempts at service. On April 27, 2017, the Marshal returned a waiver of service to the Court which was signed and dated by Defendant Sandoval on March 13, 2017.

         Thus, at the time Plaintiff propounded the requests for admission, requests for production, and interrogatories which are the subject of this motion, and indeed at the time that this motion to compel was filed, Defendant Sandoval had yet to be served with process in this case. Instead, only Defendants Smith and Thompson had been served, had appeared, and had answered the then-operative complaint.

         As a general rule, “discovery proceedings take place only after the defendant has been served. . . .” Columbia Ins. Co. v. seescandy.com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 577 (N.D. Cal. March 8, 1999) (citing Gillespie v. Civiletti, 629 F.2d 637, 642 (9th Cir. 1980)). There are rare exceptions, such as limited discovery to learn identifying facts necessary to permit service on a defendant with the Court's permission, see id., but those circumstances are not present here. As Defendant Sandoval had not yet been served or appeared in this action at the time that Plaintiff propounded his discovery, it was solely directed at Defendants Thompson and Smith. Therefore, the proper scope of discovery is limited to Plaintiff's claim of excessive force and deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's serious medical need in violation of the Eight Amendment against Defendant Smith, and Plaintiff's claim of deliberate indifference to serious medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment against Defendant Thompson.[2]

         The Court next evaluates the parties' disputes in the order raised by Plaintiff, with this understanding of the proper scope of the permissible discovery.

         B. Requests for Admission

         Plaintiff argues that Defendants' responses to his requests for admission (“RFA”) nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 13, 15, 17, and 18 are insufficient, and should be deemed admitted.

         “Because admissions are designed to limit factual issues in a case,

‘the requesting party bears the burden of setting forth its requests simply, directly, not vaguely or ambiguously, and in such a manner that they can be answered with a simple admit or deny without an explanation, and in certain instances, permit a qualification or explanation for purposes of clarification. . . .'”

Jones v. McGuire, No. 2:08-CV-2607 MCE CKD, 2012 WL 2376290, at *6 (E.D. Cal. June 22, 2012), (quoting Henry v. Champlain Enterprises, Inc., 212 F.R.D. 73, 77 (N.D.N.Y.2003)), report and recommendation adopted, No. 2:08-CV-2607 MCE CKD, 2012 WL 4344539 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 21, 2012). “To facilitate clear and succinct responses, the facts stated in the request must be singularly, specifically, and carefully detailed.” Id. Furthermore, requests for admissions should not be used to establish facts which are obviously in dispute, should not seek to admit the truth of legal conclusions, should not ask the party to admit facts of which they have no knowledge, and should not contain statements that are compound, conjunctive or disjunctive. Id. (quoting U.S. ex rel. England v. Los Angeles County, 235 F.R.D. 675, 684 (E.D. Cal. 2006); Lakehead Pipe Line Co. v. American Home Assur. Co., 177 F.R.D. 454, 458 (D. Minn. 1997); Disability Rights Council v. Wash. Metro. Area, 234 F.R.D. 1, 3 (D.C. Cir. 2006)). However, “when the purpose and significance of a request are reasonably clear, courts do not permit denials based on an overly-technical reading of the request.” Id. (quoting Los Angeles County, 235 F.R.D. at 684.)

         1. Request for Admission Nos. 2-5

         In RFA Nos. 2-5, Plaintiff stated, “Admit that a TCSD Detentions Division administratively segregated inmate's refusal to handcuff through the cell's door food port, prior the door being opened, is considered to be a” “mutual response incident, ” “inmate disturbance, ” “emergency incident, ” and an “unusual event, ” respectively.

         Defendants' Responses:

         Defendants Thompson and Smith objected to each of RFA Nos. 2-5 as vague for not defining “mutual response incident, ” “inmate disturbance, ” “emergency incident, ” and an “unusual event, ” respectively.

         In response to RFA No. 2, Defendants further responded, “If Plaintiff intends ‘Mutual Response' to mean ‘A mutual response is any response to an emergency situation involving staff not normally assigned to the involved facility' as defined by the Tulare County Sheriff's Department Detention Division Procedures Manual in effect at the time of the alleged incident, the request is denied.”

         In response to RFA No. 3, Defendants further responded that “Plaintiff's use of the terms ‘incident' and ‘disturbance' seemingly interchangeably without defining either term requires Defendants Smith and Thompson to speculate as to Plaintiff's intended meaning, thereby preventing Defendants Smith and Thompson from forming an intelligent reply in good faith; therefore the request is denied.”

         In response to RFA No. 4, Defendants further responded that “Plaintiff's use of the terms ‘incident' and ‘disturbance' seemingly interchangeably without defining either term requires Defendants Smith and Thompson to speculate as to Plaintiff's intended meaning. If Plaintiff intends ‘Emergency Incident' to mean ‘Fire and Smoke; Bomb Threat; Natural or Man-made Disasters; Earthquakes; Floods; Chemical Spills Affecting All or Part of the Facility; Food Strike; Inmate Disturbances; and Aviation Incidents' as defined by the Tulare County Sheriff's Department Detention Division Procedures Manual in effect at the time of the alleged incident, the request is denied.”

         In response to RFA No. 5, Defendants further objected that the request was “[n]ot relevant to the subject matter involved in the action as Plaintiff does not claim he refused to handcuff through the cell's door food port prior to the door being opened; rather, Plaintiff states in his Complaint that he refused to pull his hands back into his food port door after the handcuffs were removed.” Defendants further responded that “Plaintiff's use of the terms ‘incident' and ‘disturbance' seemingly interchangeably without defining either term requires Defendants Smith and Thompson to speculate as to Plaintiff's intended meaning, thereby preventing Defendants Smith and Thompson from forming an intelligent reply in good faith. For these reasons, the request is denied.”

         Parties Arguments: Plaintiff argues that each of the terms “mutual response incident, ” “inmate disturbance, ” “emergency incident, ” and “unusual event” in his RFA Nos. 2-5 were used as defined in the Tulare County Sherriff's Department Detention Division Procedures Manual (“TCSD Manual”), which Defendants appear to have understood based on their responses to RFA Nos. 2 and 4. Plaintiff argues that Defendants' responses are therefore insufficient, as their objections based on vagueness are deceitful and obstructionist.

         Defendants assert that they searched the TCSD Manual for Plaintiff's terms, and where they were able to find the terms' definitions, they responded accordingly. Defendants further assert that they did not guess or speculate at the meaning of Plaintiff's terms when they could not reasonably locate the terms and definitions in the TCSD Manual, and instead denied the request, which they argue was an appropriate response. Defendants also argue that RFA Nos. 2-5 seek to establish irrelevant facts, as Plaintiff did not allege that he refused to handcuff through the cell's door food port in this case, and also because facts concerning the terminology for a refusal to handcuff has nothing to do with whether Defendants Thompson or Smith were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's serious medical need.

         Ruling: Plaintiff's motion to have the responses in RFA Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 deemed admitted, is DENIED. According to the clarification of agreed terminology now provided by the parties, Plaintiff has a complete response to RFA Nos. 2 and 4. Further, Defendants asserted that they attempted to find the defined terms Plaintiff used in RFA Nos. 3 and 5, but were unable to do so, and thus responded with a denial in good faith. Plaintiff has provided no further clarification on the terminology at issue to enable Defendants Smith or Thompson to give any additional or amended response, nor has Plaintiff otherwise shown that the responses are insufficient or improper. Thus, Plaintiff has not met his burden here.

         2. Request for Admission Nos. 13, 15, 17, and 18[3]

         In RFA No. 13, Plaintiff stated, “Admit that the night of August 27, 2014, you were involved in a use of force upon the Plaintiff.”

         In RFA No. 15, Plaintiff stated, “Admit that you saw no videotaping equipment, medical staff or safety equipment (including but not limited to protection suits, shields, knee or elbow pads, and leg restraints) in use during the use of force on inmate Vickers, the Plaintiff, the morning of August 28, 2014 (i.e. the day, moment, and incident regarding the nature of this complaint).”

         In RFA No. 17, Plaintiff stated, “Admit that you escorted inmate Vickers, the Plaintiff, from his cell to medical clinic the day of August 28, 2014.”

         In RFA No. 18, Plaintiff stated, “Admit that you saw no videotaping equipment, medical staff or safety equipment (including but not limited to protection suits, shields, knee or elbow pads, and leg restraints) in use during the escorting of inmate Vickers from his cell that day of August 28, 2014, to the medical clinic.”

         Defendants' Responses: Defendants Thompson and Smith objected to each request as vague for not defining “you, ” on the grounds that there are multiple defendants in this matter. Defendants Thompson and Smith further responded to each request clarifying that they interpreted “you” to refer to Defendants Smith and Thompson. In response to RFA No. 13, they both denied being involved in any use of force.

         In response to RFA No. 15, Defendants Smith and Thompson both admitted that “they saw no videotaping equipment, medical staff or safety equipment at the time of the incident involving inmate Vickers' refusal to comply with the order to pull his uncuffed ...


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