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McGee v. Poverello House

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 28, 2019

JILL MCGEE, et al., Plaintiffs,
POVERELLO HOUSE, et al., Defendants.


         Currently before the Court is Defendants Poverello House's (“Poverello”) and Naomi's House's (“Naomi's”) (collectively “Defendants”) motion to compel Plaintiffs Jill Mcgee, Lacey Hoxsie, Lydia Carranza, Noadiah Riaz, Tracey Stroud, Christine D'Ambrosi, and Sharon Wade (collectively “Plaintiffs”) to serve amended responses to Defendants' requests for admissions, set one. (ECF No. 25.) The Court heard oral argument on June 26, 2019. (ECF No. 33.) Peter Kapetan appeared on behalf of Plaintiffs and Brian Plummer appeared on behalf of Defendants. Having considered the joint statement, moving and opposition papers, the declarations and exhibits attached thereto, arguments presented at the June 26, 2019 hearing, as well as the Court's file, the Court issues the following order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Allegations in the Operative Complaint

         On April 24, 2018, Plaintiffs filed this action in the Fresno Superior Court bringing federal and state law claims, which was removed to the above entitled court on June 5, 2018. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiffs bring causes of action for: (1) negligent infliction of emotional distress; (2) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act; (3) violation of the California Fair Employment & House Act; (4) violation of the right to privacy; (5) violation of the Federal Fair Employment and Housing Act; and (6) violation of California unfair competition laws. (Compl., EFC No. 1 at 5.)[1]Defendants run homeless shelters that provide housing and other services. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-17.) Poverello operates Naomi's House, and Naomi's House receives federal grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), in addition to additional funding from Poverello. (Compl. ¶ 17.)

         Plaintiffs are homeless woman who have sought shelter at Naomi's between June 2017 and present. (Compl. ¶ 21.) Plaintiffs allege that beginning in approximately June of 2017, a male to female transgender person identified as “D.N.” was admitted to Naomi's. (Compl. ¶ 22.) D.N. dressed in female attire, but still had male genitalia. (Id.) Naomi's requires all women who stay to shower every night or risk being excluded from the shelter. (Compl. ¶ 20.) Plaintiffs allege that D.N. was allowed to observe the women when they were required to undress in the open area, and that during shower times, D.N. would repeatedly make lewd and sexually inappropriate comments to some of the Plaintiffs. (Id.) D.N. would allegedly “stare and leer at Plaintiffs while naked and make sexually harassing comments about their bodies, ” in addition to showing sexual pictures and/or videos of D.N., and making sexual advances on some of the Plaintiffs. (Compl. ¶ 22-23.)

         Plaintiffs allege they repeatedly complained to staff at Naomi's regarding such conduct, both verbally and in writing. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Plaintiffs were informed that they had to respect D.N.'s decision to identify as a woman, and that because Naomi's received HUD funding, there was nothing Naomi's could do. (Id.) If Plaintiffs refused to take showers with D.N., staff threatened them with expulsion, and Plaintiffs complain that Naomi's refused to take appropriate disciplinary action against D.N. or make any reasonable accommodation to protect Plaintiffs' rights and privacy. (Id.)

         B. The Discovery Dispute

         On May 28, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to compel Plaintiffs' amended responses to requests for admissions, set one, numbers 13, 21, 22, 30, 31, 45, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 62, 63, 78, 79, and 119, along with a request for monetary sanctions against Plaintiffs' attorney of record. (ECF No. 25.) On June 7, 2019, Plaintiffs' counsel Peter Kapetan filed a declaration in opposition of Defendants' monetary sanctions request and in support of Plaintiffs' request for monetary sanctions. (ECF No. 26.) On June 19, 2019, pursuant to Local Rule 251, the parties filed a joint statement re discovery disagreement. (Joint Statement Re Discovery Disagreement (“JS”), ECF No. 32.)

         While the discovery dispute originally encompassed Plaintiffs' responses to Defendants' requests for production, interrogatories, and requests for admission, through the parties' meet and confer efforts, the instant dispute now only concerns seventeen requests for admission which Defendants are moving to compel amended responses to. (JS 2-3.) Plaintiffs objected to requests for admission 13, 21, 22, 30, 31, 45, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 62, 63, 78, 79, and 119 on various grounds, including that the requests are vague and ambiguous, that the requests call for speculation, that the requests call for a legal conclusion, or that they call for a medical opinion. (JS 5.)[2] Plaintiffs denied each of the requests for admission based on the proffered objections. (Id.).


         Rule 26, as recently amended, provides that a party “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). Information need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable. Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1).

         “A party may serve on any other party a written request to admit, for purposes of the pending action only, the truth of any matters within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) relating to: (A) facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1). “Each matter must be separately stated.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(2). If a responding party does not admit a matter, “the answer must specifically deny it or state in detail why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny it.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(4). If a matter is denied, the “denial must fairly respond to the substance of the matter; and when good faith requires that a party qualify an answer or deny only a part of a matter, the answer must specify the part admitted and qualify or deny the rest.” Id. A responding party may object to a request if they state the ground for the objection in the response, but the “party must not object solely on the ground that the request presents a genuine issue for trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(5). The requesting party may then move the court to determine the sufficiency of an answer or objection. Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(6). The court must order that an answer be served unless it finds an objection justified. Id. “On finding that an answer does not comply with this rule, the court may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served.” Id.

         Motions to compel are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37, which states, in pertinent part:

(a) Motion for an Order Compelling Disclosure or Discovery.
(1) In General. On notice to other parties and all affected persons, a party may move for an order compelling disclosure or discovery.
The motion must include a certification that the movant has in good faith conferred or attempted to confer with the person or party failing to make disclosure or discovery in an effort to obtain it without court action.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 37. Rule 37 states that “an evasive or incomplete disclosure, answer, or response must be treated as a failure to disclose, answer, or respond.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(4).

         If a motion to compel discovery is granted, Rule 37(a)(5)(A) requires a court to order the “party or deponent whose conduct necessitated the motion, the party or attorney advising that conduct, or both to pay the movant's reasonable expenses incurred in making the motion, including attorney's fees” unless: “(i) the movant filed the motion before attempting in good faith to obtain the disclosure or discovery without court action; (ii) the opposing party's nondisclosure, response, or objection was substantially justified; or (iii) other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(A). If the motion is denied, the court must “require the movant, the attorney filing the motion, or both to pay the party or deponent who opposed the motion its reasonable expenses incurred in opposing the motion, including attorney's fees, ” however the court “must not order this payment if the motion was substantially justified or other circumstances make an award of expenses unjust.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(B). Where the motion is granted in part and denied in part, the court “may, after giving an opportunity to be heard, apportion the reasonable expenses for the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(5)(C).


         The Court now turns to the requests for admission that are the subject of Defendants' motion to compel.

         A. Request for Admission No. 13

         Defendants' Request for Admission 13: Admit that you were never forced or coerced by any DEFENDANT to be at and/or stay at NAOMI'S HOUSE at any time.

         Plaintiffs' Response to Request 13: Plaintiff objects to this Request for Admission on the grounds that it is vague and ambiguous as to the term “forced or coerced” and the term “at and/or stay at.” Therefore, based on said objection, Plaintiff denies.

         Court's Ruling: Plaintiffs' objection as to vague or ambiguous language is overruled. Plaintiffs' argument that Defendants may have threatened expulsion from the shelter if Plaintiffs continued to complain about D.N's behavior or refer to D.N. in the masculine, does not prevent Plaintiffs from answering the request for admission in the form it is currently in regarding whether Defendants forced Plaintiffs to remain at the shelter. See U.S. ex rel. Englund v. Los Angeles Cty., 235 F.R.D. 675, 684 (E.D. Cal. 2006) (“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.”). In the joint statement, Plaintiffs argue the request is vague and ambiguous because it is compound and conjunctive. Plaintiffs did not object that the request was compound and conjunctive at the time Plaintiffs served their responses, and although the request is arguably compound, the Court does not find the request impermissibly vague and ambiguous because of such phrasing. See Clay v. Cytosport, Inc., No. 15-CV-00165-L (DHB), 2016 WL 11523590, at *5 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 16, 2016) (“To the extent the requests are compound, Defendant can explain the scope of its admission or denial in its responses.”). “[I]t is not ground for objection that the request is ‘ambiguous' unless so ambiguous that the responding party cannot, in good faith, frame an intelligent reply, ” and parties “should ‘admit to the fullest extent possible, and explain in detail why other portions of a request may not be admitted.' ” U.S. ex rel. Englund v. Los Angeles Cty., 235 F.R.D. 675, 685 (E.D. Cal. 2006) (quoting Marchand v. Mercy Med. Ctr., 22 F.3d 933, 938 (9th Cir. 1994)).

         Accordingly, Defendants' motion to compel a response to Defendants' request for admission number 13 is GRANTED.

         B. Requests for Admissions Nos. 21, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, and 57

         Defendants' Request for Admission 21: Admit that NAOMI'S HOUSE is a female-only housing facility.

         Defendants' Request for Admission 52: Admit that you never complained to DEFENDANTS at any time about having to be nude in front of and/or in the ...

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