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Carter v. City of Montgomery

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

May 14, 2019

Aldaress Carter, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ROYCE C. LAMBERTH UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         The City of Montgomery (the "City") clearly does not want this case to move forward, at least with it as a party. At various times, it has asked for stays, moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and-even after the Court denied that motion-moved for judgment on the pleadings. And now, with the stay lifted and its motions largely denied, it appears its latest tactic is to attempt to gum up the process through recalcitrance in discovery. But this case is old and must start progressing toward trial or resolution. For the reasons stated herein, the Court will largely grant Mr. Carter's Second Motion to Compel [ECF No. 171 ], as amended in the Joint Status Report and Proposed Schedule [ECF No. 208].

         In April 2017, Mr. Carter served his First Interrogatories and Requests for Production on the City. PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. A, ECF No. 171-1. In June of that year, the City served its responses to those requests, PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. C, ECF No. 171-3, but maintained that it would not participate in discovery until the Court resolved its then-pending motion to stay discovery. PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. E, ECF No. 171-5. Taking umbrage with that position, Mr. Carter filed a motion to compel production of the requested discovery. Mot. Compel, ECF No. 127. However, the Court eventually granted the motion to stay the case pending resolution of an appeal in a similar case involving the City. Order, ECF No. 131. And Mr. Carter's first motion to compel was denied as moot. Order, ECF No. 138.

         In June 2018, the stay was lifted, Order, ECF No. 142, and in July, counsel for Mr. Carter asked the City for substantive responses to his original discovery requests. PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. F, ECF No. 171-6. In September 2018, the City provided amended responses to Mr. Carter's First Interrogatories and Requests for Production. PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. J, ECF No. 210-1 (hereinafter, "RFP/Interrogatory Responses"). Still unsatisfied with the City's responses, Mr. Carter filed his Second Motion to Compel-the subject of this Order. See PL's Second Mot. Compel, ECF No. 171.

         But since the filing of Mr. Carter's motion, the case has narrowed slightly. The Court dismissed claims against the City for false imprisonment and money had and received-the only claims against the City with a six-year, rather than two-year, statute of limitations. Order, ECF No. 207. Accordingly, Mr. Carter has revised his document requests to the City reducing the time frame from six to two years. Joint Status Report and Proposed Schedule 3, ECF No. 208. Accordingly, the City submitted a supplemental response in opposition to Mr. Carter's motion. City's Suppl. Resp., ECF No. 211. The Court evaluates the present motion in light of this change.

         Although Mr. Carter seeks to compel responses to twenty-one separate requests for production or interrogatories, see Second Mot. Compel ¶ 13, ECF No. 171, the Court begins by responding to two of the City's global objections.

         First, the City argues that it need not produce municipal court files or related records because the "municipal court, though funded by the City, is part of the Unified Judicial System of the State of Alabama and the courts' files are not city documents." RFP/Interrogatory Responses at 9, 11, 14, 15, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29, 36, 38, 52, 54, 57, 59, 61. Not so. Under Rule 34(a), aparty must generally produce responsive documents within its "possession, custody, or control." Fed.R.Civ.P. 34(a). The Eleventh Circuit has "broadly construed 'control' for purposes of discovery as 'the legal right to obtain the documents requested upon demand.'" Sergeeva v. Tripleton Int'l Ltd., 834 F.3d 1194, 1201 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting SeaRock v. Stripling, 736 F.2d 650, 653-54 (1 lth Cir. 1984)).

         And a "legal right to obtain" does not require actual possession or legal control. Id. at 1201 n.6. For example, in Sergeeva, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a district court's "determin[ation] that 'the legal right to obtain documents requested upon demand' may be established where affiliated corporate entities ... have actually shared responsive information and documents in the normal course of their business dealings." Id. at 1201. In that case, a corporation could not avoid producing responsive documents simply by claiming that they belonged to a separate, albeit affiliated corporation. Id.

         So too here. The City, who is responsible for "provid[ing] appropriate facilities and necessary supportive personnel for the municipal court," undoubtably shares the responsive information and documents in the normal course of performing its administrative functions. See Ala. Code § 12-14-12. After all, the City is responsible for housing the court and any records, as well as employing the court's supporting staff. Therefore, the City does not meet its discovery obligations simply by stating court files are not city documents. The City must make a good faith effort to obtain the court documents. SeaRock, 736 F.2d at 654. And to the extent that the City responded to a discovery request by claiming that the request seeks documents and information in possession of the municipal court and thus outside of its possession, custody, or control, Mr. Carter's motion is hereby GRANTED.

         Second, the City argues that documents related to absent class members are irrelevant prior to class certification and would be overly burdensome to locate and produce. See City's Resp. 3-5, ECF No. 182. It asserts that at least of eleven of the requests presently before the Court "are purely related to potential claims of absent class members, and clearly should not be imposed on the City, either now or at all." Id. at 5. The Court rejects this notion.

         For one, documents or information related to absent class members are not categorically irrelevant to Mr. Carter's claims. To impose municipal liability under § 1983, Mr. Carter must prove a government policy or custom on the part of the City. See Hill v. Cundiff, 797 F.3d 948, 977 (11th Cir. 2015). The treatment of other JCS probationers is undoubtedly relevant to showing that policy or custom. Of course, it also bears on the elements of class certification under Rule 23. (Indeed, this is part of the reason the Court thought it better to reserve on the issue of class certification until after completion of merits discovery.) But at bottom, Mr. Carter's attempt to hold the City liable under § 1983 makes this information relevant to his merits claim too. And the City may not refuse Mr. Carter's requests based on a blanket relevance objection.

         Moreover, the City has not sufficiently demonstrated that Mr. Carter's requests are overly burdensome. The party resisting production bears the responsibility of establishing Undue burden. Coker v. Duke & Co., Inc., 177 F.R.D. 682, 686 (M.D. Ala. 1998). "Generally, a party seeking to avoid discovery on a burdensomeness argument must substantiate that position with detailed affidavits or other evidence establishing an undue burden." Id. Conclusory statements about the difficulty of complying with a discovery request or the expected expense are not enough. Id.; see also Twin City Fire Ins. Co. v. Ford Motor Co., 124 F.R.D. 652 (D. Nev. 1989). Instead, "[t]he resisting party must make a particular and specific demonstration of fact." Coker, 177 F.R.D. at 686.

         Here, the City has made no such showing. The City does attach affidavits to its supplemental response. City's Suppl. Resp. Ex. 1, ECF No. 211-1; City's Suppl. Resp. Ex. 3, ECF No. 211-3. But they fail to acknowledge the reduced scope of Mr. Carter's amended requests. Mr. Carter has reduced the time-frame of his requests from six to two years since the filing of his motion. Thus, the responsive material is theoretically one-third of that originally requested. Joint Status Report and Proposed Schedule 3, ECF No. 208. Because this change is unacknowledged by the City's affiants, the Court finds the City's arguments conclusory and largely speculative.

         The Court is sensitive to the costs associated with discovery. But based on the correspondence between the parties submitted with Mr. Carter's motion, it appears that Mr. Carter's counsel is willing to make accommodations to the City to attempt to keep costs down, such'as cross-referencing discovery received from JCS to limit the City's searches. See PL's Second Mot. Compel Ex. M, ECF No. 171-13. At this time, the City has not met its burden to show burdensomeness and the Court GRANTS Mr. Carter's motion as to the requests related to absent class members. The Court agrees that the City is not obligated to create ...


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