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Melissa Crable v. State Farm Mutual Automobile

February 24, 2012



Pending before the Court is the Motion to Seal Correspondence, and in the alternative, Motion to Order the Parties to Enter into a Confidentiality Agreement, filed by non-party movants, Dr. Ara Deukmedjian ("Dr. Deukmedjian") and Millennium Medical Management, LLC ("Deuk Spine"). (Doc. 138). Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm") has filed a response (Doc. 148), thus, the motion is ripe for review. Upon due consideration, the Court DENIES the motion.

I. Background

On January 25, 2010, Melissa Crable ("Plaintiff") filed an action in state court against her insurer, State Farm for uninsured/under-insured motorist benefits. (Doc. 2). Plaintiff's claim arises out of injuries she sustained in an automobile accident on November 12, 2008. (Id. ¶¶ 3-5). Following the accident, Plaintiff engaged the law firm of Morgan & Morgan as her attorneys.*fn1 The law firm referred her to neurosurgeon Dr. Deukmedjian who entered into an agreement with her to take a lien on the proceeds of this lawsuit rather than bill her insurance carrier. (Doc. 101 at 2). Dr. Deukmedjian examined Plaintiff and performed surgical procedures on her cervical spine. (Id.); see also (Doc. 11 at 20-22). Plaintiff now claims $76,000 in economic damages in this case- approximately $65,000 of which results from the treatment provided by Dr. Deukmedjian.*fn2 (Doc. 11 at 20-22). Defendant removed this case to federal court and filed an answer to the Complaint on August 17, 2010. (Docs. 1, 3). In its Answer, Defendant asserts several affirmative defenses against Plaintiff's claim, including:

1. Treatment/Expense Not Medically Reasonable, Necessary and Related. Defendant alleges that the medical expenses/wages claimed by Plaintiff were not medically reasonable, related, and necessary in connection with the subject accident.

2. Overbilling. The treatment provided to Plaintiff was overbilled by the medical providers. . . . .

5. The medical records submitted in support of the services do not sufficiently support the billing of the CPT codes submitted and further, fails to comply with AMA/CPT guidelines. The medical records submitted in support of these codes fail to appropriately document the medical necessity for the services. (Doc. 3 at 3-4). On November 14, 2011, this Court, ordered the movants to produce certain correspondence described in Margaret Zukoski's deposition, including,

Deuk Spine's requests for liability insurance policy limits, the dates demands were sent, how much was demanded, whether trial was set and how soon Deuk Spine could expect payment for Morgan & Morgan clients treated by Deuk Spine. Deuk Spine shall also produce all responses to these requests which it received. Alternatively, Deuk Spine shall provide an affidavit from a competent witness that the documents do not exist. If they did exist sometime in the past then the affidavit shall address what happened to the documents. Deuk Spine shall also produce the items responsive to item 6 of State Farm's subpoena duces tecum, the "Reimbursement Schedules for Medicare and those Insurers identified in Exhibit "A" for the Services provided to Melissa Crable. (Doc. 101 at 20-21). On February 2, 2012, the Court ordered the movants to (a) produce Dr. Deukmedjian for a deposition to be conducted in the presence of the Court in the United States Courthouse in Ocala, Florida, and (b) "bring with them all of the documents which they were previously ordered to produce." (Doc. 136 at 2). Also on February 2, 2012, Dr. Deukmedjian and Deuk Spine moved to seal the documents at issue here. (Doc. 138). Defendant State Farm timely filed a memorandum in opposition to the motion (Doc. 148), which is now ripe for review.

II. Discussion

In this Circuit, it is well settled that "[t]he operations of the courts and the judicial conduct of judges are matters of utmost public concern" and the integrity of the judiciary is maintained by the public's right of access to court proceedings. Romero v. Drummond Co., 480 F.3d 1234, 1245 (11th Cir. 2007)(citing Landmark Commc'ns, Inc. v.Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 839 (1978)). That access is not unfettered, however. During the discovery process and pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c), a court may enter a protective order preventing the public disclosure of certain information or limiting how that information is used in the litigation. In this regard, FED. R. CIV. P 26(c)(1)(H) provides that:

A party or any person from whom discovery is sought may move for a protective order in the court where the action is pending--or as an alternative on matters relating to a deposition, in the court for the district where the deposition will be taken. The motion must include a certification that the movant has in good faith conferred or attempted to confer with other affected parties in an effort to resolve the dispute without court action. The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense, including . . . requiring that the parties simultaneously file specified documents or information in sealed envelopes, to be opened as the court directs.

FED. R. CIV. P. 26(c)(1)(H). Upon a showing of good cause by the party seeking protection, the court must "balance the party's interest in obtaining access against the other party's interest in keeping the information confidential." Chicago Tribune Co. et al. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc. 263 F.3d 1304, 1313 (11th Cir. 2001). Courts have held that when balancing these interests, "the mere fact that the production of records may lead to a litigant's embarrassment, incrimination, or exposure to further litigation will not, without more, compel the court to seal its records." Graphic Packaging Int'l, Inc. v. C.W. Zumbiel, No. 3:10-cv-891-J-JBT, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143284, at *3-4 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 27, 2010) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Here, the movants ask the Court to seal more than "2,000 pages of partially redacted email correspondence between [them] and [the law firm of] Morgan & Morgan." (Doc. 138 at 1). This material was produced to Defendant State Farm pursuant to the Court's November 14, 2011 and February 2, 2012 orders. (Id.) The movants argue that unless the materials are sealed and protected from public view, employee and patient privacy rights will be violated. (Id. at 3). A review of the record reveals that this Court has already allowed the movants to redact any information that could be used to identify any particular patient. (Doc. 136 at 2). In light of this fact, the Court finds the movants' general concern for patient privacy rights unpersuasive. Additionally, the movants have failed to identify any specific right of privacy enjoyed by their employees (or Morgan & Morgan's employees) that would be violated if the Court declined to enter a protective order; thus, the Court finds this argument equally unpersuasive.

The movants further contend that the protective order would preserve their interest in "protecting the confidentiality of [their] financial and business relationships and the terms of those agreements." (Doc. 138). In support of their argument, the movants cite to Graphic Packaging for the following proposition:

In Graphic Packaging, the Court found that the interest of a party in maintaining the confidentiality of its financial information and the terms of its relationships with its customers outweigh the interest of those seeking to access the documents. (Id. at 3). Aside from this quotation, the movants make no further argument and offer no further case law citations in this regard. Based on its independent review of the cases cited in Graphic Packaging, the Court rejects the movants' argument. Unlike the case at bar, the cases that underscore this cited portion of the Graphic Packaging opinion involve the disclosure of financial information relating to either, a company's business operations and financial solvency, or an individual's personal income and account balance. See e.g. Jazz Photo Corp. v. United States, 439 F.3d 1344, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2006)(The court permitted the challenged documents to be sealed because they included information relating to the plaintiff's "customers, suppliers, manufacturing processes, financial condition, and the quantity and value of its imports."); In re Boston Herald, Inc. v. Connolly, 321 F.3d 174, 190 (1st Cir. 2003)(The court upheld the seal placed on the defendant's "[p]ersonal ...

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