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In re 3M Combat Arms Earplug Products Liability Litigation

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Pensacola Division

November 6, 2019


          M. Casey Rodgers Judge



         Pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion to Compel Discovery. ECF No. 798. Defendants filed a response in opposition to Plaintiffs' motion, ECF No. 804, and Plaintiff filed a reply memorandum, ECF No. 811. The motion is therefore ripe for the Court's consideration, and for the reasons discussed below, Plaintiffs' motion is due to be GRANTED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs have noticed for deposition twelve witnesses who are Defendants' current or former employees.[1] In anticipation of these depositions, Plaintiffs requested Defendants produce each witness's personnel file, “specifically the documents generally maintained by the employee's supervisor or human resource department relating to that employee's work on 3M Earplugs, [2] including job performance evaluations, self-evaluations, salary and compensation information, and bonus and incentive information.” ECF No. 798 at 5. Defendants objected to the requested production as irrelevant, unduly burdensome, disproportionate to the needs of the case, and improperly seeking private and highly sensitive information. ECF No. 798-2 at 21.

         Plaintiffs assert that Defendants' objections are factually and legally unfounded. Plaintiffs argue, in their motion, that the portions of the witnesses' personnel files Plaintiffs have requested Defendants to produce are relevant to “core issues” in this matter, including:

(i) 3M employees' internal roles, involvement, and responsibilities with the 3M Earplugs, as described by them or their superior contemporaneous with their activities, (ii) the attribution, credit, and accomplishments claimed or given to particular 3M employees for various relevant aspects in the development, sale, and monitoring of the 3M Earplugs (including, inter alia, their discovery/testing/creation, managing/deflecting safety or performance problems, or overcoming sales challenges/obstacles), and (iii) the goals, objectives, and financial incentives-personal and corporate-that drove relevant actions, inactions, and decisions with regard to the 3M Earplugs.

ECF No. 798 at 6. Plaintiffs further contend that the request is not unduly burdensome, is proportionate to the needs of this litigation, and does not seek private or sensitive information typically included in an employee's personnel file. Id. at 6-7, 9-12.

         Defendants resist on the basis that Plaintiffs fail to satisfy a heightened legal standard that would allow for production of “private and highly sensitive personnel files” in this matter. ECF No. 804 at 4-5. Defendants point to the language utilized by Plaintiffs-for example, Plaintiffs request the “goals, objectives, and financial incentives” that “drove relevant actions” for 3M Earplugs-and contend the requests are too broad to discern which portions of the witnesses' personnel files would be responsive or relevant. Id. at 7-8. Defendants also argue that the production of personnel files is not warranted because Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate this information is otherwise unobtainable and based on more than speculation. Id. at 9-10. Lastly, Defendants offer to provide the Court with redacted versions of the personnel files for in camera review so that the undersigned may determine the scope of disclosure to Plaintiffs, if any. Id. at 10-13.


         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit discovery limited to nonprivileged matter that is “relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Relevancy is construed “broadly to encompass any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matter[s] 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); see also Ford v. Gov't Emps. Ins. Co., No. 1:14-cv-180-MW-GRJ, 2015 WL 11109373, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Apr. 3, 2015). Determining whether discovery is proportional requires consideration of “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).

         Where, as here, a party objects to the production of documents in discovery, the requesting party may file a motion to compel. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(3)(B). This Court has “broad discretion … to compel or deny discovery.” Josendis v. Wall to Wall Residence Repairs, Inc., 662 F.3d 1292, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)). Generally, the objecting party must establish that the requested discovery (1) is not relevant under Rule 26(b)(1), or (2) is marginally relevant, such that production would cause potential harm outweighing the presumption in favor of broad disclosure. Am. Fed'n of State, Cty. and Mun. Emps. (AFSCME) Council 79 v. Scott, 277 F.R.D. 474, 477 (S.D. Fla. 2011); Gober v. City of Leesburg, 197 F.R.D. 519, 521 (M.D. Fla. 2000); see also Pediatric Servs. of Am., Inc. v. Kendrick, No. 3:18-cv-1372-RV-CJK, 2019 WL 580786, at *2 (N.D. Fla. Jan. 17, 2019). If the requested discovery's relevance is not apparent, however, the party seeking the production must demonstrate relevancy. S.E.C. v. BankAtlantic Bancorp, Inc., 285 F.R.D. 661, 666 (S.D. Fla. 2012).

         Defendants suggest this Court impose a heightened legal standard for the discovery of personnel files because “strong public policy considerations weigh against disclosure of this information.” ECF No. 804 at 5. Although some district courts in the Eleventh Circuit impose this more demanding standard, see, e.g., Coker v. Duke & Co., 177 F.R.D. 682, 685 (M.D. Fla. 1998), the Court is not persuaded it applies here. Personnel files are generally discoverable when the request satisfies Rule 26(b)(1). B-K Cypress Log Homes, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., No. 1:09-cv-211-MP-GRJ, 2011 WL 13227990, at **4-5 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 8, 2011). Any presumption against disclosure means it is improper for a party to ask for the wholesale production of a witness's personnel file, which will typically (if not always) include private and sensitive information such as the witness's social security number or medical diagnoses. Plaintiffs have requested categories of documents divorced from this private and sensitive information, ECF No. 798 at 13, and any incidental disclosure of such information, which is unlikely, will be subject to the parties' protective order. The Court will therefore apply the ordinary discovery principles discussed above, namely addressing the question of whether the discovery Plaintiffs request is relevant.

         III. ...

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