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Stonebarger v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

January 5, 2015

MELISSA STONEBARGER, et al., Plaintiffs,


JULIE A. ROBINSON, District Judge.

This matter is presently before the Court upon Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company's ("Union Pacific") Motion to Review the Magistrate's Orders dated July 21 and October 16, 2014 (Doc. 133). Having carefully reviewed the arguments of the parties, the Court is now prepared to rule.[1] For the reasons explained in detail below, Union Pacific's Motion is denied.

I. Background

Plaintiffs bring this wrongful death action seeking to recover damages arising out of a collision between an automobile and a train that occurred at a public railroad grade crossing in rural Brown County, Kansas, on October 29, 2012. During discovery, Plaintiffs submitted a Request for Production No. 67, asking that Union Pacific "produce a copy of each and every version of your accident investigation guidelines manual as discussed in the July 11, 2004 New York Times article, a copy of which is attached for your reference."[2] Union Pacific asserted the following objection:

Defendant objects to this request for the reason it is facially overly broad and unduly burdensome, seeks documents protected by the attorney/client and work product privileges, and seeks documents that are irrelevant and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

Plaintiffs moved to compel, asserting that Union Pacific could readily identify the manuals in question, which were discussed in the New York Times article; that producing the manuals did not put an undue burden on Union Pacific as it had produced them in other lawsuits; that the manuals are highly relevant as they may reveal Union Pacific's investigation practices over time and allow Plaintiffs to compare them to and analyze current practices, which in turn is relevant to the safety of the railroad crossing at issue and Union Pacific's handling of the investigation of this accident; and that they do not seek documents that are protected by the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine.[3]

Judge James overruled Union Pacific's objections, and ordered Union Pacific to produce all versions of the "Accident Investigation Guidelines" manuals in effect from the beginning of Michael H. Walsh's tenure as CEO of Union Pacific until the date of the July 11, 2004, New York Times article. Judge James noted that Union Pacific repeated various general objections, "namely that the requests at issue are facially overbroad, unduly burdensome, and fail to identify with reasonable particularity the documents or information sought."[4] Judge James stated that Union Pacific offered no evidence or affidavits to support its conclusory statements with respect to Request No. 67, instead asserting generally that providing any and all versions of Union Pacific's accident investigations guidelines manual from 2004 to the present would be "daunting, if not impossible."[5] Judge James held that "[s]uch boilerplate objections, standing alone, do not constitute a successful objection to a discovery request."[6] The court went on to state that it will not consider the objections unless the objecting party shows "specifically how, despite the broad and liberal construction afforded the federal discovery rules, each question is overly broad [or] burdensome... by submitting affidavits or offering evidence revealing the nature of the burden."[7]

Judge James further agreed with Plaintiffs that the request is facially relevant to whether Union Pacific's accident investigation customs and practices changed over time and whether its investigations are accurately and meaningfully conducted.[8] The court noted that, once again, Union Pacific focused its objection on the relevancy of a 2004 accident investigation manual and subsequent versions of the manual to present, when Plaintiffs' Request No. 67 was seeking earlier or previous versions of the 2004 manual that were described and referred to in the 2004 New York Times article.[9]

Union Pacific moved to reconsider, urging Judge James to sustain its objections to producing documents pursuant to Request No. 67, attaching an affidavit of James Foxx, Regional Director of Risk Management.[10] Union Pacific also requested the court to stay discovery as it pertains to Request No. 67 pending this Court's ruling on its summary judgment motion. In denying Union Pacific's request for reconsideration, Judge James noted that Union Pacific did not contend that an intervening change in controlling law supports its motion, but rather, focused its argument on preventing manifest injustice that it claimed would result if forced to comply with the court's order.[11] Judge James held that Union Pacific asserted both that the court should consider new evidence and denied that such evidence exists, which amounted to a request that the court consider new arguments.[12] Specifically, Union Pacific portrayed Request No. 67 as being "unlimited in temporal scope" until Judge James intervened by modifying and limiting the request.[13] According to Union Pacific, it "had no ability to respond with specific evidence or affidavits" to support its objections because on its face, Request No. 67 could have extended "all the way back to UP's inception in 1862."[14] Union Pacific also asserted that "Plaintiffs consistently refused to provide any limitation."[15] Judge James rejected the premise of Union Pacific's argument, noting that Plaintiffs requested Union Pacific to produce "each and every version of your accident investigation guidelines manual as discussed in the July 11, 2004 New York Times article, " a copy of which was attached to their request.[16] Judge James explained that

[t]he Court did not change Plaintiffs' request or give it temporal scope; instead, the Court spelled out the exact discussion from the newspaper article which was in and of itself quite explicit. The article described a new philosophy that Michael H. Walsh brought to UP from the mid-1980's until the early 1990's, and stated that the new philosophy "was embodied in a company manual, Accident Investigation Guidelines.'" While Defendant may have chosen to interpret the request as seeking its accident investigation guidelines manuals since 2004, Defendant points to no evidence that Plaintiffs were responsible for that interpretation.... Nor is there evidence to support Defendant's assertion that "Plaintiffs consistently refus[ed] to narrow the scope of Request No. 67 to some reasonable period of time." In fact, Defendant points to no instance in which it asked Plaintiffs to narrow the temporal scope of the request.[17]

More troubling to Judge James was Union Pacific's position that the manual continued to exist after 2004 to the present, in the face of the parties' submissions that in 2003 Union Pacific stopped producing any version of the manual Plaintiffs seek.[18] While much of Union Pacific's argument arose from its professed inability to comply with the request because of the "vast time frame it covered, Request No. 67 was well within Defendant's ability to comprehend."[19] Judge James stressed that it was Union Pacific's choice to make "boilerplate objections" to producing the documents, and that it had presented no evidence or arguments that it could have made in response to Plaintiffs' motion to compel.[20] The court did not find any clear error to correct or that a need exists to prevent manifest injustice.[21] Finally, the court declined to stay enforcement of the discovery order until this Court ruled on a separately pending Motion for Summary Judgment, and directed Union Pacific to provide to Plaintiffs a privilege log regarding information in Request No. 67.[22]

II. Discussion

Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a) allows a party to provide specific, written objections to a magistrate judge's nondispositive order. The court does not conduct a de novo review; rather, it applies a more deferential standard under which the moving party must show that the magistrate judge's order is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law."[23] The court must affirm the magistrate judge's order unless the entire evidence leaves it "with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'"[24] A ...

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