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Bish v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

November 14, 2016




         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion to Compel [DE 26], filed on July 12, 2016. Plaintiffs do not plainly state whom they would like the Court to compel or what they would like the Court to compel that person(s) to do, but the only reasonable interpretation of the motion is that Plaintiffs want the Court to compel two non-party witnesses to answer certain questions during their deposition testimony. Defendant has responded based on that interpretation, and Plaintiffs have replied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs worked for Defendant, a railroad company, until they were fired in 2014. They then sued, alleging that Defendant fired them for engaging in activity protected by the Federal Railroad Safety Act, or FRSA.

         Plaintiffs sought to learn during discovery: (1) whether their supervisors had a financial motivation to retaliate against employees who participated in FRSA-protected activity; and (2) whether their supervisors have a history of acting on such a motivation.

         To that end, Plaintiffs deposed Defendant's general manager, Pat Daly, and sought to ask Daly questions about how his compensation is affected by employees' engaging in FRSA-protected activity. Plaintiffs also deposed their former supervisor David Flores and asked Flores whether he had ever been disciplined-an effort, Plaintiffs say, to determine whether Flores was ever disciplined for retaliating against employees who engaged in FRSA-protected activity.

         Daly and Flores declined to answer those questions, and Plaintiffs now seek an order compelling them to answer. Defendants oppose the motion to compel, argue that Plaintiffs are engaged in a “fishing expedition, ” and ask for a protective order.

         II. Analysis

         A party may obtain discovery regarding “any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). The scope of permissible discovery is broad: relevant information “need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.” Id. And courts construe relevancy “to encompass any matter that bears on, or that reasonably could lead to other matter 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).

         But while the scope of permissible discovery is broad, it is not unlimited. The discovery rules “were never intended to be an excursion ticket to an unlimited exploration of every conceivable matter that captures an attorney's interest.” Miller UK Ltd. v. Caterpillar, Inc., 17 F.Supp.3d 711, 721 (N.D. Ill. 2014). “[I]rrelevant questions . . . may unnecessarily touch sensitive areas or go beyond reasonable limits, ” in which case “refusing to answer may be justified.” Eggleston v. Journeymen Plumbers' Local Union No. 130, U.A., 657 F.2d 890, 903 (7th Cir. 1981).

         If a witness does refuse to answer a question during a deposition, the asking party may seek an order compelling an answer. Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(a)(3)(B)(i). The objecting party bears the burden of showing why the request is improper. McGrath v. Everest Nat'l Ins. Co., 625 F.Supp.2d 660, 670 (N.D. Ind. 2008).

         In ruling on a motion to compel discovery, the Court has broad discretion. Patterson v. Avery Dennison Corp., 281 F.3d 676, 681 (7th Cir. 2002). Before restricting discovery, the Court “should consider the totality of the circumstances, weighing the value of the material sought against the burden of providing it, and taking into account society's interest in furthering the truthseeking function in the particular case before the court.” Id. (quotation omitted). Particularly in the context of nonparty discovery, the Court should protect witnesses from harassment and from disclosure of confidential information. See Dart Indus. Co. v. Westwood Chem. Co., 649 F.2d 646, 649 (9th Cir. 1980); Barr v. Illinois Co., No. 84-2076, 1986 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30896, *3 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 2, 1986).

         A. Compensation

         Defendant's general manager, Pat Daly, declined to answer questions from Plaintiffs' lawyer about his compensation structure as it relates to the amount of FRSA-protected activity occurring on his watch. Plaintiffs ask the Court to compel these answers so Plaintiffs can learn whether Defendant's compensation structure motivates supervisors to suppress FRSA-protected activity. If Daly's compensation is affected by the amount of FRSA-protected activity that takes place on ...

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