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Heggen v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Fort Wayne Division

April 27, 2018



          Susan Collins United States Magistrate Judge

         Before the Court in this employment-related case is a motion for sanctions filed by Defendant Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc. (“Maxim”), asking that the Court dismiss Plaintiff Theresa Heggen's (“Heggen”) complaint as a sanction due to Heggen's alleged dishonesty under oath and destruction of evidence. (DE 35). The motion is ripe for ruling. (DE 44; DE 45; DE 47).

         For the following reasons, Maxim's motion for sanctions will be granted to the extent that a lesser sanction in the form of a monetary penalty will be imposed; Maxim's request for the sanction of dismissal, however, will be denied.

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         Heggen filed this case against her former employer, Maxim, on December 29, 2016, advancing claims of sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (DE 1). Maxim is a provider of temporary medical staffing, home health care, and wellness services, and Heggen was employed by Maxim as a home health care aide. (DE 36 at 1).

         The Court held a preliminary pretrial conference on March 9, 2017, setting a discovery deadline of September 29, 2017, and discovery then commenced. (DE 15). On May 26, 2017, Heggen responded to Maxim's First Set of Interrogatories (DE 36-9) and First Request for Production (DE 36-1), and on August 11, 2017, Maxim conducted Heggen's deposition (DE 36-2).

         On October 25, 2017, Heggen's prior counsel filed a motion to withdraw, which the Court granted after a hearing on the motion. (DE 27-DE 29). New counsel appeared on Heggen's behalf on November 22, 2017. (DE 30).

         On December 12, 2017, Maxim filed the instant motion for sanctions, seeking the sanction of dismissal due to Heggen's alleged dishonesty under oath and destruction of certain cell phone recordings that are material evidence in this case. (DE 35).

         B. Applicable Legal Standard

         The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has “construed the sanctioning power conveyed by [Federal Rule of Civil Procedure] 37 to extend to instances of a party hiding evidence and lying in [her] deposition.” Ramirez v. T&H Lemont, Inc., 845 F.3d 772, 776 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). “Apart from the discovery rule, a court has the inherent authority to manage judicial proceedings and to regulate the conduct of those appearing before it, and pursuant to that authority may impose appropriate sanctions to penalize and discourage misconduct.” Id. (citing Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 46-50 (1991)). “Dismissal can be appropriate when the plaintiff has abused the judicial process by seeking relief based on information that the plaintiff knows is false.” Secrease v. W. & S. Life Ins. Co., 800 F.3d 397, 401 (7th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted); see also Greviskes v. Univs. Research Ass'n, Inc., 417 F.3d 752, 759 (7th Cir. 2005).

         “A court also has the inherent power to assess sanctions for the failure to preserve or produce [evidence.]” United States v. Dish Network, L.L.C., 292 F.R.D 593, 599-600 (C.D. Ill. Apr. 24, 2013) (citation omitted); see Bryant v. Gardner, 587 F.Supp.2d 951, 967-68 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 21, 2008) (“The Court has discretion to sanction a party for spoliation of evidence.” (citation omitted)). “A party has a duty to preserve evidence over which it has control and reasonably knows or could foresee would be material to a potential legal action.” Bryant, 587 F.Supp.2d at 967-68 (citations omitted); see also ChampionsWorld, LLC v. U.S. Soccer Fed'n, 276 F.R.D 577, 582 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 17, 2011) (citation omitted). “Sanctions [for spoliation of evidence] include awarding reasonable expenses, attorney fees, barring evidence or arguments, permitting adverse inferences, and dismissing claims or entering default judgment.” Bryant, 587 F.Supp.2d at 968 (citations omitted); see Norman-Nunnery v. Madison Area Tech. Coll., 625 F.3d 422, 428 (7th Cir. 2010) (“In order to draw an inference that the missing documents contained information adverse to the defendants, [the plaintiff] must demonstrate that the defendants intentionally destroyed the documents in bad faith.” (citations omitted)).

         “[A]n award of sanctions must be proportionate to the circumstances surrounding the failure to comply with discovery.” Crown Life Ins. Co. v. Craig, 995 F.2d 1376, 1382 (7th Cir. 1993). When a court enters a dismissal as a discovery sanction, “the court must find that the party against whom sanctions are imposed displayed willfulness, bad faith or fault.” In re Golant, 239 F.3d 931, 936 (7th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); see Secrease, 800 F.3d at 401 (“A district court has inherent power to sanction a party who has willfully abused the judicial process or otherwise conducted litigation in bad faith.” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Collins v. Illinois, 554 F.3d 693, 696 (7th Cir. 2009). The Seventh Circuit has cautioned that a court must use its dismissal power sparingly, as it is a “harsh sanction” which should “be employed only as a last resort.” Rice v. City of Chicago, 333 F.3d 780, 786 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted).

         C. Analysis

         Maxim requests that this case be dismissed as a sanction for Heggen's purported dishonesty under oath and destruction of recordings from her cell phone. Maxim contends that Heggen lied under oath about three topics: her employers prior to Maxim, the circumstances of her departures from employers after Maxim, and her litigation history. Heggen responds that sanctions are not warranted because any issues concerning her credibility can be challenged at trial, and because some of the missing recordings have since been located at the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission (“METRO”). The Court will address each of Maxim's reasons for requesting sanctions in turn.

         1. Heggen's ...

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