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Tentative Ruling
Judge Colleen Sterne
Department 5 SB-Anacapa
1100 Anacapa Street P.O. Box 21107 Santa Barbara, CA 93121-1107

CIVIL LAW & MOTION

John Strumfler, et al. v. Stalwart Clean and Sober, Inc., et al

Case No: 18CV01646
Hearing Date: Mon Jan 13, 2020 9:30

Nature of Proceedings: Motion Protective Order/Sanctions

 

 

# 18CV01646  John Strumpfler v. Stalwart Clean and Sober, Inc., et al.

 

                        Hearing Date: 1/13/20                                                                  

 

 

HEARING:    Motion for protective order and for sanctions

          

ATTORNEYS:         

Bobby Saadian / Colin M. Jones / Jonathan C. Teller / Erik Harper ofWilshire Law Firm for plaintiffs

Jack H. Snyder / Kimberley H. G. Sakai of Wolfe & Wyman LLP for defendant Stalwart Clean and Sober, Inc.

                       

TENTATIVE RULING: The motion is granted in part and denied in part, as articulated below. No sanctions are awarded.

 

 

Background: This is an action for the wrongful death of John Charles Strumpfler (decedent), brought by his parents, John Strumpfler and Tracy Morris (plaintiffs). Decedent was a parolee with a severe heroin addiction, who died from a heroin overdose on March 24, 2017, while residing at a sober living facility owned and operated by defendant Stalwart Clean and Sober, Inc. (Stalwart). At the time of his death, decedent was receiving drug treatment on an out-patient basis at a facility owned and operated by defendant Community Solutions, Inc. (CSI).

 

Pursuant to a stipulation and order, the First Amended Complaint is the operative complaint, and as modified by that order seeks relief based only on negligence and wrongful death causes of action. On October 29, 2019, plaintiffs served a motion for leave to file a second amended complaint which would have reinstated causes of action for willful misconduct and breach of contract, and which would have included punitive damage allegations.

 

On November 25, 2019, plaintiffs served a Notice of Taking Deposition of Stalwart’s PMK for Accounting and Finance, and a Notice and Deposition and a Deposition Subpoena for Jane Eleanor Russell, Stalwart’s accountant. Each notice included a request for production of categories of documents at the depositions—28 categories for the PMQ, and an overlapping request for production of 32 categories of documents from Ms. Russell. Documents (mostly covering the period from 1/1/15 through 12/31/19) sought included Stalwart’s contracts with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and with CSI; documents reflecting the responsibilities Stalwart was required to follow to get paid by each of those entities; how much each of those entities paid Stalwart; how much money any other individual, company, or government entity paid Stalwart; how much Stalwart was paid by other individuals, companies, or government entities for decedent; how much Stalwart was paid for each member; how much Stalwart was paid for decedent; how much money Stalwart could have been paid for each service provided to decedent; how much Stalwart was paid for each service provided to decedent; policies/procedures for how Stalwart was to get paid for each service provided to its members; policies/procedures for how Stalwart was to get paid for each service provided to decedent; how much Stalwart paid CSI for decedent; how much Stalwart paid CSI for other clients; how much Stalwart paid other individuals and companies; how much Stalwart paid other individuals or companies for decedent; how much Stalwart paid other individuals and companies for services provided to decedent; how much Stalwart was paid by decedent or his family; the sources of money from which Stalwart obtained money for its members; the sources of money from which Stalwart obtained money regarding decedent; how many members Stalwart obtained from CSI in the years 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019; and all documents used in preparation for the deposition. With respect to Ms. Russell, plaintiffs also sought documents regarding any investigation she or anyone acting on her behalf had made regarding the incident, all documents reflecting non-privileged communications regarding the incident between her and any other persons, all documents related to any actions she had taken as a result of the incident, and all documents that describe her hob title, job description, duties, and responsibilities.

 

On December 5, 2019, Stalwart served written objections to the PMQ deposition notice, and served a meet and confer letter. The objection both noted counsel’s unavailability on the date set for the depositions, and responded to the document requests, asserting objections and, with respect to some categories, indicating that no such documents existed. Objections were asserted on grounds of relevance, overbreadth, that the requests were not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence, and vagueness, among other objections. Where financial information was sought, the objections included that the requests violated Civil Code section 3294-3295, et seq., in seeking to discover private financial information from the defendant without a prior court order, and an assertion that personal financial information is protected by the constitution. The meet and confer letter simply referred to the enclosed objections, and noted that counsel did not understand how such depositions could be taken without violating Civil Code section 3295.

 

On December 6 and 10, 2019, plaintiffs’ counsel sent e-mails proposing alternate dates for the PMQ deposition.

 

On December 9, 2019, the Court denied plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file a second amended complaint which included punitive damage allegations.

 

On December 11, 2019, Stalwart’s counsel sent a meet and confer letter regarding the depositions, advising that a similar objection would be made to production of the documents by Ms. Russell as was made by Stalwart with respect to its PMQ, noting that plaintiffs would be free to inquire of Ms. Russell with respect to the 4 additional categories of documents that did not relate to financial condition. The letter reiterated Stalwart’s contention that the depositions were sought in violation of Civil Code section 3295(c), which requires a motion and court permissions, and requesting that the depositions be taken off calendar in order to obviate the need for a motion for protective order.

 

In response to the letter, a series of e-mails were exchanged, also on December 11. The first, from one of plaintiffs’ attorneys, noted that since they were no longer seeking punitive damages, “there is nothing that prevents us from discovering financial information about your client.” In quick follow-up, counsel asserted plaintiffs are entitled to the depositions in order to know when/how/why Johnny Strumpfler got to Stalwart and when/how/why he was treated there. Defense counsel responded, disputing that the lack of a punitive damage claim entitled plaintiffs to obtain Stalwart’s financial condition information, and asserting that the depositions of Stalwart’s PMQ for accounting and financing of Stalwart, and of its accountant, would not reveal when/how/why decedent got to Stalwart. Defense counsel further questioned why, if plaintiffs were not seeking Stalwart’s financial condition information, they would need to depose its accounting and finance PMQ or its accountant. The e-mail reiterated that the motion would be filed if the depositions were not taken off calendar by December 16.

 

One of plaintiffs’ attorneys counsel responded by refusing to take the depositions off calendar, and noting that he looked forward to defense counsel’s analysis in her briefing. A second plaintiffs’ counsel responded, also refusing to take the depositions off, and stating “We need this depo to understand the dynamics of the relationships of the parties involved and how much it cost for Johnny Strumpfler to be at Stalwart.” He noted further that the owner of Stalwart did not have the answers to “many of these types of questions,” and provided them with the witness’s name, concluding that this constituted good cause for the deposition.

 

The current motion for protective order was filed on December 17, 2019, contending that the depositions and document productions are not related to the investigation of decedent’s death, do not presently relate to a claim or defense at issue (given plaintiffs’ 11/15/18 stipulation that they were not seeking punitive damages), and given the prohibitions of Civil Code section 3295. The motion seeks $2,400 in sanctions against plaintiffs and/or their attorneys.

 

On December 23 and 24, 2019, two separate attorneys representing plaintiffs sent e-mails to defense counsel. The first requested that the motion for protective order be taken off calendar, asserting that Section 3295 is only applicable where punitive damages are sought. The second noted that plaintiffs were not seeking punitive damages, and again asserted that Section 3295 is therefore inapplicable. It further noted that plaintiffs were looking to obtain information regarding accounting and payments as it relates to the CSI/Stalwart program that decedent Johnny Strumpfler was in. He asserted that Stalwart was being paid by CSI for having decedent as a member of the Stalwart home, and they therefore wanted to understand the manner in which Stalwart was being paid by CSI or any other entity for decedent being a member. He denied any intention to go into all of Stalwart’s financial information, and stated he needed to understand the financial information as it relates directly to the CSI-Stalwart program, under which Stalwart was being paid for taking decedent as a client.

 

Plaintiffs have opposed the motion for protective order, asserting that Section 3295 does not apply since they are not seeking punitive damages, and that they are only seeking to understand the payments Stalwart received to have decedent in their program so as to be able to explain to the jury how decedent was in the program. Plaintiffs seek $2,800 in sanctions for opposing the motion.

 

ANALYSIS: The motion is granted in part and denied in part, as articulated below. No sanctions are awarded.

 

Defendant Stalwart has moved for a protective order against the taking of the depositions and production of documents relevant to its financial condition, under the authority of Civil Code section 3295.

 

Civil Code section 3295 is located in an Article within the Civil Code which is related to Exemplary Damages. It provides, in relevant parts:

 

(a) The court may, for good cause, grant any defendant a protective order requiring the plaintiff to produce evidence of a prima facie case of liability for damages pursuant to Section 3294, prior to the introduction of evidence of:

(1) The profits the defendant has gained by virtue of the wrongful course of conduct of the nature and type shown by the evidence.

(2) The financial condition of the defendant.

* * *

(c) No pretrial discovery by the plaintiff shall be permitted with respect to the evidence referred to in paragraphs (1) and (2) of subdivision (a) unless the court enters an order permitting such discovery pursuant to this subdivision. . . . Upon motion by the plaintiff supported by appropriate affidavits and after a hearing, if the court deems a hearing to be necessary, the court may at any time enter an order permitting the discovery otherwise prohibited by this subdivision if the court finds, on the basis of the supporting and opposing affidavits presented, that the plaintiff has established that there is a substantial probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim pursuant to Section 3294. Such order shall not be considered to be a determination on the merits of the claim or any defense thereto and shall not be given in evidence or referred to at the trial.

 

The focus of the parties’ briefs is on whether Section 3295 applies in this case, given that plaintiffs are no longer seeking punitive damages. Stalwart essentially argues that it need not produce the financial information at all, because Section 3295 requires that a party obtain leave of court to conduct financial information discovery. Plaintiffs conversely essentially argue that since they are no longer seeking punitive damages, Section 3295 has no application, and they are entitled to seek any and all financial information discovery, although they assert that they are only doing so in order to understand how decedent was in the Stalwart program. (Opposition at p. 2, lines 3-5.)

 

Certainly, it appears to the Court that the provisions of Section 3295—which are located within an Article of the Civil Code covering Exemplary Damages—when read together, act to prohibit the discovery of financial condition information, or profits gained by virtue of a purportedly wrongful course of conduct, in the context of actions in which punitive damages are in issue, and do not act to preclude the discovery of any and all financial information related to Stalwart. Of course, while it is now clear that plaintiffs will not be seeking punitive damages in this action, it has not escaped the Court’s notice that the deposition notices were served at a time when plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amended complaint containing punitive damage allegations was pending. Given that much of the discovery sought appears to the Court to extend far beyond anything that would be justified by the reasons plaintiffs now proffer in opposition to the motion, and venture far into general financial condition information, much of the discovery was likely in direct violation of Section 3295 at the time it was propounded.

 

Furthermore, the fact that plaintiffs have now been precluded from seeking punitive damages in this case does not, as they appear to claim, now permit the discovery of any and all financial information related to defendant Stalwart. While Stalwart’s motion invoked Section 3295 as a bar to the discovery, it also specifically objected to much of the discovery on other bases, and its motion for protective order expressly contends that much of that discovery does not relate to a claim or defense at issue in this action. Further, the objection served to the document requests invoked additional objections which could act to preclude some of the discovery.

 

The Court has statutory authority beyond the terms of Section 3295 to consider imposition of a protective order in this case. Code of Civil Procedure section 2025.420 also authorizes the issuance of protective orders with respect to depositions, on good cause shown, including (but by no means limited to) orders that the deposition not be taken at all, that it be taken only on certain specified terms and conditions, that certain matters not be inquired into, that the scope of the examination be limited to certain matters, and that the writings designated in the deposition notice need not be produced. (Code Civ. Proc., § 2025.420, subds. (a) and (b)(1), (5), (9), (10), and (11).)

 

The Court will not completely preclude the taking of the depositions. However, it is clear to the Court that much of the discovery sought through these depositions goes well beyond the justifications provided by plaintiffs, and well into evidence of Stalwart’s overall financial condition—discovery for which there does not appear to be justification or good cause in this case, whether or not Section 3295 is applicable.

 

The problem here is that the Court has not been provided sufficient evidence by the parties from which it could make any determinations regarding whether particular categories of documents are discoverable, or are impermissibly overbroad. Rather, each side has largely focused on the applicability of Section 3295, taking opposing all-or-nothing approaches to the protective order motion. While plaintiffs’ counsel contended in meet and confer communications that the scope of the depositions had been narrowed, no evidence of the manner in which plaintiffs have agreed to narrow that scope is before the Court, nor is there any evidence before the Court that plaintiffs have agreed that any of the categories of documents they seek are overly broad or would be narrowed in any way.

 

As a result, the Court will grant the motion to the extent it seeks to preclude the depositions as they were sought, including the document demands that accompanied each deposition notice. Should plaintiffs truly believe that they require deposition testimony from Stalwart’s accountant and/or accounting and finance PMQ in order to prove the matters that they have asserted in opposition to the motion, they shall serve new, amended deposition notices (and a deposition subpoena with respect to Ms. Russell, who apparently is not a Stalwart employee, but rather is an accountant which Stalwart has retained for its accounting needs), expressly setting forth the nature and scope of the testimony sought. To the extent plaintiffs still believe they require production of documents, they should include an amended document production demand, which is limited to only those documents truly required by them to understand the program under which Stalwart was being paid for taking decedent as a client—the purpose they articulated both in meet and confer efforts and in opposing the motion. Plaintiffs should be prepared to legally and factually justify to the Court both the scope of the depositions and each of the categories of documents they seek, should a further motion challenging the depositions be pursued by Stalwart.

 

In making this ruling, the Court is fully cognizant that the Trial Confirmation Conference for this case is currently set on February 24, 2020. To the extent the parties are unable to complete the depositions in a timely manner prior to that time, the Court would be amenable to a brief continuance of the Trial Confirmation Conference in order to ensure that this discovery can be completed.

 

No sanctions will be awarded to either party.

 

 

 
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