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American Humanist Association v. Perry

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 17, 2017

FRANK L. PERRY, et al, Defendants.


          JAMES C. FOX Senior United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court upon Plaintiffs' motion to compel discovery [DE-37] and the parties' joint motion for an extension of time to complete discovery [DE-58]. For the following reasons these motions are ALLOWED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs, Kwame Teague ("Teague"), a state inmate represented by counsel, and the American Humanist Association ("AHA"), filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1');">1');">1');">1983 on February 25, 201');">1');">1');">15. In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants: (1');">1');">1');">1) refuse to allow Teague to form a Humanist[1');">1');">1');">1" name="FN1');">1');">1');">1" id= "FN1');">1');">1');">1">1');">1');">1');">1] study group to meet on the same terms that Defendants authorize inmates of theistic religious traditions to meet; and (2) refuse to allow inmates to identify as Humanists for assignment purposes. Compl. [DE-1');">1');">1');">1], p. 1');">1');">1');">1. Plaintiffs contend these policies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Id. Plaintiffs claims have survived frivolity review [DE-9].

         Plaintiffs filed the instant motion to compel on April 1');">1');">1');">12, 201');">1');">1');">16');">6, arguing that Defendants'. discovery responses are incomplete, unwarranted, and evasive [DE-3 7]. Defendants have responded to this motion [DE-3 8], and the matter is now ripe for adjudication.

         II. Discussion

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26');">6 provides:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering 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. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. p. 26');">6(b)(1');">1');">1');">1).

         The rules of discovery, including Rule 26');">6, are to be given broad and liberal construction. Loftin v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 7:09-CV-1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">18-F, 201');">1');">1');">10 WL 41');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">17404, at *2 (E.D. N.C. Oct. 1');">1');">1');">18, 201');">1');">1');">10). "District courts enjoy nearly unfettered discretion to control the timing and scope of discovery." Hinkle v. City of Clarksburg. W.Va.. 81');">1');">1');">1 F.3d 41');">1');">1');">16');">6');">81');">1');">1');">1 F.3d 41');">1');">1');">16');">6, 426');">6 (4th Cir. 1');">1');">1');">1996');">6); accord Cook v. Howard. 484 Fed.Appx. 805');">484 Fed.Appx. 805, 81');">1');">1');">12 (4th Cir. 201');">1');">1');">12) (observing that "[d]istrict courts are afforded broad discretion with respect to discovery"). Litigants may enforce their discovery rights by filing a motion to compel. See Fed.R.Civ.p. 37(a); see Santiago v. S. Health Partners. No. 1');">1');">1');">1:1');">1');">1');">15CV589, 201');">1');">1');">16');">6 WL 4435229, at *2 (M.D. N.C. Aug. 1');">1');">1');">19, 201');">1');">1');">16');">6). In considering a motion to compel, "[t]he burden of proof is with the party objecting to the discovery to establish that the challenged production should not be permitted." Capital One Bank (USA") N.A. v. Hess Kennedy Chartered, LLC. No. 3:08CV1');">1');">1');">147, 2008 WL 446');">671');">1');">1');">16');">60, at *2 (E.D. Va. Sept. 30, 2008). Furthermore, when a party objects to discovery, the objection must be stated with specificity. See Arrow Enter. Computing Sols.. Inc. v. BlueAlly. LLC. No. 5:1');">1');">1');">15-CV-00037-FL. 201');">1');">1');">16');">6 WL 4287929, at *2 (E.D. N.C. Aug. 1');">1');">1');">15, 201');">1');">1');">16');">6). "[T]he use of boilerplate objections stating that... [a discovery request] is overbroad, unduly burdensome, irrelevant, or the like does not satisfy the specificity requirement." Id. (citations omitted). Instead, an objection must include particularized facts justifying the objection. Id. (citations omitted).

         Here, the court has reviewed Plaintiffs discovery requests, and, they can be generally described as seeking information and documents relating to: (1');">1');">1');">1) the treatment of Humanist and atheist inmates generally, including accommodations available to such inmates in comparison to other inmates; (2) relative and comparative treatment of other religions and faith traditions; (3) the, policies of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety ("DPS") relating to religious accommodations; (4) Teague's requests for Humanist accommodations; (5) other applications for religious accommodations and how they were handled by DPS; and (6');">6) communications by DPS and their agents relating to Humanism and atheism.

         The court has reviewed the discovery requests and finds that the requested materials are relevant to this § 1');">1');">1');">1983 action. Likewise, they are not overly broad or burdensome in scope. For example, Plaintiff requests are limited in the time period they address, with most requests seeking information from the last five years. Def. Mem. [DE-37-1');">1');">1');">1], 6');">6');">p. 6');">6. Moreover, Plaintiffs have substantially narrowed their requests, twice, in response to Defendants' objections. Id.; PI. Ex. 1');">1');">1');">10, 1');">1');">1');">12, 1');">1');">1');">14 [DE-37-1');">1');">1');">12, -37-1');">1');">1');">14, -37-1');">1');">1');">16');">6].

         Conversely, Defendants have not demonstrated that Plaintiffs' discovery requests are irrelevant or overly burdensome. First, Defendants object to several requests on the grounds that they are irrelevant or overly broad because they "[p]ertain[ ] to other faith groups, ideologies, and religions." See, e.g., Pl. Ex. 6');">6 [DE-37-8], p. 7. In their response, Defendants, frame the issue as follows: "[Plaintiffs'] claims . ., . involve one inmate, one request for accommodations, and one alleged religious belief (Humanism/Atheism)." Def. Mem. [DE-38], p. 2. The court disagrees. These requests are relevant because the crux of Plaintiff s claim is that "other faith groups, ideologies, and religions" receive preferential treatment comparative to Humanism. Analysis of Plaintiffs' claims will invariably require a comparison between Defendants' treatment of Humanism and other religions. Defendants also object to Plaintiffs' discovery requests on the ground that the information seeks "information pertaining to other inmates." See, e.g., Pl. Ex. 4 [DE-37-4], p. 8. Again, this is not a valid objection, because Plaintiffs' claim is premised upon the allegation that Humanist inmates are being treated differently from other inmates. Clearly, then, some information regarding the treatment of non-Humanist inmates is relevant to Plaintiffs' claim. Put another way, the court agrees with Plaintiff that "[e]vidence related to Defendants' treatment of other religions is directly relevant to both the Establishment Clause claim and the Equal Protection Clause claim, for each necessitates a comparative analysis between the government's treatment of one group and its treatment of the other." Pl. Mem. [DE-37-1');">1');">1');">1], p. 3.

         To the extent Defendants invoke state confidentiality laws[2] to justify their objections, the court notes that federal courts are not required to recognize state law privileges when deciding cases arising under federal law, as here. See Fed.R.Evid. 501');">1');">1');">1: Spell v. McDaniel. 591');">1');">1');">1 F.Supp. 1');">1');">1');">1090, 1');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">11');">1');">1');">19 (E.D. N.C. 1');">1');">1');">1984) ("[T]he court notes that the North Carolina law of privileges is not decisive because the present action arises under federal law. In a non-diversity case, federal privilege law applies" (citations omitted)). Defendants may redact their responses, as appropriate, or seek the entry of an appropriate protective order, but they nonetheless must substantively respond to these discovery requests. SeeUttv. Brown. No. 5:1');">1');">1');">12-CT-31');">1');">1');">132-FL, 201');">1');">1');">15 WL47046');">68, at *3 (E.D. N.C. Feb. . 4, 201');">1');">1');">15) (ordering DPS to produce inter alia, "any and all documents related to prison chaplaincy services staff training and education" and "any and all documents related to consultation with individuals outside . . . [DPS] regarding the Wiccan faith, specifying why such consultation occurred"); ...

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