LaBrier v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 2:15-cv-04093-NKL, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61246 (W.D. Mo. May 9, 2016).

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Where the defendant objected to providing the plaintiff with access to information or even a list of its database fields, the court upheld a discovery order requiring the defendant to search its databases and answer interrogatories, holding that a “litigant cannot keep its own system secret and then refuse to gather the information itself.”

The plaintiff, Amanda LaBrier, had been trying for nearly a year to gain access to data about putative class members and damages for a potential class action insurance claim against the defendant, State Farm. In October 2015, LaBrier “proposed that State Farm provide a list of data fields” in its databases to streamline discovery. State Farm refused, arguing that this would divulge “highly confidential” trade secrets. LaBrier therefore, sought the class information through specific interrogatories, which State Farm did not answer. In April 2016, the Special Master appointed by agreement to resolve discovery disputes ordered State Farm to answer the second set of interrogatories, finding that the information sought was relevant and proportional to the needs of the case. State Farm objected to that order, claiming “the interrogatories are unduly burdensome,” and asked the district court to vacate or suspend the discovery order.

The district court began by noting that the standard of review for the Special Master’s order is an abuse of discretion and that “the federal rules contemplate liberal discovery,” with the burden for an objection “on the party resisting discovery.”

Here, the information LaBrier requested was essentially “the amount of labor depreciation withheld and the dates when it was withheld” for specific paid claims. State Farm did “not dispute that the discovery sought is relevant.” Instead, it argued, “that it cannot answer the interrogatories without complex inquiries in multiple databases” that would cause the burden of discovery to outweigh its benefit. However, in the course of the motion before the Special Master, LaBrier provided depositions from a State Farm software engineer and a developer from its third-party database company, both of whom testified that they could retrieve class-wide data and had done so in previous class actions without a significant burden. State Farm “did not provide evidence . . . describing and estimating the hours and costs” of responding to the interrogatories.

The court, agreeing with the Special Master, found “incredible the suggestion that there is no cost-effective way to match up information,” especially since “data sorting is what computers do.” Moreover, where “State Farm has refused access to its computer system,” the costs of searching do “not justify preventing LaBrier’s access to critical information.” The court further noted that “State Farm has offered no effective way for LaBrier to access the data that should have been shared in discovery long ago.” The court refused to reward “such an obstructionist approach.”

State Farm also argued that “the burden of the discovery is not proportional to the needs of the case.” The court promptly rejected that assertion, because the “issues at stake are at the very heart of this litigation,” so much so that it “is difficult to imagine any fact discovery more necessary.” The court also noted that as to proportionality, “LaBrier is an individual, while State Farm is a corporation with a national presence, with sophisticated access to data.” Although State Farm argued that individualized review of claims would foreclose the possibility of a class certification, the plainly frustrated court concluded that “State Farm cannot withhold for months the very information that LaBrier has sought for purposes of class certification” and “then claim LaBrier cannot meet her burden of proof.”

Finding no abuse of discretion, the court upheld the order of the Special Master and required State Farm to answer the interrogatories.

LaBrier v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 2:15-cv-04093-NKL, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61246 (W.D. Mo. May 9, 2016).

 

Takeaways

Think through the alternatives before objecting to discovery. Especially when obviously relevant information is requested, consider whether the court-ordered alternative might be more burdensome than the original request. Here, State Farm probably would have preferred to turn over its database fields to conducting expensive searches: the price of arguing over information that the company should have shared under the proportionality doctrine was high.