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Prasad v. George Washington University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 12, 2017

RICCA PRASAD, Plaintiff,



         Ricca Prasad (“Plaintiff”) was a student at George Washington University (“Defendant” or the “University”) between September 2010 and May 2015. She alleges that she suffered sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of another student during that period, and that Defendant failed to meet its responsibilities under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., failed to provide her with promised protections, negligently inflicted emotional distress, and negligently retained one of its employees involved in the University's disciplinary processes.

         The matter was referred to the undersigned for the resolution of ongoing discovery disputes in June 2017. Minute Order dated June 2, 2017. Plaintiff challenges Defendant's search of its electronically stored information (“ESI”) for discoverable information and the extent of its redactions to documents produced in discovery. For its part, Defendant asserts that its searches for responsive material was reasonable and that further searches would impose an undue burden and would be disproportionate to the needs of this case. Defendant also questions the relevance of one of Plaintiff's requests for production and the breadth of a Rule 30(b)(6) deposition notice she issued.

         Upon consideration of the parties' filings, their representations during discovery hearings held on September 8 and 25, 2017, and the entire record herein, [1] the Court finds that Defendant's search and production in response to the discovery requests at issue were reasonable. The Court further finds that Plaintiff's 30(b)(6) notice is overbroad, duplicative, and cumulative. Accordingly, the Court will not compel Defendant to undertake further searches of its ESI or other records or to produce an individual to be deposed in response to Plaintiff's 30(b)(6) notice as presently drafted. Finally, the Court finds that the parties largely resolved the redaction issue on the record during the September 8, 2017 discovery hearing. The parties shall resolve any remaining issues as to the proper scope of redactions in accordance with the protective order governing discovery in this matter without further assistance from the Court. However, Defendant shall produce an unredacted copy of the document identified as AA0001930-34 forthwith.


         According to the Complaint, Plaintiff was enrolled as a student at George Washington University from September 2010 through May 2015. Compl. at ¶ 8. She filed an incident report with the George Washington University Police Department in January 2012, alleging that a fellow student had abused and harassed her. Id. at ¶¶ 9, 13. In the ensuing days, Plaintiff communicated with Defendant's Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (“OSRR”), which issued a “No Contact Order.” Id. at ¶¶ 19-22. When Plaintiff and her alleged abuser agreed to rescind the order approximately one year later, the harassment recommenced, culminating in a March 2013 incident in which he allegedly physically attacked her. Id. at ¶¶ 25-32. A new No Contact Order issued, and Plaintiff met with Gabriel Slifka, the director of OSRR, to discuss the incident and possible discipline. Id. at ¶¶ 34, 37-43. The threats allegedly continued, however, and official disciplinary proceedings were initiated against the student in May 2013. Id. at ¶¶ 45-47, 57. Following a disciplinary hearing that same month, Defendant suspended the student for two years. Id. at 57, 62. Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that in May 2013 the University nevertheless awarded an undergraduate degree to the student who abused her. Id. at ¶ 97. Plaintiff continued at the University in pursuit of a graduate degree. Id. at ¶ 70. She alleges that the harassment by the other student continued, notwithstanding her subsequent police reports and contacts with OSRR. Id. at ¶¶ 65-68, 80, 91-94.

         Plaintiff filed this action in October 2015. Two claims are particularly relevant here. First, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant responded unreasonably to her reports of harassment by, for example, failing to follow its own stated procedures for handling sexual harassment complaints, failing to enforce its No Contact Orders, and failing to comply with its own disciplinary measures by awarding her alleged harasser a degree. Id. at ¶ 108. Second, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant harmed her by allowing Mr. Slifka's employment at OSRR to continue in the face of knowledge that he had failed to follow University procedures in connection with sexual harassment complaints in the past.[2] Id. at ¶¶ 142-146.

         The Court entered a scheduling order and the parties' joint proposed protective order at the end of July 2016. [Dkts. 20, 23]. Almost immediately thereafter, the Court entered an order outlining the process for discovery of education records covered by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g, which prohibits disclosure of personally identifiable information from the education records of current and former students of federally-funded schools. Order dated Aug. 1, 2016 [Dkt. 24]. Plaintiff propounded her first set of Interrogatories and Requests for Production in August 2016. Defendant began searching its ESI for responsive information and produced its first documents in September 2016. Letter of Christina D. Riggs dated May 12, 2017 [Dkt. 34 at 4]. The Court held a discovery conference in November 2016 and ordered production of documents to continue on a rolling basis. On December 19, 2016, after a conference among counsel, Plaintiff served another set of Requests for Production, comprising a single request. Request 27 at 2; Joint Report I at 13.

         As discussed in more detail below, the parties exchanged a series of meet-and-confer letters between December 2016 and May 2017, and the Court held conferences regarding discovery disputes in February and April. On May 12, 2017, each side filed a letter with the Court discussing their outstanding discovery disputes, which the Court later ordered to be entered on the public docket. [Dkts. 34, 39]. On June 2, 2017, the Court referred the matter to the undersigned for resolution of the remaining discovery disputes.


         Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows discovery of “any nonprivi-leged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Relevance “has been construed broadly 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); see also Food Lion, Inc. v. United Food & Commercial Workers Int'l Union, AFL-CIO-CLC, 103 F.3d 1007, 1012 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (“Generally speaking, ‘relevance' for discovery purposes is broadly construed.”).

         However, “the relevance standard of Rule 26 is not without bite, ” and will not allow “ex-plor[ation] [of] matter which does not presently appear germane on the theory that it might conceivably become so.” Food Lion, 103 F.3d at 1012 (quoting In re Fontaine, 402 F.Supp. 1219, 1221 (E.D.N.Y. 1975)). Moreover, the rule was amended in 2015 to emphasize the need for proportionality in discovery and to “encourage judges to be more aggressive in identifying and discouraging discovery overuse.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1) advisory committee's note to 2015 amendment. It therefore directs courts to consider such factors as the importance of the issues raised in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' access to the requested information, the parties' resources, the importance of the requested discovery to the case, and “whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1); see also, e.g., Oxbow Carbon & Minerals LLC v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, No. 11-cv-1049 (PLF/GMH), 2017 WL 4011136, at *3 (D.D.C. Sept. 11, 2017). Indeed, “all discovery is subject to the balancing test . . . that requires a court to limit the discovery ‘otherwise allowed by these rules' if the burden outweighs its likely benefit.” Intervet, Inc. v. Merial Ltd., 252 F.R.D. 47, 49 (D.D.C. 2008).

         While the initial responsibility of establishing relevance lies with the party seeking the information, “the burden is on the refusing party to show that the movant's request is burdensome, overly broad, vague or outside the scope of discovery.” United States v. Kellogg Brown & Root Servs., Inc., 284 F.R.D. 22, 33 (D.D.C. 2012); see also Mortg. Resolution Servicing, LLC v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 15 Civ. 0293, 2016 WL 3906712, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. July 14, 2016) (“In general, when disputes are brought before the court, the parties' responsibilities remain the same as they were under the previous iteration of the rules, so that the party resisting discovery has the burden of showing undue burden or expense.”).


         The parties' recent submissions outlined five points of contention. One of these-Defend-ant's production of communications between members of the fraternity of the student who assaulted Plaintiff-has been resolved entirely. Another-the extent of the redactions in Defendant's production-has largely been settled, but will be addressed briefly below. The remaining disputes concern Defendant's electronic searches for responsive information in response to Plaintiff's Interrogatory 14 and Requests for Production 7 and 15; Plaintiff's Request for Production 27, which seeks other complaints about the procedures Defendant has followed in connection with other students' sexual harassment allegations; and Plaintiff's Rule 30(b)(6) deposition notice of March 2017. The Court concludes that there is insufficient basis to compel Defendant to perform further searches to respond to Interrogatory 14 or Requests for Production 7, 15, or 27, or to require Defendant to respond to Plaintiff's deposition notice as currently drafted.

         A. Interrogatory 14, Requests for Production 7 and 15

In Interrogatory 14, Plaintiff asks Defendant to
[i]dentify all formal or informal grievances, complaints, or concerns submitted or otherwise transmitted to any [University] employee or agent by any person, including but not limited, to other [University] employees or agents, [University] students, [University] alumni, or parents of [University] students, concerning or otherwise referring to Gabriel Slifka.

         Interrogatories at 23. In Request for Production 7, Plaintiff asks Defendant to

provide all documents that refer to any written feedback or disciplinary actions taken against Gabriel Slifka, including but not limited to: all performance evaluations, student complaints, or supervisory notes, from the date of his hire by [the University] to the present.

         Requests at 6. In Request for Production 15, Plaintiff asks Defendant to

provide all documents that contain or refer to all formal or informal grievances or complaints submitted or otherwise transmitted to any agent or employee of [the University] by [University] students, [University] alumni, or parents of [University] students concerning or otherwise referring to Gabriel ...

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