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Avila v. Lincoln Property Co. Commercial, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 7, 2019

JUAN AVILA, et al., Plaintiffs,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION RE DOCUMENT NOS. 9 (18-CV-2416) 1 (19-MC-117)


         Denying Plaintiffs' Motion to Quash Granting in Part and Denying in Part Plaintiffs' Motion For A Protective Order


         On October 22, 2018, Juan Avila and Duane Burrows (collectively “Plaintiffs”), filed a sixteen-count complaint against Lincoln Property Company Commercial, Inc. (“LPC Commercial”) and Lincoln Property Company (“LPC Company”). Plaintiffs, former employees of Defendant LPC Commercial, allege that they were forced to resign due to national origin and race-based discrimination and harassment. On April 22, 2019 and April 29, 2019, Defendant LPC Commercial issued subpoenas duces tecum to Plaintiffs' respective healthcare providers. Now pending are Plaintiffs' Motion for a Protective Order and Plaintiffs' nearly identical Motion to Quash. In both motions, Plaintiffs contest Defendant LPC Commercial's subpoenas largely on the grounds that medical information is privileged under Maryland and District of Columbia law. For reasons explained below, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have waived their physician-patient privilege over the information at issue and, as such, this information is discoverable. However, the Court will exercise its discretion to limit the scope of discovery over Plaintiffs' medical information. Therefore, the Court will deny Plaintiffs' Motion to Quash under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 45(a)(4) and 45(d)(3)(A)(iii). The Court will grant in part and deny in part Plaintiffs' Motion for a Protective Order under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(c)(1)(A) and 26(c)(3).


         Plaintiffs allege both national origin and race-based discrimination and retaliation under local and federal statutes. See Compl. ¶¶ 16-25, ECF No. 1. Each Plaintiff seeks to recover five million dollars in damages, including compensatory damages for emotional distress. See id. In their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that they suffered from stress as a result of the alleged actions by Defendants and their agents. See Compl. ¶¶ 66-68 (alleging Plaintiff Burrows “suffered from physical manifestations of stress, including, but not limited to, difficulty sleeping and panic attacks”); id. at 88 (alleging that “[o]n or about September 22, 2016, Mr. Avila saw his doctor, who recommended that Mr. Avila not return to work . . . due to work-related stress”). In response to Defendant LPC Commercial's first set of discovery requests, Plaintiffs provided documents, including therapy notes from medical professionals and select medical records, elaborating the bases for their compensatory damages. See Pls.' Mot. Prot. Ord. at 4-6 (18-cv-2416), ECF No. 9; Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord. at 4-7 (18-cv-2416), ECF No. 10.

         According to these documents, both Plaintiffs not only received medical attention for stress related symptoms, but also required leave from work as a result of their severe stress. See Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 7 at 55; Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 6 at 105-07. Plaintiffs suffered physical manifestations of their stress, including panic attacks. See Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 7 at 55; Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 6 at 3, 105-06. Plaintiff Burrows suffered from “mental-health related episodes” three times a week for a duration of eight hours per episode, resulting in his taking leave for over three months. Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 7 at 55. Meanwhile, Plaintiff Avila was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Defs.' Opp'n Mot. Prot. Ord., Ex. 6 at 105. In his Charge for Discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff Avila is described as “so emotional[ly] debilitated that he sought doctor's assistance and was prescribed medication.” Id. at 3.

         On April 22, 2019, Defendants served a Notice of Subpoena on Plaintiffs, informing Plaintiffs that Defendant LPC Commercial had served subpoenas duces tecum for records from four of Plaintiffs' medical providers.[1] Pls.' Mot. Prot. Ord. at 6. Defendant served subpoenas (“the Subpoenas”) for medical and personal records dating ten years back through the present. Id. at 7. On May 10, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for a Protective Order prohibiting Defendants from taking or seeking discovery of Plaintiffs' mental health or medical conditions. See Pls.' Mot. Prot. Ord. On the same day, Plaintiffs filed an almost identical Motion to Quash Defendant LPC Commercial's subpoenas duces tecum in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. See Pls.' Mot. to Quash (19-mc-117), ECF No. 5. Contemporaneously, Plaintiffs also filed a Motion to Transfer the subpoena-related dispute to this Court. See Pls.' Mot. to Transfer (19-mc-117), ECF No. 2. On June 21, 2019, Plaintiffs' Motion to Quash was transferred to this Court. See Order Granting Mot. to Transfer (19-mc-117), ECF 10; Pls.' Mot. to Quash (19-mc-117), ECF No. 1.


         A. Waiver of Physician-Patient Privilege

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b), “[u]nless otherwise limited by court order . . . [p]arties 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b). Plaintiffs move to prevent disclosure of their medical information largely on the grounds that this information is privileged. See generally Pls.' Mot. Prot. Ord.; Pls.' Mot. to Quash. Under both District of Columbia and Maryland law, the contents of a patient's mental health and medical records are privileged by statute. See D.C. Code § 14-307(a); Md. Code, Health-Gen. §§ 4-302- 4-307; Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Pro. § 9-109.[2] However, under District of Columbia law a “patient may waive or be deemed to have waived the physician-patient privilege . . . by filing a lawsuit which places in issue the patient's medical condition.” Porter v. Pinkerton Gov't Servs., Inc., 304 F.R.D. 24, 29 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Nelson v. United States, 649 A.2d 301, 308 (D.C. 1994)). A patient may therefore waive the physician-privilege by relying on the provider's “diagnoses or treatment in making or defending [his] case.” Id. The threshold for waiver of the physician-patient privilege afforded by Maryland law is substantially similar, if not slightly lower. See Meyer v. McDonnell, 392 A.2d 1129, 1135 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1978) (finding privilege waived where “[a]ppellant claimed damages for his mental or emotional disorders in his declaration, in testimony, and in his request for instructions”); Butler-Tulio v. Scroggins, 774 A.2d 1209, 1219 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2001) (finding that “[a]n express exception to the confidentiality [requirement] . . . is when a patient puts his or her medical condition at issue in a civil action”).

         Under District of Columbia law, however, a patient has not waived privilege by making allegations of mere “garden variety” emotional distress, “of the kind an ordinary person might experience following an episode of discrimination.” Porter, 304 F.R.D. at 30 (citing St. John v. Napolitano, 274 F.R.D. 12, 19 (D.D.C. 2011)). Federal courts have considered the following factors in assessing whether a plaintiff has made allegations beyond mere “garden variety” emotional distress: “(1) the presence of a cause of action for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress; (2) an allegation of a specific mental or psychiatric injury or disorder; (3) a claim of unusually severe emotional distress; (4) a proffer of expert testimony to support a claim of emotional distress; and/or (5) a concession by the plaintiff that his or her mental condition is ‘in controversy.'” Id.

         B. Motion to Quash

         Plaintiffs move to quash the Subpoenas under Rule 45(d)(3)(A)(iii) and 45(a)(4). Pls.' Mot. to Quash at 1. Under Rule 45(d)(3)(A)(iii), upon timely motion, a district court may quash a subpoena which calls for disclosure of privileged matter, provided no waiver applies.[3] Under Rule 45(a)(4), “[i]f [a] subpoena commands the production of documents, electronically stored information, or other tangible things . . . then before it is served on the person to whom it is directed, a notice and copy of the subpoena must be served on each party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 45(a)(4). A court may quash a subpoena for ...

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