In Timmerman Starlight Trucking, Inc. v. Ingredion Inc., No. 2:19-cv-01876-JAM-AC (E.D. Cal. Oct. 21, 2020), California Magistrate Judge Allison Claire granted the plaintiff’s motion to compel, finding the defendant’s arguments were “not persuasive” with regard to its attempt to moot the discovery dispute by concessions and also refused to delay ruling on the matter because of COVID-19 complications and the closing of its counsel’s law firm and merger with another firm.
In this case involving cross-claims by both parties after the defendant ceased performance under a Shuttle Agreement and the Master Carrier Agreement after closing its wet milling plant in Stockton, California, the plaintiff served Requests for Production of Documents, Set One, on the defendant in June 2020. The parties engaged in extensive meet and confer efforts, during which defendant’s counsel offered to waive its contention that the defenses of economic impossibility and impracticability apply to the Shuttle Agreement and the Master Carrier Agreement.
Despite this, the plaintiff rejected the offer explaining: “It is Starlite’s position that Ingredion must also concede a breach of the Master Carrier Agreement so as to avoid discovery into its finances and the reasons Ingredion closed its Stockton Plant.” Another meet and confer between the parties failed to resolve the dispute and the plaintiff proceeded with its motion to compel.
The defendant argued that it “offered to waive its defenses of economic impossibility and impracticability. Such waiver would make the issue of Ingredion’s economic condition and the reasons it closed the Stockton Plant irrelevant, and thus make Starlite’s Motion to Compel moot. In light of Starlite’s refusal to accept Ingredion’s offer to seek such a resolution by stipulation, Ingredion is currently exploring its options to amend both its Complaint for Declaratory Relief and its Answer to Starlite’s Complaint for Breach of Contract.” The defendant also contended the court should delay ruling on the motion due to complications caused by COVID-19 and the October 1, 2020 closing of its counsel’s law firm and its merger with another firm.
Judge Claire responded to the defendant’s arguments by stating: “Ingredion’s arguments are not persuasive. First, as to timing, discovery in this matter currently closes January 8, 2021. The COVID-19 crisis has been going on for over seven months, and Ingredion does not provide any specific reason that COVID-19 should delay a ruling on this motion. Likewise, the fact of counsel’s office merger does not convince the court a ruling on this motion should be delayed. Counsel presumably knew this merger would be happening, and even if not, counsel provides no alternative timeline for the adjudication of this motion.”
“As to the issue of mootness, it is clear from the briefing that an agreement has not been reached and no amended answer has been filed to date. The court must work with what is on the record. Further Starlite argues that even if Ingredion amends to concede a breach of the Shuttle Agreement and eliminate its economic impossibility defenses, that amendment would not ‘moot’ the discovery sought via this motion because Ingredion would not be conceding breach of the Master Carrier Agreement. While the parties forward competing interpretations of the Master Carrier Agreement in order to convince the court that discovery relevant to Ingredion’s finances is or is not relevant, the undersigned agrees with Starlite that ‘this discovery motion is neither the time nor the place to adjudicate the issue of competing contract interpretations. Starlite is entitled to discovery relevant to its claims, including its claim for breach of the Master Carrier Agreement. Ingredion is free to argue that its premature termination of that Master Carrier Agreement does not constitute a breach, but Ingredion cannot avoid discovery relevant to Starlite’s allegation of breach on that basis.’”
Judge Claire also rejected the defendant’s arguments regarding proportionality and vagueness of the RFPs, indicating the defendant did not expand on that argument in the required joint statement submitted by the parties.
As a result, Judge Claire granted the plaintiff’s motion to compel and also determined that “an award of fees and costs is appropriate pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(a)(5)(A) and E.D. Cal. R. (“Local Rule”) 230.” But, she granted a reduced amount of $6,679 “to comply with the standard rates of this district”.
So, what do you think? Should the court have given the parties more time to sort out the dispute through meet and confer? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.
Case opinion link courtesy of eDiscovery Assistant.
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