Lucas et al v. Gold Standard Baking, Inc., et al
MEMORANDUM Opinion and Order Signed by the Honorable Young B. Kim on 11/20/2020. (ma,)
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 1 of 9 PageID #:21343
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS
JAMES ZOLLICOFFER and
NORMAN GREEN, on behalf of
themselves and similarly situated
GOLD STANDARD BAKING, INC.
and PERSONNEL STAFFING
GROUP, LLC, d/b/a MOST
VALUABLE PERSONNEL, d/b/a MVP, )
No. 13 CV 1524
Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim
November 20, 2020
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER
Before the court in this class-action lawsuit are Plaintiffs’ objections to
Defendants’ requests to serve discovery on absent class members. (R. 814.) For the
following reasons, Plaintiffs’ objections are sustained:
Plaintiffs brought this race discrimination case alleging that Defendant Gold
Standard Baking, Inc. (“GSB”) had a policy of disfavoring African American
laborers for work in its facilities and that Defendant Personnel Staffing Group,
LLC, doing business as Most Valuable Personnel (“MVP”), carried out that policy by
declining to send African American laborers to GSB.
In March 2020 the court
certified a class of plaintiffs, later defined as follows: “[African American] laborers
who sought work assignments through MVP to work at GSB, but on one or more
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 2 of 9 PageID #:21344
occasion were not assigned to work at GSB when a position was available” during a
certain statutory period. (R. 786, Mem. Op. at 40-41, 67; R. 795.) In granting class
certification, the court determined that there is a common question regarding
whether GSB had an illegal policy of instructing MVP not to staff African American
laborers at its facilities, and characterized as “peripheral issues” questions such as
how many times class members had visited MVP or whether they eventually
received assignments at GSB. (Id. at 43-44, 50.) The court also noted that the
central contention of whether Defendants had a discriminatory policy of refusing to
staff African American laborers would predominate in a trial on liability, and that if
necessary, the court could later conduct individualized damages inquiries on
questions such as when class members sought work, whether they were qualified
for available positions, or whether GSB needed workers on the particular days that
class members sought jobs. (Id. at 61, 63.)
After the class was certified, Defendants propounded a total of 25
interrogatories that they seek to serve on absent class members. (R. 814, Pls.’ Objs.
Exs. A & B.) These interrogatories include questions such as whether the absent
class member is African American, when and how often the member sought work
through MVP, and whether the member had filed previous complaints of any kind
They also ask the absent class members to identify all
communications they may have had with respect to assignments through MVP or at
GSB, among other things.
GSB’s proposed interrogatories instruct the
members to “contact your own attorney if you have any questions.” (Id. Ex. B at 1.)
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 3 of 9 PageID #:21345
Plaintiffs object to Defendants’ proposed interrogatories for several reasons.
First, they argue that Defendants have a heavy burden to show that discovery on
the absent class members is necessary to fairly try questions of liability. They
assert that the details Defendants seek all relate to damages, rather than the
central question of whether Defendants discriminated against African American
laborers in hiring. They also argue that the combined 25 interrogatories are overly
broad and unfairly burdensome on absent class members who typically are not
required to participate in discovery proceedings.
Finally, they argue that
Defendants’ intent is to whittle down the class by serving interrogatories that many
absent class members will not be able to respond to without the assistance of
In response, Defendants argue that the proposed questions speak to
threshold issues meant to identify who belongs to the certified class and are
necessary to determine liability, not just damages.
As an initial matter, the court rejects Defendants’ attempt to characterize
Plaintiffs’ arguments as mere “general objections” subject to waiver for their lack of
specificity. (R. 821, GSB Resp. at 2-3; R. 822, MVP Resp. at 3.) None of the cases
they cite in support of that argument address discovery directed to absent class
members, and they all involve situations where a party responded to discovery
simply by asserting rote, boilerplate objections or with such lack of specificity that
the objections were meaningless.
See BankDirect Capital Fin., LLC v. Capital
Premium Fin., Inc., No. 15 CV 10340, 2017 WL 4005918, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 12,
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 4 of 9 PageID #:21346
2017), opinion amended and superseded by BankDirect Capital Fin., LLC v. Capital
Premium Fin., Inc., No. 15 CV 10340, 2017 WL 5890923 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 29, 2017);
In re: Jimmy John’s Overtime Lit., No. 14 CV 5509, 2016 WL 10957249, at *1 (N.D.
Ill. July 28, 2016); Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, No. 10 CV 6517, 2013 WL 5770558,
at *1 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 24, 2013). Here Plaintiffs have presented a detailed, multi-front
argument as to why discovery from absent class members is disfavored generally
and unnecessary here specifically.
They have explained why they believe the
interrogatories would be overly burdensome, highlighting how several of the
individual interrogatories illustrate the challenges they argue the absent class
members would face in responding. (R. 814, Pls.’ Obj. at 4-8.) Accordingly, their
arguments cannot fairly be characterized as meaningless general objections.
Turning to the merits, courts have recognized a central tension between
subjecting absent class members to individual discovery and Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 23’s underlying idea that absent class members are not required to take
any affirmative steps to participate in class action litigation. See, e.g., Adkins v.
Mid-Am. Growers, Inc., 141 F.R.D. 466, 468 (N.D. Ill. 1992); McPhail v. First
Command Fin. Planning, Inc., 251 F.R.D. 514, 517 (S.D. Cal. 2008); Morgan v.
United Parcel Serv. of Am., Inc., No. 4:94-CV-1184 (CEJ), 1998 WL 785322, at *1
(E.D. Mo. Oct. 16, 1998); Transam. Refining Corp. v. Dravo Corp., 139 F.R.D. 619,
621 (S.D. Tex. 1991). Despite this tension, absent class members may be required
to submit to discovery in certain circumstances where the information sought is
“necessary or helpful” to the proper adjudication of a suit, and where the requests
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 5 of 9 PageID #:21347
are “not designed solely to determine the identity and amount of the class members’
claims.” Brennan v. Midwestern United Life Ins. Co., 450 F.2d 999, 1005 (7th Cir.
1971). The party seeking discovery from absent class members has the burden of
showing that: (1) the discovery is necessary; (2) the discovery seeks information that
the proponent does not already have; (3) the request is not designed to whittle down
the class size or take unfair advantage of absent members; and (4) a full response
will not require absent class members to seek the assistance of counsel. See Clark
v. Universal Builders, Inc., 501 F.2d 324, 340 & n.24 (7th Cir. 1974); see also
McPhail, 251 F.R.D. at 517.
Even where those criteria are met, the proposed
discovery “must be carefully limited to protect absent class members from
harassment, and to ensure that the advantage of streamlined discovery in a class
action lawsuit is not lost.” Bell v. Woodward Governor Co., No. 03 CV 50190, 2005
WL 8179364, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 7, 2005).
Defendants have not shown that the proposed discovery is necessary to the
fair adjudication of this matter, at least at the current stage. GSB admits that its
proposed interrogatories are meant primarily to identify members of the class,
noting that the absent class members’ “race, prior interactions with Defendant
MVP, and mitigation” are all “threshold questions regarding class membership.”
(R. 821, GSB Resp. at 1-2.) But the Seventh Circuit has made clear that it is
improper to subject absent class members to discovery meant “solely to determine
the identity and amount of the class members’ claims.” See Brennan, 450 F.2d at
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 6 of 9 PageID #:21348
1005; see also Chaffee v. A&P Tea Co., Nos. 79 CV 2735, 79 CV 3625, 1987 WL 9308,
at *2-*3 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 6, 1987).
MVP argues that the proposed interrogatories are not just relevant to
identifying class members because, according to them, their questions inform the
ultimate question of liability, which is whether Defendants had a policy of excluding
African American laborers from available work assignments. (R. 822, MVP Resp. at
But MVP does not explain how each of its 10 proposed interrogatories is
designed to meet that goal.
MVP’s proposed interrogatories include questions
regarding absent class members’ subjective experiences, such as whether they were
“satisfied” with their work assignments and their reasons for deciding to stop
seeking assignments through MVP. They also ask whether absent class members
filed complaints against MVP or contacted an attorney about discrimination at MVP
and require them to describe communications they had with anyone about attempts
to get employment at GSB through MVP. (R. 814, Pls.’ Obj. Ex. A at 2-3.) These
are broad questions likely to confuse absent class members, especially to the extent
they seek details regarding years-old communications. MVP has not shown why
“justice to all parties” requires that absent class members provide this information.
See Brennan, 450 F.2d at 1005. Moreover, to the extent the interrogatories seek
information about when and how often absent class members sought work through
MVP, (see R. 814, Pls.’ Obj. Ex. A at 1-2), the court made clear in the opinion
certifying the class that these are “peripheral issues” that do not speak to the
common issue of liability, and instead can be hashed out when the court turns to
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 7 of 9 PageID #:21349
the question of damages, (R. 786, Mem. Op. at 50, 61). The information Defendants
seek is overly broad and not necessary to determine the underlying common issue of
liability, because such questions can be resolved on an individual basis if necessary
once liability is determined.
Accordingly, Defendants have not shown that the
proposed discovery is necessary at this time.
It should be noted that GSB suggests that the court disregard any authority
Plaintiffs cite that arose under Title VII, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in
Comcast Corporation v. National Association of African-American Media, __ U.S. __,
140 S. Ct. 1009, 1017 (2020). In Comcast the Court held that although it is enough
to show that race is a motivating factor of an adverse employment decision to
prevail under Title VII, but-for causation is required to prevail under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1981. Id. at 1017-19. Based on that distinction, GSB argues that any Title VII
cases that speak to discovery questions similar to those presented here are not
relevant to Plaintiffs’ claims, which arise under Section 1981. (R. 821, GSB Resp. at
4.) But GSB has not supported its suggestion that after Comcast Title VII cases no
longer inform Section 1981 claims at the discovery level. Moreover, although a trial
plan has not yet been solidified in this case, the court gave clear signals in the class
certification decision—issued after the Comcast decision was published—that it
intends to proceed with a liability phase before conducting potentially necessary
individual damages inquiries. (See, e.g., R. 786, Mem. Op. at 63.) For these reasons
the court disagrees with Defendants that Title VII cases have no bearing on the
issue before the court.
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 8 of 9 PageID #:21350
Turning to the issue of whether the proposed discovery seeks information
that Defendants do not already have, to the extent that Defendants failed to keep
records regarding job placements or internal complaints of discrimination, those are
short-comings of their own making.
On the other hand, because some of the
information sought here would not be kept in the normal course of business or
otherwise be in Defendants’ possession, this factor does not cut strongly in either
Next the court considers whether the proposed interrogatories are designed
to chip away at the class size or to take unfair advantage of absent class members.
See Clark, 501 F.2d at 340. Given the breadth and complexity of the proposed
interrogatories, there is a high likelihood that absent class members will be
confused or unsure about how to respond.
See McPhail, 251 F.R.D. at 518 (noting
that discovery is inappropriate if the level of detail sought “would deter many class
members from responding”). Although Defendants have said they will consolidate
their proposed discovery to reduce the burden on recipients, even absent the current
redundancies, the details at the heart of the proposed interrogatories are likely to
confuse or overwhelm absent class members.
Defendants could seek to dismiss
absent class members who fail to respond to discovery requests, so there is reason to
believe that these broad interrogatories seeking years-old details are designed in
part to reduce the class size. See Clark, 501 F.2d at 340. Accordingly, this factor
weighs against the proposed discovery.
Case: 1:13-cv-01524 Document #: 832 Filed: 11/20/20 Page 9 of 9 PageID #:21351
The court also agrees with Plaintiffs that responding to the proposed
interrogatories may require absent class members to consult with counsel. See id.
at 340 n. 24. In fact, GSB explicitly contemplates this possibility, as revealed in the
instructions it includes with its proposed interrogatories directing class members to
“contact your own attorney if you have questions.” (R. 814, Pls.’ Obj. Ex. B at 1.)
And given that MVP’s proposed interrogatories seeks information about prior
claims filed by absent class members and communications that include past
interactions with attorneys, (see id. Ex. A at 2), recipients may need to consult with
counsel to avoid relinquishing the privilege that might otherwise attach to such
communications. Taken together, all of these considerations point to the conclusion
that absent class members should not be subjected to the proposed discovery.
Allowing the proposed discovery would unfairly undermine what is meant to
be a streamlined class action process, while causing unnecessary delay in an
already almost eight-year old case. Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons Plaintiffs’
objections are sustained.
Young B. Kim
United States Magistrate Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?