Roman v. Travelers Casualty Insurance Company of America
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER deferring ruling on 33 MOTION to Dismiss for Discovery Violations and allowing plaintiff to file surreply by Chief District Judge William P. Johnson. (vv)
Case 1:20-cv-00765-WJ-SCY Document 42 Filed 04/01/21 Page 1 of 9
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO
T. ROSARIO ROMAN,
TRAVELERS CASUALTY INSURANCE
COMPANY OF AMERICA,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
DEFERRING RULING ON MOTION TO DISMISS
ALLOWING PLAINTIFF TO FILE SURREPLY
THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon the Motion to Dismiss of Travelers
Casualty Insurance Company of America (“Defendant”), filed January 8, 2021 (Doc. 33). The
Court will defer ruling on the matter pending submission of Plaintiff’s surreply within two weeks
from the entry of this Order.
This case involves a dispute over the recovery of insurance benefits under a commercial
policy issued by Defendant. Plaintiff made a claim under the policy alleging the property was
damaged by a storm-related wind/hail event on or around September 1, 2018. Plaintiff claims
that Defendant did not pay all the sums due under the policy. The Complaint against Defendant
alleges: breach of contract; violation of the New Mexico Insurance Code, specifically § 59A-1620; bad faith; and negligence. Both parties agree that the case is governed by New Mexico State
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Defendant contends that documents produced pursuant to this third-party subpoena reveal
that Plaintiff was aware of the roof leaking when she purchased the property in 2014, that
Plaintiff negotiated for roof repairs as part of her purchase of the property, that she demanded
proof of completion of the repairs prior to closing, and even scheduled the repairs herself.
Defendant seeks dismissal of Plaintiff’s case for discovery violations pursuant to
Fed.R.Civ.P. 37(b)(2)(A) because Plaintiff has not provided adequate information in response to
discovery requests regarding the condition of the property prior to the September 2018 storm.
The following represents the chronology related to Defendant’s discovery requests.
September 22, 2020. First Interrogatories and Requests for Production (“RFP”). Plaintiff
provided responses to these requests on October 22, 2020. The interrogatories sought
information regarding (1) house inspections pre-dating Plaintiff’s purchase of the house;
(2) description of any prior leakage on the property including any repairs done; (3)
witnesses to any such leakage; (4) documents referring to maintenance or repairs or
estimates for repairs; and (5) names of contractors who worked at the house. Plaintiff’s
response provided a minimum of information, such as the name of the previous
homeowner, broker, inspection date and date of purchase.
o Her response to questions about repair or mitigation efforts contained no
information other than her own contact information and the contact information
for an insurance appraisal group. Doc. 33-1 at 4 (Interrog. No. 13).
o In describing the work done by contractors who worked on the property from
January 2010 to the present, Plaintiff gave only a name: Hector Espinoza.
o Plaintiff responded to questions about “maintenance of or repairs to the roof,
gutters, or downspouts of the Property” by stating: Gutters cleaned every
spring/fall; installed mesh to prevent clogging doc. 33-2 at 1, (RFP No. 15)
o Where Defendant requested copies of “all estimates for repairs or maintenance
obtained regarding the roof of the Property or the interior of the Property from
2010 to present,” Plaintiff responded with “Plaintiff will supplement.” Doc. 33-2
at 2 (RFP No. 17).
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Plaintiff responded to most of Defendant’s discovery requests with a panoply of
objections ranging from “vague,” “unduly burdensome,” “harassing,” ambiguous,” “overbroad,”
“duplicative,” and “expensive.”
November 6, 2020. In an attempt to obtain information about the pre-storm condition of
the property, Defendant asked Plaintiff to supplement her responses. Doc. 33-3 (Nov. 6
letter). When Plaintiff’s counsel did not respond, Defendant’s counsel sent a follow-up
email. Both e-mails made it clear that Defendant was seeking to avoid filing a motion to
compel. Doc. 33-4. Plaintiff’s counsel failed to respond to the follow-up email as well.
o November 12, 2020: Travelers’ filed its Motion to Compel (Doc. 23). United
States Magistrate Judge Steven C. Yarbrough granted the motion, requiring
Plaintiff to supplement her responses no later than December 29, 2020 as well as
Defendant’s request for expenses involved in preparing the motion to compel.
o The supplementations Plaintiff submitted in response to the Court’s Order were
modest at best, and neither supplementation provided any information regarding
the condition of the property prior to the September 2018 storm. Doc. 33-5 & 6.2
November 9, 2020. Prior to filing the motion to compel, Defendant sent a third-party
subpoena to Berger Briggs, the agency involved in Plaintiff’s purchase of the property. In
late December 2020, Berger Briggs produced 139 pages of materials related to Plaintiff’s
purchase of the property in 2014. Doc. 33-7. Included in these documents was a
counteroffer for the house in which Plaintiff stipulated to a purchase price and closing
date, and stated her intention to conduct property inspections to reveal necessary repairs
and if so, she reserved the right to adjust her offer accordingly. Doc. 33-7 at 000099-100.
o These documents indicate that in 2014, at the time of purchase, Plaintiff was
aware of roof leaks and that as a condition to her purchase of the property she
required the seller to complete work which included roof repairs, splash guards
and crack sealing labor. Doc. 33-7 at 000052-53. After the roofing work was
completed, Plaintiff demanded a copy of the receipt to prove the labor was
completed. Id. at 000052. AAA Roofing performed work totaling over $2,100 to
Plaintiff did not respond to Defendant’s request for attorney fees in its response to the motion to compel, see Doc.
29 at 2, nor did it object to Defendant’s affidavit outlining expenses it incurred in preparing the motion to compel,
see Doc. 40 at 1. The Court subsequently entered an Order Awarding Attorney Fees to Defendant in the amount of
Plaintiff, however, did include supplemental information in response to Interrogatory No. 12 describing roof
damage and “significant devastation to the property’s interior” that resulted from the storm at issue in this case.
Doc. 33-6 at 7.
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the roof and downspouts, all apparently related to roof leaks and ponding. Id. at
o E-mails in these documents reveal that Plaintiff arranged scheduling of repairs
and inspections for plumbing and the HVAC system and asked for documented
proof of their completion. Doc. 33-7 at 000063. She also hired a structural
engineer, Frank Gauer, to perform an inspection of the property in February 2014.
Plaintiff failed to produce any of this documentation in her discovery responses.
In light of the disclosures made by Berger Briggs, it begins to look like Plaintiff has been
hiding the ball regarding inspections and repairs made to the property prior to the September
2018 storm—or at least protracting the discovery process. Defendant points out that while
Plaintiff initially disclosed that Hector Espinoza was contracted to perform work to repair some
of the storm damage, she did not provide Mr. Espinoza’s contact information and work
documentation until two months after these responses were due—and only after attempting good
faith correspondence, filing a motion to compel and a Court order. See Doc. 33-6 at 8 (First
Supp. Ans. To Interrog. No. 11). Similarly, while Plaintiff disclosed Ms. Laurie Levene as the
seller of the house, she failed to produce information that she had negotiated roof repairs with
Ms. Levene. Nor did Plaintiff disclose any other information that would have led Defendant to
suspect there was a history of leakage, or that there were any repairs or inspections to the house
done prior to the 2018 storm giving rise to Plaintiff’s claims.
Pursuant to Rule 37(b)(2)(A) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, this Court has the
authority to issue sanctions against a party for failure to comply with discovery obligations. The
sanctions available to the Court include, but are not limited to, prohibiting the disobedient party
from supporting claims or defenses or introducing designated matters in evidence, striking
pleadings in whole or in part, staying further proceedings, dismissing the action, or treating the
It is unclear, as Defendant notes, whether all of the roof damage that Plaintiff discovered was repaired prior to her
purchase of the property. Doc. 33 at 4.
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failure as contempt. See Rule 37(b)(2)(A)(i) to (vii).
Defendant requests dismissal of Plaintiff’s case. However, dismissal represents an
“extreme sanction appropriate only in cases of willful misconduct.” Ehrenhaus v. Reynolds, 965
F.2d 916, 920 (10th Cir. 1992) quoting Meade v. Grubbs, 841 F.2d 1512, 1520 (10th Cir.1988);
M.E.N. Co. v. Control Fluidics, Inc., 834 F.2d 869, 872–73 (10th Cir.1987). The Tenth Circuit
reasoned that, “because dismissal with prejudice defeats altogether a litigant's right to access to
the courts, it should be used as a weapon of last, rather than first, resort.” Id. Dismissal is
“appropriate only when the aggravating factors [like bad faith or willfulness] outweigh the
judicial system’s strong predisposition to resolve cases on their merits.” Id.
In determining what sanctions to impose, the Court should consider factors such as “(1)
the degree of actual prejudice to the defendant; (2) the amount of interference with the judicial
process; . . . (3) the culpability of the litigant; (4) whether the court warned the party in advance
that dismissal of the action would be a likely sanction for noncompliance . . . ; and (5) the
efficacy of lesser sanctions.” Ehrenhaus v. Reynolds, 965 F.2d 916, 921 (10th Cir. 1992).
Defendant seeks the sanction of dismissal on three grounds:
(1) Plaintiff’s non-compliance with this Court’s Order;
(2) Plaintiff has misrepresented her discovery to this Court and;
(3) Plaintiff even now withholds responsive materials.
In response, Plaintiff contends that she has not violated a Court Order and therefore
should not be sanctioned in any manner pursuant to Rule 37(b)(2)(A): First, she claims that
produced almost 350 pages of documentation in response to Defendant’s initial discovery requests,
including several pages of documents pertaining to heating and cooling evaluation and a two-page
estimate by AAA Roofing for repairs in the amount of $1,523.74, see Doc. 34-1 at 0327-0329.
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Second, she assures the Court that in response to the Court’s Order granting Defendant’s motion to
compel, she has turned over all the documentation and information she was able to locate.
Non-Compliance With Court Order
Defendant does not dispute that Plaintiff produced about 350 pages of documentation in
response to the initial discovery requests. Instead, Defendant claims that the disclosure was not
timely because it was not complete, focusing specifically on a two-page AAA roofing repair estimate
dated January 2013 which Defendant claims it has not seen until now when it was submitted by
Plaintiff as part of her response to the instant motion. As proof, Defendant submits an exhibit
comparing Plaintiff’s Bates Label Range “Roman 0327-0329” for her October 22, 2020 production,
and Bates Label Range “Roman 0327-0329” which was labeled as Plaintiff’s “Exhibit A” to the
response to this motion. And Defendant is indeed correct: the two-page AAA roofing repair
estimate is missing from the initial disclosures and in its place on 0328 and 0329 are photographs of
what appears to be a window screen “[i]nstalled in 2016” (according to the handwritten notation on
the photo) and a photograph of a ceiling stain with the handwritten notation “[s]hows original stain
and the ring growing as more rain came down.” See Doc. 36-1 at 5 & 6.
There certainly is a discrepancy between the documents labeled as Plaintiff’s Bates Roman
0327-0329 in the initial disclosures and those labeled within the same range as Exhibit A (Doc. 34-1)
to the response. And it does appear that for some reason, Plaintiff’s counsel saw fit to renumber the
pages and add the two-page roofing estimate this time around for the response even though it
definitely was not included in the initial October 22, 2020 disclosures. The photographs included in
those disclosures suggest damage—if not repair—that occurred prior to the 2018 storm which
arguably is partially responsive to Defendant’s interrogatories.
Perhaps there is an explanation for the inconsistency between the two submissions of Bates
Roman 0327-0329. Defendant notes that Plaintiff’s initial discovery responses were attached to an
email and labeled as Bates 001-0343. One might be tempted to say that the two-page AAA roofing
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estimate is located elsewhere between Bates 0329 and 0343, but Defendant staunchly maintains that
it has never seen the two-page roofing estimate until now, in response to its motion to dismiss.
Whether Plaintiff Continues to Withhold Discovery
Defendant claims that Plaintiff continues to withhold relevant and material discovery
information. In particular, Travelers refers to documents produced by third-party subpoenas such as
the one issued to Berger Briggs which included Plaintiff’s counteroffer demanding repairs to
downspouts as a result of a February 2014 report by Frank Gauer; or a subpoena issued to Quality
Masters Roofing revealing that additional roofing repairs had been made to the house prior to the
storm. Doc. 36-3.4
Plaintiff insists that there is no discovery abuse going on here; that she has turned over to
Defendant all documents and information within her possession; and that she cannot be expected to
produce documentation that she does not have. Defendant argues that this no excuse. Documents are
within a party’s possession if the party has actual possession, custody, or the legal right to obtain
the documents on demand. National Union Fire Insurance Co. v. Midland Bancor, Inc., 159
F.R.D. 562, 566 (D.Kan.1994); see Tomlinson v. El Paso Corp., 245 F.R.D.474, 476 (D. Colo.
2007) (“‘Control’ comprehends not only possession, but also the right, authority, or ability to
obtain the documents.”).
The Court agrees with Plaintiff in that she cannot produce what she cannot find and does
not have. However, the Court also agrees with Defendant that parties have an obligation to do
what they can to obtain the requested material and to suggest otherwise would motivate parties
“to dispose of relevant material evidence to the extent it undermines their claims.” Doc. 34 at 4.
There is some indication that Plaintiff has not done all she should have done, or should do, in
fulfilling her discovery obligations, for example:
The letter from Quality Masters Roofing refers to work done on a “small leak” and invoice “for less than $500.00”
but there is no indication of when the work was performed.
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Some of the documents produced by Berger Briggs in response to the subpoena were emails between Plaintiff and the agency specifically referencing maintenance and repairs
to the roof prior to the storm. One would imagine that Plaintiff would have been able to
locate at least her responsive communications to the agency—but these were never
A two-page roofing estimate from AAA shows up for the first time as an exhibit to
Plaintiff’s response, indicating that it has always been in Plaintiff’s possession.
Plaintiff has been silent as to the history of inspections and repairs to the property,
revealed only later from the Berger Briggs production. Even if Plaintiff truly had no way
of locating actual documentation information, her silence as to any leads ensured that
Travelers’ would have difficulty pursuing the discovery elsewhere.
Plaintiff May File Surreply
The Court is troubled by the sudden appearance of the two-page AAA roofing estimate.
The discrepancy in the Bates numbers belies Plaintiff claim that she produced the estimate to
Defendant in her initial disclosures. Also, it raises a question on Plaintiff’s insistence that she
has fully complied with the Court’s discovery order and turned over all the documentation and
material she was able to find.
The issue may appear to be a tempest over two pages, but it withstands scrutiny
nonetheless because it bears on a party’s willingness to fulfill her discovery obligations in a case
brought by that party against another, and potentially on an attorney’s candor to the Court on
representations made about discovery disclosures. Defendant may have sent out all the
subpoenas it intends to issue, but the issue is not too late to address. Discovery is still pending
until the deadline currently set as April 16, 2021. Doc. 27.5 This lawsuit’s past history reveals
that in the very least, Plaintiff has taken a dilatory approach to her discovery obligations. This
conclusion is based on Defendant’s repeated attempts to obtain information from Plaintiff about
The Court will of course defer to the Magistrate Judge assigned to the case to determine whether the deadline
should be extended in light of the Court’s inquiry into Plaintiff’s alleged discovery abuses.
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the condition of the property prior to the September 2018 storm, and by Judge Yarbrough’s
Court Order granting Defendant’s Motion to Compel and request for attorney fees.
The Court will therefore DEFER conducting an Ehrenhaus analysis. For now, the Court
will allow Plaintiff the opportunity to file a SURREPLY responding to Defendant’s arguments in
the reply relating to the two-page AAA roofing estimate; specifically that this document was not
produced in Plaintiff’s initial discovery responses, as Plaintiff represented in its response brief
(see Doc. 34 at 2) but was produced by Plaintiff for the first time as Exhibit A in the response to
this motion. In the surreply, Plaintiff may also respond to Defendant’s claim that she continues
to withhold discovery material. This surreply affords Plaintiff and her counsel the opportunity to
explain what efforts Plaintiff has made to locate records relating to inspections and repairs of her
house which she purchased in 2014 and which have been found to exist, but which Plaintiff has
Plaintiff’s surreply is due ON OR BEFORE TWO (2) WEEKS FROM THE
ENTRY OF THIS ORDER.
Plaintiff’s surreply is limited to the specific issues described above and the Court
will not consider any arguments other than those responsive to those raised by
Defendant in the reply.
Should Plaintiff decide not to file a surreply, the Court will proceed to an Ehrenhaus
inquiry after the deadline for the surreply has passed.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
WILLIAM P. JOHNSON
CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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