Belville et al v. Ford Motor Company
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER denying Ford Motor Company's 642 APPEAL OF/ OBJECTIONS TO MAGISTRATE JUDGE DECISION TO DISTRICT COURT. Signed by Judge Robert C. Chambers on 10/26/2015. (cc: attys; any unrepresented parties) (mkw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR
THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA
CHARLES JOHNSON, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:13-6529
FORD MOTOR COMPANY,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Pending before the Court is Ford Motor Company’s Objections to Magistrate
Judge’s Order. ECF No. 642. In its objections, Ford requests that this Court set aside the
Honorable Cheryl A. Eifert’s Order entered on September 22, 2015, directing Ford to engage in
additional discovery. ECF No. 627. As this is a nondispositive pretrial matter, this Court’s review
of the Magistrate Judge’s Order is governed by the clearly erroneous or contrary to law standard
of review. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a) (providing, in part, that a district judge may, upon objection,
modify or set aside any part of a nondispositive “order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to
law”); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) (providing, in part, “[a] judge of the court may reconsider any
pretrial matter under this subparagraph (A) where it has been shown that the magistrate judge's
order is clearly erroneous or contrary to law”). Utilizing this standard, the Court DENIES the
motion for the following reasons.
Magistrate Judge Eifert’s discovery Order addresses two substantive areas of
relevant information: (1) Ford’s engineering of the electronic throttle control (ETC) system and
(2) Ford’s receipt and investigation of unintended acceleration incidents.
Ford assails the
discovery order by focusing on the undeniably voluminous, costly, and contentious discovery
already produced, which has consumed thousands of hours of lawyers’, witnesses’, and Ford
employees’ time and attention. Claiming the newly ordered discovery to be duplicative and
unduly burdensome, Ford implores the Court to set aside, or substantially reduce, the discovery
approved by the Magistrate Judge. Ford asserts that the discovery Order will require Ford to
produce documents and witnesses concerning matters already thoroughly covered by previous
discovery, that is, Ford’s engineering of the ETC system and Ford’s receipt and investigation of
incidents of sudden unintended acceleration. Ford also complains that this new discovery is
unduly burdensome, in that depositions and computer document searches impose substantial
expenses on Ford, but are unlikely to produce meaningful evidence for Plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs’ claim of defect is complex: the ETC system itself is flawed resulting in
sudden unintended acceleration during which the vehicle operator effectively loses control over
the speed of the vehicle. Investigating the ETC system entails a number of related components
and systems, their evolution in Ford’s design and manufacture of several vehicle models, and
alternative possible causes of sudden unintended acceleration, like mistaken pedal use by the
operator. As Ford concedes, the Magistrate Judge was presented with Plaintiffs’ letter-form
request identifying each employee from which Plaintiffs sought a computer file search or a
deposition, or both, and explaining why. Defendant responded in a thorough rebuttal, offering
persuasive reasons to restrict Plaintiffs’ requests. After reading these position papers, and hearing
argument, Magistrate Judge Eifert entered a discovery Order which considerably narrowed the
permitted discovery. Her decision was not simply “splitting the difference” between the parties.
Instead, she was precise in listing what discovery could go forward and under what conditions.
Considering Rule 26’s guidance, providing that matters such as the needs of the
case, the amount in controversy, the parties’ resources, and the importance of discovery are
significant factors in finding that the burden, even if great, may not outweigh the likely benefits,
the discovery order struck the balance appropriately. No one can claim that the Magistrate Judge
failed to consider and appreciate the complexity and expensiveness of the discovery which has
taken place so far. Magistrate Judge Eifert has been directly, continuously involved in the
discovery phase, dealing with numerous discovery disputes and holding frequent discovery
conferences with the parties. With her thorough immersion in the discovery process to date, she
then carefully and fairly considered each side’s letter-form discussion of the specific discovery she
considered in her discovery Order. Though this Court acknowledges that Ford has expended
substantial time and resources to comply with discovery to this point, the Court nonetheless is
satisfied that overall discovery ordered by the Magistrate Judge is reasonable and proportional.
Ford also directs particularized objections to several portions of the discovery
Order. First, Ford asserts that requiring as many as an additional 14 full hard-drive searches is
Plaintiffs sought additional computer searches because Ford produced only
documents identified as relevant by the “custodian” – the Ford employee whose computer is to be
searched but who may have a limited recognition of what is relevant. Instead, Plaintiffs suggested
that search terms be utilized as ordered for new or repeat searches, to insure the search is responsive
to the case and about what is relevant to the claims. It is apparent that the Magistrate Judge
examined the particular circumstances of each of the custodians from whom Plaintiffs sought a
hard-drive search. The discovery Order identifies each Ford employee whose files must be
searched in full with new search terms and those whose files are to be subjected to a limited search
for specific matters.
Next, Ford urges the Court to deny Plaintiffs’ request to depose certain employees.
Some of these employees already were deposed as Rule 30(b)(6) representatives, presumably
about their personal knowledge as well as what they learned in order to serve as Ford’s
representative witnesses. The discovery Order specifically identifies three such deponents and
limits any repeat deposition to their personal knowledge as fact witnesses, and only to the extent
they were not questioned about a matter in their earlier deposition.
Further, two Ford
representatives were scheduled for depositions, which Plaintiffs apparently cancelled, so Ford
objects to rescheduling and re-preparing them. Plaintiffs’ explanation was accepted, implicitly,
by the Magistrate Judge, and this Court also accepts it.
Accordingly, the Court DENIES Ford’s objections. The Court DIRECTS the
Clerk to send a copy of this Order to counsel of record and any unrepresented parties.
October 26, 2015
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