ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO SET ASIDE MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S MARCH 18, 2014 ORDER [ECF No. 70]
CYNTHIA BASHANT, District Judge.
On January 12, 2011, Plaintiff Betty Guzman commenced this putative class action against Defendants Bridgepoint Education, Inc. ("Bridgepoint"), Ashford University ("Ashford"), and University of the Rockies, asserting claims for violations of California's Unfair Trade Practices Act, False Advertising Act, and Consumer Legal Remedies Act, among others.
The Court finds this motion suitable for determination on the papers submitted and without oral argument. See Civ. L.R. 7.1(d.1). For the following reasons, the Court
I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND
On September 23, 2013, United States Magistrate Judge William V. Gallo issued an order regulating discovery that was expressly limited to class-certification issues only. (CMC Order 1:19-23.) March 31, 2014 was the deadline for completion of all class-certification-related discovery. (Id. at 2:17-19.) The court defined "completed" to mean that "all discovery under Rules 30-36 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure must be initiated a sufficient period of time in advance of the cut-off date,
A. Plaintiff's First Set of Interrogatories
On August 5, 2013, Plaintiff served Defendants with her First Set of Interrogatories. Thereafter, the parties agreed to extend the deadline for Defendants to respond by 30 days to October 9, 2013. Defendants served responses to the interrogatories on October 9, 2013. In their response, Defendants objected to Interrogatory No. 7 on several grounds.
On October 29, 2013, Plaintiff sent a meet-and-confer letter addressing certain perceived deficiencies in the responses. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 6.) In the letter, Plaintiff requested that Defendants cure the identified deficiencies by November 1, 2013, and sought to schedule an in-person meet-and-confer conference during the week of November 4, 2013. (Id.)
"Mindful of the magistrate judge's 30-day deadline to raise discovery disputes, and out of an abundance of caution, [Plaintiff] sought and obtained Defendants' consent to make a joint motion for extension of time to file a joint statement for determination of discovery disputes," which the parties subsequently filed on November 8, 2013. (Kolesnikov Decl. ¶ 12.) To justify the extension, the parties stated in their joint motion that "following a mutual extension of time to respond [to the discovery requests]," the parties "ha[d] been working diligently to resolve the above-mentioned disputes," "ha[d] exchanged meet-and-confer letters regarding the disputes," and "[were] reviewing the respective letters regarding the disputes and have discussed meeting in person very soon in an attempt to resolve the disputes[.]" (ECF No. 64.)
On November 12, 2013, the magistrate judge denied the parties' joint motion for an extension of time. (ECF No. 65.) That order stated the following:
(Id. (emphasis in original).)
On November 15, 2013, Defendants responded to Plaintiff's meet-and-confer letter. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 8.) The parties subsequently agreed to continue to meet and confer in order to resolve their disagreements. (Young Decl. ¶ 4.) On November 22, 2013, counsel for the parties met in person to discuss the issues raised in the October 29, 2013 letter. (Id. ¶ 5; Kolesnikov Decl. ¶ 17.) During the conference, the parties agreed to review certain responses and determine whether supplementing the responses was necessary. (Young Decl. ¶ 5; Kolesnikov Decl. ¶ 17.)
Defendants served supplemental responses to Plaintiff's interrogatories on February 3, 2014. (Pl.'s Mot. Es. 20-23.) However, Defendants maintain that they "did not supplement their response to Interrogatory No. 7." (Defs.' Opp'n 3:15-17.) Interrogatory No. 7 requests that Defendants "[i]dentify all enrollment advisors at BRIDGEPOINT or ASHFORD who were disciplined, demoted, or otherwise received negative performance reviews during the Relevant Period because of the number of students they enrolled." (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 2.)
B. Plaintiff's First Set of Requests for Production
On November 22, 2013, Plaintiff served Defendants with her First Set of Requests for Production ("RFPs"). On December 23, 2013, Defendants served responses to the RFPs. Defendants objected to RFP No. 11 and RFP No. 16. (Pl.'s Mot. Exs. 14-15.) RFP No. 11 requests "[a]ll DOCUMENTS CONCERNING the discipline, demotion, or termination of any of BRIDGEPOINT's enrollment advisors during the RELEVANT PERIOD, including, but not limited to, the names of those individuals, the dates when they were disciplined, demoted, or terminated, and the reasons for the discipline, demotion, or termination"; RFP No. 16 requests "[a]ll DOCUMENTS CONCERNING all complaints from students and graduates during the RELEVANT PERIOD received by BRIDGEPOINT." (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 12.)
On January 23, 2014, Plaintiff sent a meet-and-confer letter to Defendants requesting that Defendants cure certain perceived deficiencies in Defendants' responses. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 18.) Plaintiff also sought to schedule an in-person meet-and-confer conference for February 3, 2014. (Kolesnikov Decl. ¶ 25.)
On January 27, 2014, Defendants responded to Plaintiff's letter, and maintained their objections as previously stated. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 19.) At Plaintiff's request, the parties met and conferred in person on February 3, 2014, where Defendants reiterated their objections. (Young Decl. ¶¶ 8-9.) Defendants initially produced documents in response to Plaintiff's RFPs on February 24, 2014. (Id. ¶ 11.)
Despite the meet-and-confer efforts, the parties were unable to resolve the discovery disputes without court intervention. As a result, Plaintiff submitted to the magistrate judge a Joint Statement for Determination of Discovery Disputes,
Plaintiff also preemptively addressed the timeliness of the Joint Statement in the Joint Statement, providing two reasons under Judge Gallo's Chambers Rules. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 24.) The entirety of that explanation is as follows:
(Id. (footnotes and citations omitted) (emphases in original).) Defendants disputed Plaintiff's position that the need for an extension of time was a product of Defendants' delay:
(Id. (footnote omitted.) Defendants also argued that Plaintiff's request was untimely because their responses to Interrogatory No. 7 and RFP Nos. 11 and 16 have remained unchanged since they were originally served, respectively, on October 9, 2013, and December 23, 2013: they contend that their February 3, 2014 supplemental responses did not supplement their response to Interrogatory No. 7, and their January 27, 2014 letter did not clarify their response to RFP Nos. 11 and 16. (Id.)
C. Magistrate Judge's March 18, 2014 Order
On March 18, 2014, the magistrate judge denied Plaintiff's motion to compel as untimely. (ECF No. 69.) With respect to Interrogatory No. 7, the magistrate judge explained:
(March 18, 2014 Order 4:11-5:10 (footnote omitted).) Addressing RFP Nos. 11 and 16, the magistrate judge explained:
(Id. at 6:9-22.) The magistrate judge's order ended by stating that "[n]either party, but particularly Plaintiff, has explained, let alone justified, the extraordinary delay in bringing these disputes to the Court's attention. Without good cause having been demonstrated, there is no reason to grant the parties' requests." (Id. at 8:7-11.)
Thereafter, Plaintiff filed this motion to set aside the magistrate judge's March 18, 2014 order under Rule 72(a). Defendants oppose.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A party may object to a non-dispositive pretrial order of a magistrate judge within fourteen days after service of the order. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a). The magistrate judge's order will be upheld unless it is "clearly erroneous or contrary to law." Id.; 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). The "clearly erroneous" standard applies to factual findings and discretionary decisions made in connection with non-dispositive pretrial discovery matters. F.D.I.C. v. Fid. & Deposit Co. of Md., 196 F.R.D. 375, 378 (S.D. Cal. 2000); Joiner v. Hercules, Inc., 169 F.R.D. 695, 697 (S.D. Ga. 1996) (reviewing magistrate judge's order addressing attorney-client issues in discovery for clear error). Review under this standard is "significantly deferential, requiring a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Concrete Pipe & Prods. of Cal., Inc. v. Constr. Laborers Pension Tr. of S. Cal., 508 U.S. 602, 623 (1993) (internal quotation marks omitted).
On the other hand, the "contrary to law" standard permits independent review of purely legal determinations by a magistrate judge. See, e.g., Haines v. Liggett Group, Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 91 (3d Cir. 1992) ("the phrase `contrary to law' indicates plenary review as to matters of law."); Gandee v. Glaser, 785 F.Supp. 684, 686 (S.D. Ohio 1992), aff'd, 19 F.3d 1432 (6th Cir. 1994); 12 Charles A. Wright, et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 3069 (2d ed., 2010 update). "Thus, [the district court] must exercise its independent judgment with respect to a magistrate judge's legal conclusions." Gandee, 785 F. Supp. at 686. "A decision is contrary to law if it fails to apply or misapplies relevant statutes, case law, or rules of procedure." United States v. Cathcart, No. C 07-4762 PJH, 2009 WL 1764642, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 18, 2009).
Plaintiff presents three arguments is support of her position that the magistrate judge's March 18, 2014 order is clearly erroneous and contrary to law: (1) the motion to compel was timely because Plaintiff brought the discovery disputes to the magistrate judge's attention within 30 days after exhausting the meet-and-confer process; (2) Plaintiff demonstrated good cause to extend her deadline to file the motion to compel; and (3) the magistrate judge's order conflicts with Foman's policy of favoring decisions on the merits. The Court will address each argument below.
A. Timeliness of Plaintiff's Motion to Compel
In arguing that her motion to compel was timely, Plaintiff disagrees with the magistrate judge's findings as to when the 30-day discovery dispute clock commenced. Plaintiff argues that the November 12, 2013 deadline for any motion to compel a supplemental response to Interrogatory No. 7 and the January 23, 2014 deadline for any motion to compel further responses to RFP Nos. 11 and 16 are incorrect, and the correct deadline is March 4, 2014, 30 days after February 3, 2014 "when the parties' meet-and-confer efforts reached an impasse." (Pl.'s Mot. 12:14-19.)
Judge Gallo's Chambers Rules and the September 23, 2013 Case Management Conference ("CMC") Order explicitly require "[a]ll disputes concerning discovery [to] be brought to the attention of the Magistrate Judge no later than thirty (30) days following the date upon which the event giving rise to the discovery dispute occurred." (CMC Order 2:23-25; see also Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 25.) Judge Gallo's Chambers Rules clearly define "the event giving rise to the discovery dispute" for written discovery as "the date of the service of the response." (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 25.) The rules do not define the event giving rise to the discovery dispute as when the parties' meet-and-confer efforts reach an impasse. (See id.)
Defendants served their response to the interrogatories on October 9, 2013, and they served their responses to the RFPs on December 23, 2013. As the magistrate judge noted, only Defendants' initial responses addressed Interrogatory No. 7 and RFP Nos. 11 and 16; Defendants' following responses did not alter the nature of their objection or the dispute at all from their initial responses. Consequently, the date when the parties' meet-and-confer efforts reached an impasse is not relevant to the magistrate judge's calculation of the due dates based on the language of Judge Gallo's Chambers Rules.
The Court cannot conclude that the magistrate judge made any mistake in calculating the applicable deadlines. See Concrete Pipe, 508 U.S. at 623. The Court also cannot identify any failure or misapplication of relevant statutes, case law, or rules of procedure by the magistrate judge. See Cathcart, 2009 WL 1764642, at *2. In fact, the magistrate judge followed the applicable rules to a tee. Therefore, the magistrate judge's calculations of the applicable deadlines and his finding that the Joint Statement was untimely are neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).
B. Good Cause for an Extension of Time
Plaintiff also argues that good cause existed to extend the deadlines for completing discovery and moving for class certification. The magistrate judge unilaterally considered that "allow[ing] [Plaintiff's] requested discovery would require an extension of time for fact discovery to be completed, which in turn, would require extending the date by which the critical Motion for Class Certification must be filed." (March 18, 2014 Order 7:7-15.) The court continued, stating that it was "unwilling to extend any dates set in the Case Management Conference Order." (Id.)
Upon reviewing the Joint Statement, the Court is unable to identify a formal request to extend the deadlines for completing discovery and moving for class certification. (See Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 24.) Rather, Plaintiff presented two reasons why she believed that the Joint Statement was timely: "First, this Joint Statement concerns deficiencies in Defendants' supplemental responses to Interrogatories, which were served on
However, even if this Court considers the merits of whether Plaintiff established good cause, the Court nonetheless concludes that Plaintiff failed to establish good cause for an extension of time. Foremost, given that the parties did not formally make such request for an extension of time, it is difficult to understand how they—but especially Plaintiff—could have justified such a request with good cause.
Even if the Court considers Plaintiff's apparent argument that her diligence justified finding good cause to extend the deadline for completing discovery and moving for class certification, her explanation still does not address the magistrate judge's finding, which this Court agrees with, that the initial response to Interrogatory No. 7 was never changed or supplemented. Similarly, Plaintiff also fails to address the fact that Defendants' response to RFP Nos. 11 and 16 also remained unchanged since the original response. It is an important fact that Defendants' responses remained unchanged throughout the discovery process, particularly in light of Judge Gallo's Chambers Rules that defines "the event giving rise to the discovery dispute" for written discovery as "the date of the service of the response." (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 25.) Defendants' initial responses that remained unchanged are the "events" that gave rise to the discovery disputes.
Lastly, to determine whether the magistrate judge acted properly in not extending the discovery and class-certification-motion deadlines, this Court must consider only what the parties presented to the magistrate judge at the time the request was made. With respect to diligence, the following is the entirety of Plaintiff's explanation from the Joint Statement:
(Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 24 (emphases in original) (footnote omitted).)
In response, Defendants challenged Plaintiff's contention that she proceeded diligently. Defendants emphasized that Plaintiff did not send their meet-and-confer letter until nearly three weeks after they served their interrogatory responses. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 24.) Furthermore, on November 8, 2013—the day the magistrate judge's 30-day discovery-dispute deadline was set to expire—"Plaintiff hurriedly asked Defendants to agree to an extension of time to submit a discovery dispute . . . and consent to a joint motion being filed, which, as a courtesy, Defendants did." (Id.) Defendants further emphasized to the magistrate judge that their supplemental response to the interrogatories and clarification letter addressing the RFPs did not alter in any way the objections regarding Interrogatory No. 7 and RFP Nos. 11 and 16.
From these facts, this Court agrees with the magistrate judge that "[n]either party, but particularly Plaintiff, has explained, let alone justified, the extraordinary delay in bringing these disputes to the Court's attention." (See March 18, 2014 Order 8:7-11.) It is evident that there were delays in the parties' responses, but no explanation of what prompted those delays was presented to the magistrate judge. Merely claiming "diligence" to justify or explain delays is inadequate. To the contrary, the reasonable presumption is that parties proceeding diligently would respond quickly and file their requests with the court in a timely manner. Plaintiff attempts to argue circumstances now that were not presented to the magistrate judge, such as the "year-end holidays" and "counsel's prearranged travel plans," but those additional facts are outside the scope of this review precisely because these newly presented circumstances were not presented to the magistrate judge. Courts are not omniscient. They can only assess the circumstances based on what the parties present. The parties here, particularly Plaintiff, failed to explain their delays and support their request for an extension of time with good cause.
In sum, the Court finds that a challenge to the magistrate judge's refusal to extend deadlines for completing discovery and moving for class certification are not proper for consideration here. But alternatively, the Court nonetheless finds that any request for an extension of the relevant deadlines, insofar as they were properly made, were not supported by good cause. Therefore, the magistrate judge's refusal to extend the relevant deadlines was neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).
C. Applicability of
Finally, Plaintiff argues that the magistrate judge's March 18, 2014 order conflicts with the policy in Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178 (1962), favoring decisions on the merits. In Foman, the Supreme Court stated that
Foman, 371 U.S. at 181-82 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 1; Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 48 (1957)). However, that was in the context of the First Circuit holding that a defect in a notice of appeal rendered it ineffective to review the district court's judgment dismissing the complaint. Id. at 180. The defect in the notice of appeal was that it "failed to specify that the appeal was being taken from that judgment as well from the orders denying the [certain] motions." Id. at 180-81. Foman does not address timeliness of meeting filing deadlines or disputes during discovery.
Plaintiff also cites Eitel v. McCool, 782 F.2d 1470 (9th Cir. 1986), as legal authority in the Ninth Circuit that is consistent with Foman. But that is not entirely accurate. Though the Ninth Circuit does state in Eitel that there is a "strong policy underlying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure favoring decisions on the merits," that policy was merely one factor out of seven that courts were instructed to consider in exercising discretion to enter default judgment. Eitel, 782 F.2d at 1471-72. Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, Eitel strongly suggests that the policy favoring decisions on the merits is not an overriding policy that trumps all or even most others, but rather one that courts should consider in its exercise of discretion in entering judgment. See id. Like Foman, Eitel does not address timeless of meeting filing deadlines or disputes during discovery. Instead, both Foman and Eitel discussed the consideration of issuing decisions on the merits when faced with the possibility of entering judgment against a party. See Foman, 371 U.S. at 181-82; Eitel, 782 F.2d at 1471-72 ("Our starting point is the general rule that default judgments are ordinarily disfavored. Cases should be decided upon their merits whenever reasonably possible.").
The Ninth Circuit took a more measured approach in balancing the policy favoring disposition on the merits against the need for compliance with deadlines and discovery obligations in In re Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Products Liability Litigation, 460 F.3d 1217 (9th Cir. 2006). The court recognized that the "public policy favoring disposition of cases on their merits counsels against dismissal." In re Phenylpropanolamine, 460 F.3d at 1228. However, it continued, explaining:
Id. (citing, among others, In re Eisen, 31 F.3d 1447, 1454 (9th Cir. 1994) (giving weight to the plaintiff's failure to specify why it is important that his action be resolved on their merits); Morris v. Morgan Stanley & Co., 942 F.2d 648, 652 (9th Cir. 1991) (observing that it is the responsibility of the moving party to move toward disposition on the merits)). The Ninth Circuit has also warned:
Wong v. Regents of Univ. of Cal., 410 F.3d 1052, 1060 (9th Cir. 2005).
Upon reviewing the relevant legal authority, this Court rejects Plaintiff's suggestion that the public policy favoring disposition on the merits overrides the policy promoting parties to comply with deadlines and discovery obligations. Furthermore, insofar as the public policy favoring disposition on the merits applies to the circumstances in this case, the Court finds that the magistrate judge's March 18, 2014 order does not conflict with Foman. Therefore, the magistrate judge's March 18, 2014 order was neither clearly erroneous nor contrary to law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A).
IV. CONCLUSION & ORDER
In light of the foregoing, the Court