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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Baystate Medical Center, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 30, 2017




         In this employment discrimination action brought pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, Plaintiff, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), asserts claims on behalf of Stephanie Clarke. The complaint alleges that Ms. Clarke's employment at Baystate Medical Center ("BMC") and Baystate Health Systems ("BHS") (collectively "Defendants") was terminated after she declined Defendants' free influenza vaccination on the grounds of her religious beliefs and claimed she was unable to perform the duties of her job adequately while wearing a mask.

         Before the court is the EEOC's motion to compel answers to Interrogatory Nos. 3, 4, and 5, which were served on Defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 33(a). The EEOC further seeks to compel defendants to produce documents in response to its Rule 34 request numbers 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 38, 39, 40, 41, and 44 (Dkt. No. 40). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(a)(3)(B). Defendants have objected to EEOC's requests on various grounds.

         After a hearing and for the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion to compel is ALLOWED to the extent described herein.

         I. Allegations in the Amended Complaint

         The following brief summary of the allegations in the case is provided as background for the discussion of the parties' discovery disputes. Defendants have maintained an influenza immunization policy that requires "all of Defendants' employees, active physicians, contracted personnel, students, volunteers and vendors [hereinafter collectively "employees" or "personnel"] working at all of Defendants' facilities to receive a flu vaccination annually" (Dkt. No. 10 at ¶ 12(a)). Defendants' policy says that "any employee who declines to be vaccinated, for any reason, is required to wear a mask at all times while working at Defendants' facilities" (id. at ¶ 12(b)). Employees who fail to comply with Defendants' influenza policy are placed on unpaid leave until the individual either complies with the policy or flu season ends (id. at ¶ 12(c)). The employee's job is not protected during the unpaid leave (id.).

         In December 2014, Defendants hired Ms. Clarke as a talent acquisition consultant in BMC's human resources department (id. at ¶ 12(d)). Ms. Clarke did not have patient contact nor did she work in areas of BMC where patients were seen and treated (id. at ¶ 12(e), (f)). Ms. Clarke "is an adherent of the Christian faith" who, since 2007, has believed that "her body is a temple" and, accordingly, has rejected "injections of any kind, as well as drugs and vaccines" (id. at ¶ 12(g)). In November 2015, Ms. Clarke completed a form notifying Defendants that she was declining the influenza vaccine on religious grounds (id. at ¶ 12(i)). Defendants provided her with a mask and instructed her to wear it at all times while working (id.). Ms. Clarke began wearing the mask at work on or about November 2, 2015 (id. at ¶ 12(j)). Because those to whom Ms. Clarke spoke, both in person and over the telephone, complained that they were unable to understand her while she wore the mask, she pulled the mask down and away from her mouth "on several occasions" while she spoke (id.). She wore her mask when she was not speaking (id. at ¶ 12(k). Ms. Clarke notified Defendants of the mask's interference with her ability to communicate effectively (id. at ¶ 12(l)).

         On or about November 19, 2015, Ms. Clarke was suspended without pay and without job protection because her supervisor had observed her not wearing the mask over her nose and mouth (id. at ¶ 12(m)). Ms. Clarke complained about religious discrimination and requested an accommodation to the vaccine policy that would not interfere with her ability to perform her job effectively (id. at ¶ 12(n)). In response to the Senior Vice President of Human Resources' notification that she could not return to work unless she was vaccinated or agreed to wear the mask at all times, Ms. Clarke indicated via e-mail that she declined vaccination and was not able to perform her job adequately while wearing a mask (id. at ¶ 12(o)). On December 4, 2015, Defendants notified Ms. Clarke that they interpreted her message as a resignation effective immediately, and terminated her employment (id. at ¶ 12(p)). Defendants further indicated that she was not eligible for re-hire (id. at ¶ 12(r)).

         The EEOC alleges that Defendants discriminated against Ms. Clarke on the basis of her religion, retaliated against her because of her complaints of religious discrimination, and seeks damages on her behalf (id. at 7). In addition, it seeks equitable relief based on the allegations of religious discrimination and retaliation (id. at 7-8).

         II. Legal Standards for Discovery

         The EEOC seeks to compel Defendants to produce discovery to support its Title VII and Title I claims. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) provides in pertinent part:

Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

         "The party seeking information in discovery over an adversary's objection has the burden of showing its relevance." Caouette v. Officemax, Inc., 352 F.Supp.2d 134, 136 (D.N.H. 2005). "This burden is not onerous." Aronstein v. Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co., Civil Case No. 15-12864-MGM, 2017 WL 2818993, at *2 (D. Mass. June 29, 2017). "Relevance under Rule 26(b) is broadly defined, 'although it is not without "ultimate and necessary boundaries."'" Ogden v. Bumble Bee Foods, LLC, 292 F.R.D. 620, 622 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (quoting Gonzales v. Google, Inc., 234 F.R.D. 674, 680 (N.D. Cal. 2006)); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(2)(C). "Once the possibility of relevance is shown, the burden shifts to the party opposing disclosure to show that the discovery is improper." Aronstein, 2017 WL 2818993, at *2 (citing Diaz-Padilla v. Bristol Myers Squibb Holding Ltd. Liab. Co., Civil No. 04-1003(PG/GAG), 2005 WL 783076, at *2 (D.P.R. Apr. 4, 2005)); see also BPP Retail Props., LLC v. N. Am. Roofing Servs., Inc., 300 F.R.D. 59, 61 (D.P.R. 2014) ("The party resisting discovery has the burden of showing 'specifically how each interrogatory is not relevant or how [the request at issue] is overly broad, burdensome, or oppressive.'") (quoting Vázquez-Fernández v. Cambridge Coll., Inc., 269 F.R.D. 150, 155-56 (D.P.R. 2010)).

         In order to determine what discovery is relevant to the EEOC's claims, it is necessary to understand what it is required to prove. "Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against any employee on the basis of religion." Robinson v. Children's Hosp. Bos., Civil Action No. 14-10263-DJC, 2016 WL 1337255, at *5 (D. Mass. Apr. 5, 2016), appeal dismissed sub nom. Robinson v. Children's Hosp. of Bos., No. 16-1495 (1st Cir. Feb. 23, 2017) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2). For purposes of Title VII, religion includes "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's . . . religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). "'Thus, in general terms, Title VII requires employers . . . to accommodate, within reasonable limits, the bona fide religious beliefs and practices of employees.'" Sánchez-Rodríguez v. A. T. & T. Mobility P.R., Inc., 673 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2012) (quoting E.E.O.C. v. Unión Independiente de la Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados de P.R., 279 F.3d 49, 55 (1st Cir. 2002)). The EEOC advances its employment discrimination claims under three theories based on Ms. Clarke's religious beliefs: (1) disparate treatment; (2) failure to accommodate; and (3) retaliation (Dkt. No. 10 at 7). Though each of these theories of employment discrimination requires proof of different elements, see, e.g., Sánchez-Rodríguez v. AT & T Mobility Puerto Rico, Inc., 673 F.3d 1, 12-13 (1st Cir. 2012); Kosereis v. Rhode Island, 331 F.3d 207, 212-13 (1st Cir. 2003), the "'ultimate touchstone'" of the analysis under all three theories is "whether the employer's actions were improperly motivated by discrimination." Kosereis, 331 F.3d at 213-14 (quoting Fite v. Digital Equip. Corp., 232 F.3d 3, 7 (1st Cir. 2000)).

         III. Analysis

         Defendants have declined to answer Plaintiff's interrogatories and requests to produce documents that seek: (A) so-called comparator information; (B) material concerning Defendants' affirmative defenses; and (C) information concerning Defendants' influenza immunization and teleworking policies. These requests and Defendants' objections thereto will be discussed in turn.

         A. The EEOC's Requests Seeking Comparator Information (Interrogatory Nos. 3, 4, and 5 and Document Request Nos. 38, 39, 40, and 41).

         Because an employer's discriminatory motive or pretext may be proved by evidence demonstrating that a plaintiff "was treated differently from other similarly situated employees, " Kosereis, 331 F.3d at 214, "'[d]iscovery is frequently sought regarding similarly situated employees.'" Moreno Rivera, 272 F.R.D. at 54 (citation omitted). "Courts have generally found such requests valid, so long as the breadth and scope are reasonably related to the party alleging discrimination." Id. at 54-55. See Conward v. Cambridge Sch. Comm., 171 F.3d 12, 20 (1st Cir. 1999) ("[R]easonableness is the touchstone" in determining whether comparative evidence shows that other employees are similarly situated to the plaintiff. The comparison cases need not exactly mirror the plaintiff's case, but the cases must be closely analogous with regard to the relevant facts and circumstances.); Perkins v. Brigham & Women's Hosp., 78 F.3d 747, 751 (1st Cir. 1996) (to offer comparative evidence at trial, the plaintiff must show that "the individuals with whom he seeks to be compared have 'engaged in the same conduct without such differentiating or mitigating circumstances that would distinguish their conduct or the employer's treatment of them for it'") (quoting Mitchell v. Toledo Hosp., 964 F.2d 577, 582 (6th Cir. 1992)).

         When a party seeks to discover information that implicates the privacy concerns of non-parties, "[t]he court, in deciding whether or not to allow discovery of certain information, balances Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1), 'which allows discovery relating to any relevant, non-privileged information, ' and broader discovery upon a showing of 'good cause, ' against the privacy interests of nonparties to the dispute." McEvoy v. Hillsborough Cty., Civ. No. 09-cv-431-SM, 2011 WL 1813014, at *6 (D.N.H. May 5, 2011). See O'Neil v. Q.L.C.R.I., Inc.,750 F.Supp. 551, 556 (D.R.I. 1990). Compare Whittingham v. Amherst Coll.,164 F.R.D. 124, 127-28 (D. Mass. 1995) (denying plaintiff's motion to compel production of personnel files based on plaintiff's ...

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