Plaintiff’s Flooding Lawsuit Goes Down the Drain Because Of Discovery Violations


The case is captioned Justice v. Cabot Oil and Gas, 17-cv-2986 S.D. West Virginia. One of the plaintiffs, James Grimes alleged that Cabot Oil caused flooding on his property by failing to “reasonably divert water from its natural course.” According to Grimes, this caused damage to his property.

After Grimes failed to participate in discovery, Cabot Oil moved to dismiss as a sanction under Rule 37. The court granted the motion. The explanation:

Cabot summarizes in the motion the relevant and undisputed facts that led to the pending motion’s filing. (ECF No. 60 at 1-2.) In short, since Grimes filed his Complaint on April 13, 2017, he has failed to respond to Cabot’s written discovery requests, failed to submit to a deposition, failed to respond to Cabot’s motion to compel, failed to comply with Magistrate Judge Tinsley’s discovery order, and has otherwise failed to participate in this litigation at all. (See id.) It is apparent that Rule 37 sanctions are appropriate in this situation.

First, Grimes has acted in bad faith by blatantly disregarding this litigation since he filed the Complaint well over fifteen months ago. Grimes never responded to initial discovery requests, and his counsel similarly refused to respond to multiple correspondence from Cabot’s counsel inquiring as to the whereabouts of his responses. (See id.) While the failure to participate in initial discovery could be rectified through later involvement, bad faith became even more apparent here through Grimes’ noncompliance with a very specific discovery order entered by Magistrate Judge Tinsley. Cabot suggests that Grimes “moved away . . . since at least January 25, 2018,” (id. at 4), but the discovery order was entered on December 18, 2017, (ECF No. 17). That order was electronically transmitted to Grimes’ counsel upon entry, so Grimes clearly had notice of the court order with which he still has not complied. Simply put, Grimes’ actions—or lack thereof—since the litigation’s commencement serve as a distinct example of bad faith.

Second, the Court agrees with Cabot that it has suffered prejudice because of Grimes’ misconduct. As Cabot notes, Grimes has “deprived Cabot of any knowledge regarding [his] claims,” (ECF No. 60 at 4), and with summary judgment motions due on August 2, 2018, Cabot has been unable to develop any evidence to rebut those claims. Grimes supposedly no longer owns the property that he claims was flooded. (Id.) Thus, Cabot’s experts have been unable to examine the alleged damage suffered. (Id. (“Likewise, counsel for Mr. Grimes did not take Cabot’s experts to the location where the mobile home was previously located and, accordingly, Cabot’s experts do not even know the location of the alleged flooding.”).) The ability to inspect the property and develop expert opinions related to the cause of the supposed damage is essential to Cabot’s defense. In short, the inability to defend itself due to Grimes’ noncompliance with Magistrate Judge Tinsley’s order indicates that Cabot has already suffered great prejudice.

Third, “stalling and ignoring the direct orders of the court with impunity . . . must obviously be deterred.” Mut. Fed. Savs. & Loan Ass’n, 872 F.2d at 93. This applies not only to future litigants who will appear before this Court but also to those who are involved in the instant action. Cabot filed a motion to compel against all Plaintiffs in this matter after almost two months passed from the date when Cabot served its initial discovery requests. (See ECF Nos. 12, 13, 14.) It took Magistrate Judge Tinsley’s order for the other Plaintiffs in this case to respond to those requests. (See ECF No. 20.) While the Court is unaware of additional misconduct by those Plaintiffs, they should be aware of the consequences that may arise from noncompliance with this Court’s orders.

Lastly, no less drastic sanctions than dismissal will be effective in this situation. Cabot has been left with no information regarding Grimes’ claims, and the dispositive motions deadline is looming. Grimes has shown no interest in participating in this action or even communicating with his attorney even though his counsel has not moved to withdraw representation. There is no indication before the Court that Grimes has any intention of obeying Magistrate Judge Tinsley’s order in the future or further pursuing his claims against Cabot. Accordingly, Grimes forfeited his right to prosecute this case, and dismissal of his claims appears to be the only appropriate sanction under Rule 37.

Comment: the plaintiff must participate in the litigation. If the plaintiff does not comply with discovery, plaintiff essentially forfeits the lawsuit.

Ed Clinton, Jr.

 

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