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Blankenship v. Brooks Run Mining Co., LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

April 5, 2017




         Pending before the Court are Defendant Brooks Run Mining Company, LLC's (“BRMC”) Objections (ECF No. 115) to Magistrate Judge Tinsley's June 19, 2015 Order (ECF No. 107) granting Plaintiffs' Motions to Compel (ECF Nos. 47, 49, 57). The portion of the Order to which BRMC objects directs Defendants BRMC and Alpha Natural Resources Services, LLC (“Alpha”) to produce evidence of safety audits conducted at the Still Run No. 3 Coal Mine in Wyoming County, West Virginia. For the following reasons, BRMC's Objections are OVERRULED and Magistrate Judge Tinsley's Order is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action stems from an injury Plaintiff Christopher Blankenship suffered on October 20, 2012, while working in the Still Run No. 3 Mine. (ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 15.) Plaintiffs assert that Mr. Blankenship's injury was the result of a rib roll in the mine that caused a rock to strike him. (Id. ¶ 16.) Among other things, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants were aware of support problems in the mine, including dangerous rib conditions, but failed to adequately remedy these issues. (Id. ¶ 38, 42(b).) Plaintiffs filed Motions to Compel on a number of discovery issues on April 3, 2015, but the parties were able to resolve all issues except those relating to the safety audits at the Still Run No. 3 mine. Defendants' Response argues that they should not have to produce documentation from these safety audits, as they were performed pursuant to a Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA) that Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., the parent company of the other five defendants in this action, entered into with the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of West Virginia and the Department of Justice. (ECF No. 59 at 6-8.) Magistrate Judge Tinsley entered his Order on June 19, 2015, granting Plaintiffs' Motions with respect to the issue of the safety audits. Defendant BRMC filed timely objections on July 2, 2015, arguing that the safety audits were inadmissible and non-discoverable under both the terms of the NPA and Federal Rule of Evidence 408. On October 27, 2015, this Court entered an Order (ECF No. 138) staying the action pending the bankruptcy proceedings of the defendants. On November 4, 2016, the Court entered an Order (ECF No. 145) lifting the stay, making Defendant BRMC's Objections ripe for review.


         A. Review of Magistrate Judge's Non-dispositive Orders

         Under this Court's Standing Order pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, all discovery matters are referred to magistrate judges. (ECF No. 2.) Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a), a party objecting to a non-dispositive order of a magistrate judge must file objections within 14 days after being served with a copy of the order. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). The reviewing district court must then review the order and “modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). The Fourth Circuit has explained that under this standard, “findings of fact will be affirmed unless our review of the entire record leaves us with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Harman v. Levin, 772 F.2d 1150, 1153 (4th Cir. 1985). When review of a magistrate judge's order turns on a pure issue of law, the district court's review is “plenary” and ultimately Rule 72(a)'s “contrary to law” standard is effectively the same as de novo review. Felman Prod., Inc. v. Indus. Risk Insurers, No. CIV.A. 3:09-0481, 2010 WL 2944777, at *3 (S.D. W.Va. July 23, 2010) (quoting Powershare, Inc. v. Syntel, Inc., 597 F.3d 10, 15 (1st Cir. 2010)).

         B. Discoverability of Evidence

         The scope of discovery is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), which provides that unless limited by court order:

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.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26. Courts are to interpret the rules of rules of discovery liberally. See Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153, 177 (1979); Hickman v. Taylor, 329 U.S. 495, 501, 507 (1947). In controlling the scope of discovery, “[d]istrict courts enjoy nearly unfettered discretion.” Hinkle v. City of Clarksburg, W.Va., 81 F.3d 416, 426 (4th Cir. 1996).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. The Non-Prosecution Agreement

         Defendant BRMC argues that the terms of the NPA prevent it from having to disclose any documentation related to the safety audits performed pursuant to the agreement. Specifically, ...

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