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GMS Mine Repair and Maintenance, Inc. v. Miklos

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 6, 2017

GMS MINE REPAIR AND MAINTENANCE, INC., Defendant Below, Petitioner
v.
JEFFREY S. MIKLOS, Plaintiff Below, Respondent

          Submitted: January 2');">2');">2');">24, 2');">2');">2');">2017

         Petition for Writ of Prohibition WRIT GRANTED AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS

          Avrum Levicoff, Esq. Sunshine R. Fellows, Esq. The Levicoff Law Firm, P.C. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Counsel for Petitioner

          Jonathan R. Marshall, Esq. Patricia M. Kipnis, Esq. Sandra Henson Kinney, Esq. Bailey & Glasser, LLP Charleston, West Virginia

          Jason E. Causey, Esq. Bordas & Bordas, PLLC Wheeling, West Virginia

          Rodney A. Smith, Esq. Todd S. Bailess, Esq. Bailess Smith, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for Respondents

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "A writ of prohibition is available to correct a clear legal error resulting from a trial court's substantial abuse of its discretion in regard to discovery orders." Syl. Pt. 1, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Stephens, 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">2');">188 W.Va. 62');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">2, 2');">2');">2');">25 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 577');">42');">2');">2');">25 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 577 (1992');">2');">2');">2).

         2');">2');">2');">2. "Rule 16(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure [1998] requires active judicial management of a case, and mandates that a trial court 'shall . . . enter a scheduling order' establishing time frames for the joinder of parties, the amendment of pleadings, the completion of discovery, the filing of dispositive motions, and generally guiding the parties toward a prompt, fair and cost-effective resolution of the case." Syl. Pt. 2');">2');">2');">2, Caruso v. Pearce, 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">23 W.Va. 544');">2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">23 W.Va. 544, 2');">2');">2');">2d 50');">678 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 50 (2');">2');">2');">2009).

         3. Where the interests of judicial efficiency and economy warrant, a circuit court may defer ruling on class certification under Rule 2');">2');">2');">23(c)(1) of West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure until a motion for summary judgment directed to the purported class representative's claim is decided.

         4. When a circuit court elects to defer ruling on the issue of class certification pending its decision on a motion for summary judgment, class discovery should be stayed until such time as the circuit court decides the motion, unless the non-moving party has demonstrated that significant prejudice will result from a discovery stay. Whether a party has demonstrated significant prejudice will necessarily require the circuit court to consider the procedural posture of the case and fairness to the parties in conjunction with the objective of advancing the goal of a "just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action." See W.Va. R. Civ. P. 1.

          LOUGHRY, Chief Justice:

         The petitioner (defendant below), GMS Mine Repair and Maintenance, Inc., appeals the circuit court's interlocutory order entered on March 3, 2');">2');">2');">2016, through which it denied the petitioner's motion to stay class discovery. Assigning error in the circuit court's ruling, the petitioner asserts that the stay was sought to promote effective case management procedures and thereby achieve a just, speedy, and inexpensive resolution of this putative class action. Although the petitioner invites this Court to extend the collateral order doctrine to interlocutory discovery orders that implicate case management, we decline to do so. Instead, we choose to consider this matter as a petition for a writ of prohibition.[1] Upon our careful review of the parties' briefs, the arguments of counsel, the appendix record submitted, and the applicable law, we grant the writ and remand this action to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         On June 9, 2');">2');">2');">2015, the respondent (plaintiff below), Jeffrey S. Miklos, filed a putative class action alleging the petitioner had failed to pay him and other similarly situated employees their final wages within the time period mandated by the West Virginia Wage Payment and Collection Act, West Virginia Code §§ 2');">2');">2');">21-5-1 to -18 (2');">2');">2');">2013 & Supp. 2');">2');">2');">2016) (the "Act"). Specifically, the respondent alleged the petitioner terminated his employment on February 9, 2');">2');">2');">2015, and then failed to pay his final wages within four business days of his termination from employment as required under the Act.[2');">2');">2');">2" name="FN2');">2');">2');">2" id="FN2');">2');">2');">2">2');">2');">2');">2]

         On June 17, 2');">2');">2');">2015, the respondent served his summons and complaint upon the petitioner. Having received an extension of time by which to answer the complaint, the petitioner filed its answer on August 19, 2');">2');">2');">2015.

         Along with the summons and complaint, the respondent simultaneously served the petitioner with interrogatories and requests for production of documents. These discovery requests were directed not only to the respondent's individual wage claim, but also to the scope and membership of the purported class, seeking the identification of all the petitioner's employees in West Virginia who were discharged within the last five years. For each discharged employee, the respondent sought information concerning the last day worked, the date the employee was informed of his/her termination, the official termination date, the gross amount of wages paid upon termination of the employment, an itemized description of the wages paid, and the manner in which the wages were paid. The respondent further sought records evidencing the date of discharge for such employees, including copies of letters and memoranda regarding the employees' discharge, notices, write-ups, e-mails, documentation regarding final paychecks, and the last known home address and telephone number for each discharged employee.

         The petitioner did not respond to the discovery requests within the prescribed time period under the rules of civil procedure. There were communications, however, between the parties' attorneys concerning discovery. The petitioner's counsel suggested that it would be a better use of the parties' resources and energy to defer class discovery[3] pending the development and resolution of a threshold legal issue of statutory construction that could be dispositive of the respondent's wage claim.[4] The respondent's counsel disagreed and rejected the petitioner counsel's proposal. Thereafter, on December 18, 2');">2');">2');">2015, the petitioner answered the respondent's discovery requests directed to his individual claim but objected to the class discovery as being overly broad, unduly burdensome, [5] and premature.

         On December 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">2, 2');">2');">2');">2015, the petitioner filed a motion to stay class discovery, requesting that such broad and possibly needless discovery be deferred pending the circuit court's ruling on the central legal question, which the petitioner intended to raise in a motion for summary judgment.[6] The petitioner argued that "with only a small amount of further development, " the evidentiary record will show that the respondent received his final wages in accordance with the Act, at which point his claim fails and he would not be a proper class representative. Arguing further, the petitioner stated:

[It] should not be required to engage in overly burdensome, disruptive and expensive class discovery until Plaintiff first makes a prima facie showing that he himself has a viable claim. Defendant therefore respectfully requests that this Court use its inherent authority to regulate the course of discovery to minimize any unfair burden. Doing so will allow for an orderly progression of the case, and will not prejudice any parties or unnecessarily delay this action.

         On February 2');">2');">2');">29, 2');">2');">2');">2016, the respondent filed a response in opposition to the motion for a stay.[7] The respondent argued that the petitioner had waived its objections by failing to either timely answer the discovery or request an extension of time to answer; that even if the objections had not been waived, they were meritless; and that, in any event, discovery should not be stayed to allow the petitioner to file a dispositive motion.

         The circuit court held a hearing on the motion and subsequently entered an order on March 3, 2');">2');">2');">2016, denying the request to stay class discovery. The circuit court simply found, as the respondent had argued, that the petitioner had waived its objections to class discovery, as they were untimely raised, and had further failed to meet its burden of demonstrating why such discovery should not proceed. Relying upon Love v. Georgia-Pacific Corporation, 2');">2');">2');">214 W.Va. 484');">2');">2');">2');">214 W.Va. 484, 590 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 677 (2');">2');">2');">2003), and Gulus v. Infocision Management Corporation, 2');">2');">2');">215 W.Va. 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">25');">2');">2');">2');">215 W.Va. 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">25, 2');">2');">2');">2d 648');">599 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 648 (2');">2');">2');">2004), [8] the circuit court found that class discovery is appropriate when there is factual uncertainty. It is from these rulings that the petitioner seeks relief.

         II. Standard of Review

         The petitioner seeks our review of the circuit court's interlocutory order under the collateral order doctrine.[9] While the petitioner describes the issue as one of case management, the circuit court's order is a discovery ruling through which it denied a request to stay discovery on the grounds of timeliness and waiver. Although we decline to extend the collateral order doctrine to interlocutory discovery rulings as the petitioner requested, there is an alternative mechanism for obtaining review. In State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Stephens, 2');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">2');">188 W.Va. 62');">2');">2');">22');">2');">2');">2, 2');">2');">2');">25 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 577');">42');">2');">2');">25 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 577 (1992');">2');">2');">2), we held that "[a] writ of prohibition is available to correct a clear legal error resulting from a trial court's substantial abuse of its discretion in regard to discovery orders." Id., at 62');">2');">2');">24, 42');">2');">2');">25 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d at 579, syl. pt. 1; see also accord State ex rel. Potomac Trucking and Excavating, Inc. v. Courrier, No. 16-0183, 2');">2');">2');">2016 WL 585192');">2');">2');">25 (W.Va. Oct. 6, 2');">2');">2');">2016) (memorandum decision) (issuing writ of prohibition where circuit court acted outside scope of discovery rule by ordering defendant's employee to participate in accident recreation); State ex rel. Erickson v. Hill, 2');">2');">2');">20');">191 W.Va. 32');">2');">2');">20, 2');">2');">2');">2d 503');">445 S.E.2');">2');">2');">2d 503 (1994) (issuing writ of prohibition because circuit court had abused its discretion in ordering Ms. Erickson to respond to burdensome and oppressive discovery). Accordingly, we elect to entertain this matter under our original jurisdiction in prohibition and review the circuit court's ruling under an abuse of discretion standard.

         III. Discussion

         The petitioner's assignment of error involves issues of case management and whether a threshold legal issue should be resolved prior to conducting class discovery. We consider these matters in turn below.

         A. Case Management

         Through its motion to stay class discovery, the petitioner identified a potentially dispositive issue of statutory construction related to the respondent's individual claim. The petitioner argues that the circuit court erred by ignoring this legal issue; by ruling that its objections to class discovery were waived as untimely asserted; and by summarily rejecting its request for a stay. Maintaining that the circuit court's failure to recognize the case management implications and the protective nature of its request for a stay is particularly onerous, the petitioner notes that the court had failed to implement any of the case management procedures provided under the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Specifically, the petitioner points to the absence of any scheduling order or scheduling conference under Rule 16, or a case management conference or discovery conference under Rules 2');">2');">2');">26(f). Asserting that the need for efficient management of discovery is especially critical in putative class actions, the petitioner argues that in the absence of either a properly-conducted case management and/or discovery conference or entry of a scheduling order, the circuit court's refusal to defer class discovery pending a determination of a "narrow and fundamental dispositive legal issue in this litigation" constitutes an abuse of discretion.

         The respondent counters that the circuit court correctly denied the petitioner's motion for a stay on the basis that any objections to class discovery had been waived by the petitioner's untimely assertion of such challenges. The respondent observes that the sequence of discovery and whether discovery should be stayed is within a trial court's discretion.

         In this Court's opinion, we are compelled to conclude that the circuit court's waiver ruling[10] and finding that the petitioner had no excuse for not timely responding to discovery were exceptionally harsh where the parties' counsel had endeavored, albeit unsuccessfully, to resolve the timing of class discovery; the petitioner soon thereafter fully answered the discovery directed to the respondent's individual claim and filed its motion for a stay of class discovery; the respondent had not moved to compel discovery responses prior to the petitioner moving for a stay; and the respondent did not move to compel until two months after the petitioner filed its motion.[11] Further, although the lack of case management was identified in the petitioner's motion for a stay, the circuit court did not undertake to fulfill its role in that regard, prompting the petitioner to file a motion on April 5, 2');">2');">2');">2016, seeking a Rule 16 scheduling conference and a Rule 2');">2');">2');">26(f) discovery conference.

         When presented with these circumstances, the circuit court should have ruled upon the merits of the petitioner's motion with particular consideration to its management of this putative class action, including whether class discovery should be stayed pending resolution of the threshold legal issue that had been identified. Rather than addressing the significant concerns raised in the petitioner's motion related to the timing of class discovery, the circuit court simply deemed the petitioner's discovery objections waived. Critically, whether the petitioner's objections were waived as untimely does not resolve the issue of whether such discovery should be stayed until such time as the circuit court rules on the dispositive legal issue that had been identified by the petitioner. Certainly, "Rule 2');">2');">2');">26(c)(2');">2');">2');">2) may be used to stay discovery pending the outcome of a dispositive motion or other matter." Cleckley, et al., Litigation Handbook, § 2');">2');">2');">26(c)(2');">2');">2');">2)[2');">2');">2');">2], p. 750. Here, the circuit court's discovery ruling exacerbated the impact of its failure to hold a discovery conference under Rule 2');">2');">2');">26(f); enter an order establishing a plan and schedule for discovery; set limitations on discovery, if any; or determine such other matters necessary for the proper management of discovery in the action. W.Va. R. Civ. P. 2');">2');">2');">26(f).

         In addition, the circuit court also failed to employ the case management tools provided under Rule 16:

In any action, the court may in its discretion direct the attorneys for the parties and any unrepresented parties to appear before it for a conference or conferences ...

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