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Atomanczyk v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

January 24, 2018

AHARON L. ATOMANCZYK, TDCJ #736187, Plaintiff,
v.
TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SIM LAKE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Aharon L. Atomanczyk has filed a First Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief, Damages, and Attorneys' Fees ("Amended Complaint") (Docket Entry No. 21), challenging the conditions of his confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ("TDCJ"). Defendants TDCJ and Executive Director Bryan Collier have filed a Motion for Protective Order from discovery ("Defendants' Motion") (Docket Entry No. 49). Plaintiff has filed a Response in Opposition ("Plaintiff's Response") (Docket Entry No. 50) and Defendants have filed a Reply ("Defendants' Reply") (Docket Entry No. 51) . After considering all of the submissions and the applicable law, the court will grant Defendants' Motion, in part, for the reasons explained below.

         I. Background

         The background and procedural history have been set forth previously and will not be repeated at length.[1] It is sufficient to note that this case concerns Atomanczyk's accommodations and access to religious services as an "Ultra-Orthodox Jewish" inmate, [2]who is "permanently disabled" as the result of multiple sclerosis.[3]Because his disability requires the availability of 24-hour medical care, Atomanczyk was transferred from the Stringfellow Unit, where he had participated in TDCJ's "Enhanced Jewish Services Program."[4]As a participant in that program, Atomanczyk had access to meals prepared in a kosher kitchen as well as other services that were a available at the direction of an ordained Orthodox rabbi.[5]

         Atomanczyk filed this lawsuit after he was transferred from the Stringfellow Unit to another prison facility that did not have a kosher kitchen or afford opportunities similar to those offered by the Enhanced Jewish Services Program.[6] Atomanczyk alleged that TDCJ violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (the "RLUIPA"), the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"), when it assigned him to a unit that accommodated his disability, but effectively excluded him from the Enhanced Jewish Services Program and, in particular, the availability of kosher meals of the sort offered at the Stringfellow Unit.[7] Atomanczyk requested access to kosher food and the Enhanced Jewish Services Program in all TDCJ facilities.[8] Atomanczyk subsequently obtained the assistance of pro bono counsel, who filed an Amended Complaint on his behalf, and added Executive Director Collier as a defendant in his official capacity.[9]

         Defendants now seek a protective order from responding to Plaintiff's Requests for Production Nos. 5 and 6.[10] The disputed requests seek documents from a previous lawsuit against TDCJ where lack of access to kosher meals was an issue:

Request No. 5: All documents and communications concerning any proposals for providing kosher meals to inmates and all documents and communications relating to such proposals arising as a result of the Moussazadeh Action.
Request: No. 6: All documents and communications concerning any settlement or potential settlement of the Moussazadeh Action.[11]

         Defendants seek protection from responding to these requests because they seek "a significant amount of privileged information" as well as "communications regarding a different lawsuit with substantially different facts and different relief sought."[12]

         Defendants also request a protective order that would extend the deadline for responding to Plaintiff s Interrogatory Requests Nos. 2 through 8 until 45 days from the close of discovery, [13] which is currently scheduled to occur on June 29, 2018, [14] or some other date deemed acceptable by the court.[15] The disputed interrogatories are as follows:

Request No. 2: Identify all facts that support your contention that Plaintiff is not a qualified individual with a disability entitled to participate in the Enhanced Jewish Services Program.
Request No. 3: Identify all facts that support your contention that denying Plaintiff access to the Basic Jewish Services Program at his current Hughes Unit location does not substantially burden his free exercise of religion.
Request No. 4: Identify all facts that support your contention that denying Plaintiff access to the Enhanced Jewish Services Program does not substantially burden his free exercise of religion.
Request No. 5: Identify all facts that support your contention that you are taking the least restrictive means in imposing a burden on Plaintiff s free exercise of religion.
Request No. 6: Identify all facts that support your contention that relocating the Enhanced Jewish Services Program is not reasonable.
Request No. 7: Identify all facts that support your contention that housing all inmates who request access to the Enhanced Jewish Services Program at either Ramsey I, Ramsey II, or Ramsey III and providing qualified inmates, including inmates with a medical disability, with the benefits of the Enhanced Jewish Services Program, is not reasonable.
Request No. 8: Identify all facts that support your contention that you are not required to provide Plaintiff with access to the Enhanced Jewish Program, including, but not limited to, nutritionally sufficient kosher meals.[16]

         Arguing that they do not yet know "all facts" that support their "legal contentions" in this case, Defendants seek a delay in responding to these interrogatories "until this evidence is further developed. "[17]

         II. Standard of Review

         Unless limited by a court order, the scope of permissible discovery in a civil action is outlined in Rule 26(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, is as follows:

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(b) (1) . "A discovery request is relevant when the request seeks admissible evidence or is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Crosby v. Louisiana Health Serv. Indem. Co., 647 F.3d 258, 262 (5th Cir. 2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). District courts have broad discretion when deciding whether to limit discovery that is not relevant or proportional to the needs of a case. See id. at 261. In that respect, "Rule 26(b) has never been a license to engage in an unwieldy, burdensome, and speculative fishing expedition." Crosby, 647 F.3d at 264 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Rule 26(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs Defendants' Motion, authorizes a district court to issue, "for good cause shown, " an order to protect "a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense" where discovery is concerned. See Landry v. Air Line Pilots Ass'n, 901 F.2d 404, 435 (5th Cir. 1990). Under Rule 26(c)(1), a protective order may impose one or more of the following conditions that limit discovery by - -

(A) forbidding the disclosure or discovery;
(B) specifying the terms, including time and place or the allocation of expenses, for the disclosure or discovery;
(C) prescribing a discovery method other than the one selected by the party seeking discovery; [and/or]
(D) forbidding inquiry into certain matters, or limiting the scope of disclosure or discovery to certain matters . . .

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 (c) (1) (A) - (D) . The burden is on the party resisting discovery to show cause that a protective order is necessary by making "a particular and specific demonstration of fact as distinguished from stereotyped and conclusory statements." In re Terra Int'l, 134 F.3d 302, 306 (5th Cir. 1998). To meet that burden, the party resisting discovery must "show specifically how . . . each [request] is not relevant or how each question is overly broad, burdensome, or oppressive." McLeod, Alexander, Powell &Apffe ...


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