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On April 19, 2013, the 5th DCA held in Paul Walker and Brighthouse Networks v. Gary and Jennifer Ruot, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D872A (Fla. 5th DCA April 19, 2013) that a trial Court must hold an in camera inspection of a defendant employee's personnel file before ordering it to be produced through discovery.

Following a motor vehicle accident in which Brighthouse Network's employee, Paul Walker, rear-ended a vehicle occupied by Plaintiffs, Gary and Jennifer Ruot, Plaintiffs served upon Brighthouse a request to produce Mr. Walker's personnel file. Brighthouse objected on the grounds that the personnel file contained irrelevant information and that producing the file would violate Mr. Walker's privacy rights.

At a discovery hearing on Brighthouse's objection, Plaintiffs argued that the personnel file could support their claims for negligent entrustment, negligent hiring and negligent retention. The trial court overruled Brighthouse's objection and ordered the production of the personnel file finding that the file was "clearly relevant." However, the trial court did not conduct an in camera inspection of the file prior to ordering its production.

Upon Petition for Certiorari, the 5th DCA determined that the trial court had departed from the essential requirements of law by ordering production of the personnel file in its entirety without first having conducted an in camera review. The 5th DCA further found that, while Brighthouse lacked standing to assert an objection based upon Mr. Walker's right to privacy, it did have standing to oppose the production of its employee's private information on grounds of relevancy.

In so holding, the 5th DCA recognized that personnel files, by definition, are likely to contain private information. When such privacy rights are at stake, the two considerations at issue are: 1) access to discoverable information and 2) safeguarding of privacy rights. As a result, trial courts must conduct an in camera inspection in order to separate relevant, discoverable documents from irrelevant documents that are not discoverable.




This summary was prepared by Ted Copeland of our firm.


Ted Copeland

 

 

38 Fla. L. Weekly D872a

 

Torts -- Automobile accident -- Discovery -- In action against employer by plaintiffs who had been rear-ended by defendant's employee while he was driving employer's vehicle, trial court departed from essential requirements of law by requiring the production of the employee's entire personnel file without first conducting an in camera review -- Although employer lacked standing to assert employee's privacy rights in his personnel file, it possessed standing to oppose production of private information within the file on the ground that the information was not relevant to the litigation -- Trial court erred in failing to conduct an in camera inspection of personnel file in order to segregate the relevant documents which were discoverable from the irrelevant documents which were not

PAUL B. WALKER and BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS, LLC, Petitioners, v. GARY RUOT and JENNIFER RUOT, Respondents. 5th District. Case No. 5D12-1403. April 19, 2013. Petition for Certiorari Review of Order from the Circuit Court for Seminole County, Alan A. Dickey, Judge. Counsel: Daniel S. Liebowitz and Sarah E. Wade, of Cruser & Mitchell, LLP, and Alan Stagmeier, Jr., of Morgan & Morgan P.A., Orlando, for Petitioner. Nicholas A. Shannin, of Page, Eichenblatt,

Bernbaum & Bennett, P.A., Orlando, for Respondents.

(PALMER, J.) Bright House Networks, LLC, filed a petition seeking certiorari relief from the trial court's discovery order compelling it to produce the personnel file of its former employee, Paul Walker. We grant the petition, concluding that the trial court departed from the essential requirements of law by requiring the production of the entire personnel file without first conducting an in camera review.

Gary and Jennifer Ruot filed an automobile negligence action against Bright House and Walker after the couple sustained injuries when Walker, while driving a Bright House van, rear-ended their vehicle. The Ruots served on Bright House a request to produce Walker's personnel file. Bright House objected on the grounds that the file contained irrelevant information and that production of the entire file would reveal Walker's confidential information and thus violate his privacy rights.

The Ruots filed a motion to compel. At a hearing held on the motion, the Ruots argued that information in Walker's file was discoverable because it might support claims for negligent entrustment, negligent hiring, and/or negligent retention. Further, they argued that the information might aid them in locating Walker to effectuate service of process. Bright House again objected on relevancy grounds, but properly conceded that it lacked standing to assert Walker's privacy rights.

Without conducting an in camera inspection, the trial court entered an order compelling the production of Walker's entire file, holding that the documents in the file were clearly relevant to the subject matter of the lawsuit. This petition timely followed.1

While Bright House lacked standing to assert Walker's privacy rights in his personnel file, it possessed standing to oppose the production of private information within the file on the ground that the information was not relevant to the litigation. Alterra Healthcare Corp. v. Estate of Shelley, 827 So. 2d 936, 945 (Fla. 2002). It is axiomatic that discovery in civil cases must be relevant to the subject matter of the case. See Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.280(b)(1). "In exercising its discretion to prevent injury through abuse of the action or the discovery process within the action, trial courts are guided by the principles of relevancy and practicality." Friedman v. Heart Inst. of Port St. Lucie, Inc., 863 So. 2d 189, 194 (Fla. 2003).

Personnel files undoubtedly contain private information. See, e.g., Alterra, 827 So. 2d at 946 (referencing employees' privacy rights in their personnel files); Regan-Touhy v. Walgreen Co., 526 F.3d 641, 648-49 (10th Cir. 2008) (noting that, while not categorically out of bounds, personnel files contain sensitive personal information, and trial court was not unreasonable to be "cautious about ordering their entire contents disclosed willy-nilly"); Ladson v. Ulltra E. Parking Corp., 164 F.R.D. 376, 377 n.1 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) ("Legitimate privacy concerns exist with regard to personnel files."). Here, Walker was named as a defendant, but he had not been served with the complaint as his whereabouts were unknown, so he lacked the opportunity to personally assert a privacy objection. "This does not necessarily mean, however, that such important nonparty rights should not be considered, or that the right to privacy and the right to know should not be weighed, during the discovery process." Alterra, 827 So. 2d at 944. When privacy rights are implicated, discovery should be narrowly tailored to provide access to discoverable information while safeguarding privacy rights.

It is likely that Walker's personnel file contains information about his compensation, benefits, pension, and the like which would not be relevant to this lawsuit, but would be highly intrusive to Walker's privacy interests if disclosed. In contrast, any information regarding Walker's training, competence, abilities, and disciplinary history may be relevant to the underlying automobile negligence action. The file may also contain discoverable information helpful in locating Walker. As such, the trial court erred in not conducting an in camera inspection of Walker's file in order to segregate the relevant documents which were discoverable from the irrelevant documents which were not. Cf. Alterra, 827 So. 2d at 945-46; Beverly Enters.-Fla, Inc. v. Deutsch, 765 So. 2d 778, 783 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000), disapproved on other grounds, Alterra, 827 So. 2d 936. Accordingly, the trial court departed from the essential requirements of law by ordering Bright House to disclose Walker's entire personnel file without first conducting an in camera inspection.

PETITION GRANTED. (COHEN and BERGER, JJ., concur.)

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1. Certiorari is the appropriate vehicle to review an interlocutory order requiring disclosure of allegedly private information. See Alterra Healthcare Corp. v. Estate of Shelley, 827 So. 2d 936, 945 (Fla. 2002).






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