Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, Inc. v. Zaragoza-Gomez, No. 3:2015cv03018 - Document 95 (D.P.R. 2016)

Court Description: OPINION AND ORDER re 93 Supplemental Motion filed by Melba Acosta-Febo, 81 MOTION to Compel GDB President to Produce Documents and Information filed by Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, Inc., 90 Motion In Compliance with Order in Docket No. 88 filed by Melba Acosta-Febo. Notice of Compliance Deadline due by 1/21/2016, 3:00 P.M. Signed by Judge Jose A. Fuste on 1/21/2016.(mrj)
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Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, Inc. v. Zaragoza-Gomez Doc. 95 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO 1 2 3 4 WAL-MART PUERTO RICO, INC. Plaintiff, Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) v. JUAN C. ZARAGOZA-GOMEZ, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Treasury of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Defendant. 5 6 OPINION AND ORDER 7 On the morning of January 20, 2016, plaintiff Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, Inc. (“Wal- 8 Mart PR”) moved the court to compel third-party Melba Acosta-Febo (“Acosta”), current 9 President of the Government Development Bank for Puerto Rico (“the GDB”), to comply 10 with the subpoena dated January 11, 2016, by producing all reasonably available material 11 responsive to Topic Ten of the subpoena. (ECF No. 81.) The court ordered Acosta to 12 respond to the motion by 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, more than six and one-half hours after 13 the motion was filed. (ECF No. 85.) The court also ordered her to file, under seal, the 14 contested discovery for in camera review. (ECF No. 88.) Acosta has responded in 15 opposition to the motion and delivered the discovery for court review. (ECF Nos. 90, 92, 16 93.) The court appreciates the alacrity of the parties, which has allowed us to promptly 17 read the filings, review the discovery in camera, and dispose of the motion. 18 In Topic Ten of the subpoena, Wal-Mart PR requests from the GDB “[t]he results 19 of the most recent examination of the GDB’s financial condition by the Commissioner of 20 Financial Institutions of Puerto Rico (the ‘Commissioner’),” including “the most recent Dockets.Justia.com Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -2- 1 report or examination results that the GDB has received from the Commissioner” and the 2 “GDB’s communications to and from the Commissioner, since September 1, 2015, 3 relating to the Commissioner’s examination of the GDB.” (ECF No. 81-1 at 7.) By a 4 letter dated January 14, 2016, Acosta objected to the subpoena. (ECF No. 81-2.) She 5 specifically declined to produce material in response to Topic Ten on multiple grounds, 6 including that the topic “seeks information that is protected from disclosure by the 7 executive privilege, the deliberative process privilege, or other applicable rules, doctrines, 8 privileges or immunities or protections from discovery (whether based upon statute or 9 common law).” (ECF No. 81-2 at 14.) In her opposition to the present motion, Acosta 10 clarifies the basis of her objection, arguing that “[t]he limited documents being withheld 11 are protected from disclosure by the bank examiner’s privilege, by [the] deliberate 12 process privilege, and by privileges under Puerto Rican law.” (ECF No. 92 at 4.) 13 Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), “[p]arties may obtain discovery 14 regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party’s claim or defense and 15 proportional to the needs of the case.” 1 And, under Federal Rule of Evidence 501, 16 federal common law, as interpreted in the light of reason and experience, governs all 17 claims of privilege in a federal-question case unless federal constitutional or statutory 18 law, or a rule prescribed by the United States Supreme Court, provides otherwise. Fed. 19 R. Evid. 501; see also Fashion House, Inc. v. K Mart Corp., 892 F.2d 1076, 1095 n.11 20 (1st Cir. 1989). In general, the burden is on the party asserting a privilege “to ‘establish 1 The court finds that the challenged subpoena request complies with the court-ordered discovery plan and the relevance and proportionality requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1). Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -3- 1 the existence and applicability of the privilege . . . [using] sufficient information to allow 2 the court to rule intelligently on the privilege claim.” In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 802 3 F.3d 57, 65 (1st Cir. 2015) (alterations in original) (quoting Marx v. Kelly, Hart & 4 Hallman, P.C., 929 F.2d 8, 12 (1st Cir. 1991)). 2 “If the privilege is established, the 5 burden shifts to the opposing party to show that an exception defeats the privilege.” 6 United States v. Breton, 740 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2014) (citing Victor Corp. v. Vigilant Ins. 7 Co., 674 F.3d 1, 17 (1st Cir. 2012)). The court granted the request of both Wal-Mart PR 8 and Acosta to conduct in camera review of the contested discovery to determine whether 9 the asserted privileges and their exceptions apply. (See ECF Nos. 81 at 9; 84 at 4; 88.) 10 The federal “courts have long recognized that the report of a bank examiner is 11 protected by a qualified privilege.” In re Subpoena Served upon the Comptroller of the 12 Currency, 967 F.2d 630, 633 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (“In re Subpoena”) (citing Bank of Am. 13 Nat’l Tr. & Sav. Ass’n v. Douglas, 105 F.3d 100, 104-06 (D.C. Cir. 1939)). However, 14 the First Circuit Court of Appeals appears to have not yet interpreted the privilege, and so 15 we must rely on the decisional law of other circuits instead. “First and foremost, the bank 2 In her opposition to the motion to compel discovery, Acosta repeatedly asserts that because we denied her leave to file a redacted opposition, she has “limited” her opposition “to general statements and descriptions of the withheld documents that are not intended to waive the privilege.” (ECF Nos. 92 at 2 n.1; 92-1 at 2 n.1.) Our decision clearly did not necessitate her own. After all, Acosta could (and should) have provided the court and Wal-Mart PR with a Vaughn index that listed the parts of the “documents that [she] wants to shield from disclosure . . . accompanied by a statement of justification for [each] nondisclosure.” See New Hampshire Right to Life v. United States Dep’t of HHS, 778 F.3d 43, 48 n.3 (1st Cir. 2015) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 1693 (9th ed. 2009)); see also Church of Scientology Int’l v. United States DOJ, 30 F.3d 224, 228 (1st Cir. 1994); Ball v. Bd. of Governors of the Fed. Reserve Sys., 87 F. Supp. 3d 33, 48 (D.D.C. 2015) (affirming the Federal Reserve’s nondisclosure of documents under the deliberate-process privilege based on a review of their Vaughn index and filed declarations). Vaughn indices are a well-known method of allowing a party to sufficiently assert a privilege without waiving it by means of disclosure. See Vaughn v. Rosen, 484 F.2d 820, 826-28 (D.C. Cir. 1973). The discovery at issue here adds up to a stack of only one-quarter of an inch of letter-size paper, and an index could have easily been compiled. Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -4- 1 examination privilege is a qualified rather than absolute privilege which accords agency 2 opinions and recommendations and banks’ responses thereto protection from disclosure.” 3 In re Bankers Trust Co., 61 F.3d 465, 471 (6th Cir. 1995) (citing Schreiber v. Soc’y for 4 Sav. Bankcorp, Inc., 11 F.3d 217, 220 (D.C. Cir. 1993)). “Purely factual material falls 5 outside the privilege, and if relevant, must be produced.” Id. (citing In re Subpoena, 967 6 F.2d at 634). “[A] district court owes no deference to the [examining agency] in ruling 7 on whether the documents are covered by the bank-examination privilege.” Houston Bus. 8 Journal v. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, 86 F.3d 1208, 1212 (D.C. Cir. 9 1996) (citing Schreiber, 11 F.3d at 220-21). 10 Even when the privilege is found to apply, it “may be overridden . . . if good cause 11 is shown.” In re Bankers Trust Co., 61 F.3d at 471. To determine good cause, “the court 12 must balance the ‘competing interests’ of the party seeking the documents (which may 13 vary from case to case) and those of the [examiner] (which will tend to be a constant, 14 reflecting long-term institutional concerns).” Schreiber, 11 F.3d at 220 (quoting In re 15 Subpoena, 967 F.3d at 634). “At a minimum the court “must consider: ‘(i) the relevance 16 of the evidence sought to be protected; (ii) the availability of other evidence; (iii) the 17 seriousness of the litigation and the issues involved; (iv) the role of the government in the 18 litigation; and (v) the possibility of future timidity by government employees who will be 19 forced to recognize that their secrets are violable.” Id. at 220-21 (internal quotes omitted) 20 (quoting In re Subpoena, 967 F.3d at 634). A paradigmatic example of good cause is 21 “when the public’s interest in effective government would be furthered by disclosure.” In Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -5- 1 re Subpoena, 967 F.2d at 634 (quoting In re Franklin Nat’l Bank Sec. Litig., 478 F. Supp. 2 577, 582 (E.D.N.Y. 1979)). 3 Based on our in camera review of the contested discovery, the court finds that the 4 documents largely consist of factual analysis, i.e., a mix of privileged and unprivileged 5 material. Thus, the court will proceed to evaluate the documents under the multi-factor 6 balancing test set forth above. Acosta alleges that her interest in nondisclosure stems 7 from the need to “ensur[e] full and honest exchanges of information between and among 8 government regulators” and to prevent “future timidity and chilling effects on . . . open 9 and honest dialogue between the GDB and its examiners and regulator.” (ECF No. 92 at 10 2-3.) In turn, Wal-Mart PR alleges that their interest in disclosure stems from the need to 11 prove “the key issue of whether this Court has jurisdiction over this case under the Butler 12 Act” because “[t]he GDB is the lender of last resort for the Commonwealth’s agencies, 13 including the Treasury Department,” and thus the GDB’s solvency “go[es] to the heart of 14 the Commonwealth’s fiscal circumstances” and whether the Commonwealth’s tax-refund 15 action provides an adequate remedy. (ECF No. 81 at 6.) These competing interests 16 clearly warrant serious consideration. 17 On the topic of relevance, Wal-Mart PR argues that the challenged discovery is 18 “critical to understand[ing] what, if any, ultimate protection there would be for [their] 19 recovery of overpayment of taxes.” (ECF No. 81 at 6.) It is uncontested that “[t]he GDB 20 is the lender of last resort for . . . the Treasury Department.” (ECF No. 81 at 6.) And, the 21 discovery focuses on the Commissioner’s examination into “the conditions and resources 22 of the [GDB].” 7 L.P.R.A. § 151(g)(1); see also ECF No. 92 at 1. The Commonwealth Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -6- 1 has already declared that it “is facing the most serious fiscal crisis in its history” and that 2 its agencies “risk becoming insolvent.” Franklin Cal. Tax-Free Trust v. Puerto Rico, 805 3 F.3d 322, 324 (1st Cir. 2015). For us to deny to Wal-Mart PR access to this court, the 4 Butler Act, 48 U.S.C. § 872, “requires” the Commonwealth “to provide [them] with a 5 swift and certain remedy when they resist tax collections” on federal-law grounds. Hibbs 6 v. Winn, 542 U.S. 88, 108 n.10 (2004). Any “uncertainty concerning a State’s remedy 7 may make it less than ‘plain’” under the Butler Act, thereby “lift[ing] the bar to federal- 8 court jurisdiction.” Rosewell v. La Salle Nat’l Bank, 450 U.S. 503, 516-17 (1981) 9 (quoting Tully v. Griffin, Inc., 429 U.S. 68, 76 (1976); then citing Twp. of Hillsborough v. 10 Cromwell, 326 U.S. 620, 625-26 (1946)). A “supposed remedy at law” is not “‘certain’ 11 or ‘complete’” if the insolvency of the party against whom judgment is sought effectively 12 renders that party judgment-proof. 13 Irrevocable Tr., 718 F.3d 1, 11 (1st Cir. 2013). That is why the Supreme Court has long 14 held that a state tax-refund action does not constitute a plain, adequate, or complete 15 remedy when the taxing authority is unable “to respond to the judgment.” Matthews v. 16 Rodgers, 284 U.S. 521, 528 (1932) (citing Arkansas Bldg. & Loan Ass’n v. Madden, 175 17 U.S. 269, 274 (1899)). PHL Variable Ins. Co. v. The P. Bowie 2008 18 In response, Acosta simply argues that the challenged discovery is “not relevant” 19 because the Treasury Department, not the Commissioner, makes the final determination 20 about whether the GDB is insolvent. (ECF No. 92 at 8.) That argument is unavailing. 21 The Commissioner has examined the recent “conditions and resources of the [GDB],” 22 which clearly is pertinent to this action. 7 L.P.R.A. § 151(g)(1). Accordingly, the court Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -7- 1 finds that the contested discovery is not only relevant, but central, to Wal-Mart PR’s 2 jurisdictional burden under the Butler Act. 3 On the topic of other evidence, Wal-Mart PR argues that the Commissioner’s 4 examination into “the GDB’s circumstances is sui generis because the Commissioner’s 5 determinations regarding the GDB has profound impacts on whether the GDB can – even 6 if the Treasury is insolvent – serve as a backstop and ensure that Wal-Mart PR can 7 recover sums it pays while it challenges the unconstitutional tax to which it is currently 8 subject.” (ECF No. 81 at 7.) As Acosta acknowledges, the Commissioner’s examination 9 not only “serves to inform [the Treasury’s] regulatory supervision over [the] GDB,” but it 10 also provides the basis for the Treasury’s subsequent “act[s]” vis-à-vis the GDB. (ECF 11 No. 92 at 2, 4.) Moreover, during our in camera review of the contested discovery that 12 Acosta delivered to us, we noted, scattered throughout, hand-written marginal comments 13 suggesting that someone at the GDB firmly disagreed with certain factual determinations 14 about the GDB that the Commissioner’s report had made. This apparent dispute indicates 15 that the discovery contains relevant “facts and information” unavailable in “the thousands 16 of pages of documents already produced by [the] GDB.” (See ECF No. 92 at 8.) Thus, 17 the court finds that the contested discovery is neither fungible, nor duplicative. 18 On the topic of the seriousness of the litigation, the parties appear to concur that 19 “the litigation raises serious issues of importance to the people of the Commonwealth.” 20 (ECF No. 92 at 9.) “The questions presented here are important constitutional questions 21 that have critical effects on the public and implicate a significant sum of money to both 22 Wal-Mart PR and the Commonwealth.” (ECF No. 81 at 7.) The court thoroughly agrees. Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -8- 1 On the topic of the role of the Commonwealth in the litigation, Acosta recognizes 2 “the core involvement of government officials” here. (ECF No. 92 at 9.) As Wal-Mart 3 PR puts it, they are seeking “information about what one Commonwealth entity is saying 4 about a second Commonwealth entity to prove [their] case against a third Commonwealth 5 entity.” (ECF No. 81 at 8.) Here, the Commonwealth has repeatedly asserted that the 6 court does not have subject-matter jurisdiction of the action, arguing that the local tax- 7 refund action provides Wal-Mart PR with a plain, speedy, and efficient remedy for their 8 constitutional and statutory injuries. (See, e.g., ECF Nos. 24 at 8-20; 53; 94 at 1 n.1.) 9 Because these representations need to be tested, the court finds that “the public’s interest 10 in effective government would be furthered by disclosure” about the Commonwealth’s 11 ultimate ability to repay a tax refund of millions of dollars. See In re Subpoena, 967 F.2d 12 at 634 (quoting In re Franklin Nat’l Bank Sec. Litig., 478 F. Supp. at 582). After all, “the 13 real public interest under such circumstances is not the agency’s interest in its 14 administration but the citizen’s interest in due process.” Texaco P.R., Inc. v. Dep’t of 15 Consumer Affairs, 60 F.3d 867, 885 (1st Cir. 1995) (quoting Bank of Dearborn v. Saxon, 16 244 F. Supp. 394, 401-03 (E.D. Mich. 1965)). 17 Finally, on the topic of fomenting government timidity, the court recognizes that 18 the production of the challenged discovery may ruffle some feathers, raise some hackles, 19 and rub some the wrong way, thereby warping the incentives of government agencies as 20 they engage in “the ongoing process of [a financial-oversight] examination.” (ECF 21 No. 92 at 9.) In making this argument, Acosta touches on the fundamental “paradox . . . 22 in the privilege’s rationale,” that “[g]overnment documents are protected from discovery Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -9- 1 so that the public will benefit from more effective government.” In re Franklin Nat’l 2 Bank Sec. Litig., 478 F. Supp. at 582. At the same time, “[g]overnment transparency is 3 critical to maintaining a functional democratic polity, where the people have the 4 information needed to check public corruption, hold government leaders accountable, and 5 elect leaders who will carry out their preferred policies.” Hamdan v. United States DOJ, 6 797 F.3d 759 769-70 (9th Cir. 2015). As just noted, “when the public’s interest in 7 effective government would be furthered by disclosure,” as is the case here, “the 8 justification for the privilege is attenuated.” In re Franklin Nat’l Bank Sec. Litig., 478 F. 9 Supp. at 582. 10 Accordingly, the court finds that all five basic factors of the balancing test weigh 11 in favor of a good-cause disclosure of the contested discovery to Wal-Mart PR. See In re 12 Subpoena, 967 F.3d at 634. The bank-examiner privilege neither justifies, nor excuses, a 13 refusal to comply with the subpoena. Moreover, Acosta conflates the bank-examination 14 privilege and the deliberative-process privilege to the point that the failure of one entails 15 the failure of the other. (See, e.g., ECF No. 92 at 8 (indicating that both privileges rise or 16 fall together under the multi-factor test in In re Subpoena).) But the conflation appears 17 justified because “the bank examination privilege [is] a close cousin of the deliberative 18 process privilege.” In re Subpoena Duces Tecum Served on the Office of the Comptroller 19 of the Currency, 145 F.3d 1422, 1423 (D.C. Cir. 1998). Moreover, insofar as the two 20 privileges differ, First Circuit case law indicates that the bank-examination privilege is 21 the more relevant of the two to Acosta’s claim that the Commissioner’s examination into 22 the financial health of the GDB and related material should not be disclosed. See Texaco Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -10- 1 P.R., 60 F.3d at 884 (limiting the deliberative-process privilege to “confidential inter- 2 agency memoranda on matters of law or policy.”) 3 Next, Acosta maintains that the court should recognize, under In re Hampers, 651 4 F.2d 19 (1st Cir. 1981), the Puerto Rico law “counterpart[s]” to the federal-law privileges 5 that we just discussed. (ECF No. 92 at 11.) Unfortunately, Acosta spends all her time 6 arguing for the applicability of In re Hampers and no time explaining how these state-law 7 counterparts are broader than the federal privileges. Thus, her claim that the contested 8 discovery should not be disclosed under 7 L.P.R.A. § 151(h) and Rule 514 of the Puerto 9 Rico Rules of Evidence of 2009, when they should be under federal law, is waived. “It is 10 a settled rule that ‘issues adverted to in a perfunctory manner, unaccompanied by some 11 effort at developed argumentation, are deemed waived.’” Morgan v. Holder, 634 F.3d 12 53, 60 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Nikijuluw v. Gonzales, 427 F.3d 115, 120 n.3 (1st Cir. 13 2005)). In any event, for the reasons stated above, the court finds that, even under In re 14 Hampers, the court should not recognize these Commonwealth privileges under Federal 15 Rule of Evidence 501 because “the benefit gained for the correct disposal of litigation” 16 from the production of the contested discovery “is greater than . . . the injury that would 17 inure to the relation by the disclosure.” See In re Hampers, 651 F.2d at 23. 18 Finally, the court rejects Acosta’s claim that producing the contested discovery 19 would be “unnecessarily burdensome to . . . [the] GDB.” (ECF No. 92 at 10.) After all, 20 the GDB was able to deliver a paper copy of the discovery to the court approximately two 21 and one-half hours after we had ordered its production for in camera review. (See ECF 22 Nos. 88, 90.) The GDB can presumably do the same for Wal-Mart PR. Civil No. 3:15-CV-03018 (JAF) -11- 1 In sum, the court hereby GRANTS Wal-Mart PR’s motion to compel discovery. 2 (ECF No. 81.) In doing so, the court finds that the now-compelled discovery warrants 3 designation as “classified information” under the terms of the protective order. (ECF 4 No. 49.) The court also finds that the discovery does not warrant redaction because all of 5 the asserted privileges have been overcome for good cause, but also because Acosta’s 6 claims of privilege were all general and unaccompanied by, for example, a Vaughn index 7 setting forth more specific claims. Acosta, the GDB, and defendant are ordered to 8 produce the discovery to Wal-Mart PR by 3:00 p.m. today. 9 10 11 12 13 IT IS SO ORDERED. San Juan, Puerto Rico, this 21st day of January, 2016. S/José Antonio Fusté JOSE ANTONIO FUSTE U. S. DISTRICT JUDGE