Eleventh Circuit Holds District Court Abused Discretion in Denying Deposition of Senior Executive in ADA Case After A Dozen Motions to Compel

In Akridge v. Alfa Mut. Ins. Co., No. 19-10827 (11th Cir June 21, 2021), the Eleventh Circuit vacates summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because the district court refused to compel a deposition of an Executive Vice President of Human Resources.

The plaintiff alleged that defendant Alfa “discriminated against her by terminating her to avoid paying the expensive health insurance costs related to her MS [multiple sclerosis] treatment” in violation of the ADA. “From the outset of discovery, Akridge sought to depose ten Alfa employees, including Scott Forrest, the then-Executive Vice President of Human Resources. Following a series of attempts to depose Forrest, Akridge filed two motions to compel his deposition, which Alfa opposed. The magistrate judge denied both motions.”

On her third motion, defendant argued that “Forrest did not have any relevant information about Akridge’s termination. In an affidavit, Forrest denied consulting with the individuals who did have relevant and necessary information—Underwriting Department supervisors Tommy Coshatt, Beth Chancey, and Robert Plaster—before Akridge’s termination. He further denied having any involvement with the decision.” The judge held that “any information Forrest had was ‘minimally relevant and, even if relevant, compelling his deposition at this time would be disproportional to the needs of the case’” and “that Forrest had not been identified as someone involved in the termination decision.

“In the following six months—from July 2018 to January 2019—Akridge made nine more attempts to compel Forrest’s deposition, all of which were denied.” Eventually, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendant, holding that “that Akridge showed the decisionmakers knew that eliminating her position would eliminate her salary and benefits but that she did not demonstrate that they knew of any employee’s medical costs.”

The Eleventh Circuit vacates summary judgment and reverses the denial of Forrest’s deposition. “[W]e begin our analysis with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) which sets forth the general scope of discovery: ‘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[.]’” The panel observes that because a deposition of Forrest would not have transgressed the “ultimate and necessary boundaries” of discovery, “we find that the district court committed a clear error of judgment when it impermissibly curtailed her access to discoverable information.”

“As the Executive Vice President of Human Resources, the ‘Decision Maker’ for Alfa’s ERISA employee benefit plan, and the ‘Decision’ contact for Alfa’s BlueCross BlueShield insurance plan, we find it difficult to believe that Forrest had no information touching on Akridge’s medical expenses and termination. The roles that Forrest held at Alfa—and the corresponding access to medical insurance information they entail—are relevant and thus sufficient to make his testimony discoverable . . . . And if Forrest truly has no such information, we see no reason why he cannot make himself available for questioning and say as much in a deposition.”

Defendant’s argument that the executive was too busy and important to depose backfired. “Forrest was in a position of authority, the decision maker or decision contact for both of Alfa’s health insurance plans, and a member of the senior management team who made the ultimate decision to reduce costs. We do not doubt that, as an Executive Vice President, Forrest is an individual with a busy work schedule whose time is valued by Alfa . . . . [but] any burden this deposition would pose is outweighed by the benefit of obtaining a full and accurate understanding of the facts in the pursuit of a just result.”

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