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Williamson v. Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 13, 2018



          Jerry H. Ritter U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Metropolitan Property and Casualty Company's Motion for Attorneys' Fees and Costs for the Deposition of Plaintiff's Expert Dr. Thomas Grace and Motion Practice Related to the Substitution (Doc. 196), filed March 27, 2018. Having considered the parties' positions and all pertinent authority, the Court will grant the Motion and award fees and costs against Plaintiff's counsel.

         I) BACKGROUND [1]

         Plaintiff Theresa Williamson was rear-ended on April 27, 2012, by a third party. Plaintiff complained of spasms in her right arm and shoulder through her neck, denying that she had ever previously injured her shoulder and neck. After settling with the third party's insurance company for $43, 000.00, she turned to her own insurer, Defendant Metropolitan Property and Casualty Company, claiming underinsured motorist benefits. As part of the claims process, Defendant required Plaintiff to undergo an Independent Medical Examination (“IME”) with Dr. Douglas Slaughter.

         The IME took place on October 18, 2013. Plaintiff reported to Dr. Slaughter that she began experiencing neck and low back pain the day after the collision and that she had no back and neck pain symptoms prior to it. After completing the IME, Dr. Slaughter opined that the collision exacerbated a pre-existing degenerative condition in Plaintiff's cervical and lumbar spine. Dr. Slaughter further opined “that this claimant could undergo further lumbar facet blocks and potential radiofrequency ablation to assist in the pain relief from her degeneration which reportedly she was asymptomatic from prior to the motor vehicle collision. This could also be a reasonable treatment in the cervical spine.” Defendant subsequently paid Plaintiff $10, 000.00 for medical payments pursuant to the MedPay benefits in its policy.

         On July 14, 2015, Plaintiff's counsel sent Defendant a letter notifying it of the settlement of Plaintiff's third-party claim and offering to settle her first-party underinsured motorist claim for $207, 000.00 (the remaining policy limits). Plaintiff based her offer, in part, on Dr. Slaughter's IME report, reasoning that Dr. Slaughter's recommended future medical treatment - cervical facet blocks and lumbar facet blocks - multiplied over Plaintiff's life expectancy, would exceed the underinsured motorist policy limits when coupled with Plaintiff's past medical treatment, which totaled $37, 125.00. Defendant, however, excluded future medical costs from its calculation of Plaintiff's damages. Relying on the fact that it had paid $10, 000.00 in MedPay benefits, and that Plaintiff had received $43, 000.00 from the third party, Defendant offered $1, 000.00 to settle Plaintiff's claim underinsured motorist claim. Plaintiff disputes the reasonableness of the offer and filed suit against Defendant for breach of its insurance duties.[2]

         During discovery, Plaintiff averred that she had no preexisting conditions related to her cervical or lumbar spine. However, Defendant discovered past medical records indicating that Plaintiff had back pain and sciatica on and off for years before the collision. Defendant submitted this additional information to Dr. Slaughter, who authored an affidavit on January 19, 2016. In this affidavit, Dr. Slaughter explained that his original IME was based on information Plaintiff provided; that she reported she had no symptoms in her back or neck prior to the collision; and that his subsequent review of her prior medical records suggests that Plaintiff had a long history of prior back and neck symptoms, dating at least to 2004. Based upon his review of this additional information, Dr. Slaughter now believes that Plaintiff does not need any further treatment as a result of the collision.

         Plaintiff hired an expert, Dr. Brian M. Shelley, to rebut Dr. Slaughter's affidavit. In his expert report, Dr. Shelley opined that there was no evidence that Plaintiff had continuous severe back pain and/or sciatica right before the collision; the records indicate that her baseline pattern was intermittent with the pain generally responsive to treatment. That pattern, Dr. Shelley stated, contrasts with the more severe and continuous back pain and right lower extremity symptoms after the collision for which more intensive treatment and pain management techniques were recommended.

         Meanwhile, litigation proceeded. The Court held a Rule 16 Scheduling Conference on December 17, 2015, and issued a Scheduling Order the following day. See Docs. 22 (Clerk's Minutes), 23 (Scheduling Order). Pursuant to that Order, Plaintiff's Rule 26(a)(2) expert disclosures were due by February 29, 2016. Doc. 23 at 2. After several delays, the parties completed expert discovery in June 2016. See Doc. 93 (Order on Discovery Motions) at 2. The parties filed and briefed several dispositive motions over the course of 2015-2016, which were ultimately resolved by June 2017. See Docs. 141, 142. Thereafter, on August 22, 2017, then-presiding District Judge Herrera set this case for trial in February 2018. See Doc. 143. Pertinent to the instant Motion, Judge Herrera's pretrial deadlines require the disclosure of expert reports in accordance with Rule 26(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (90 days prior to trial). Doc. 143-1 at 2; Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(a)(2)(D).

         Ultimately, Plaintiff filed an Emergency Motion to replace Dr. Shelley with Dr. Thomas Grace as her expert witness on November 15, 2017. Doc. 145. Plaintiff's Emergency Motion was premised on the fact that Dr. Shelley would no longer participate in this litigation based on “his personal animosity towards Plaintiff's counsel”. Id. at 2. After briefing was complete, Judge Herrera held a hearing on Plaintiff's Emergency Motion on January 9, 2018. See Doc. 156 (Clerk's Minutes). At the hearing, Plaintiff reiterated that Dr. Shelley “refuses to participate in any way with this litigation.” Doc. 172 (Transcript of Hearing) at 9. Ultimately, Judge Herrera reserved ruling on Plaintiff's Emergency Motion. Doc. 156 at 1. She did so in order to determine the prejudice to Defendant in light of the fact that this case was set for trial behind a criminal matter. Id. at 2. She indicated that if this case were to go to trial as scheduled then Plaintiff's Emergency Motion would likely be denied; however, if the trial were continued, the same level of prejudice would not exist and the Emergency Motion would likely be granted. Id. Pertinent here, Judge Herrera noted that “there are other ways to address the expense incurred by [Defendant].” Id.; see also Doc. 172 at 44.

         Judge Herrera's criminal trial proceeded, and trial in this case was continued on February 5, 2018. See Docs. 183, 184. On February 28, 2018, Judge Herrera entered her Memorandum Opinion and Order granting Plaintiff's Emergency Motion. Doc. 194. Because Plaintiff had already disclosed Dr. Grace's CV and expert report, Judge Herrera found that any prejudice to Defendant could be cured by deposing Dr. Grace. Id. at 2. Moreover, based on testimony at the hearing, Judge Herrera found no bad faith on Plaintiff's part, and was “reluctant to permit Plaintiff herself to suffer repercussions of any lapse in judgment of her counsel, particularly where prejudice to Defendant is minimal and can be cured in ways less drastic than exclusion of Plaintiff's evidence.” Id. Subsequently, Defendant filed the instant Motion, seeking its costs and attorney's fees incurred “in the course of securing Dr. Grace's deposition and in litigating Plaintiff's substitution of experts.” Doc. 196. Soon thereafter, the case was reassigned to the undersigned to “conduct all proceedings in this case including trial, the entry of final judgment, and all post-trial proceedings.” Doc. 199.

         Defendant's Motion relies on Rules 16(f) and 37(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Doc. 196 at 1. It argues that sanctions are warranted under Rule 37(c)(1)(A) because Plaintiff's expert disclosure violated Rule 26(a)(2)(D)(i), which requires expert witness disclosures at least 90 days prior to trial. Id. at 6. Additionally, Defendant argues that sanctions are required under Rule 16(f) because Plaintiff's late expert disclosure violated the Court's Scheduling Order and caused it to incur unwarranted expenses in litigating Plaintiff's Emergency Motion and deposing Dr. Grace. Id. at 10. Defendant argues that Plaintiff's late substitution is not “substantially justified” so as to preclude sanctions under Rule 16(f) in this case because Plaintiff's “sexually harassing telephone language with Dr. Shelley's administrative assistant” is what caused him to refuse to testify on Plaintiff's behalf. See Id. at 13-14.[3] As relief, Defendant “respectfully requests this Court to award costs and fees incurred in the litigation of Plaintiff's Emergency Motion, in preparing for and taking the deposition of Dr. Thomas Grace, and the motion practice pertaining to Plaintiff's current and former expert, and for such other relief as this Court deems just and proper.” Id. at 15-16.

         Plaintiff responds with four arguments. See Doc. 197. First, Plaintiff argues that Defendant's incurred costs and attorney's fees are “self-inflicted wounds, ” because Defendant has since withdrawn Dr. Slaughter as a witness, thereby negating the need for Dr. Grace's rebuttal testimony. Id. at 4 (“Had Plaintiff known that Defendant was no longer calling Dr. Slaughter as a witness, Plaintiff would not have had to incur the enormous expense of retaining another orthopedic surgeon to refute the anticipated testimony of Dr. Slaughter.”); see also Doc. 214 (Pretrial Order). Second, Plaintiff argues that, now that Defendant is no longer calling Dr. Slaughter, Dr. Grace's testimony is now “minor, and therefore the burden on Defendant is inconsequential.” Doc. 197 at 5. Plaintiff attempts to demonstrate this point by pointing to a mere four questions she now intends to ask Dr. Grace at trial. Id. at 6-7. Third, Plaintiff argues that “Defendant insists on personally attacking Plaintiff's counsel without justification.” Id. at 8. Plaintiff then attempts to explain that her counsel's statements to Dr. Shelley's administrative assistant were mere jokes, not warranting Defendant's accusations of sexual harassment. Id. at 8-9. Plaintiff explains that

Contrary to this scornful accusation of sexual harassment, here is what Mr. Mescall said to Dr. Shelley's administrative assistant: (1) In the first conversation, Dr. Shelley's administrative assistant was telling Mr. Mescall about her upcoming vacation to a beach on a tropical island, and Mr. Mescall jokingly said, “Don't send me any photos.” (2) In a subsequent ...

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