Monday, April 4, 2016

General Rules of Discovery Reviewed by Judge Nealon of Lackawanna County

In his recent March 7, 2016 discovery decision in the case of Brink v. Mallik, No. 2013-CV-1314 (C.P. Lacka. Co. March 7, 2016 Nealon, J.), Judge Terrence R. Nealon addressed discovery issues in a wrongful death action alleging psychiatric malpractice that allegedly resulted in the suicide of the Plaintiff’s decedent while he was a patient in the Behavioral Health Unit at a hospital.  

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County
Although this case involves a medical malpractice action, the discovery rulings issued by Judge Nealon in this detailed Opinion could apply generally in any civil litigation matter.  

At issue in this case was the discoverability of two (2) letters authored by an employee of the Defendant hospital and a separate “Notice of Determination” issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, office of Unemployment Compensation Benefits with respect to that employee.   This matter came before Judge Nealon on an appeal from a decision by the discovery master (Henry Burke, Esquire) in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas.  

In his decision, Judge Nealon provided a detailed analysis of the general rules for discovery applicable to any civil litigation matter.  

The issue arose when the Plaintiff filed a Motion to Compel personnel files of employees at Marian Community Hospital.  Following an in camera review of the pertinent personnel files, the discovery master concluded that certain materials were discoverable and other documents were “protected by the peer review privilege.”  

Among the record that the discovery master found discoverable included an employee’s letter of resignation from employment and an additional letter from the employee, as well as the “Notice of Determination” from Department of Labor and Industry.   According the Opinion, the letters authored by the employee related, in  part, to her difficulties with working with a particular per diem co-worker in the Behavior Health Unit along with other issues.   The Notice of Determination document pertained to that employee’s recovery of benefits under the unemployment compensation law.  

The hospital contended that these documents were not relevant, and therefore, no discoverable to the underlying issues presented in the case.   More specifically, the hospital maintained that the documents at issue did not suggest in any way that the employee’s health impeded her ability to perform her job.   The hospital argued that the request for these documents were simply a fishing expedition aimed at obtaining confidential information from a former hospital employee in the hopes that the documents may contain information useful to the Plaintiff’s case.  

In response, Plaintiff noted the involvement of the employee with the initial intake and assessment to the decedent shortly before the subject incident.   The Plaintiff also noted that, immediately following the incident, the hospital was subjected to an unannounced Complaint investigation conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and that the employee at issue resigned within a month of that investigation.   In the alternative, the Plaintiff also asserted that the records may reveal that the employee was suffering from a physical or mental illness that impeded her ability to provide proper care and that the documents may also disclose what knowledge the hospital had regarding that alleged condition.  

Judge Nealon reviewed the issues under the general rules of civil procedure pertaining to discovery found at 4003.1 et. seq.   The court noted the important principle that the relevant standard applicable to “[t]he relevant standard applicable to discovery is broader and more flexible than the relevant standard used at trial for the admission of evidence.”   See Op. at 7 [citations omitted].

Judge Nealon also noted that, under Pa. R.C.P. 4012(a), the trial court was granted broad authority to direct the terms and conditions of allowable discovery.   Judge Nealon utilized this rule to order the parties to conduct additional discovery with respect to issues related to the documents in question and to come back before the court at a later time with that discovery to assist the court in rendering its overall decision as to whether or these documents would prove to be discoverable under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure.    

A copy of this Opinion can be viewed at this LINK.

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