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Brown v. State

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

March 3, 2017

STEPHANIE N. BROWN PLAINTIFF
v.
STATE OF ARKANSAS, et al . DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          Kristine G. Baker United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is a motion for sanctions, including dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, filed by defendants the State of Arkansas, Arkansas Department of Health, Zenobia Harris, and Vickie Jones (collectively, “ADH defendants”) (Dkt. No. 45). Plaintiff Stephanie Brown has responded to the ADH defendants' motion (Dkt. No. 60). For the following reasons, the motion for sanctions is granted in part (Dkt. No. 45). This is a close decision with which the Court has wrestled. The Court determines that, based on the facts, the Court likely could dismiss with prejudice Ms. Brown's claims without the need to investigate whether a less extreme sanction would suffice. However, at this point, the Court will impose a less extreme sanction in an effort to bring Ms. Brown into compliance with the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, this Court's Local Rules, and this Court's Orders. The Court denies Ms. Brown's motion to appoint counsel, motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and motion to claim and exercise constitutional rights (Dkt. Nos. 58, 59, 64).

         I. Background

         Ms. Brown filed this action on April 24, 2014 (Dkt. No. 1). She was initially represented by Luther Oneal Sutter. In January and February of 2015, Ms. Brown sent letters to the Court regarding disagreements she had with Mr. Sutter's representation of her, and on April 21, 2015, Mr. Sutter moved to withdraw as Ms. Brown's counsel (Dkt. No. 16). The Court granted Mr. Sutter's motion to withdraw and stayed this action until Ms. Brown informed the Court as to how she wished to proceed (Dkt. No. 17). On May 19, 2015, Ms. Brown informed the Court that she wished to proceed pro se (Dkt. No. 21). The Court lifted the stay and informed Ms. Brown that, while she is not a lawyer, she is subject to certain rules and procedures, and she is expected to be familiar with and follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Dkt. No. 22).

         On August 31, 2015, Ralph Washington filed an entry of appearance on behalf of Ms. Brown (Dkt. No. 26). On November 5, 2015, Mr. Washington, on Ms. Brown's behalf, and counsel for the ADH defendants filed a joint motion for extension of deadlines and scheduling order, which the Court granted (Dkt. Nos. 27; 28). The Court received a letter from Ms. Brown dated February 2, 2016, along with a pro se motion for Mr. Washington to be removed as her counsel. In her letter, Ms. Brown informed Mr. Washington that “[i]t is my belief I have completed and submitted the requested interrogatories but you are refusing to accept my answers to the interrogatories.”[1] Ms. Brown's conduct regarding the interrogatories propounded by the ADH defendants is central to the pending motion for sanctions.

         Mr. Washington filed a motion to withdraw as Ms. Brown's counsel on February 5, 2016 (Dkt. No. 30). Mr. Washington also sent the Court a letter dated February 5, 2016, in which he provided the Court with a response that he sent to Ms. Brown in response to her February 2, 2016, letter to him.[2] In his letter to Ms. Brown, Ms. Washington recounted Ms. Brown's apparent unwillingness to sit for a deposition. He also chastised Ms. Brown for refusing to complete discovery requests submitted to her by the ADH defendants in September 2015. According to Mr. Washington, Ms. Brown “never came in to complete the discovery responses, even though [she] promised to do so.” In response to Ms. Brown's accusation regarding his alleged use of an improper tone with her, Mr. Washington wrote, “[i]f anything, my tone demonstrated the importance and/or urgent need for you to complete the answers to the discovery requests, and for you to give me a date for your deposition.”

         Before the Court ruled on Mr. Washington's motion to withdraw, Ms. Brown filed a pro se motion for a protective order, in which she stated that:

On or about January 28, 2016, Plaintiff received notice from Mr. Washington via phone that opposing counsel had initially scheduled Plaintiff for a deposition for February 1, 2016, However Plaintiff communicated to Mr. Washington that wasn't feasible d[ue] to the fact of short notice. On or about February 5, 2016, Plaintiff received Deposition scheduled for February 17, 2016 from Mr. Washington.

         (Dkt. No. 31, at 1). The Court granted Mr. Washington's motion to withdraw and stayed this action for 30 days, until Ms. Brown informed the Court whether she had obtained new counsel or wished to proceed pro se (Dkt. No. 32). The Court granted in part and denied in part Ms. Brown's pro se motion for a protective order (Dkt. No. 33). Specifically, the Court concluded that:

[T]o the extent that Ms. Brown requests that the Court order the parties to reschedule her deposition, her motion is granted. Ms. Brown's deposition will be rescheduled to a date after the stay is lifted. Within 45 days from the date that this Order is entered, the parties must inform the Court as to whether they have reached agreement on a date for Ms. Brown's deposition. If they have not, the Court will schedule the deposition, after hearing argument from the parties.

         (Dkt. No. 33, at 1).

         Ms. Brown informed the Court that she intended to proceed pro se on March 29, 2016 (Dkt. No. 34). On April 1, 2016, the ADH defendants filed a response to the Court's Order granting in part Ms. Brown's motion for a protective order, in which they alleged that Ms. Brown refused to cooperate in scheduling her deposition (Dkt. No. 35). The ADH defendants recounted the same difficulties described by Mr. Washington in his February 5, 2016, letter to the Court. The ADH defendants claimed that their troubles intensified after Mr. Washington's motion to withdraw was granted. According to the ADH defendants, on March 4, 2016, they sent Ms. Brown a letter requesting that she contact them to discuss potential dates for her deposition (Id., ¶ 5). On March 30, a day after informing the Court that she wished to proceed pro se, Ms. Brown sent the ADH defendants a letter declining to discuss possible deposition dates (Id., ¶ 6). After receiving Ms. Brown's letter, counsel for the ADH defendants called and left a message for Ms. Brown to discuss discovery matters and deposition dates (Id., ¶ 7). Ms. Brown did not return counsel's call (Id.). As of the date of filing their pleading, the ADH defendants claimed that they were “unable to confirm a date for Plaintiff's deposition or to communicate with Plaintiff concerning an agreeable deposition date and to confer concerning discovery matters” (Id., ¶ 8).

         After receiving the notice from Ms. Brown and reviewing the information submitted by the ADH defendants regarding their discovery disputes, the Court lifted the stay in this action and directed Ms. Brown to confer with counsel for the ADH defendants to schedule and to sit for a deposition within 30 days (Dkt. No. 36). In response to the Court's Order, Ms. Brown filed a letter she sent to opposing counsel dated April 22, 2016, indicating that she was available for a deposition on May 16, 2016, and requesting that defendants provide her with a copy of the 26(f) Report and “a copy of the interrogatories that Mr. Washington stated that you had prepared to submit to him” (Dkt. No. 37, at 1).

         In the days before Ms. Brown's scheduled deposition, the parties submitted several disputes to the Court. Ms. Brown filed a motion to disqualify opposing counsel and a motion to compel (Dkt. Nos. 39; 40). The Court denied both motions (Dkt. No. 44). Ms. Brown also submitted additional information for the Court to review (Dkt. No. 41). Included in the information submitted by Ms. Brown was a letter Ms. Brown sent to opposing counsel dated April 26, 2016, in which Ms. Brown indicates that the parties agreed to meet and exchange discovery responses on May 6, 2016 (Id., at 2). Also included in Ms. Brown's filing is a letter from Ms. Brown to opposing counsel dated May 6, 2016-the same day that Ms. Brown was supposed to be exchanging her discovery responses with the ADH defendants-in which Ms. Brown voices her “presumption that there is another set of interrogatories out there” from when she was represented by Mr. Sutter (Id., at 4). She indicates that “[t]hese issues need to be resolved before the process of discovery is to continue, giving my right to due process of law” (Id.).

         In response to these filings, on May 12, 2016, the ADH defendants filed a motion to quash subpoenas, motion to compel, and request for order on discovery matters (Dkt. No. 42). According to the ADH defendants' motion, the parties agreed to exchange discovery requests on Friday, May 6, 2016, between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. at the Attorney General's office, which is consistent with the information previously submitted by Ms. Brown. The ADH defendants made the arrangement because Ms. Brown sent correspondence to Katina Hodge, her opposing counsel, indicating that Ms. Brown did not want the documents mailed to her.[3] According to the ADH defendants, in addition to refusing service by mail, Ms. Brown did not accept most phone calls and did not return phone calls. She allegedly communicated with opposing counsel by having multiple unidentified people, including a small child, hand deliver notes to Ms. Hodge at the Attorney General's office. Ms. Brown has never disputed these allegations.

         According to the ADH defendants' motion, Ms. Hodge prepared the ADH defendants' discovery responses and informed Ms. Brown that she should contact Stephanie Benton when she arrived at the Attorney General's office on May 6, as Ms. Hodge would be traveling that day. When Ms. Brown arrived at the Attorney General's office, she requested to see Ms. Hodge, not Ms. Benton. The receptionist told Ms. Brown that Ms. Hodge was out of the office, and as Ms. Brown never asked for Ms. Benton, who was prepared to exchange discovery responses with Ms. Brown, Ms. Brown did not receive the ADH defendants' discovery responses that day. Ms. Brown filed her motion to compel production of these discovery responses, which the Court denied (Dkt. No. 40).

         Ms. Brown did not provide responses to the ADH defendants' discovery requests on May 6, 2016, in violation of the parties' agreement. The ADH defendants moved to compel production of Ms. Brown's discovery responses by Friday, May 13, 2016, so that the information contained in the responses could be reviewed prior to Ms. Brown's deposition, which was scheduled to be held Monday, May 16, 2016. The ADH defendants also moved to quash subpoenas directed to Ms. Hodge as well as separate defendant Vickie Jones. The subpoena to Ms. Jones directed her to appear at a ...


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