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Grissom v. Illinois Central Railroad Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

October 7, 2014

MICHAEL GRISSOM, Plaintiff,
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD CO., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the objection of Defendant Illinois Central Railroad Company ("ICRR" or "the Railroad"). (Docket No. 71.) ICRR objects to a discovery order entered by the Magistrate Judge on August 13, 2014. (Docket No. 68.) The lawsuit arises out of an alleged accident that occurred on May 1, 2012, in ICRR's Fulton, Kentucky rail yard. Grissom alleges that as he crossed the end of a railcar, the hand brake wheel he was holding detached from the car, causing him to fall to the ground and injure his back.

The challenged order concerns, in relevant part, the transcript of an interview of ICRR Trainmaster Jeremy Brown conducted by ICRR Risk Mitigation Officer Charles Baker shortly after the alleged incident.[1] The Magistrate ordered ICRR to produce the transcript, characterizing it as a "railroad accident report." (Docket No. 68 at 9-10.) The Magistrate concluded that production was appropriate because the transcript was either generated in the "normal course of business" or Grissom had "substantial need" for it. (Docket No. 68 at 10.) ICRR now argues that the Magistrate's ruling in this regard was both contrary to applicable law and clearly erroneous.

Standard of Review

This matter was referred to the Magistrate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636, which Congress enacted to relieve the burden of the federal courts by permitting assignment of certain duties to magistrate judges. Gomez v. United States, 490.U.S. 858, 869-70 (1989) (reviewing the legislative history of § 636). Section 636(b) identifies the powers that may be assigned to magistrates by the district court. It also sets forth the applicable standard of review for objections to the ruling of a magistrate on such assigned matters. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) ("A judge of the court may reconsider any pretrial matter under subparagraph (A) [relating to nondispositive orders] where it has been shown that the magistrate's order is clearly erroneous or contrary to law."). In United States v. Curtis, the Sixth Circuit explained:

Thus, §636 creates two different standards of review for district courts when a magistrate court's finding is challenged in district court. A district court shall apply a "clearly erroneous or contrary to law" standard of review for the "nondispositive, preliminary measures of § 636(b)(1)(A)." United States v. Raddataz, 447 U.S. 447, 673 (1980). Conversely, "dispositive motions" accepted from § 636(b)(1)(A), such as motions for summary judgment or for the suppression of evidence, are governed by the de novo standard. Id. at 674.

237 F.3d 598, 603 (6th Cir. 2001). Rule 72 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "has implemented this statutory provision." Callier v. Gray, 167 F.3d 977, 980 (6th Cir. 1999). The relevant portion of Rule 72 provides in subsection (a) that this Court shall consider objections to a magistrate judge's order on a nondispositive matter and "shall modify or set aside any portion of the magistrate judge's order found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a).

Our circuit holds this standard of review to be a limited one. See Massey v. City of Ferndale, 7 F.3d 506, 509 (6th Cir. 1993) ("When a magistrate judge determines a non-excepted, pending pretrial matter, the district court has the authority to reconsider' the determination, but under a limited standard of review.") (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A)); see generally Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Richard L. Marcus, Federal Practice & Procedure, § 3068 (West 2007) (explaining that Rule 72 implements the legislative mandate of Section 636(b)(1), the provision in the 1976 amendments that clarified and expanded the authority delegable to a magistrate judge in pretrial matters).

Several decisions from courts of this circuit discuss the "clearly erroneous" and the "contrary to law" standard found in § 636(b)(1)(A) and Rule 72(a). In Tri-Star Airlines, Inc. v. Willis Careen Corp. of L.A., our sister district court for the Western District of Tennessee explained:

A judicial finding is deemed to be clearly erroneous when it leaves the reviewing court with "a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Heights Comm. Congress v. Hilltop Realty, Inc., 774 F.2d 135, 140 (6th Cir. 1985). Under the clearly erroneous standard, a court reviewing a magistrate judge's order should not ask whether the finding is the best or the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. Further, this standard does not permit the reviewing court to substitute its own conclusion for that of the magistrate judge. Rather, the clearly erroneous standard only requires the reviewing court to determine if there is any evidence to support the magistrate judge's finding and that the finding was reasonable. Id.

75 F.Supp.2d 835, 839 (W.D. Tenn. 1999); see also In re Search Warrants Issued Aug. 29, 1994, 889 F.Supp. 296, 298 (S.D. Ohio 1995) ("Review under Rule 72(a) provides considerable deference to the determination of the magistrates.' A finding is clearly erroneous only when the reviewing court is left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." (citations omitted)).

A different standard applies when the district court examines the Magistrate Judge's legal conclusions. Such conclusions "are reviewed under the plenary contrary to law' standard." Haworth, Inc. v. Herman Miller, Inc., 162 F.R.D. 289, 291 (W.D. Mich. 1995) (citing Gandee v. Glaser, 785 F.Supp. 684, 686 (citing Adolph Coors Co. v. Wallace, 570 F.Supp. 202, 205) (N.D. Cal. 1983)). Accordingly, a district court must exercise its independent judgment with respect to the legal conclusions of a magistrate judge on review pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(a). Id. (citing Hawkins v. Ohio Bell Tel. Co., 93 F.R.D. 547, 551 (S.D. Ohio 1982), affirmed, 785 F.2d 308 (6th Cir. 1986)); see also In re Nat'l Gas Commodities Litig., 232 F.R.D. 208, 211 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) ("An order may be deemed contrary to law' when it fails to apply or misapplies relevant statutes, case law, or rules of procedure.'" (citing Catskill Dev., LLC v. Park Place Entm't Corp., 206 F.R.D. 78, 86 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)).

Analysis

ICRR grounds its objection upon two arguments. First, it contends that the ruling is contrary to law, as most courts have concluded that interviews conducted by railroad claims agents following an accident are created "in anticipation of litigation" rather than in the normal course of business. See Almaguer v. Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific R.R. Co., 55 F.R.D. 147, 149 (D. Neb. 1972). ICRR further argues that the ruling is clearly erroneous in light of the record: according to ICRR, Grissom provides no evidence or argument demonstrating a substantial need for the transcript at issue. ICRR accordingly argues that to the extent that ...


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