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Sommerfield v. City of Chicago

March 3, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall


Plaintiff Detlef Sommerfield brought this suit against the City of Chicago (the "City") in 2006 alleging that he was subject to discrimination, harassment and retaliation while he was an officer working in the Chicago Police Department (the "CPD") because he is Jewish. The case has since proceeded on a tortuous path, the precise turns of which the court need not recount to resolve the instant objection to Magistrate Judge Cole's twenty-seven page memorandum opinion and order (the "Order") (Doc. No. 321) denying Sommerfield's "Motion for Ruling on Plaintiff's Motion to Compel the Defendant to Produce and answer Discovery Regarding Similarly Situated Employees" (the "Motion to Compel"), (Doc. No. 287).


Since April 2007 Sommerfield has sought discovery "of every complaint of discrimination by anyone in the Chicago Police Department and every suspension of any employee of the Chicago Police Department" over a seven-year period. Order 18 (emphasis omitted); see Am. Notice of Dep. (Doc. No. 103); see also Order 5 (noting that Judge Cole denied Sommerfield's motion to compel the production of another form of this overbroad discovery on August 9, 2007 after a three-hour hearing). Rather than compel the City to produce discovery which Judge Cole accurately characterized as "oceanic" in scope, Order 20, Judge Cole granted Sommerfield more limited discovery tailored to the legal standard in Title VII employment discrimination and retaliation cases, which permits a plaintiff to establish a prima facie case by the so-called indirect method. See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 801-02 (1973). A plaintiff proceeding indirectly on a disparate treatment claim must show, inter alia, that similarly situated persons not in the protected class were treated more favorably than the plaintiff; in retaliation claims similarly situated individuals who did not engage in statutorily protected activity must be shown to have been treated more favorably. See Amrhein v. Health Care Serv. Corp., 546 F.3d 854 (7th Cir. 2008); Fane v. Locke Reynolds, LLP, 480 F.3d 534, 538 (7th Cir. 2007). Sommerfield maintains that Judge Cole improperly restricted the scope of discovery based on an erroneous understanding of what constitutes a similarly situated employee under Title VII.

While the core of Sommerfield's objection is clear enough, its posture is convoluted. The Order which the court is tasked to review denied the Motion to Compel, which was filed on November 26, 2008, but the underlying dispute dates at least to October 4, 2007, when Judge Cole held a three-hour conference during which he granted in part and denied in part the City's Motion for Protective Order Quashing Plaintiff's Rule 30(b)(6) Depositions (Doc. No. 90). After the conference Judge Cole ordered Sommerfield "to file a brief on the question of what constitutes similarly situated persons and [discussing Sommerfield's] entitlement to the kind of information in the 30(b)(6) notice which is attached as exhibit 10 to the City's motion for protective order." Oct. 4, 2007 Order (Doc. No. 101). Sommerfield filed his brief, to which he appended an amended 30(b)(6) deposition notice (Doc. No. 103) which appears to differ from the deposition notice on which Judge Cole ordered briefing, but still seeks department-wide discovery (e.g., "testimony about all persons in the Chicago Police Department who were suspended from 1 January 2000 until the present), something Judge Cole had prohibited in various prior rulings. See Order 8-13. After the briefs were filed, Judge Cole resolved a number of similar (and similarly contentious) discovery disputes, many of which Sommerfield objected to. See Order 10-15.

A year after the City filed its response brief on the issue of similarly situated persons, Sommerfield filed the Motion to Compel contending that there had been no ruling on discovery related to "how the defendant treated similarly situated employees." Reply 4 (Doc. No. 305). While the Order states that Judge Filip's October 19, 2007 order overruling Sommerfield's objection to another order ((Doc. No. 63) granting in part and denying in part a motion to compel) mooted the issue of similarly situated persons, see Order 9, it nonetheless explains why Judge Cole denied the Motion to Compel, and is therefore the proper subject of an objection under Rule 72. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a).


Where a magistrate judge has decided a nondispositive pretrial matter, such as a discovery motion, "[t]he district judge in the case must consider timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); accord 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). "The clear error standard means that the district court can overturn the magistrate judge's ruling only if the district court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made." Weeks v. Samsung Heavy Indus. Co., 126 F.3d 926, 943 (7th Cir. 1997). Because magistrate judges are afforded broad discretion in the resolution of discovery disputes, several courts have concluded that Rule 72 requires the district court to employ an abuse of discretion standard of review. See, e.g., Botta v. Barnhart, 475 F. Supp. 2d 174, 185 (E.D.N.Y. 2007) (noting that "[a] party seeking to overturn a discovery order... bears a heavy burden" because "reversal is appropriate only if [the magistrate's] discretion [to resolve discovery disputes] is abused"); Murphy v. Gardner, 413 F. Supp. 2d 1156, 1162 (D. Colo. 2006) (stating that Rule 72(a) objections "will be overruled unless the Court finds that the Magistrate Judge abused his discretion"); Adams v. Ardcor Div. of Am. Roll Tooling, Inc., 196 F.R.D. 345, 347 (E.D. Wis. 2000) (concluding that the plaintiff had failed to show the magistrate judge had "abused her discretion by not entering a protective order").


Sommerfield takes issue with nearly every statement or characterization in the Order, but the court reviews the Order for clear error only and the bulk of Sommerfield's protestations that the Order is "unfair" or "erroneous" fail even to provide a legal basis from which the court might conclude that the finding or representation Sommerfield complains of was contrary to law. To the extent these complaints may be viewed as objections under Rule 72 they are overruled. See, e.g., Obj. 8 (Doc. No. 322) (citing transcript of Judge Cole's probing investigation of the parties' arguments regarding discovery of similarly situated employees -- where he reserved ruling and ordered briefs on the issue -- as support for the argument that the Order is "erroneous and unfair"). The court turns now to Sommerfield's proper objections.

As far as the court can discern, Sommerfield contends that Magistrate Judge Cole clearly erred by (1) preventing him from taking discovery of "centralized disciplinarians" because Magistrate Judge Cole "lacked any evidence... that each district has different decision-makers instead of centralized disciplining," Obj. 8, and (2) "overly restricting," id., discovery of similarly situated employees.

A. Centralized Discipline

Sommerfield contends that he is entitled to department-wide discovery because "centralized disciplinarians" decide what punishment is meted out to police officers across the entire CPD. See Obj. 8, 10. Judge Cole rejected this argument as a basis for granting Sommerfield the broad discovery he sought against the City because Sommerfield made the assertions without any support -- legal, evidentiary, or otherwise. Sommerfield now contends that this ruling was clear error because his brief on the issue did in fact provide support for his position. See Obj. 10 (citing prior brief, Obj. Ex. 3, at 10, 13, 15). But a review of that brief reveals that Judge Cole's characterization was precisely correct: ...

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