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Joseph W. Buechel v. United States of America

March 20, 2012

JOSEPH W. BUECHEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: J. Phil Gilbert U. S. District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This matter comes before the Court on the Report and Recommendation ("Report") (Doc. 116) of Magistrate Judge Philip M. Frazier recommending that the Court deny the defendant United States of America's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 90) and on the defendant's appeal (Doc. 123) of Magistrate Judge Frazier's order granting plaintiff Joseph W. Buechel's motion to strike three affidavits offered in support of the summary judgment motion (Doc. 115). The Court also considers the United States' motion for leave to amend its answer (Doc. 124).

This action stemmed from Buechel's diagnosis of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ("MRSA") after being housed at the Federal Correctional Institute at Greenville, Illinois ("Greenville"). In his complaint, Buechel believes the defendant was negligent in its biohazard safety practices at Greenville (Count 1). He believes those practices allowed inmate Joe Hansen, who had been diagnosed with a staph infection, to return to his job with Buechel and pass him tools that Buechel believes were contaminated with a staph virus. He believes that his exposure to the staph virus on the tools caused him to contract MRSA. The Court has dismissed Buechel's medical malpractice claim (Count 2) based on his diagnosis and treatment, but his negligence claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") remains. The United States has moved for summary judgment on that claim.

I. Appeal of Order Striking Affidavits

In conjunction with issuing the Report, Magistrate Judge Frazier granted Buechel's motion to strike the affidavits of (1) Melvin A. Barbee, a Bureau of Prisons' ("BOP") safety and occupational health manager for the BOP's north-central region, the geographical area covering the prison in which Buechel was incarcerated at the relevant time, (2) Dr. Paul Harvey, the BOP medical director for the north-central region, and (3) Mary K. Hueter, the records office supervisor at Greenville, which the United States offered in support of its motion for summary judgment (Doc. 93). Magistrate Judge Frazier found that, since these witnesses were not disclosed in the United States' initial disclosures pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26, they could not be used as evidence in support of summary judgment unless the failure to disclose them was substantially justified or harmless. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1). Magistrate Judge Frazier found the United States had not shown the failure to disclose these witnesses was harmless in light of the fact that their testimony was not commonly known or tangential to the relevant facts and Buechel had no meaningful opportunity to conduct discovery on these witnesses before the discovery deadline (Doc. 115).

The United States appeals (Doc. 123) Magistrate Judge Frazier's order, arguing that Rule 26 did not require initial disclosure of the three undisclosed witnesses because they did not have any personal knowledge of Buechel's specific situation and were giving testimony about general BOP policies and interpretation of BOP documents previously provided to Buechel. The United States believed they where not therefore "likely to have discoverable information." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(1)(A)(i). It argues that the disclosure standard used by Magistrate Judge Frazier would require disclosure of every employee with knowledge of BOP practices, an impracticable or impossible requirement. It further argues the sanction imposed by Magistrate Judge Frazier was overly harsh and that he should have instead allowed the plaintiff to conduct the additional discovery he needed.

In response to the United States' objection (Doc. 126), Buechel argues that the failure to disclose the three witnesses was clearly not harmless in light of the fact that their testimony comprises a substantial part of the evidentiary support for the summary judgment motion. He also points out that, although the United States claims the undisclosed witnesses do not have personal knowledge of Buechel's situation, they offer testimony about issues relevant to Buechel's specific situation. He further notes that Rule 26(a)(1)(A)(i) does not require disclosure of every person likely to have discoverable knowledge but only those a party may use to support his claim. Buechel also argues the affidavits should have been stricken for reasons not given in the Report.

A district court reviewing a magistrate judge's decision on nondispositive issues should only modify or set aside that decision if it is clearly erroneous or contrary to law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). Accordingly, the Court may affirm Magistrate Judge Frazier's decision unless his factual findings are clearly erroneous or his legal conclusions are contrary to law. Id. The Court may also sua sponte reconsider any matter determined by a magistrate judge. Schur v. L.A. Weight Loss Ctrs., Inc., 577 F.3d 752, 760 (7th Cir. 2009).

Magistrate Judge Frazier's decision to strike the affidavits of the three undisclosed witnesses was not clearly erroneous or contrary to law. Rule 26(a)(1)(A)(i) requires disclosure of witnesses with discoverable information that a party may use to support its case. The United States has used the witnesses to support its case, and they have given testimony relevant to Buechel's claims. Thus, Rule 26(a)(1)(A)(i) requires disclosure. Furthermore, the United States has failed to show Buechel has not been harmed by the non-disclosure. Because the witnesses were not disclosed, Buechel was unable to conduct discovery about their testimony and was unprepared to counter certain aspects of the United States' summary judgment motion. Finally, the Court will not sua sponte reconsider this matter. However, in the interest of resolving cases on the merits rather than on technical issues and pursuant to its authority under Rule 37(c)(1)(A) and (C), the Court would entertain a motion by the United States for leave to supplement its disclosures out of time and a motion by Buechel to reopen discovery at the defendant's expense as to the three witnesses so that they may be used as witnesses at trial.

For these reasons, the Court will affirm Magistrate Judge Frazier's order (Doc. 115) granting Buechel's motion to strike (Doc. 93) and will overrule the United States' objection to that order (Doc. 123).

II. Report and Recommendation

In the Report, Magistrate Judge Frazier makes a number of discrete recommendations underlying his final recommendation to deny summary judgment:

* Reject as premature the United States' assertion that it is entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that Buechel failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before filing suit. The United States has not pled the failure to exhaust as an affirmative defense in its answer;

* Reject the United States' suggestion that allegations regarding the restrictions on Hansen in light of his medical condition should be stricken from consideration of the remaining negligence claim;

* Reject the United States' contention that there is no evidence from which a reasonable jury could find Buechel contracted MRSA from Hansen through their work contact. The testimony of Robert B. Greifinger, M.D., Buechel's expert witness, is sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact and is not without sufficient foundation or patently incredible; and

* Reject as premature the United States' assertion that it is entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that the discretionary function exception to the FTCA's waiver of sovereign immunity deprives the Court of jurisdiction. The United States has not pled the ...


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