Tanner v. BD LaPlace, LLC
In this disability discrimination lawsuit, the court considered whether information about the plaintiff’s mental health fell within the allowable scope of discovery. It concluded that the plaintiff’s medical and financial records were relevant and proportional to his claims.
The plaintiff, Paul Tanner, previously worked for BD LaPlace, LLC, an industrial steel manufacturer. At some point, his co-workers began to complain of his “erratic workplace behavior” in his role as a crane operator. Those complaints included reports of Tanner “talking to himself, openly questioning whether he was seeing things, … and discussing aloud workplace shootings.”
BD LaPlace “required Tanner to submit to a mandatory fitness for duty evaluation” including a mental health assessment. Tanner refused. Concluding that he “had abandoned his job,” BD LaPlace terminated Tanner’s employment. The Social Security Administration later designated Tanner as disabled.
Tanner sued BD LaPlace under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In his lawsuit, he sought damages for lost wages and $100,000 for emotional distress.
During discovery, BD LaPlace requested Tanner’s medical records as well as information relating to his disability designation and benefits. Tanner refused to provide information or access to his medical records. Complicating matters, Tanner’s first two attorneys withdrew, and BD LaPlace had been unable to contact his new counsel regarding discovery.
BD LaPlace therefore moved to compel discovery. The magistrate judge granted the motion, ordering Tanner to produce 10 years of medical records and several years of financial records. In its order, it noted that Tanner “clearly placed at issue” his mental health. His suit also raised the question of “whether he was qualified to perform the essential functions” of his previous employment.
Tanner appealed the magistrate’s order to the district court. There, he argued that these records were simply not relevant. He claimed that BD LaPlace violated the ADA by demanding that he complete an examination regarding a perceived disability. Yet he argued — “quite mistakenly,” the court noted — that whether he actually had a disability was irrelevant. Tanner further stated that his financial records were “irrelevant to the issue of damages,” notwithstanding his claims for lost wages.
BD LaPlace countered that Tanner’s “medical history is relevant to determining [whether] he was qualified for the job.” This qualification is a central element of any ADA disability discrimination claim. BD LaPlace also argued that Tanner’s financial documents were relevant to an accurate determination of damages.
The court began its analysis with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), which sets forth the allowable scope of discovery. Under the rule, any nonprivileged matter relevant to any party’s claim and proportional to the needs of the case is discoverable. While medical records are generally privileged, that privilege “may be waived when the patient has placed his mental condition at issue” in a claim.
Courts throughout the Fifth Circuit have consistently held that medical records and disability benefits information are relevant and proportional in alleged ADA violations. Here, the court concluded that Tanner’s records were relevant to an assessment of his qualification for his previous job. His financial records were also “obviously relevant” to any determination of damages.
Further, Tanner waived any potential privilege regarding these records by bringing his claim and seeking emotional distress damages.
The district court affirmed the magistrate’s order, granting BD LaPlace’s motion to compel discovery.
Takeaways on Evaluating the Scope of Likely Discovery
It’s generally true that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In legal disputes, that means you shouldn’t start something unless you’re prepared to go through with it. Here, Tanner wanted to benefit from the protections of the ADA without sharing any of the details of his own health. That strategy obviously didn’t work for him, just as it won’t work in most cases. When faced with a potential legal matter, evaluate the information that would support — or contradict — that claim. If you’re set against sharing any of that information, think long and hard about whether you should initiate the claim.