New Case Decision On Witness Contact Information Disclosure In Class Action Litigation

On January 15, 2008, the Court of Appeal in Puerto v. Superior Court (Wild Oats) [PDF] [Word], concluded that an opt-in notice established by the trial court as a process to obtain witnesses' residential contact information "unduly hampered" plaintiffs' in conducting discovery.

In October 2006, Plaintiffs filed suit against Wild Oats alleging they were misclassified as exempt employees, and are seeking recovery for overtime compensation, compensate for all hours worked, and unfair business practices.

Plaintiffs served written discovery on Wild Oats that included Form Interrogatory No. 12.1, which requested that Wild Oats: “State the name, ADDRESS, and telephone number of each individual: [¶] (a) who witnessed the INCIDENT or the events occurring immediately before or after the INCIDENT; [¶] (b) who made any statement at the scene of the INCIDENT; [¶] (c) who heard any statements made about the INCIDENT by any individual at the scene; and [¶] (d) who YOU OR ANYONE ACTING ON YOUR BEHALF claim has knowledge of the INCIDENT (except for expert witnesses covered by Code of Civil Procedure section 2034).”

Wild Oats disclosed between 2600 and 3000 names and positions in the responses to Interrogatory No. 12.1.  However, Wild Oats withheld the individuals’ residential telephone numbers and addresses, citing privacy rights on behalf of the individuals listed.

After plaintiffs brought a motion to compel disclosure of the individuals’ contact information, the trial court approved a process by which a third party administrator would send a letter to each of the individuals informing them of plaintiffs’ request for their contact information. The letter contained an opt-in provision that stated, “The court has ordered the parties to send this letter to you so that you may decide whether or not you wish to disclose this information to the Plaintiffs’ attorneys. If you consent to the disclosure of your contact information, please complete and return the enclosed postcard to the Third-Party-Administrator . . . .”

The Court of Appeal found that the trial court’s use of the opt-in procedure was an abuse of discretion that exceeded the protections necessary to safeguard the legitimate privacy interests in the addresses and telephone numbers of the witnesses. The Court of Appeal stated:
While the trial court here implicitly found that a serious invasion of privacy would result unless an opt-in notice was used, we believe that conclusion is unsupported by facts or law. Here, just as in Pioneer, the requested information, while personal, is not particularly sensitive, as it is merely contact information, not medical or financial details, political affiliations, sexual relationships, or personnel information. [citations] This is basic civil discovery. These individuals have been identified by Wild Oats as witnesses. Nothing could be more ordinary in discovery than finding out the location of identified witnesses so that they may be contacted and additional investigation performed. [citation] As the Supreme Court pointed out in Pioneer, the information sought by the petitioners here—the location of witnesses—is generally discoverable, and it is neither unduly personal nor overly intrusive. [citation] In some respects, the potential intrusion here is even less significant than that in Pioneer, because here the requested disclosure does not involve individuals’ identities, which had already been disclosed by Wild Oats prior to the filing of the motion to compel. There simply is no evidence that disclosure of the contact information for these already-identified witnesses is a transgression of the witnesses’ privacy that is “sufficiently serious in [its] nature, scope, and actual or potential impact to constitute an egregious breach of the social norms underlying the privacy right.” [citation]
It is important to note that the court also recognized that the employer has a duty to protect employee’s contact information and “[s]hould any individual identified as a witness later feel that there has been an unnecessary invasion of his or her privacy, this will become an issue between the employee and [the employer], not the employee and [plaintiffs].”

The Court of Appeal did, however, still leaves open alternative discovery avenues to limit public disclosure of employee contact information:
This is not to say that the trial court was without the ability to enter a protective order limiting the dissemination of the witnesses’ contact information: Certainly the trial court may require that the information be kept confidential by the petitioners and not be disclosed except to their agents as needed in the course of investigating and pursuing the litigation. Moreover, should the trial court find that the record evidences discovery abuse warranting a protective order as to the manner and means of contacting witnesses, the trial court always retains the discretion to impose such an order.
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