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Conforti v. St. Joseph's Healthcare System, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 14, 2019

JIONNI CONFORTI Plaintiff,
v.
ST. JOSEPH'S HEALTHCARE SYSTEM, INC., et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          CATHY L. WALDOR United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff Jionni Conforti's Motion to Quash Subpoenas and For a Protective Order. (ECF No. 69). The Court heard oral argument on June 20, 2019, and, for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On January 5, 2017, Plaintiff Jionni Conforti (“Conforti”) filed this action against Defendants St. Joseph's Healthcare System, Inc. (“SJHS”), St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center (d/b/a St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center) (“SJRMC”), and Father Martin D. Rooney, who serves as St. Joseph's Health Care System's Director of Pastoral Care and Mission Services.

         This action arises out of Defendants' allegedly unlawful refusal to schedule a hysterectomy for Conforti at SJRMC for discriminatory reasons. The following facts are taken from the Complaint. In June 2014, Dr. Ian Tang diagnosed Conforti with gender dysphoria, and Conforti started gender-confirming hormone therapy under Dr. Tang's care. (Compl. ¶ 55). In October 2014, Conforti underwent a double mastectomy at a hospital in Texas. (Id. ¶ 56). Thereafter, in consultation with Dr. Tang, Conforti decided to seek a total hysterectomy and began the process of finding a gynecological surgeon to perform the procedure. (Id. ¶¶ 57-58). Conforti was ultimately referred to Dr. Brian Day, a surgeon and obstetrician at Totowa OB/GYN with admitting privileges at SJRMC. (Id. ¶¶ 58-59).

         Conforti obtained referral letters recommending a hysterectomy as a medically necessary treatment from Dr. Ian Tang and therapist Rissy Batista. (Id. ¶¶ 61-63). Conforti then scheduled a June 16, 2015 consultation with Dr. Day. (Id. ¶ 64). During this consultation, Dr. Day informed Conforti that Defendant Father Rooney, Director of Mission Services at SJHS, “would not allow [the] surgery to be scheduled at SJHS's facilities, as the surgery was being performed for the purposes of ‘gender reassignment.'” (Id. ¶ 67). Father Rooney subsequently sent an e-mail to Conforti stating, “This is to follow up to your e-mail inquiring about scheduling a total hysterectomy here at St. Joseph's to remove all female parts based on the medical necessity for Gender Reassignment. This is to inform you that as a Catholic Hospital we would not be able to allow your surgeon to schedule this surgery here at St. Joseph's.” (Id. ¶ 69). Thus, Dr. Day did not perform Conforti's hysterectomy at SJRMC, and Conforti ultimately underwent a hysterectomy with Dr. Charles Haddad at Mountainside Hospital in September 2015. (Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 69-1, at p. 10).

         Conforti alleges that Defendants denied him “the ability and opportunity to schedule his hysterectomy at SJRMC because it was related to the medically necessary treatment of gender dysphoria, ” and thus discriminated against him on the basis of his “sex, nonconformity with sex stereotypes, gender identity, and transgender status.” (Compl., ¶¶ 88, 99). On the basis of this alleged discrimination, Conforti brings claims under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”). Conforti seeks multiple forms of relief, including a declaratory judgment that Defendants violated Section 1557 and NJLAD, a permanent injunction modifying Defendants' practices and policies, costs and fees, and compensatory and punitive damages.

         The last category of relief - compensatory damages for emotional distress - is at the crux of the parties' dispute over the proper scope of discovery from Conforti's medical providers. In the Complaint, Conforti alleges that he has “suffered emotional distress, humiliation, degradation, embarrassment, emotional pain and anguish, violation of his dignity, loss of enjoyment of life, and other compensatory damages, in an amount to be established at trial.” (Compl., ¶¶ 99, 101). Conforti seeks compensatory damages for these emotional harms. (Id. at p. 25).

         On February 15, 2019, Conforti filed his Motion to Quash Subpoenas and For a Protective Order. Conforti seeks two forms of relief in his Motion: (1) an order quashing Defendants' subpoenas to Conforti's medical providers. These subpoenas seek depositions of six medical providers and updated medical records; and (2) a protective order preserving Conforti's Attorneys Eyes' Only (“AEO”) designation for eighteen pages of his medical records and the redaction of one note contained in those medical records.[1]

         Defendants oppose Conforti's Motion in its entirety. Defendants argue that the contested subpoenas fall within the scope of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), because these providers' testimony and updated medical records are highly relevant to Conforti's allegations and his damages claim for emotional distress. In their Opposition, Defendants identified two additional medical providers - OB/Gyn Dr. Diana Vitale and neurologist Dr. Avery Katz - whose depositions they now seek on the same basis as the original six providers. (Def.'s Opp., ECF No. 73, at p. 13). Defendants also oppose Plaintiff's AEO designations.

         III. DISCUSSION

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1) allows a party to obtain information concerning “any matter, not privileged, which is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending action.” Sanofi-Aventis v. Sandoz, Inc., No. 03-6025, 2005 WL 6714281, at *1 (D.N.J. 2011). The party seeking discovery must demonstrate that the discovery request is “relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). Pursuant to Rule 26(b)(1), the Court may limit discovery when, among other things, “the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.” Id. Under Rule 26(c), the Court may, “for good cause, ” issue a protective order to “protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense[.]” Id.

         “Discovery sought via a subpoena issued pursuant to Rule 45 must fall within the scope of discovery permissible under Rule 26(b).” Gov't Employees Ins. Co. v. Trnovski, No. CV 16-4662 (CCC), 2018 WL 5281424, at *2 (D.N.J. Oct. 23, 2018) (citing OMS Investments, Inc. v. Lebanon Seaboard Corp., 2008 WL 4952445 (D.N.J. Nov. 18, 2008)). Under Rule 45(3)(A), “the court…must quash or modify a subpoena that….requires disclosure of privileged or other protected matter” or “subjects a person to an undue burden.” Id.

         Here, Conforti moves to quash third-party subpoenas issued to his medical providers. Generally, courts afford greater protection to non-parties in discovery, and nonparty subpoenas must meet a higher standard of relevance than subpoenas directed toward parties. See, e.g., Chazanow v. Sussex Bank, No. 11-1094, 2014 WL 2965697, at *3 (D.N.J. July 1, 2014); Kelley v. Enhanced Recovery Co., LLC, no. CV 15-6527, 1016 WL 8673055 at *2 (D.N.J. Oct. 7, 2016). Because the third-party subpoenas here relate to Conforti's medical information and Conforti claims his medical information is privileged, he has standing to move to quash the subpoenas. DIRECTV, Inc. v. Richards, No. CIV. 03-5606 (GEB), 2005 WL 1514187, at *1 (D.N.J. June 27, 2005) (“A party lacks standing to seek the modification or quashing of a subpoena upon a third party unless the party claims a personal privilege is implicated.”). Defendants do not contest Conforti's standing to bring this Motion.

         A. DEPOSITIONS OF MEDICAL PROVIDERS

         Conforti seeks to block the depositions of six medical providers who were subject to Defendants' initial round of subpoenas: (1) Dr. Ian Tang, (2) Dr. Joseph Vitale and (3) Nurse Practitioner Mary Vitale, (4) Dr. Charles Haddad, (5) Rissy Batista, and (6) Vincent Fitzgerald. Importantly, Conforti has already produced medical records from these six providers for January 11, 2011 through August 23, 2018. Conforti also objects to Defendants' proposed depositions of two newly identified providers, OB/Gyn Dr. Diana Vitale and Dr. Avery Katz.

         The Court will permit the depositions of the following providers: Dr. Ian Tang, Dr. Joseph Vitale, and Rissy Batista. These providers' treatment of Conforti is directly intertwined with the allegations in the Complaint concerning his gender dysphoria diagnosis, his subsequent course of treatment, and the emotional distress that he suffered upon Defendants' denial of his hysterectomy. Moreover, these depositions have a reasonable temporal scope, ...


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