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Blakeslee v. Shaw Infrastructure

July 27, 2010

PAUL BLAKESLEE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SHAW INFRASTRUCTURE, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ralph R. Beistline United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO COMPEL

I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

Before the Court is Plaintiff Paul Blakeslee with a Motion to Compel at Docket 23. In October 2008, Blakeslee was terminated as an employee of Defendant Shaw Infrastructure, Inc. ("Shaw"), a contractor for the United States military. Blakeslee claims that he was improperly terminated in retaliation for his disclosure of certain alleged misconduct on the part of his supervisors at Shaw. Of particular relevance to the present motion is his accusation that his supervisor, Richard Lantz, had leased equipment on Shaw's behalf from his own company, American Leasing LLC ("American"), at vastly inflated prices, and that Shaw billed the government for the expense.*fn1 For its part, Shaw claims that Blakeslee's termination was planned before he disclosed the alleged misconduct in a letter to Shaw, and that Blakeslee knew he would likely be terminated when he wrote the letter.

Blakeslee asks the Court to compel Shaw to produce the documents described in Blakeslee's Request for Production No. 5:

All documents related to any business transactions between Defendant and American Leasing LLC, including but not limited to all contracts, agreements, invoices, payments, letters, emails and other documents and communications.*fn2

Shaw objected to this document request as "overbroad, burdensome and not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence."*fn3 Shaw argues that Blakeslee's request is "based on the false premise that plaintiff has pleaded a federal False Claims Act ("FCA") fraud cause of action," when in fact Blakeslee has only a FCA retaliation claim against Shaw.*fn4

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure affords parties the right to obtain information "regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense -- including the existence, description, nature, custody, condition, and location of any documents or other tangible things and the identity and location of persons who know of any discoverable matter."*fn5 The rules further specify that "[r]elevant information need not be admissible at the trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence."*fn6 Professor Wright instructs the "[t]he rules . . . permit the broadest scope of discovery and leave it to the enlightened discretion of the district court to decide what restrictions may be necessary in a particular case."*fn7

The Ninth Circuit has emphasized that "wide access to relevant facts serves the integrity and fairness of the judicial process by promoting the search for truth."*fn8

III. DISCUSSION

Blakeslee's motive for requesting the documents is clear enough. If he can show that Lantz was engaged in fraud and self-dealing, and that Shaw knew or should have known about the fraud, then that will make it easier for him to prove that Shaw had an improper motive in terminating him after he made his allegations of misconduct. This is especially true if, as Blakeslee seems to indicate, Lantz had a hand in the decision to terminate Blakeslee's employment.*fn9

Shaw argues that any documents related to the transactions between Shaw and Lantz's company are "irrelevant" because they would tend to prove a fraud claim, not a retaliation claim.*fn10 In Shaw's view, so long as it is conceded that Shaw knew about Blakeslee's allegations prior to termination, any proof that those allegations were truthful is irrelevant.

The Court disagrees. It should be obvious that a company with real misconduct to hide would have more motive to terminate a whistle-blowing employee than would a company with clean hands. If Blakeslee had informed a government agency about the alleged fraud and then been terminated, his retaliation claim would not depend so heavily on proving that Shaw intended to conceal fraud. The "cat" would already have been "out of the bag," so to speak. Instead, Blakeslee informed Shaw's CEO about the alleged misconduct. Thus, Blakeslee can plausibly prove retaliation by showing that Shaw wanted to cover up or at least ignore the fraud.

Shaw cites Ninth Circuit authority for the proposition that a plaintiff in a retaliation claim under the False Claims Act (FCA), 31 U.S.C. ยง3730(h), need not show that an actual false claim was filed in order to prevail. But the fact that a plaintiff alleging retaliation need not show actual fraud does not mean that proof of such fraud is irrelevant to his claim. In this case, proof of Shaw's knowledge of fraud and failure to remedy such fraud would tend to prove an improper motive in ...


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