658 S.E.2d 728
This matter was filed under the original jurisdiction of this Court by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company and Stephen D. Clegg, petitioners/defendants below, seeking a writ of prohibition to prevent enforcement of an order entered by the Honorable Tod Kaufman, Judge of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County. (See footnote 1) In that order, the circuit court (1) required that Mr. Clegg produce specific discovery request documents to the court, along with a privilege log, for an in camera review; (2) denied Nationwide's motion for a protective order and stay of discovery; and (3) took under advisement a motion by Nationwide to bifurcate the case against it from that of the case against Mr. Clegg. After a careful review of the limited record and listening to the arguments of the parties, we deny the writ.
Mr. Smith eventually filed a claim with Mr. Clegg's insurer, Nationwide. It
appears that Nationwide conducted an investigation that included interviewing Mr. Clegg and
Mr. Smith. Subsequently, in January of 2006, Nationwide entered into a settlement with Mr.
Smith regarding only property damage claim. As part of the agreement, Mr. Smith turned
over ownership of the motorcycle to Nationwide, along with the helmet he wore at the time
of the accident. Nationwide thereafter auctioned the motorcycle.
In August of 2006, Mr. Smith and his wife, Sherri L. Smith, filed the instant action against Mr. Clegg. In September of 2006, the Smiths served Mr. Clegg with a set of interrogatories and request for production of documents. Pertinent to this proceeding, Mr. Clegg objected to producing documents sought by the Smiths' Request No. 16 which stated:
Please produce a copy of any and all communications between Defendant and Defendant's insurance company(ies) and/or any insurance company(ies) providing coverage for the motor vehicle Defendant was driving during the accident, which address, in any manner, the incident[,] the possible causes of the incident and/or the issues made the subject of Plaintiffs' Complaint including, but not limited to, letters, electronic mail, faxes, notes, memoranda, reports, phone logs, diaries, journals and transcripts.
Mr. Clegg objected to producing the documents sought by Request No. 16 based upon the
attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine.
In April of 2007, the Smiths filed a motion seeking to compel Mr. Clegg to produce the documents sought by Request No. 16. (See footnote 2) After a hearing on the motion, the circuit court issued an order compelling Mr. Clegg to produce the documents sought by Request No. 16, and to provide a privilege log for items deemed protected by the attorney- client privilege and the work product doctrine.
As a result of information learned during the early stages of discovery, the Smiths were allowed to file an amended complaint in June of 2007, to assert a cause of action against Nationwide. The complaint against Nationwide asserted claims for waiver, estoppel, and spoliation.
Further, in June of 2007, the Smiths filed a motion to hold Mr. Clegg in contempt for failing to comply with the circuit court's discovery order regarding Request No. 16. After a hearing on the motion for contempt, the circuit court issued an order in July of 2007, that once again ordered Mr. Clegg produce the documents sought by Request No. 16, and to provide a privilege log for items deemed protected by the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine.
On August 2, 2007, Mr. Clegg filed a motion to vacate the circuit court's last order compelling discovery under Request No. 16, and seeking an order staying discovery under Request No. 16. On August 7, 2007, Nationwide filed a motion seeking a protective order and stay of discovery against it and Mr. Clegg, and bifurcation of all claims against it from Mr. Clegg's case. On August 8, 2007, the Smiths again filed a motion for contempt against Mr. Clegg for failing to comply with the circuit court's order compelling discovery under Request No. 16.
The circuit court conducted a hearing on all three motions filed by the parties. On August 30, 2007, the circuit court issued an order which (1) required Mr. Clegg to produce to the court the documents sought under Request No. 16, along with a privilege log, for an in camera review; (See footnote 3) (2) denied Nationwide's motion for a protective order and stay of discovery; and (3) took under advisement Nationwide's motion to bifurcate the case against it from that of the case against Mr. Clegg.
On August 31, 2007, Nationwide and Mr. Clegg filed the instant matter with this Court. On the same date, Nationwide wrote a letter to the circuit court requesting the court to issue an order setting out findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Syllabus point 6 of State ex rel. Allstate Insurance v. Gaughan, 203 W. Va. 358, 508 S.E.2d 75 (1998) (A party seeking to petition this Court for an extraordinary writ based upon a non-appealable interlocutory decision of a trial court, must request the trial court set out in an order findings of fact and conclusions of law that support and form the basis of its decision. In making the request to the trial court, counsel must inform the trial court specifically that the request is being made because counsel intends to seek an extraordinary writ to challenge the court's ruling. When such a request is made, trial courts are obligated to enter an order containing findings of fact and conclusions of law. Absent a request by the complaining party, a trial court is under no duty to set out findings of fact and conclusions of law in non-appealable interlocutory orders.). On September 12, 2007, the circuit court issued an order, incorporating its previous order of August 30, which set out findings of fact and conclusions of law. (See footnote 4)
In determining whether to entertain and issue the writ of
prohibition for cases not involving an absence of jurisdiction but
only where it is claimed that the lower tribunal exceeded its
legitimate powers, this Court will examine five factors: (1)
whether the party seeking the writ has no other adequate means,
such as direct appeal, to obtain the desired relief; (2) whether the
petitioner will be damaged or prejudiced in a way that is not
correctable on appeal; (3) whether the lower tribunal's order is
clearly erroneous as a matter of law; (4) whether the lower
tribunal's order is an oft repeated error or manifests persistent
disregard for either procedural or substantive law; and (5)
whether the lower tribunal's order raises new and important
problems or issues of law of first impression. These factors are
general guidelines that serve as a useful starting point for
determining whether a discretionary writ of prohibition should
issue. Although all five factors need not be satisfied, it is clear
that the third factor, the existence of clear error as a matter of
law, should be given substantial weight.
Syl. pt. 4, State ex rel. Hoover v. Berger, 199 W. Va. 12, 483 S.E.2d 12 (1996). Finally, this Court has held that
A circuit court's ruling on discovery requests is reviewed for an abuse of discretion standard; but, where a circuit court's ruling turns on a misinterpretation of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, our review is plenary. The discretion that is normally given to a trial court's procedural decisions does not apply where the trial court makes no findings or applies the wrong legal standard.
Syl. pt. 5, State ex rel. Med. Assurance of W Va., Inc. v. Recht, 213 W. Va. 457, 583 S.E.2d
80 (2003). With these standards to guide us, we now determine the propriety of granting a
writ of prohibition in the instant case.
In an action for bad faith against an insurer, the general
procedure involved with discovery of documents contained in an
insurer's litigation or claim file is as follows: (1) The party
seeking the documents must do so in accordance with the
reasonable particularity requirement of Rule 34(b) of the West
Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure; (2) If the responding party
asserts a privilege to any of the specific documents requested,
the responding party shall file a privilege log that identifies the
document for which a privilege is claimed by name, date,
custodian, source and the basis for the claim of privilege; (3)
The privilege log should be provided to the requesting party and
the trial court; and (4) If the party seeking documents for which
a privilege is claimed files a motion to compel, or the
responding party files a motion for a protective order, the trial
court must hold an in camera proceeding and make an
independent determination of the status of each communication
the responding party seeks to shield from discovery. Syl. pt. 2, Westfield, id.
A critical aspect of the discovery procedure outlined in Westfield is the requirement that a privilege log be produced when a party seeks to shield documents from disclosure. Most tribunals require the party asserting the privilege to provide the party seeking discovery with a list or log that describes the document without disclosing the allegedly privileged communications it contains. PaineWebber Group, Inc. v. Zinsmeyer Trusts P'ship, 187 F.3d 988, 992 (8th Cir. 1999). The importance of a privilege log has been articulated as follows:
The purpose of preparing the privilege log is to assist the
court and the parties in performing the careful analysis that a
privilege or immunities evaluation demands. An invocation of
a claim of privilege without producing an accompanying
privilege log can be an unfair discovery tactic that increases
delay in the resolution of lawsuits, fosters excessive motion
practice, increases the costs of litigation, and greatly increases
the work of the court. In addition, the very act of preparing a
privilege log has a salutary effect on the discovery process by
requiring the attorney claiming a privilege to actually think
about the merits of assertion before it is made, and to decide
whether such a claim is truly appropriate. Moreover, the
requirement of a privilege log is intended to underscore the
gravity, if not the solemnity, of an assertion that otherwise
presumptively discoverable documents are exempt from
discovery. The requirement that detail be provided operates to
discourage pro forma, half-baked, dilatory, and even jocular
assertions of privilege. Horace Mann Ins. Co. v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 240 F.R.D. 44, 47 (D. Conn. 2007). (See footnote 5)
Although the discovery procedure outlined in Westfield is narrowly confined to the context of a bad faith action against an insurer, we believe that this discovery procedure should have a general application to discovery of privileged communication in any context. Therefore, we now hold that the general procedure involved with discovery of allegedly privileged documents is as follows: (1) the party seeking the documents must do so in accordance with the reasonable particularity requirement of Rule 34(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure; (See footnote 6) (2) if the responding party asserts a privilege to any of the specific documents requested, the responding party shall file a privilege log that identifies the document for which a privilege is claimed by name, date, custodian, source and the basis for the claim of privilege; (3) the privilege log should be provided to the requesting party and the trial court; and (4) if the party seeking documents for which a privilege is claimed files a motion to compel, or the responding party files a motion for a protective order, the trial court must hold an in camera proceeding and make an independent determination of the status of each communication the responding party seeks to shield from discovery.
In the instant case, the circuit court's order does not require Mr. Clegg to provide the Smiths with privileged information. The order is quite clear in stating: [T]he Court orders all documents responsive to Request No. 16 . . . and the 'claims file' produced to the Court for an in-camera review[.] The circuit court's order further stated that: If applicable, Defendant Clegg shall produce to the Court and all parties of record a privilege log for those documents responsive to Request No. 16 and contained in the 'claims file' to which Defendant Clegg contends a privilege applies.
We need not prolong our discussion. The circuit court followed the proper procedure and did not abuse its discretion in ordering Mr. Clegg to tender to the court the information sought under Request No. 16, and to provide a privilege log for information alleged to be protected from disclosure. See Feathers v. West Virginia Bd. of Med., 211 W.Va. 96, 105, 562 S.E.2d 488, 497 (2001) ([W]here a party asserts a privilege, a log of the privileged material should be provided to the [requesting party], and the materials provided to a court for in camera inspection.).
Trial courts have discretion in determining whether to stay discovery in a first-party bad faith claim against an insurer that has been bifurcated and stayed. Factors trial courts should consider in determining whether to stay discovery when bifurcation has been ordered in a bad faith action include: (1) the number of parties in the case, (2) the complexity of the underlying case against the insurer, (3) whether undue prejudice would result to the insured if discovery is stayed, (4) whether a single jury will ultimately hear both bifurcated cases, (5) whether partial discovery is feasible on the bad faith claim and (6) the burden placed on the trial court by imposing a stay on discovery. The party seeking to stay discovery on the bad faith claim has the burden of proof on the issue.
Syl. pt. 3, Light, id. In the instant proceeding, the circuit court expressly relied upon Light for guidance in determining whether to stay discovery.
Although the instant proceeding does not present a Madden or Light statutory bad faith cause of action, we believe the principles established in Light provide the better guidance for trial courts in deciding whether or not to stay discovery against an insurer in litigation involving both the insurer and insured as defendants. Therefore, we hold that factors trial courts may consider in determining whether to stay discovery against an insurer in a non-bad faith cause of action involving the insured and insurer as defendants include: (1) the number of parties in the case; (2) the complexity of the case; (3) whether undue prejudice would result to the plaintiff if discovery is stayed; (4) whether a single jury will ultimately hear both cases; (5) whether partial discovery is feasible on the claim against the insurer, and (6) the burden placed on the trial court by imposing a stay on discovery. The party seeking to stay discovery has the burden of proof on the issue.
In the instant proceeding, the trial court found that the case involved a limited number of parties, the issues were not complex, the claims brought against Nationwide could lead to resolution of the entire case, and that staying discovery would result in a burden and unnecessary delay. These findings adequately support the trial judge's decision to allow
discovery against Nationwide. Therefore we will not disturb the trial court's ruling on this issue.
The circuit court's order stated that Defendant Nationwide's Motion to
Bifurcate all claims asserted directly against Nationwide is taken under advisement and will
be ruled upon at a later date. It would be premature on our part to prohibit the circuit court
from doing that which it has yet to rule upon. See State ex rel. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Gaughan,
220 W.Va. 113, ___, 640 S.E.2d 176, 185 (2006) (declining to address issues that were not
ruled upon by trial court); State ex rel. Mobil Corp. v. Gaughan, 211 W. Va. 106, 114, 563
S.E.2d 419, 427 (2002) (same).