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Estate of Thakuri v. City of Westminster

United States District Court, D. Colorado

December 12, 2019

ESTATE OF BIRENDRA THAKURI, by and through its personal representative Sanu Thakuri, Plaintiff,
CITY OF WESTMINSTER, and STEVEN BARE, in his individual capacity, Defendants.


          Kristen L. Mix United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Joint Motion to Stay Discovery Pending Ruling on Motion to Dismiss [#22][1] (the “Motion”). Plaintiff filed a Response [#39] in opposition to the Motion, and Defendants filed a Reply [#42]. Defendants ask the Court to stay discovery in this case until after the pending Amended Motion to Dismiss [#31] is resolved by the District Judge. Defendant Steven Bare (“Bare”) is identified in his personal capacity only and asserts a qualified immunity defense to Plaintiff's sole claim asserted against him under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the alleged violation of Plaintiff's rights under the Fourth Amendment. See Compl. [#1] ¶¶ 186-202.

         Questions of jurisdiction and immunity should be resolved at the earliest stages of litigation, so as to conserve the time and resources of the Court and the parties. See Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 308 & 310 (1996) (noting that discovery can be particularly disruptive when a dispositive motion regarding immunity is pending); Moore v. Busby, 92 Fed.Appx. 699, 702 (10th Cir. 2004) (affirming trial court's stay of discovery pending resolution of absolute immunity question); Albright v. Rodriguez, 51 F.3d 1531, 1534 (10th Cir. 1995) (stating that “the Supreme Court has repeatedly ‘stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation'” (citation omitted)). Qualified immunity “give[s] government officials a right, not merely to avoid ‘standing trial,' but also to avoid the burdens of ‘such pretrial matters as discovery . . . .'” Behrens, 516 U.S. at 308 (citation omitted). The Court is obligated to “exercise its discretion so that officials [properly asserting qualified immunity] are not subjected to unnecessary and burdensome discovery or trial proceedings.” Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 597-98 (1998). However, an assertion of qualified immunity “is not a bar to all discovery.” Rome v. Romero, 225 F.R.D. 640, 643 (D. Colo. 2004).

         When exercising its discretion regarding whether to impose a stay, the Court considers the following factors: (1) the interest of the plaintiff in proceeding expeditiously with discovery and the potential prejudice to the plaintiff of a delay; (2) the burden on the defendants of proceeding with discovery; (3) the convenience to the Court of staying discovery; (4) the interests of nonparties in either staying or proceeding with discovery; and (5) the public interest in either staying or proceeding with discovery. String Cheese Incident, LLC v. Stylus Shows, Inc., No. 1:02-cv-01934-LTB-PAC, 2006 WL 894955, at *2 (D. Colo. Mar. 30, 2006) (citing FDIC v. Renda, No. 85-2216-O, 1987 WL 348635, at *2 (D. Kan. Aug. 6, 1987)).

         Plaintiff provides a thoughtful, lengthy discussion regarding the String Cheese Incident factors but also appears to suggest that a sixth factor should be added to the String Cheese Incident analysis when the stay is predicated on a pending dispositive motion. This factor would be akin to the first element examined in cases where preliminary injunctions are sought, i.e., examination of whether Plaintiff has a likelihood of success on the merits. See, e.g., Assoc. of Christian Schs. Int'l v. Burwell, 75 F.Supp.3d 1284, 1290 (D. Colo. 2014) (listing the elements a party must meet to obtain a preliminary injunction).

         In support, Plaintiff points to Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, No. 17-cv-03111-RM-NRN, 2019 WL 5964957, at *2 (D. Colo. Nov. 13, 2019), in which the District Judge reviewed and affirmed the Magistrate Judge's decision to enter a stay pending resolution of a dispositive motion. Response [#39] at 11-13. The District Judge made two points pertinent to the present Motion [#39]. Bacote, 2019 WL 5964957, at *2. First, he noted that, while “this District often applies the String Cheese factors in deciding motions to stay, . . . no judge-or magistrate judge-is required to follow or apply the String Cheese factors.” Id. (citing Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 692, 709 n.7 (2011) (“A decision of a federal district court judge is not binding precedent in either a different judicial district, the same judicial district, or even upon the same judge in a different case.”)). Second, as a result, the District Judge held:

[T]he Magistrate Judge's decision to consider a non-String Cheese factor . . . does not render his decision clearly erroneous or contrary to law. Here, the Magistrate Judge indicated he was taking a preliminary peek at the merits of the Motion to Dismiss. There is no controlling law, however, which precludes such a consideration. Nor can the Court say that to do so in this instance was clearly erroneous. First, the Motion to Dismiss was before the Magistrate Judge for a recommendation as to the merits. Further, and importantly, the parties' briefing and oral argument addressed the merits of the Motion to Dismiss as it was raised in conjunction with, and relative to, the merits of the Motion to Stay.

Bacote, 2019 WL 5964957, at *2 (internal footnote omitted).

         Under the circumstances of this case, the Court is not inclined to follow Bacote in this regard. Bacote is distinguishable in that the motion to dismiss there was referred to the Magistrate Judge for a recommendation on the merits; here, Defendant Bare's Amended Motion to Dismiss [#31] has not been referred to the undersigned for a recommendation on the merits.[2] As a practical matter, examining the merits of Plaintiff's claim against Defendant Bare on a motion to stay discovery would essentially require adjudication of the dispositive motion at the same time, thus negating the entire purpose of the motion to stay and inappropriately usurping the District Judge's authority to determine the merits of the Motion to Dismiss [#31]. Moreover, that approach is simply not feasible on a regular basis in light of the Court's workload.

         Turning to the five traditional String Cheese Incident factors, the Court first addresses the interest of Plaintiff in proceeding expeditiously with discovery and the potential prejudice to Plaintiff of a delay. Plaintiff states:

[C]losure and resolution are perhaps most important in a case such as this, which concerns the untimely death of a young man. Data shows that in the District of Colorado, parties wait over five months on average before a decision is reached on a motion to dismiss (when, as here, the motion is not referred to a magistrate judge for recommendation). This Court previously acknowledged the issues implicated by a stay, stating: “the Court has generally found that with the passage of time, the memories of the parties and other witnesses may fade, witnesses may relocate or become unavailable, or documents may become lost or inadvertently destroyed. As such, delay may diminish Plaintiff's ability to proceed.”

Response [#39] at 8 (internal footnote omitted). Although Plaintiff has provided no specific details about the prejudice it could incur by a stay, the Court gives Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt with respect to its interest in proceeding. Based on the considerations expressed, the Court finds that the first String Cheese Incident factor weighs against staying discovery.

         With regard to the second factor, the Court finds that Defendants have demonstrated that proceeding with the discovery process presents an undue burden. The defense of qualified immunity is available to 1) individual governmental officials, but not governmental entities; 2) regarding claims for monetary damages, but not claims for injunctive or declaratory relief; and 3) regarding claims against individual governmental officials in their individual capacities, not their official capacities. Rome, 225 F.R.D. at 643 (citations omitted). Here, the sole claim against Defendant Bare made in this case is subject to the qualified immunity defense, because Defendant Bare is a government official, Plaintiff only seeks damages, and the sole claim asserted against Defendant Bare is in his individual capacity only. Compl. [#1]. Plaintiff argues that Defendant Bare will be subject to discovery regardless of whether his Motion to Dismiss [#31] is granted, and therefore Defendants cannot show that it would be an undue burden on him to proceed with discovery now. Response [#39] at 9. However, even if Defendant Bare would be subject to some discovery at some point in this lawsuit, there is no showing by Plaintiff that Defendant Bare would be subject to the same type and volume of discovery. Accordingly, based on these considerations and strong Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit precedent regarding assertions of qualified immunity and discovery, the Court finds that the second String Cheese Incident factor weighs heavily in favor of staying discovery.

         With regard to the third factor, Plaintiff asserts that “[j]udicial efficiency is not served by letting a case stagnate on the Court's docket before a plaintiff is allowed to prosecute its case.” Response [#39] at 7. This may be partially true. But if the case remains “in a stagnant state” on the Court's docket due to a stay, judicial economy is enhanced, as is convenience to the Court. In those circumstances, scheduling and discovery issues will not be raised until it is clear which claims and which Defendants will be moving forward in this case. It is certainly more efficient for the Court to handle, for example, ...

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