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Beyer v. Anchor Insulation Co., Inc.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 30, 2016

Richard BEYER and Monica BEYER, Plaintiffs,


          Janet Bond Arterton, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         This product liability lawsuit concerns the installation of spray polyurethane foam ("SPF") at Plaintiffs' home in Niantic, Connecticut; Plaintiffs allege that the SPF emitted noxious fumes, gases and odors that caused them serious harm. Familiarity with the underlying facts is presumed. The current dispute arises from Defendants' allegation that Plaintiffs engaged in the spoliation of evidence. On February 19, 2016, Defendants Johns Manville and Icynene filed a joint motion for sanctions arising out of this alleged spoliation [Doc. ## 112-114], which was later joined by Defendant Anchor [Doc. # 115]. Plaintiffs filed their opposition on March 11, 2016 [Doc. # 116] and requested a hearing on March 18, 2016 [Doc. # 117]. Defendants replied fourteen days later. [Doc. # 118.] On April 26, 2016, Magistrate Judge Margolis issued a ruling granting in part Defendants' motion for sanctions and denying Plaintiffs' request for a hearing. [Doc. # 128.] On May 10, 2016, Plaintiffs objected to Magistrate Judge Margolis' ruling [Doc. # 130] and the objection was fully joined on June 23, 2016. For the reasons laid out in this memorandum, Plaintiffs' Objection is overruled.

         II. Background

         Plaintiffs' instant objection [Doc. # 130] seeks to overturn Magistrate Judge Margolis's decision that Plaintiffs engaged in spoliation of relevant evidence when they removed "at least ten separate rolled bundles of floor covering" from their home one day before Defendants were to inspect it. (Ruling on Mot. [Doc. # 128] at 6.)

         As is evident in her ruling, Magistrate Judge Margolis carefully reviewed the parties' briefing and exhibits. She remarked first that Plaintiffs admitted to removing certain items from the home prior to inspection, including "candles, carpeting, rugs and furniture" and she considered Plaintiffs' explanations for these actions, taking into account their need for toiletries and laundry detergent at the hotel to which they had decamped pending the inspection, their desire to de-clutter the house prior to inspection, and medical advice to remove rugs that posed risks of slipping for Mrs. Beyer while she was mobility-impaired. (Id. at 3, 5.)

         Magistrate Judge Margolis then focused on the disparity between what Plaintiff Richard Beyer asserted in his affidavit about what he removed and the videotape evidence shot by Defendants' private investigator showing Mr. Beyer "tossing into the back of a pickup truck at least ten separate rolled bundles of floor covering, " some relatively small and some "large and bulky." (Id. at 6.) She reasonably found that Mr. Beyer's affidavit "grossly understate[d]" the amount of carpeting he threw away and that this fact placed in question his veracity in this matter. (Id. at 6.) Magistrate Judge Margolis concluded that the "large-scale removal of floor covering" constituted spoliation.

         Magistrate Judge Margolis then fashioned a remedy that granted Defendants some of what they sought, denied other requests, and left certain requested remedies to this Court for consideration at an appropriate stage. Specifically, Magistrate Judge Margolis awarded Defendants attorneys' fees and costs reasonably incurred in bringing on the motion for sanctions, but not for the costs connected with the home inspection itself. She also found that Defendants were entitled to the specific adverse inference: "that the floor covering that was removed from the Plaintiffs' home would be favorable to defendants' defense and unfavorable to plaintiffs' claims." (Id. at 8.) She additionally specifically found that Defendants were not entitled to an inference that the "air quality inside plaintiffs' home does not pose a threat to human health or property." She left three further requested remedies-preclusion of reports showing elevated levels of volatile organic compounds ("VOCs") in Plaintiffs' home, preclusion of testimony regarding elevated VOC levels in the home, and preclusion of expert testimony on elevated VOC levels-to the discretion of this Court.

         In briefing their objection to Magistrate Judge Margolis's ruling, Plaintiffs advance a new explanation for the removal of carpeting. (Pis.' Obj. [Doc. # 130-1].) They now assert that Defendants' videotape evidence, which depicts the removal of a large volume of carpeting, is not of carpeting from the master bath area that was removed from the home the day before the inspection, but rather of carpeting from the study that was subjected to water damage, removed from the home some six weeks before the inspection, stored on the patio, and thrown away the day before the inspection. (Id. at 3-4.) Plaintiffs then explain that they did not mention this carpeting in their prior briefing or affidavits because it was not "in the home the day before the inspection, was not removed from the home in anticipation of the inspection, and had not been in the home for over a month before Plaintiffs received notice of Defendants' Inspection ...." (Id. at 4.)

         III. Discussion

         As noted in other rulings in this case, a Magistrate Judge has the authority to review, hear and "determin[e] non-dispositive motions, including, but not limited to, those relating to discovery and other matters of procedure." D. Conn. L. Civ. R. for Magistrate Judges 72.1(C)(2). In the event a party timely objects to a magistrate judge's written determination, "in matters determined by the Magistrate Judge under Rule 72.1(C)(2) . . . the reviewing Judge . . . shall set aside any order found to be clearly erroneous or contrary to law . . . ." D. Conn. L. Civ. R. for Magistrate Judges 72.2(b) (emphasis added). "Under the clearly erroneous standard of review of [Fed R. Civ. P.] 72(a), the magistrate judge's findings should not be rejected merely because the court would have decided the matter differently. Rather, the district court must affirm the decision of the magistrate judge unless the district court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed." Pall Corp. v. Entegris, Inc., 655 F.Supp.2d 169, 172 (E.D.N.Y. 2008). Further, "a magistrate judge's decision is contrary to law only where it runs counter to controlling authority." Id.

         Regarding the evidentiary record on which the Court bases its decision, while Rule 72(b)- regarding objections to a magistrate judge's recommended rulings-allows the district court to receive further evidence in order to conduct its de novo review, Rule 72(a), under which Plaintiffs' objection is considered, provides no such authority. Given that the Court functionally operates as an appellate tribunal under Rule 72(a), it should rarely exercise its discretionary power to entertain evidence outside the record. See Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp. v. Interstate Fire & Cas. Co., No. 3:12-cv-1641 JBA, 2015 WL 164069, at *6-7 (D. Conn. 2015).

         In the instant case, Plaintiffs neglect to recite or discuss this legal standard, instead treating the Objection as a chance to relitigate the motion for sanctions on an expanded evidentiary record. They do, however, isolate one of Magistrate Judge Margolis's findings as "error." (Pis.' Objection. [Doc. # 130-1] at 4.) Plaintiffs contend that

in ruling on Defendant's Motions [for sanctions in connection with spoliation], this Court held that the video showed that Plaintiffs grossly understated the quantity of floor covering that was removed from the home that day. However, this conclusion is erroneous because neither Plaintiffs' Response nor the Affidavit of Richard Beyer submitted therewith addressed the Study Carpet that ...

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