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Steinberg v. Mount Sinai Medical Center, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 31, 2014

MENACHEM STEINBERG, an infant under the age of eighteen years, by and through his court appointed guardian, JOSEPH WOLHENDLER, Plaintiff,
MOUNT SINAI MEDICAL CENTER, INC., HATZOLAH OF WILLIAMSBURG, INC., CITY OF NEW YORK, NEW YORK CITY ADMINISTRATION FOR CHILDREN'S SERVICES, JOHN AND JANE DOES 1-20, fictitious names intended to be police officers employed by the New York City Police Department, and JOHN AND JANE ROES 1-20, fictitious names intended to be employees of the New York City Administration for Children's Services, Defendants.


VERA M. SCANLON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Joseph Wolhendler ("Mr. Wolhendler" or "Plaintiff") brought this action on behalf of Menachem Steinberg ("Mr. Steinberg"), who was seventeen at the time of the filing of the Complaint, see Compl. ¶ 1, [1] against Defendants Mount Sinai Medical Center, Inc. ("Mount Sinai"); Hatzolah of Williamsburg, Inc. ("Hatzolah"); City of New York (the "City"); New York City Administration for Children's Services ("ACS"); John and Jane Does 1-20 (the "Does"), fictitious names for unknown New York City Police Department ("NYPD") officers; and John and Jane Roes 1-20 (the "Roes"), fictitious names for unknown ACS employees (collectively, "Defendants").

During discovery, Defendant Mount Sinai sought the records of the State of New Jersey Department of Children and Families ("DCF") pertaining to Mr. Steinberg. See, e.g., Mot. for Discovery, ECF No. 40. Thereafter, the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey wrote to the Court concerning state statutes rendering the DCF records confidential and limiting their release. See Letter, ECF No. 49. Pursuant to this Court's Order, the DCF released Mr. Steinberg's records to this Court. See Order, ECF No. 51.

The Court conducted an in camera review of the DCF records. For the reasons stated below, the Court will permit the Parties access to a redacted version of the DCF records, subject to the protective order dated March 31, 2014 and docketed at ECF No. 60 (the "Confidentiality Order"). Following publication of this memorandum and order, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court will make the DCF records available to the Parties on ECF, filed under seal.


A. Key Events

The following information is drawn from the Complaint and is provided for background purposes only. According to Plaintiff, on September 6, 2010, Mr. Steinberg's mother, Mrs. Faigy Steinberg ("Mrs. Steinberg"), told NYPD officers that her son was dangerous to himself, dangerous to others, and/or suicidal. Compl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 1. Although Mr. Steinberg denied her allegations, the NYPD officers "coerced and forced" Mr. Steinberg to enter an ambulance operated by Hatzolah. Id . ¶ 20. Mr. Steinberg was transported by Hatzolah to Mount Sinai, where he was involuntarily admitted to the psychiatric department. Id . ¶¶ 20-21. Mr. Steinberg remained in the psychiatric department of Mount Sinai through October 4, 2010. Id . ¶ 21. According to Plaintiff, Mount Sinai determined "at the beginning" of Mr. Steinberg's hospital stay that he did not require involuntary treatment and stated that the hospital could release him into the custody of Mrs. Steinberg. Id . ¶¶ 22-23. Mr. Steinberg allegedly informed Mount Sinai that "his mother had physically and emotionally abused and neglected him, and that he refused to return [to her home]." Id . ¶ 23. Plaintiff alleges that Mount Sinai failed to adequately report this information to ACS. Id . ¶ 24. According to Mr. Wolhendler, he petitioned the New York State Family Court for guardianship of Mr. Steinberg; he was appointed Mr. Steinberg's guardian; and he secured Mr. Steinberg's release from Mount Sinai. Id . ¶ 30.

B. Procedural Background

No party objected to Mount Sinai's request for discovery of the DCF records. See Mot. for Discovery ("Mt. Sinai Mot."), ECF No. 50.[2] In fact, Plaintiff provided an authorization for Mount Sinai to obtain these records, see Mot. for Discovery, ECF No. 40, although a Court Order was ultimately necessary. According to Mount Sinai, the Parties have already reviewed records related to DCF's actions concerning Mr. Steinberg.[3] Nevertheless, Mount Sinai asserts that the DCF records are relevant to, inter alia, the reasons why Mount Sinai would only release Mr. Steinberg to his mother; attempts made to release Mr. Steinberg to a safe environment; Mr. Steinberg's allegations of abuse by his mother, including DCF's investigation and their purported determination that the allegations were unfounded; Defendants' alleged requests that the State of New Jersey or DCF take custody of Mr. Steinberg; arrangements for Mr. Steinberg to be released to a foster family in New Jersey and that family's subsequent refusal to accept responsibility for Mr. Steinberg; and Plaintiff's damages claims. Mt. Sinai Mot. at 2. This Court now determines whether the records should be disclosed, in whole or in part, and what terms should govern the disclosure.


A. The Legal Standard For Discovery

Pursuant to FRCP 26, "[p]arties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b)(1). "[T]he overriding policy is one of disclosure of relevant information in the interest of promoting the search for truth in a federal question case." Sabharwal v. Mount Sinai Med. Ctr., No. 09 Civ. 1950 (JBW), 2011 WL 477693, at *2 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 4, 2011) (quoting Burke v. N.Y.C. Police Dep't, 115 F.R.D. 220, 225 (S.D.N.Y. 1987)).

If the information sought is confidential but not privileged, FRCP 26 does not limit disclosure of otherwise discoverable information. See Zaccaro v. 50 E. 196th Assocs., L.P., No. 96 Civ. 5119 (JSR) (HBP), 1997 WL 661905, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 23, 1997) (finding that a state confidentiality statute did not raise an issue of privilege under FRCP 26); see also Am. Commerce Ins. Co. v. Harris, No. 07 Civ. 423 (SPS), 2008 WL 3456848, at *1 (E.D. Okla. Aug. 8, 2008) (differentiating "between matters that are both confidential and privileged and those that are merely confidential, " and finding that FRCP 26 allows the discovery of non-privileged documents made confidential by state law); Van Emrik v. Chemung Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 121 F.R.D. 22, 25 (W.D.N.Y. 1988) ("A non-disclosure or confidentiality' provision in a statute may not always create an evidentiary privilege, especially if the legislature did not explicitly create an evidentiary privilege.'" (quoting Am. Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Inc. v. Finch, 638 F.2d 1336, 1339 (5th Cir. 1981)).

Where, as here, a party seeks discovery relevant to both federal and state civil claims, [4] federal law governs the discovery of information protected by a state confidentiality statute. See Barella v. Vill. of Freeport, 296 F.R.D. 102, 107 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) ("New York State law does not govern discoverability and confidentiality in federal civil rights actions"); Dorsett v. Cnty. of Nassau, 289 F.R.D. 54, 79 (E.D.N.Y. 2012) (same); Ligon v. City of New York, No. 12 Civ. 2274 (SAS), 2012 WL 2125989, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 12, 2012) ...

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