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Huang v. Itv Media, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. New York

February 22, 2017

TIANBO HUANG, Plaintiff,
v.
ITV MEDIA, INC., ITV MEDIA HONG KONG, LTD., ITV.CN, INC. and SONG LIN, an individual, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEVEN I. LOCKE United States Magistrate Judge

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiff Tianbo Huang's (“Huang” or “Plaintiff”) Motion to Compel Defendants iTV Media Inc. (“iTV Media”), iTV Media (Hong Kong), Ltd. (“iTV HK”), iTV.CN, Inc. (“iTV.CN”), and Song Lin (“Lin” and collectively, “Defendants”) to produce documents responsive to Plaintiff's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Fed. R. Civ. P.”) 34(a) requests. See Notice of Motion (“Notice of Motion”), Docket Entry (“DE”) [74]. Specifically, Plaintiff seeks to compel Defendants to produce documents held by non-party iTV Media Technology (Beijing) Ltd. (“iTV Beijing” or the “Non-Party”), a wholly owned subsidiary of iTV HK (which is wholly owned by iTV Media) and a sister corporation of iTV.CN. See Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion to Compel Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 (“Pl.'s Mem. Law”), DE [74-1], at 14. Huang also seeks sanctions pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 in connection with his motion. See Notice of Motion. Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion in its entirety. See Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion to Compel Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 (“Def.'s Mem. Law”), DE [75].

         For the reasons set forth herein, the portion of the motion seeking to compel production of documents held by non-party iTV Beijing is GRANTED as to all Defendants, but Plaintiff's request for sanctions pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 37 is DENIED. On or before March 17, 2017, Defendants shall produce the relevant documents in the possession of iTV Beijing. A status conference is set for April 4, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. in Courtroom 820 of the Central Islip courthouse.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual and procedural background of this action is discussed in an April 8, 2014 Memorandum and Order in which the Honorable Joseph F. Bianco granted former Defendant UTStarcom, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss and granted in part and denied in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, and is incorporated herein by reference. See April 8, 2014 Memorandum and Order, DE [34]. Nevertheless, the following facts provide relevant context for the instant motion.

         A. The Parties

         Plaintiff Huang is a New York resident who has worked in the internet television industry for over ten years. See Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”), DE [36], ¶ 9. Defendant iTV Media, incorporated under the laws of the British Virgin Islands with an office in California, is in the media business and operates as a holding company, wholly owning Defendant iTV HK, a company based in and organized under the laws of Hong Kong. Id. at ¶¶ 1, 3; see Def.'s Mem. Law at 3. iTV HK, also a holding company, wholly owns Defendant iTV.CN, a Delaware corporation with a principal place of business in California, and iTV Beijing, the Non-Party that is the subject of the current dispute. See Def.'s Mem. Law at 3; SAC ¶ 2. Individual Defendant Lin is the Chief Executive Officer and a member of the Board of Directors of all the iTV entities, including iTV Beijing. Def.'s Mem. Law at 3; SAC ¶ 4. Lin is a citizen of China, but maintains a residence in California. SAC ¶ 4.

         B. Plaintiff's Claims

         On December 8, 2010, Huang met with Lin and Jingchun “Jason” Sun (“Sun”), Chairman of the Board of iTV Media, in Plainview, New York. Id. at ¶¶ 16, 22. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Huang possibly managing iTV.CN, which at the time was a newly established entity. Id. at ¶¶ 22-23. iTV Media sought to launch an internet based television service platform in the United States under iTV.CN. Id. According to Plaintiff, he was sought after because iTV.CN “critically needed [his] experience, contacts within the industry, and expertise, ” and he was promised “a stable and promising career.” Id. at ¶¶ 23, 24.

         After the initial meeting, he met with iTV executives in Beijing, China. Id. at ¶ 26. During the trip, Huang was offered the position of directing “the global operations of iTV Group, with the exception of China, including directing responsibility for all of the North American operations through a newly-formed U.S. entity, Defendant iTV.CN.” Id. at ¶ 27. He also was offered an annual salary of $300, 000, annual performance bonuses, and stock interests in iTV Media equal to 1% of the company. Id. at ¶¶ 27-28. He further was told that an initial public offering of iTV Media was forthcoming within the year, and that he would be provided “invested stock rights” in that company. Id. at ¶ 26. Persuaded, he accepted the offer in April 2011, terminating his then-current employment. Id. at ¶ 33. Although working to launch iTV.CN, his position was “Vice President of iTV Media Inc. & President of iTV Media International, ” and the terms of his employment were memorialized in a written Offer Letter, signed by Lin. Id. at Ex. A (“Offer Letter”), DE [36-1], at 1. Huang reported directly to Lin and was based in Melville, New York. See Offer Letter; SAC ¶ 37.

         Plaintiff's employment with Defendants was not as he had imagined. Despite the Offer Letter describing his duties as leading operations of international businesses outside of China, Huang claims that he was “prevented from doing so by L[in], his direct supervisor, who continued to personally manage international operations, most notably those in Spain and Thailand.” Id. at ¶ 39. Lin also instructed Plaintiff to ignore copyright restrictions and to not enter into licensing agreements with content copyright owners. Id. at ¶ 49. Moreover, according to Huang, he was not timely paid his salary, worked 20-30 hours in excess of his weekly schedule without compensation, and was not awarded any stock interest. Id. at ¶¶ 40-41, 43. When he complained to Lin, including that Defendants' conduct violated the New York Labor Law, Lin responded with insulting remarks and threatened termination. Id. at ¶¶ 40, 44, 47. In general, Huang describes the environment as a “hostile and intimidating work atmosphere.” Id. at ¶ 40.

         Despite these work conditions, however, Plaintiff worked “diligently” and “iTV Group's business objectives had been significantly advanced by the latter part of 2012.”[1] Id. at ¶ 52. Nevertheless, on November 2, 2012, Huang was terminated. Id. at ¶ 53. He believes that this was a “result of his continued attempt to secure the benefits promised to him in his [Offer Letter] and his insistence on obtaining legal, albeit more expensive, content for the iTV Group platforms.” Id. at ¶ 54. Although his stock interests vested fully upon termination, he did not, within 30 days of termination, receive any acknowledgement that they vested, nor did he receive overtime pay or his full benefits pursuant to his agreed upon severance package. Id. at ¶¶ 55, 63-64. Further, even though he was not paid his salary, he was sent an IRS Form W-2 stating that he was paid $342, 779.08 in 2012. Id. at ¶ 56. Plaintiff claims this document was knowingly false and misleading, particularly to “mask and to conceal the iTV Group and L[in]'s fraud and to intentionally inflict upon Plaintiff harm through the creation of a large financial tax burden.” Id. at ¶¶ 57, 60.

         For this alleged harm, Huang commenced this action on June 14, 2013 against Defendants, [2] subsequently amending the Complaint twice. See Complaint (“Compl.”), DE [1]; Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”), DE [25]; SAC. He alleges causes of action for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, fraud and deceit, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing, and failure to maintain records and illegal deductions in violation of the New York Labor Law. See generally SAC. Defendants answered the SAC on February 13, 2015. See DE [53].

         C. The Current Dispute

         Plaintiff served discovery requests on each Defendant in early 2015.[3] See Pl.'s Mem. Law at 6. Defendants generally objected, in part, that the documents were not in their “possession, custody or control.” See Letter Motion to Compel (“Letter Motion to Compel”), DE [61], at Ex. A (“Defendants' Objections”), DE [61-1], at pp. 3, 13, 21, 32. Although Defendants produced some documents, Huang claims that “the vast majority of the documents bore little relation to the discovery requests” as “no internal correspondence was produced from any of the support staff based in China . . . .” Pl.'s Mem. Law at 6.

         As a result, Plaintiff proposed a list of custodians that were likely to possess responsive information, including five based in the United States and five in the iTV Beijing office. See id.; Meyers Decl., at Ex. 12 (“ESI Request”), DE [74-14]. According to Huang, the employees of the iTV Beijing office “were responsible for the accounting of the iTV Group operations, the management of the human resources of the iTV Group, the funding and capitalization of the iTV Group and the development and management of iTV Media's stock options offering.” Pl.'s Mem. Law at 6. Defendants, however, refused to produce documents of these custodians with the exception of Lin, explaining that “we stand by our objection to any and all discovery requests for materials maintained by companies or employees of companies not named as defendants in this matter.” See Meyers Decl. at Ex. 16 (“May 14, 2015 Letter”), DE [74-18]. Moreover, Defendants explained that computers kept at iTV.CN offices in New York were “scrubbed” before they were returned to the company, suggesting that documents held by the United States custodians are out of Defendants' possession. Id.

         On June 4, 2015 Plaintiff filed a letter motion to compel, citing issues with Defendants': (1) relevancy objections to Huang's discovery requests; (2) objection that they do not have “possession, custody or control over iTV Media subsidiaries;” and (3) refusal to produce documents in response to Plaintiff's ESI request with the exception of documents by Lin, including documents held by iTV Beijing employees. See Letter Motion to Compel at 2-3. A hearing was held on this letter motion on July 21, 2015, at which time the Court ruled on Defendants' relevancy objections. See July 21, 2015 Minute Order (“July 21, 2015 Minute Order”), DE [68]. Concerning Defendant's refusal to produce documents in control of its subsidiaries and those related to the ESI Request, the Court denied the motion with leave to renew as a motion on notice and after a Fed.R.Civ.P. 30(b)(6) deposition. Id.

         Huang thereafter took the deposition of Lin as a 30(b)(6) witness, and this motion followed. See Meyers Decl. at Ex. 3 (“Lin Dep.”). He now seeks an order compelling Defendants to produce all documents responsive to his Fed.R.Civ.P. 34(a) requests, particularly focusing on those documents held by iTV Beijing, and related sanctions. See Notice of Motion.

         II. ...


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