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Renaissance Equity Holdings LLC v. Webber

Civil Court of the City of New York, Kings County

July 27, 2018

Renaissance Equity Holdings LLC, Petitioner,
v.
Mercedes Webber, Respondent.

          Abraham Neuhaus, Esq. Stahl & Zelmanovitz Attorneys for Petitioner.

          Martin Needleman, Esq. Brooklyn Legal Services Corp. A Attorney for Respondent.

          Zhuo Wang, JHC.

         In this licensee holdover proceeding, respondent Mercedes Webber moves by order to show cause for a protective order, pursuant to CPLR § 3103, "limiting discovery" demands contained in petitioner Renaissance Equity Holdings, LLC's supplemental notice to produce, dated May 15, 2018. Petitioner cross-moves for an order, pursuant to CPLR R. 3124 and § 3126, compelling respondent to provide documents in response to the supplemental notice. Alternatively, petitioner seeks an order precluding her from introducing any documents at trial that are not produced prior to her deposition.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Respondent Mercedes Webber alleges that she is the adopted daughter of the former tenant of record, Joan Webber (Joan). Joan passed away on October 25, 2015. Respondent also assumes the name, "Benze Lohan," and she was a cast member on the reality television show, "Bad Girls Club," during its eleventh season. The eleventh season aired sometime in the Fall of 2013. Respondent asserts that she has gained a social media following since her appearance on the show. She also occasionally partners with businesses to promote their products.

         After the court granted leave for discovery pursuant to the parties' so-ordered stipulation, dated December 20, 2017, petitioner served respondent with a notice to produce, pursuant to CPLR R. 3120 (initial notice). The items sought included, among other things, proof of respondent's relationship to Joan, respondent's federal and state tax returns, insurance information, bank statements, and phone bills. Petitioner limited its notice to the relevant two-year period prior to Joan's death (October 25, 2013 - October 25, 2015). In another so-ordered stipulation, dated January 29, 2018, respondent agreed to produce documents in response to the initial notice and to be deposed. Petitioner reserved its right to further seek additional documentation after receiving her responses.

         Respondent provided answers to the initial notice in a series of undated and unsworn statements, which is annexed to petitioner's cross-motion. Notably, she wrote that she "did not file" either federal or state tax returns for the relevant period. Petitioner asserts that, despite these statements, respondent still failed to produce any documents to numerous items sought such as bank statements and phone bills.

         On May 15, 2018, however, petitioner served respondent with the instant, supplemental notice to produce (supplemental notice). The supplemental notice demands an additional 15 items not contained in the initial notice including any contracts between respondent and the "Bad Girls Club" (item 28), "all [of] Respondent's posts whether in her legal name, Benze Lohan or any other aliases (whether posted by or for Respondent) to social media including but not limited to Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook" (item 29), and "all documents" in connection with a host of third-party entities (items 31 - 40). [1] Additionally, the supplemental notice seeks documents related to respondent's "travel" (item 26) and "hotel and motel" stays (item 27) during the relevant period. Specifically, petitioner requests "all documents in connection with respondent's trips" to at least 13 localities (item 41). [2] Lastly, the supplemental notice demands authorizations for respondent's federal and state taxes, albeit from 2013 through the present rather than just the relevant period (item 3).

         One month after receiving the supplemental notice and on the eve of her deposition, respondent brought the instant order to show cause for an order "limiting discovery." Petitioner cross-moved to compel disclosure. This Court construed respondent's order to show cause as a motion for a protective order pursuant to CPLR § 3103, and petitioner's cross-motion as one to compel and/or preclude pursuant to CPLR R. 3124 and § 3126. At oral argument on July 16, 2018, the parties stipulated to resolve their respective motions in part. Importantly, the parties agreed that respondent would produce documents in response to items 26, 27, and 41 of the supplemental notice, that is, all documents relating to her travel, lodging, and "trips" to the abovementioned 13 localities.

         ARGUMENTS

         On her motion, respondent contends that the disputed items in petitioner's supplemental notice fail to be narrowly tailored and, as such, constitute a "fishing expedition." In support, respondent annexes her affidavit claiming that the items relating to social media have no bearing on her succession defense. Moreover, respondent asserts that the Bad Girls Club was a controversial reality television show that critics have described as "horrible" and "tasteless without merit" and that the petitioner's demand for information on this issue is meant to "smear her in the eyes of the Court." Lastly, respondent argues that compelling authorizations for tax returns, if any, during the relevant period is unnecessary since her unsworn statement that she "did not file" them is sufficient.

         In opposition and in support of its cross-motion, petitioner argues that the contract with the Bad Girls Club, social media posts by herself or as Benze Lohan, and documents in connection with the abovementioned third-party entities are relevant because they will show respondent's "travel and endeavors." In support, petitioner annexes copies of online posts containing photographs and flyers ostensibly of and comments made by "Benze Lohan" on the public portion of her social media accounts, both within and outside of the relevant period. Many of these posts, however, do not include a location. Lastly, petitioner argues that respondent's self-serving denial that she did not file taxes during the relevant period is insufficient.

         DISCUSSION

         In a summary proceeding, discovery is not obtainable by right; rather, leave must be granted by the court (see CPLR § 408). However, "[n]otwithstanding the general sentiment that discovery is antithetical to the purposes of special proceedings, the courts have repeatedly approved discovery in cases arising from disputed claims to tenancy where the facts concerning a tenant's residence and the use made of leased premises are peculiarly within the tenant's knowledge" (see Quality and Ruskin Assoc. v London, 8 Misc.3d 102, 103 [App Term 2005]). Moreover, "although discovery may delay resolution of this summary proceeding, there is no prejudice as the landlords have decided that clarification of the facts is preferable to a quick resolution" (see Malafis v Garcia, 2002 NY Slip Op 40180(U), 3 [App Term, 2d Dept 2002]). Here, it is undisputed that petitioner obtained leave for discovery under the prior, so-ordered stipulations.

         Once leave for discovery has been granted, general principles governing disclosure apply (see e.g. Pavel, 21 Misc.3d 143(A) [App Term, 2d Dept 2008]; Quality and Ruskin Assoc. v London,8 Misc.3d 102, 104-05 [App Term, 2d Dept 2005]). That is, "[a] party seeking discovery must satisfy the threshold requirement that the request is reasonably calculated to yield information that is "material and necessary" - i.e. relevant..." (Forman v Henkin,30 N.Y.3d 656');">30 N.Y.3d 656');">30 N.Y.3d 656');">30 N.Y.3d 656 [2018]; see generally CPLR § 3101). However, "[u]nder our discovery statutes and caselaw, competing interests must always be balanced; the need for discovery must be weighed against any special burden to be borne by the opposing party" (id). These special burdens include whether the discovery sought is overbroad, burdensome, or palpably improper (see Quality and Ruskin Assoc., 8 Misc.3d at 104-05). Thus, CPLR ยง 3103 allows the court on its own initiative or upon ...


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