In this week’s Alabama Law Weekly Update, we bring you two cases from the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, both addressing when a company must disclose records requested by discovery or civil subpoena.

In the first case, the Court holds that discovery disputes over production of employee files requires a showing by the requesting party that the requested documents (1) are not otherwise discoverable except from the employer and (2) that the documents are related to the claims in the complaint.  In the second case, the Court holds that disputes over production of documents requested by an administrative agency, here the dental licensing board, must exhaust administrative remedies before turning to courts for relief.

W.A.A. v. Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama, [Ms. 2121026, June 13, 2014], — So. 3d – (Ala. Civ. App. 2014).

In our first case, the Court of Civil Appeals dismissed an appeal as lacking jurisdiction because a dispute over the production of medical records to a licensing board had not first exhausted the administrative process before turning to relief from the court. This case began with a dental practitioner who was being evaluated by the Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama (the “Board”) after the Board received a notice from another state’s regulatory agency that the practitioner may be impaired. The practitioner consented to a professional evaluation by a Board approved provider, Addition & Mental Health Services, Inc. d/b/a “Bradford Health Services.”

As part of his treatment, the practitioner consented to disclosure of his diagnosis and treatment records to the Board. During the course of the treatment, the Board offered the practitioner a consent order which the practitioner refused. The Board then set the matter for hearing and issued subpoenas to the practitioner’s treating physician and eight other Bradford employees, as well as the production of the practitioner’s documents by Bradford. The day after these subpoenas issued, the practitioner rescinded his consent to disclose his treatment and documents to the Board.

In response to the subpoena and the practitioner’s withdrawal of authorization to disclose his treatment information, Bradford filed suit in the circuit court seeking to quash the Board’s subpoenas. Bradford alleged the subpoenas were overly broad and unduly burdensome by requesting 9 Bradford employees attend the Board’s hearing. Bradford also alleged that the request for documents and potential testimony of the employees violated state and federal law and regulations because the documents and testimony sought were protected health information for which Bradford no longer had authority from the practitioner to disclose to the Board.

After the case was removed to federal court and remanded for lack of jurisdiction there, the Alabama trial court required four Bradford witnesses to attend the administrative hearing. The court also granted the Board’s request to require the practitioner to respond to discovery from the Board despite the practitioner’s claim the requested information was privileged. The practitioner then appealed.

On appeal, the appellate court concluded that the case was due to be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that the Alabama Administrative Procedures Act (“AAPA”) requires exhaustion of all administrative remedies before a party could seek relief from the courts. Specifically, the AAPA requires an aggrieved party to file a notice of appeal with the administrative agency within 30 days of receipt of the decision from which the party seeks an appeal. Rather than because the disputes over discovery and subpoenas did not follow the administrative appeal process, the trial court was without jurisdiction to consider the issue.

Ex parte Aramark Management Services Limited Partnership, [Ms. 2130564, June 13, 2014] – So. 3d – (Ala. Civ. App. 2014)

In our second case, the Court of Civil Appeals clarifies the procedure for production of employee records through discovery in pending litigation. The case is on appeal on a petition for writ of mandamus review whereby Aramark is requesting the court direct the trial court to limit discovery of Aramark’s employee files.

The underlying action stems from an on-the-job injury by a bakery worker, Mitchell, who was employed by Aramark Management Services Limited Partnership (“Aramark”). Mitchell asserted a claim seeking workers’ compensation benefits from Aramark, a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the equipment on which Mitchell was injured, and fictitious co-employees alleged to have removed safety devices from the machine.

Through discovery, Mitchell sought to depose Aramark’s corporate representative on whether other employees had been disciplined for tampering with or removing safety devices. After receiving Mitchell’s proposed topics, Aramark cancelled the deposition and sought a protective order preventing the discovery of Aramark’s personnel files. The trial court denied the motion and this appeal followed.

On appeal, the Court of Civil Appeals concluded that the trial court improperly denied the Aramark’s request for a protective order without first meeting the requirements for such disclosure. The court explained that Alabama follows the “rule-of-reason” test, as adopted in a 2012 opinion by the Court of Civil Appeals, which requires a two-part review before employee personnel files must be produced. First, the party seeking the personnel file must make a fact-specific showing to the trial court that the requested information is relevant to the underlying causes of action in satisfaction of the rule-of-reason test. Second, the discovering party must show the information is not readily obtainable from a source other than the personnel files.

After reviewing the denial of the request for a protective order in light of the rule-of-reason test, the Court of Civil Appeals determined that the trial court exceeded its discretion by not first requiring this two-part showing and directed the trial court to review the personnel files in camera which are related to the removal of safety devices, being sure to redact “irrelevant, sensitive, confidential, or private information” before the documents are produced subject to a protective order.