Arpaio v. Braillard (4/30/2012)

May 8, 2012

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds That A Defendant Subject To a Punitive Damages Claim Is Not Required To Gather Or Produce Financial Information Until the Court Finds That the Plaintiff Has Made a Prima Facie Case In Support Of Punitive Damages.

Braillard sued Sheriff Arpaio and others after Braillard’s mother died in a Maricopa County medical facility.  Her mother was diabetic and in the days before her death, she had been detained in a Maricopa County jail without insulin or medical treatment for complications resulting from a lack of insulin.  Among the relief requested, Braillard seeks punitive damages against the individual defendants, including Arpaio. 

Before trial, Braillard asked the judge to order the individual defendants to produce sworn financial statements under seal.  Assuming she could make out a prima facie case for punitive damages, Braillard contended that ordering the production during pretrial proceedings would prevent Arpaio from using the production of that information to delay the case later.  Arpaio objected, asserting that Braillard was not yet entitled to such information because she had not yet made a prima facie showing and that the request was merely an intimidation tactic.

The judge ordered the individual defendants to gather the information and provide it to their attorneys so that the information would be available to Braillard if and when the judge determined that Braillard had presented a prima facie case for punitive damages.  The judge also denied a request for a protective order regarding the financial information.  The individual defendants petitioned for special action.

The Court of Appeals accepted jurisdiction and granted relief.  When a plaintiff seeks punitive damages, a defendant’s financial information is relevant and discoverable only if the plaintiff can show “prima facie proof of a defendant’s liability for punitive damages.”  See Larriva v. Montiel, 143 Ariz. 23, 24 (App. 1984).  A plaintiff has flexibility in making the showing; it can be done “through discovery, by evidentiary means or through an offer of proof.”  Id. at 26. 

As discussed in Larriva, this standard represents a policy judgment that the law should “protect[] the defendant from an unwarranted invasion of privacy and harassment where the plaintiff has merely asserted a claim for punitive damages.”  Id. at 24.  In this case, the Court held that the judge’s order requiring the defendants to gather their information was “more harassing and burdensome than any subsequent disclosure” that might be required.  Thus, the same policy applied: defendants should not be made to gather the financial information until the plaintiff made a prima facie showing in favor of punitive damages.

To mitigate the risk of delay, however, the Court “expressly” held what was suggested in earlier cases: a trial court “should determine, as soon as is reasonably possible, whether at a discovery hearing or pretrial conference, if a party has made a prima facie showing in support of punitive damages.”

Judge Vásquez authored the unanimous opinion.  Judges Kelly and Espinosa concurred.