Britt v. Superior Court

Citation20 Cal.3d 844,143 Cal.Rptr. 695,574 P.2d 766
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Decision Date27 March 1978
Parties, 574 P.2d 766 Roger A. BRITT et al., Petitioners, v. The SUPERIOR COURT OF SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Respondent; SAN DIEGO UNIFIED PORT DISTRICT, Real Party in Interest. L.A. 30786.

Fadem, Berger & Norton, Michael M. Berger and Gregory M. Bergman, Santa Monica, for petitioners.

No appearance for respondent.

Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, Louis E. Goebel, Michael Scott Gatzke and Walter J. Cummings III, San Diego, for real party in interest.

TOBRINER, Justice.

In this case we must determine the constitutional validity of a judicial discovery order which compels numerous individuals, plaintiffs in the underlying litigation, to disclose extensive and intimate details of both their own and others' activities in various local political associations. The trial court refused to honor plaintiffs' request for a protective order to safeguard their associational privacy and instead ordered plaintiffs to render a wholesale revelation of private associational information. Such information ranged from the disclosure of their own membership in numerous associations to a listing of the names of all persons who attended any meeting of such associations, and finally extended to a description of the subjects discussed at all such meetings. Contending that this wide-ranging order infringes upon their constitutional rights, plaintiffs seek an extraordinary writ to restrain the trial court from requiring such revelations.

For the reasons discussed below, we have concluded that the challenged discovery order cannot be sustained. As we explain, for more than two decades decisions of both the United States Supreme Court and this court, recognizing that compelled disclosure of private associational affiliations or activities will inevitably deter many individuals from exercising their constitutional right of association, have established that such intrusion into associational privacy may be sanctioned only upon the demonstration of a very important, indeed "compelling," state interest which necessitates the disclosure. Moreover, the authorities additionally demonstrate that even when such justification is present, the scope of the compelled disclosure must be narrowly circumscribed to avoid undue interference with private associational rights. The extensive discovery authorized in the instant case cannot be reconciled with these settled constitutional precepts.

We have further concluded that a separate portion of the discovery order, which permits defendant to inquire without limit into plaintiffs' lifetime medical histories, is also vulnerable to plaintiffs' challenge. As we explain, although in seeking recovery for physical and mental injuries plaintiffs have unquestionably waived their physician-patient and psychotherapist-patient privileges as to all information concerning the medical conditions which they have put in issue, past cases make clear that such waiver extends only to information relating to the medical conditions in question, and does not automatically open all of a plaintiff's past medical history to scrutiny. Failing to heed the teachings of these governing authorities, the trial court placed absolutely no limit on defendant's efforts to obtain wholesale disclosure of each plaintiff's lifetime medical history. Under these circumstances, we conclude that this aspect of the discovery order should also be vacated.

1. The facts

The facts in this case are not in dispute. Petitioners (hereafter plaintiffs) are 936 owners and residents of homes located near Lindbergh Field, the San Diego International Airport. Real party in interest (hereafter defendant), the San Diego Unified Port District, owns and operates the airport.

On July 29, 1975, and March 29, 1976, in separate actions which were subsequently consolidated, plaintiffs brought suit against the port district seeking compensation for diminution of property values, personal injuries, and emotional disturbance allegedly caused by the noise, vibrations, air pollution, and smoke associated with defendant's operation of Lindbergh Field as a facility for jet aircraft. Defendant responded by embarking upon a program of extensive discovery. A portion of these extensive discovery efforts gives rise to the issues before us.

In deposing a number of plaintiffs, defendant has attempted to investigate plaintiffs' local political activities in connection with the operation of Lindbergh Field. Specifically, as plaintiffs assert and defendant concedes, defendant has asked plaintiffs questions regarding: (1) plaintiffs' "membership in various organizations opposed to the . . . way in which the Port District operates its Airport"; (2) any meetings which plaintiffs may have attended "concerning the Airport, including dates, topics and speakers"; (3) any correspondence which plaintiffs received from such organizations; (4) "the identity of other people who attended meetings"; (5) "the content of discussions with others regarding the meetings"; (6) the identity of those persons with whom plaintiffs discussed such matters; and (7) any financial contributions by plaintiffs to such organizations, including the "amount, date, and identity of person requesting funds."

Defendant also asked plaintiffs to produce, at the taking of their depositions, various documents connected with airport political activity. Specifically, defendant requested plaintiffs to bring: "Any and all writings reflecting communications of any form or nature between yourself, or any member of your family, and the Airport Relocation Committee, CRASH, and/or the Loma Portal Civic Club including, but not limited to: Any flyers, mimeographed sheets, forms, applications for membership, pledges of funds, correspondence, notes of conversations, or cancelled checks reflecting payment of any dues, fees or contributions to any such organization."

Defendant sought to mount a similarly wide-ranging inquiry into plaintiffs' medical history. On November 24, 1975, defendant served all 936 plaintiffs with a battery of interrogatories. In addition to requiring plaintiffs to answer detailed questions concerning the physical and mental injuries which defendant's activities allegedly caused, the interrogatories also demanded of plaintiffs a complete account of their entire medical history, encompassing all illnesses, physical injuries, and mental or emotional disturbances for which plaintiffs sought treatment at any time during their lives. 1 Several plaintiffs refused to answer defendant's deposition questions. On March 4, 1976, plaintiffs moved the trial court for a protective order to restrain defendant's investigations of plaintiffs' political associations and medical histories. Asserting that their political associations were constitutionally privileged, plaintiffs also challenged the legal propriety of defendant's unlimited demands for medical information. That same day, defendant moved the trial court for an order compelling plaintiffs to answer its questions. On March 23, 1976, the trial court denied plaintiffs' motion for a protective order, granted defendant's motion to compel answers to its deposition questions, and fixed a deadline for plaintiffs' answers to defendant's interrogatories.

Plaintiffs thereafter filed the instant petition seeking extraordinary relief. Concluding that the trial court order that compelled the disclosure of extensive information as to the private associational activities of plaintiffs and numerous nonparties raised significant and novel constitutional issues of general importance, we issued an alternative writ. (See, e. g., Oceanside Union School Dist. v. Superior Court (1962) 58 Cal.2d 180, 185-186, fn. 4, 23 Cal.Rptr. 375, 373 P.2d 439; Pacific Tel. & Tel. Co. v. Superior Court (1970) 2 Cal.3d 161, 169, 171 fn. 11, 84 Cal.Rptr. 718, 465 P.2d 854.) In issuing that order, we determined that review by extraordinary writ is appropriate in this case (see, e. g., People v. El Dorado (1971) 5 Cal.3d 480, 492, 96 Cal.Rptr. 553, 487 P.2d 1193) and thus we turn immediately to the merits of the challenged discovery order.

2. In compelling the wholesale disclosure of private association affiliations and activities, the challenged discovery order works an unconstitutional infringement of First Amendment rights and goes far beyond any limited disclosure that defendant's legitimate litigation interests may justify.

The discovery order at issue compels plaintiffs to expose to detailed scrutiny information concerning both their own and others' affiliations with, and activities in, organizations which, at various times, have protested operations at the San Diego airport and have attempted through traditional political efforts to influence the future conduct of such operations. In evaluating the propriety of this order, we recognize at the outset that such peaceful and lawful associational activity is, without question, constitutionally protected activity which, under both our state and federal Constitutions, enjoys special safeguard from governmental interference. (Cal.Const., art. 1, §§ 1, 2, 3; U.S.Const., 1st Amend.) Defendant port district does not contest the constitutionally sanctioned nature of such associational activities, but instead argues initially that because the discovery order at issue does not prohibit the exercise of any such activities but merely requires their disclosure, the order is not vulnerable to constitutional attack.

As both the United States Supreme Court and this court have observed time and again, however, First Amendment freedoms, such as the right of association, "are protected not only against heavy-handed frontal attack, but also from being stifled by more subtle governmental interference." (Bates v. Little Rock (1960) 361 U.S. 516, 523, 80 S.Ct. 412, 416, 4 L.Ed.2d 480; see, e. g., White v. Davis (1975) 13 Cal.3d 757, 767, 120 Cal.Rptr. 94, 533 P.2d 222.) Indeed,...

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