Discovery request overly broad in Valero appraisal case, appeals court says

David Yates Aug. 4, 2009, 3:28pm

A discovery dispute between Valero Energy and the Jefferson County Appraisal District has been settled by Texas' Ninth District Court of Appeals, as justices reversed a lower court's ruling that the oil company surrender its trade secrets.

Justices issued the ruling July 30, partially granting Valero's writ of mandamus.

Valero sought the writ after Jefferson County 136th District Court Judge Milton Shuffield ordered the company to produce documents that were not essential to the appraisal district's case and believed to contain trade secrets.

On appeal, Valero contended that the specific requests on which the judge ordered production were "overly broad."

"Because we agree the requests in issue are overly broad, we conditionally grant the writ," states the appellate court's per curiam opinion.

"Mandamus relief is available only to correct a clear abuse of discretion for which the relators have no adequate remedy by appeal. The trial court abuses its discretion when it orders discovery that exceeds the scope permitted by the rules of procedure."

The case began in September 2005 when Valero acquired several properties after merging with The Premcor Refining Group.

A year later, Valero contested the 2006 appraisals of its Jefferson County properties by filing a lawsuit against the JCAD.

The suit alleged the assessments were excessive "because they exceed the refinery's market value and they are 'unequal' as compared to like properties."

During discovery, the appraisal district sought documents concerning the merger, information about Valero's financial status and information on Valero's business operations.

After several hearings on a motion to compel discovery, Judge Shuffield ordered Valero to produce the documents, even though the company claimed that the information was protected as a trade secret, court papers say.

"Under the rules of procedure, a request for production is supposed to seek specific items or categories of items," the opinion states. "However, instead of requesting items or even categories of items, JCAD's requests are general requests for information and do not define the document or category of document that JCAD wanted Valero to produce. Because these requests did not ask for specific items or identifiable categories of items, the requests are overly broad.

"Based on these requests for information, Valero, as the producing party, cannot reasonably be expected to identify the item or category of items that JCAD's requests encompass. Consequently, we agree with Valero that the requests exceed the breadth permitted under the Texas Rules of Procedure."

The writ will go into effect only if Judge Shuffield refuses to comply with the order.

Valero is represented in part by attorneys Daryl L. Moore, Joann Storey, Lance H. Lubel and David Bernsen.

The appraisal district is represented in part by attorney Amy Keith.

Trial case No. D177-734
Appeals case No. 09-09-00222-CV

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