Hose rose? Nobody knows.

A textbook example of a deposition admission appears in Peters v. Jazz Casino Co.:

Peters also asserts that the hose was obstructing the walkway, which constituted an unreasonable defect. However, his testimony at the deposition does not support the assertion that the hose obstructed the walkway. In fact, when asked if he had any recollection of the red hose obstructing someone walking on the sidewalk, he responded: “I don’t recall that.” Thus, there is insufficient evidence to create a fact issue as to whether the hose obstructed the walkway.

No. 17-20625 (Jan. 22, 2018, unpublished).

A sham, at any other time, is still a sham.

Ramos contended that the trial court should not have excluded some of his testimony under the “sham-affidavit rule,” observing that his declaration was given before his deposition. The Fifth Circuit disagreed: “It is the competency, rather than timing, of evidence with which the sham-affidavit rule is concerned.” And it agreed with the district court that the testimony was in fact inconsistent, noting as an example that “Ramos the declarant stated Hacienda ‘never paid him any monies or royalties,’ but Ramos the deponent admitted he couldn’t remember whether he had been paid. Memories, of course, may fade over time; but, that is a far cry from Ramos,at his deposition, being unable to recall many of the events he had stated as fact in his declaration, just four days prior.” Hacienda Records LP v. Hacienda Records & Recording Studio, Inc., No. 16-41190 (Jan. 4, 2018).

When the network administrator goes rogue . . .

“Upset that a coworker had been fired, Thomas[, a network adminstrator,] embarked on a weekend campaign of electronic sabotage.” He was successfully prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which criminalizes conduct that “knowingly causes the transmission of a program, information, code, or command, and as a result of such conduct, intentionally causes damage without authorization, to a protected computer.” Thomas, citing his network administration responsibilities, argued that “because he was authorized to damage the computer when engaging in [certain] routine tasks, any damage he caused while an employee was not ‘without authorization.’” The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, noting – in addition to obvious practical issues – that the case law Thomas relied on about “authorization” involved liability under other CFAA provisions about computer access, rather than this provision about causing damage. This case is of general interest to civil litigation, both because CFAA violations can create civil liability, and because unfortunate admissions can have significant consequences:

Just a couple weeks after the damage spree, and before the FBI had contacted Thomas, he told the friend whose firing had set this in motion that “he thought he might have broken the law.” Which law, the friend inquired? Thomas’s response: “the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.”

United States v. Thomas, No. 16-41264 (Dec. 11, 2017).

Evidence twofer

Two basic reminders about evidence appear in Eaton-Stephens v. Grapevine Colleyville ISD, an employment dispute involving a school counselor:

  1. “Eaton-Stephens also argues she should have received a spoliation inference because her computer’s contents were erased, and that, because the School District’s policy and rules required retention of the contents for several years, the only conclusion was that the action was taken in bad faith. Our cases indicate a violation of a rule or regulation pertaining to document retention is not per se bad faith and Eaton-Stephens cites no authority in support of such a per se bad faith rule.”
  2. “We agree that the district court unduly discredited some of Eaton-Stephens’s deposition testimony as conclusory. ‘A party’s own testimony is often “self-serving,” but we do not exclude it as incompetent for that reason alone.’ Even if self-serving, a party’s own affidavit containing factual assertions based on firsthand knowledge is competent summary judgment evidence sufficient to create a fact issue.”

No. 16-11611 (Nov. 13, 2017, unpublished).

“Oh, you meant THAT knowledge . . . “

Griffin v. Hess Corp. involved a summary judgment for the defense on the statute of limitations, based on deposition admissions about the plaintiffs’ knowledge of relevant facts. Their testimony differed in response to the summary judgment motion, and the Fifth Circuit agreed that the different testimony did not raise a sufficient issue of fact: “Appellants’ explanation—that the deposition testimony was only meant to speak of what they knew in the present tense and not to their knowledge prior to the actual filing of the complaint—does not remedy or sufficiently explain the contradiction in light of the repeated questions about the particular date certain events took place concerning their royalty claims accruing from the Property. The deposition questions, as Appellees counsel repeatedly indicated and Appellants affirmed, related to the Property and royalties accruing from the production of oil on the Property.” No. 17-30165 (Nov. 3, 2017, unpublished).

The old document and the sea.

The common law of contracts was forever shaped by the good ships Peerless (one of which appears to the right), which both sailed into Liverpool in late 1863 bearing loads of cotton from Bombay. A modern counterpoint appears in GIC Services v. Freightplus USA , in which the parties were both talking about a tugboat called REBEL (left), but disagreed over what Nigerian city it was supposed to arrive in after a trans-Atlantic journey from Houston. The core problem with the “meeting of the minds,” however, was not among the parties, but among their counsel and the trial court, as the calculation of damages for the prevailing party rested almost entirely on one invoice. The Fifth Circuit panel split 2-1 over whether an effective stipulation had been reached about the authenticity of the invoice, providing a cautionary note to all trial lawyers about the effect and scope of agreements reached “on the fly” in open court. No. 15-30975 (August 8, 2017).

Judicial admissions are strong.

An insured disputed whether he had claimed ownership of a particular piece of property in a conversation with an insurance agent, Specifically, while testifying in his deposition that he did not remember the specific questions asked, the conversation did not last very long – implying that the agent simply assumed his ownership of the propertuy. “[H]owever,  n both his answer to State Farm’s complaint and his response to State Farm’s request for admission, [the insured] admitted to telling the agent who took his insurance application that he was the owner of the property and to stating as much in his application. The district court concluded that these facts were judicially admitted, and therefore rejected Appellants’ argument as an impermissible ‘attempt to create a dispute around a material fact already admitted.’” State Farm v. Flowers, No. 16-60310 (April 26, 2017).

No harm from 404(b) evidence

Foremost Insurance declined to pay a claim made by Charles Pendleton about the destruction in a fire of his 1956 Mercedes 190SL (an example of which appears to the right), arguing that he set the fire. A jury agreed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. One of Pendleton’s grounds was that the district judge exceeded the scope of Fed. R. Evid. 404(b) by allowing evidence about other “similar accidents surrounded by similar circumstances regarding insurance” involving Pendleton. The Court found no harm as “ample evidence” supported the jury’s verdict in favor of Foremost, including the police investigation of the accident scene, further review of the accident by a forensic fire investigator and a mechanic/accident reconstructionist, and evidence about ownership of the other vehicle. Foremost Ins. Co. v. Pendleton, No. 16-60240 (Jan. 13, 2017, unpublished).

Good records defeat tort liability, again.

The unsuccessful plaintiff in Dawson v. RockTenn Services, Inc. sued because of injuries he suffered while delivering sulfuric acid to a paper mill. In yet another opinion that endorses careful recordkeeping, the Fifth Circuit affirmed judgment for the defendants: “Under Rock-Tenn’s operating procedures, Martin Transport’s drivers were required to, and apparently did, check that the pressure-release line was ‘free from defects and
void of other materials’ prior to each delivery. Martin Transport’s drivers delivered acid to the mill at least daily, often twice daily, without ever apparently notifying Rock-Tenn of any defect in the pressure-release line. In the absence of any countervailing evidence to suggest that a reasonable person in Rock-Tenn’s position would have undertaken further inspection or maintenance of the pressure-release line, there is no basis for imputing RockTenn with constructive knowledge of an alleged defect in that line.” No. 16-30112 (Dec. 27, 2016, unpublished).

Live long and prosper

live-long-and-prosperRobert dePerrodil successfully sued for the injuries he suffered when a wave hit the boat he was on. He recovered damages based upon his plan to work until age 75; the defendant argued that the “court erred by using the plaintiff’s stated retirement goal, rather than the BLS average.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that dePerrodil had a “‘very reasonable’ goal, considering his medical history, work history, and future medical prognosis,” distinguishing other cases in the area that turned on more vague testimony. Perrodil v. Bozovic Marine, Inc., No. 16-30009 (Nov. 17, 2016, unpublished).

No harm, no reversal.

what-me-worryGraves v. Colvin provides an exceptionally clear illustration of harmless error:

  1. Graves challenged the Social Security Administration’s determination that she was not disabled.
  2. A regulation governing ALJ hearings on such matters provides: “Occupational evidence provided by a VE or VS [vocational expert or vocational specialist] generally should be consistent with the occupational information supplied by the DOT [“Dictionary of Occupational Titles”] . . . At the hearings level, as part of the adjudicator’s duty to fully develop the record, the adjudicator will inquire, on the record, as to whether or not there is such consistency.”
  3. Graves lost, and argued in court that the ALJ failed to ask this required question.
  4. But — “‘Procedural perfection in administrative proceedings is not required’ as long as ‘the substantial rights of a party have not been affected.’ Graves does not even attempt to show that the vocational expert’s testimony was actually inconsistent with the DOT. Nor has she otherwise demonstrated prejudice. Hence, the ALJ’s procedural error was harmless and does not warrant reversal.”

No. 16-10340 (Sept. 21, 2016).

The “light most favorable” is not a searchlight.

guidinglightIn response to a summary judgment motion in a suit for unpaid overtime, plaintiff Garcia offered affidavit testimony that he “was told” certain favorable salary information. The record was unclear as to who told him that information. On appeal from an adverse ruling, the Court noted: “Garcia first argues that the district court erred by discounting, as hearsay, Garcia’s statement in his affidavit about what he was ‘told,’ because ‘taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Garcia, a party-opponent told Garcia this information.’ However, courts are not required to view evidence presented at summary judgment in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party on the question of admissibility; rather, ‘the content of summary judgment evidence must be generally admissible,’ and ‘[i]t is black-letter law that hearsay evidence cannot be considered on summary judgment’ for the truth of the matter asserted.” Garcia v. U Pull It Auto Truck Salvage, Inc., No. 16-20257 (Sept. 15, 2016, unpublished).

Keep the gate!

no pass lotrCarlson alleged injuries from the ProNeuroLight, an infrared therapy device. At trial, the defendants called a chiropractor with some experience using the device. The Fifth Circuit expressed skepticism about his qualifications, noting: “While he does make diagnoses and orders tests as part of his chiropractic and alternative medicine practice, [his] qualifications do not align with or support his challenged medical causation testimony.” The Court did not rule on that basis, however, instead finding that “a district court must . . . perform its gatekeeping function by performing some type of Daubert inquiry and by making findings about the witness’s qualifications to give expert testimony.”  Here, admitting the chiropractor’s testimony without taking those steps was an abuse of discretion. The Court found harm, noting that he was the sole defense witness, that his testimony was cited in closing, and that the defendants won. Accordingly, it reversed and remanded. Carlson v. Bioremedic Therapeutic Systems, Inc., No. 14-20691 (May 16, 2016).

This is a conclusory affidavit.

affidavit memeThe plaintiff in Stagliano v. Cincinnati Ins. Co. submitted this expert affidavit to establish that alleged hail damage occurred within the insurance policy period.  No. 15-10137 (Dec. 11, 2015, unpublished).  The affidavit did not succeed, as the Fifth Circuit found it “was little more  that an allusion to his credentials, a recitation of the hail damage observed, and a conclusory, ‘subjective opinion’ that the damage resulted from a hail storm within the policy period.”  Footnote 2 reviews a “perceived . . . tension between the admissibility requirements for expert testimony and the burdens at summary judgment when expert affidavits are utilized” in a past opinion of the Court.

A penny for your damages –

Tflatlinereaty Energy sued for its damages after an involuntary bankruptcy petition against it was dismissed.   One of its claims sought damages for losses in connection with attempts to sell its restricted stock during that period.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the defendants, noting: (1) “Though the sales price of restricted shares did fluctuate, it averaged 0.5¢ immediately before, during, and after the pendency of the involuntary petition, and (2) the affiant about an alleged plan to sell restricted shares at a substantial discount lacked personal knowledge, claiming only that he “did assist in the process when requested, which included gathering information when given direct instructions by his superiors.”  Treaty Energy Corp. v. Hallin, No. 15-30113 (Oct. 27, 2015, unpublished).


I’m a doctor, not a spoliator.

mccoyGuzman sued Celadon Trucking for personal injuries.  On May 9, 2011, Celadon’s counsel asked him to undergo an independent medical exam.  On May 27, Guzman said in his deposition that he intended to undergo back surgery. Celadon later contended that his surgery constituted spoliation of evidence, and requested an adverse jury instruction. The Fifth Circuit affirmed its denial, noting: “After [Celadon’s counsel] received this disclosure in the deposition, they made no request to be informed of his surgery date, nor did they ask that he delay surgery pending his examination. Only after the examination was completed did [they] assert that the surgery had meaningfully altered evidence.  While the timing of Guzman’s surgery may seem strange, there is no evidence to suggest that he acted in a manner intended to deceive [Celadon] or that he undertook the surgery with the intent of destroying or altering evidence.”  Guzman v. Jones, No. 15-40007 (Oct. 22, 2015).

No flip-flip about the flip-flop

jackup rigMyers slipped in the shower while working aboard a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  In an echo of Blanton v. Newton Associates (a recent employment cases that turned on a prompt investigation into the facts), the rig operator quickly obtained a statement from Myers that said: “When getting out of shower, my shower shoe on left foot broke causing my left foot to slip and twist and resulted in falling out of shower.”  When Myers took an inconsistent position in trial (arguing that he fell because of inadequate rails and mats), this statement was key to affirmance of a defense judgment.  The Fifth Circuit also rejected an argument about the trial court’s review of the evidence: “Myers does not allege that the court did not see the flip flops; instead, he appears to object to the court’s failure to inspect them more closely. . . . When physical evidence is introduced at a bench trial, neither caselaw nor common sense establishes a minimum distance the judge must be from that evidence before the judge’s obligation to consider the evidence is satisfied.”  Myers v. Hercules Offshore Services, No. 15-30020 (Sept. 25, 2015, unpublished).

How not to prove agency

agent-matrixIn resolving a personal jurisdiction issue that turned on a party’s agency, the Fifth Circuit observed:

  • While a statement by a purported agent may not be hearsay, it is not admissible to establish “the existence or scope” of agency; and
  • Correspondence that was not specifically directed to the plaintiffs does not establish agency by estoppel.

Sealed Appellant v. Sealed Appellee, No. 14-20204 (Aug. 17, 2015, unpublished).


No Mumbo-Jumbo About the Bumbo

bumboThe unsuccessful plaintiffs in Blythe v. Bumbo International appealed the dismissal of their products liability claim about a Bumbo baby seat (right).  No. 14-40387 (July 27, 2015, unpublished).  The Fifth Circuit, affirmed, holding on two key evidentiary issues:

1. “The district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the instructions on Bumbo’s website [under Fed. R. Evid. 407.]  . . . [Plaintiffs’ attempt to introduce the website instructions for the purpose of proving a design defect ‘under the guise’ of claiming they are admissible under the impeachment exception.”

TexasBarToday_TopTen_Badge_Small2.  Evidence about prior product recalls and related investigations was inadmissible, as subsequent remedial measures.  Examining the “subject matter, underlying purpose, and relevance” of the communications about safety harnesses, the Court noted that none involved the use of a Bumbo on an elevated surface as the plaintiffs had done, contrary to product warnings.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .

bellAfter the EEOC sent two inconsistent letters about a claimant’s case – one in June, and one in July – a confusing limitations problem arose.  The Fifth Circuit found that equitable tolling applied and prevented a bar to filing suit.  It agreed with the district court that testimony about what the EEOC told counsel on the phone was inadmissible for the truth of the matter asserted, but disagreed that it was completely inadmissible — when offered to prove why counsel acted as he did, the conversation was not offered for a hearsay purpose.  The Court also noted that counsel, and his client, had proceeded diligently throughout the matter, noting: “Th[e] desire to have an EEOC letter with all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted is a sign of diligence rather than dawdling.”  Alvarado v. Mine Service, Ltd., No. 14-50668 (July 30, 2015, unpublished).

How to authenticate Internet evidence

internetpicTo oppose a summary judgment motion in a mortgage servicing case, Plaintiffs sought to introduce two documents: (1) “a printoff from the HOPE Loan Portal, an online log maintained by Impact [a consultant hired by Plainitffs] to catalogue any updates with the [Plaintiffs’] loan-modification application,” and (2)  a handwritten call log seemingly created by Impact employees as they contacted BOA for updates by telephone. The Fifth Circuit affirmed their exclusion in Thompson v. Bank of America, N.A., No. 14-10560 (April 21, 2015).

Noting that “[i]n the case of an exhibit purported to represent an electronic source, such as a website or chat logs, testimony by a  witness with direct knowledge of the source, stating that the exhibit fairly and fully reproduces it, may be enough to authenticate,” the Court observed: “At no point does [Plaintiffs’] affidavit say that they have personal knowledge of the online log or that it represents an unaltered version of the website. . . . That is likely because, by all indications, those logs were created and maintained by Impact, not the Thompsons. Nor do the logs have characteristics that would authenticate them from their own appearance under Rule 901(b)(4).”   The opinion summarizes some other federal authority about the authentication of evidence obtained from the Internet.

Code Talk Hearsay

navajocodeThe parties in Morton v. Yonkers disputed whether a gas royalty interest was void under the laws of the Navajo Nation.  No. 13-10926 (Nov. 19, 2014).  One party submitted a letter from an attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, opining that the “purported overriding royalty interest is invalid under the applicable provisions of the Navajo Nation Code and is completely void.”  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower courts’ conclusion that this letter was inadmissible hearsay, and did not qualify for an exemption under Fed. R. Evid. 803(8) or (15) [public records and statements about property interests]; or the general exception in Rule 807 [the former 803(24) and 804(b)(5), combined in 2011]: “Trustworthiness is the linchpin of these hearsay exceptions.  We are persuaded by the district court’s thorough explanation that the letter is untrustworthy, in large part because it was drafted by Morton’s counsel and was prepared after Morton’s counsel provided the Navajo Nation official with only one side of the story.”

Defense win affirmed on billion-dollar bankruptcy trustee claim

The trustee of a litigation trust formed from the bankruptcy of Idearc, Inc. sued its former parent, Verizon, alleging billions of dollars in damages in connection with its spinoff.  After a bench trial and several other orders, the district court ruled in favor of defendants, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed in U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Verizon Communications, No. 13-10752 (revised Sept. 2, 2014).

The opinion, while lengthy, still only hints at the complexity of the case, and much of its analysis is fact-specific.  Some of the issues addressed include:

1.  A bankruptcy litigation trust does not have a right to jury trial on a fraudulent transfer claim, when the defendant creditor has filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court must resolve whether a fraudulent transfer occurred to rule on that claim (analyzing and applying Langemkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990), in light of Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011)).

2.  In the context of determining whether the district court reviewed an earlier ruling correctly, on pages 26-27, the Court provided crisp definitions of the basic concepts of dictum and holding.

3.  In the course of rejecting an argument about the refusal to admit several pieces of evidence, the Court noted that the trustee “does not discuss how each specific piece of evidence was likely to affect the outcome of the trial, in light of all the evidence presented.”

4.  A defense expert, without experience in the particular industry, was still qualified to speak to valuation methodology in the bench trial, and “we cannot reverse the district court for adopting one permissible view over the other.”

5.  The Court thoroughly reviewed the fiduciary duties owed from a parent to a subsidiary under Delaware law, while affirming the district court’s conclusions about causation associated with their alleged breach.



Analytical GAAP

At issue in Meadaa v. K.A.P. Enterprises LLC was the relative liability of three defendants for a $3.5 million claim.  No. 12-30918 (July 1, 2014).  In a summary judgment affidavit, an expert opined that transactions of Defendant 1 had not resulted in unfair advantage to Defendants 2 and 3, and had kept its affairs separate from those of Defendant 4.  The expert had reviewed financial documents from Defendant 1 and tax returns from Defendant 4.  The Fifth Circuit found no clear error in the district court’s striking of this affidavit for a lack of personal knowledge.  Because “[i]t is by no means clear how a [CPA] can obtain personal knowledge of the effects of the actions of one entity on other parties without reviewing the latter’s financial documents,” it was “incumbent upon him to explain how he acquired such knowledge.”  As a procedural matter, the Court also found that a notice of appeal from a final judgment encompassed a later ruling on a Rule 59 motion.

No fact issue

A subtle Erie issue flashed by when Andrews alleged premises liability claims against BP, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for BP under a Texas statute. Terry v. BP Amoco, No. 12-40913 (June 27, 2014, unpublished).  BP won summary judgment: “Exhibits C and D are the only evidence that Andrews identified as raising a material issue of fact as to BP’s responsibility for the explosion. Those exhibits are a Safety Bulletin issued by the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) and a CSB press release discussing the bulletin. The statute creating the CSB, however, prohibits Andrews from using the documents as evidence in this case.  Additionally, both CSB documents also likely constitute inadmissible hearsay under the Federal Rules of Evidence.”  The question not raised is how much substantive effect this type of federal statute must have in a state law tort claim, removed to federal court under diversity jurisdiction, so as to raise an Erie issue.