Hearsay Exception #3 – Then-Existing Mental, Emotional or Physical Condition

February 2, 2014

The third hearsay exception – TRE’s 803(3) then existing mental, emotional or physical condition – is also similar to the first hearsay exception, the present sense impression.  As its name implies, this exception applies to statements about a declarant’s state of mind at the time the statement is made.  Included within this exception are statements about thoughts, emotions, sensations and physical condition.

Texas courts have held that the type of statement contemplated by this rule would include a statement which, on its face, expresses or exemplifies the declarant’s state of mind, e.g., fear, hate, love, pain. What isn’t included in the exception are statements of memory or belief.*  As with the excited utterance, this exception includes an element of contemporaneity. Once the subject matter sensation has passed, a declarant’s statement about it no longer falls within this exception.

Likewise, while a statement regarding the existence of a mental, emotional or physical condition falls within this exception, its cause does not. One federal court has explained this distinction this way:

A (declarant may say) “I am scared,” but not “I am scared because the defendant threatened me.” The first statement indicates an actual state of mind or condition, while the second statement expresses belief about why the declarant is frightened. The phrase “because the defendant threatened me” is expressly outside the state-of-mind exception because the explanation for the fear expresses a belief different from the state of mind of being afraid.

That being said, don’t let the inquiry stop there.  In the above example a creative lawyer still might manage to get both statements into evidence by looking to other hearsay exceptions.  Depending upon the circumstances under which the statement “the defendant threatened me” was made, the latter statement, while not falling within the state of mind exception, might constitute an excited utterance discussed in the last post.

Most understand the notion of objecting to evidence on the grounds of “double hearsay” (hearsay-within-hearsay); don’t forget the possibility of offering evidence under a “double hearsay exception” as well.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court, Tarrant County, Texas

*(unless the statement is related to the execution, revocation, identification or terms of a declarant’s will)


Hearsay Exception #1 – The Present Sense Impression

June 30, 2013

The first exception to the hearsay rule, Rule 803(1) of the Texas Rules of Evidence, is the present sense impression – a statement describing or explaining an event made while the declarant was perceiving the event or immediately thereafter.  A simple rule requiring little explanation or discussion, this exception is based upon the premise that the contemporaneity of an event and the declaration that follows ensures reliability of the statement.  The reliability rationale which underlies the present sense impression exception is that:

  1. the statement is safe from any defective memory errors because of its contemporaneous nature;
  2. there is little or no time for a calculated misstatement; and
  3. the statement will usually be made to another (the witness who reports it) who would have an equal opportunity to observe and therefore check a misstatement.

One court has characterized the rule as “predicated on the notion that the utterance is a reflex product of immediate sensual impressions, unaided by retrospective mental processes:”

It is instinctive, rather than deliberate.  If the declarant has had time to reflect upon the event and the conditions he observed, this lack of contemporaneity diminishes the reliability of the statements and renders them inadmissible under the rule.  Once reflective narratives, calculated statements, deliberate opinions, conclusions, or conscious thinking-it-through statements enter the picture, the present sense impression exception no longer allows their admission.  Thinking about it destroys the unreflective nature required of a present sense impression (Fisher v. State, 252 S.W.3d 375, Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

Understanding the rationale for the rule will help the practitioner understand whether a particular statement falls under this exception. While the declarant need not be in an excited or agitated state, as with the exited utterance exception (which will be discussed in the next post), the declarant’s statement should evince a stream-of-consciousness or unguarded quality that would not be present in a declarant’s later statement regarding the very same observation or event.

The present sense impression is to hearsay statements what the play-by-play announcer is to broadcast sports.  When Frank Gifford said, “Thiesmann’s in a lot of trouble,” no one had yet seen the replay which later became NFL’s Most Shocking Moment in History.  Yet Gifford’s present sense impression was dead-on accurate, reliable and worthy of repeating, even in a court of law.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas.


Let’s Talk Hearsay

November 3, 2012

HEARSAY, GENERALLY

Hearsay is defined as a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.[1] The Texas Rules of Evidence define the term “matter asserted” to include any matter explicitly asserted, as well as any matter implied by a statement, if the probative value of the statement as offered flows from declarant’s belief as to the matter.[2] (Under the Federal Rules of Evidence the term “matter asserted” is not defined, thus limiting the applicability of the hearsay rule in federal courts to those matters actually asserted, not to those merely implied.)

TRE 802 boldly declares hearsay to be inadmissible unless otherwise permitted by rule or statute.[3] Never has there been a better example of the “exception swallowing the rule” than in the notion that hearsay is inadmissible. Not counting hearsay that is admissible pursuant to statutory authority, four separate hurdles in the Rules of Evidence themselves must be cleared before hearsay evidence will actually be inadmissible.  In order to constitute inadmissible hearsay, the statement must: (1) fall within the Rule 801(a-d) definition of hearsay and not within the Rule 801(e) definition of “non-hearsay”; (2) not fall within 24 enumerated exceptions which apply no matter whether the declarant is “available” or “unavailable”; (3) not fall within the three other enumerated exceptions which apply when the declarant is “unavailable”;[4] and (4) meet resistance in the form of a timely, specific objection.  The fourth hurdle is especially significant, because if no objection is lodged, hearsay evidence is both competent and probative.[5]

When it comes to hearsay, it is never too ambitious an undertaking to look for an exception for every objection. Even hearsay-within-hearsay is admissible, as long as each offered portion fits a rule or exception.[6]  The next series of posts will examine the hearsay exceptions, but before tackling the exceptions, it might be a good idea to take another quick look at what hearsay is, and what it isn’t.

STATEMENTS THAT ARE NOT HEARSAY

Wise practitioners follow the King’s advice to the White Rabbit and “begin at the beginning”[7] when considering the admissibility of evidence within the context of hearsay. Rather than skip directly to the exceptions, it is usually best to begin with the more fundamental question – is this evidence really hearsay?

The answer isn’t always as obvious as it seems. For example, an attorney need not fret over whether a lunatic’s outburst “Repent now – the end is near!” meets the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule if the statement isn’t offered to prove that, in fact, the world is coming to an end. Not offered for the truth of the matter asserted, the apocalyptic warning simply isn’t hearsay to begin with. On the other hand, just because a witness is available and providing testimony in court doesn’t mean that his own prior out-of-court statement isn’t hearsay.  If offered to prove its truth, a prior statement may very well be barred by hearsay notwithstanding the fact that the witness is available in court and subject to thorough cross-examination regarding it.

HEARSAY BASICS

TRE 801 defines hearsay as a statement, other than one made by the declarant while testifying at the trial or hearing, offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The three terms, “statement,” “declarant,” and “matter asserted” are defined in the rule.

The “declarant” is the person who made the statement. The term “matter asserted” includes any matter explicitly asserted, as well as any matter implied by the statement.  “Statement” means: (1) an oral or written verbal expression, or (2) nonverbal conduct, if it is intended as a substitute for verbal expression. Because hearsay statements encompass both verbal and non-verbal assertions, silent gestures such as pointing, nodding, or headshakes may be subject to challenge if these gestures are used as a substitute for a verbal response such as “over there,” “yes,” and “no.”  However, other non-verbal gestures, such as tears, may not be characterized as hearsay if the declarant did not intend the gesture to be an assertion.

In the hearsay context, an out-of-court “statement” will generally fall within one of six categories, as explained below:

  1. Explicit Verbal Assertion.  Example: The statement – “A section of the bridge collapsed, and I fell into the icy water as I walked across it” used to prove that the bridge collapsed and the declarant fell into the water.  HEARSAY
  2. Implicit Verbal Assertion.  Example: The statement – “Don’t walk on that bridge,” used to prove that the bridge was unsafe. HEARSAY
  3. Explicit Non-Verbal Assertion Substituting for Verbal Assertion.  Example: The gesture – a shake of the head in response to the question, “Is the bridge safe?” used to prove that the bridge was unsafe.  HEARSAY
  4. Implicit Non-Verbal Assertion Substituting for Verbal Assertion.  Example: The gesture – declarant grabs another person’s arm to impede his progress as his approaches the bridge, used to prove that the bridge ahead was unsafe. HEARSAY
  5. Verbal Expression. Example: The question – “Do you have a blanket I could use?” used to prove that the declarant was cold. HEARSAY
  6. Non-Verbal Expression.  Example: The gesture – declarant’s teeth were chattering, used to prove that declarant was cold. NOT HEARSAY

As these six examples demonstrate, “statements” can be assertions or merely expressions, explicit or implicit, verbal or non-verbal.  Only in the latter category, the non-verbal expression, does the statement fall outside the definition of hearsay. The nonverbal expression fails to meet the definition of “statement” because the declarant did not intend it to be an assertion.  (According to the rule, only if the declarant intends for his conduct to be an assertion will nonverbal conduct be considered hearsay.)

THE HEARSAY STATEMENTS THAT AREN’T

Sometimes a statement can look like hearsay and sound like hearsay – heck, it can even meet the very definition of hearsay – and still it isn’t hearsay.  To remember which statements fall within this loophole, one must think like a child.  When is hearsay not hearsay?  Either when someone uses magic words, or when your mother says so, that’s why.

Magic Words:  When the mere making of an out-of-court statement – regardless of its truthfulness – has legal significance, then it is magically transformed into a statement of “operative fact” which is not hearsay.  In this situation, even though the statement itself could provide proof of the truth of the matter asserted therein, it is offered for a more essential purpose. For example, when the words themselves constitute a necessary part of the cause of action or defense, such as when the mere making of the statement forms the basis of a fraud claim or constitutes the offer, acceptance or terms of a contract, then the statement itself is an operative fact and, therefore, not hearsay.

Because The Rule Says So, That’s Why:  Then there are those statements which fit squarely within the definition of hearsay, but nevertheless Rule 801(e) simply declares them not to be. Rule 801(e) identifies five categories of non-hearsay statements: (1) prior inconsistent statements, (2) prior consistent statements offered to rebut a charge of recent fabrication, improper influence or motive, (3) prior statements of identification of a person made after perceiving the person, (4) admissions by a party opponent, and (5) depositions taken in the same proceeding.  (Some of these non-hearsay statements have been discussed in prior posts. Follow the link provided for a more in-depth look at these.)

Keep in mind that when responding to a hearsay objection lodged against these non-hearsay statements, it may be tempting to respond that these statements are exceptions to the hearsay rule.  But, technically, that is not correct.  These statements don’t fall within a hearsay exception – they are simply not hearsay to begin with.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


[1] Tex. R. Evid. 801(d).

[2] Tex. R. Evid. 801(c).

[3] Tex. R. Evid. 802; see Tex. R. Evid. 801(e), 803, 804.

[4] See, Miranda v. State, 813 S.W.2d 724, 735 (Tex.App.—San Antonio 1991, pet ref’d).

[5] Unobjected to hearsay statements will not be denied their probative value merely because they are hearsay. Tex. R. Evid. 802.

[6] Tex. R. Evid. 805.

[7] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


Using Judicial Notice to Determine Foreign Law

May 3, 2012

For a native Texan like me, folks don’t have to live outside the 50 states to be considered foreigners.  After all, just because we share a national government doesn’t mean that Texans have anything more in common with New Yorkers than we do with New Zealanders.  The Texas Rules of Evidence recognize this, at least with regard to the laws of other places, and establish judicial notice as the vehicle to determine the substance of applicable law anytime you step across the Texas border.

While they are both considered “foreign,” there are only two essential differences between the process of taking judicial notice of the laws of Georgia the country and Georgia the state.  According to Rule 203 of the Texas Rules of Evidence, applying foreign country law may require (1) translations from foreign text into English text, and (2) reliance on informal evidence, such as affidavits and treatises, to “prove” what the foreign law is.  Otherwise, both require some sort of notice to the other side and an opportunity to be heard, and in both situations, it is a decision for the judge, not the jury, and reviewable as an issue of law. 

Foreign State Law:  To request that judicial notice be taken of the laws of another state, TRE 202 basically requires a party to do two things:  (1) furnish the court sufficient information to make a determination of what the law is, and (2) notify the other side that judicial notice is being requested so that they may invoke their right to be heard on the propriety of taking judicial notice.  Normally, it is sufficient to provide copies of relevant statutes and case law in order to satisfy the first step.  Adequate notice to the other side is a matter to be determined by the court, and the rule contemplates that no notice may sometimes suffice, provided that if no advance notice is given, the opposing party be given an opportunity to be heard on the matter after notice has been taken.

Foreign Country Law:  Requesting judicial notice of foreign law is also a relatively simple procedure.  At least 30 days prior to trial, notice of a party’s desire for the court to take judicial notice of a foreign law must be given, along with copies of all materials and sources it intends to use as proof of the foreign law.  If translated materials and sources are used, the original foreign-language text must also be provided.  Proof of foreign law may be informal, including materials which are in otherwise inadmissible form, such as affidavits and treatises.  A judge may also refer to sources which are not provided by either side, provided, however, that both sides are given notice of the use of outside sources and an opportunity to be heard on the matter.

There is one important reason why attorneys should know how to invoke the court’s authority to take judicial notice of non-Texas law:  If it isn’t done correctly, the appellate courts will presume that the law of the other jurisdiction is the same as Texas law.  UTICA v. Mutual Ins. Co. v. Bennett, 492 S.W.2d 659 (Tex. Civ. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1973) (failure to make proper request); Pittsburg Corning Corp. v. Walters, 1 S.W.3d 759 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1999) (failure to provide adequate proof of the other law).    And the easiest way to seek judicial notice of non-Texas law is through a summary judgment proceeding.  By doing so, the issue may be decided efficiently and summarily while ensuring that the notice requirements are satisfied.  (Practice tip:  For foreign law, to allay concerns that a summary judgment hearing is considered a “trial” for purposes of TRE 203, provide 30 days’ notice of the hearing instead of 21, and add 15 more days if using a translation of foreign documents, in order to comply with TRE 1009).

When opposing a summary judgment of this type, take care not to assume that the traditional summary judgment standards will apply, and avoid the temptation to try to raise a fact issue to defeat the motion.  Judicial notice of non-Texas law has been recognized as a “hybrid” rule, in that it requires the presentation of evidence, yet is a legal determination.  When there is disagreement over the content of the law, based on evidence presented from various sources, it will not be treated as a fact issue which will preclude summary judgment.  Instead, the proper inquiry is whether the trial court, in reviewing the conflicting evidence about the foreign law, reached a proper legal conclusion as to its content.  CPS International, Inc. v  Dresser Industries, Inc., 911 S.W.2d 18 (Tex. App. — El Paso, 1995). 

Whether from India or Indiana, our evidentiary and procedural rules create a fairly straight-forward mechanism to determine what the law is anytime we need to apply the law of another jurisdiction, such as when parties to a contract agree that the law of another state will govern a particular dispute.  Of course, this begs the question of why anyone would ever do this.  After all, if the law’s good enough for Texas, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of the world?

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


The Dead Man’s Rule

April 11, 2012

It is said that dead men tell no tales.  But in Texas, sometimes they do.  It all depends on whether the Dead Man’s Rule applies.

Although reference to the Dead Man’s Statute is still fairly common in legal practice, the former Article 3716 Dead Man’s Statute, which was enacted in the 1870′s was actually repealed by the Texas Legislature in the early 1980′s.  The current law is found in Texas Rules of Evidence 601(b), and is now called the Dead Man’s Rule:

“Dead Man Rule” in Civil Actions: In civil actions by or against executors, administrators, or guardians, in which judgment may be rendered for or against them as such, neither party shall be allowed to testify against the others as to any oral statement by the testator, intestate or ward, unless that testimony to the oral statement is corroborated or unless the witness is called at the trial to testify thereto by the opposite party; and, the provisions of this article shall extend to and include all actions by or against the heirs or legal representatives of a decedent based in whole or in part on such oral statement…

Although the Dead Man’s Rule is similar to the former Dead Man’s Statute, it is less restrictive.  Thus, much of the case law decided prior to 1983 dealing with the admissibility of statements made by decedents is inapplicable because the language of the statute interpreted by those cases was considerably broader in scope.  The statute applied to all testimony, not just testimony at trial, and it applied to all transactions with a decedent, not just transactions based on oral statements made by a decedent.  

The purpose of the doctrine remains the same, however, and that is to prevent a party in litigation from offering testimony attributed to a deceased person when that person is no longer available to refute it.  Once death has sealed the decedent’s lips, the rule works to seal the lips of any other party who might benefit from fabricating conversations or statements.  Without such a rule, it is feared that a fraud could be more easily perpetrated either on behalf of or against a decedent’s estate.

While the former Dead Man’s Statute barred evidence of a decedent’s oral statements as to any transactions involving the decedent, the Dead Man’s Rule applies only to civil actions[1] when one party to the lawsuit is the executor, administrator, heir or legal representative of the decedent’s estate[2].  Unless the oral statement can be corroborated by a disinterested witness, it is excluded from evidence under the rule.  The Rule applies only in cases involving parties in their representative capacity, and does not apply when a party is suing in his own individual capacity.  For that reason, while the Dead Man’s Rule would apply to survival actions, it would have no applicability in a wrongful death action.[3]

Corroboration.  If any disinterested witness offers testimony as to prior statements made by a decedent, then such testimony will corroborate the testimony of the executor, administrator, heir or legal representative as to those same statements.  In that event, the executor, administrator, heir or legal representative is no longer barred from providing testimony about the statements.  Generally speaking, for purposes of this Rule, a disinterested witness is any person who is not an executor, administrator, heir or legal representative.  This may include relatives and close friends, as long as they do not have a financial interest in the decedent’s estate or the outcome of the lawsuit.  The corroboration may also come in the form of a document.

It is not necessary that the corroborating witness provide direct testimony about the decedent’s oral statement, so the corroborating witness need not actually have heard the words spoken.  All that is required is that the corroborating witness provide testimony that tends to prove the truthfulness of the testimony that would otherwise be barred.  For example, proof that a decedent subsequently acted in conformity with the decedent’s alleged oral statement would suffice as corroboration and render an executor’s testimony as to the statement admissible.

Waiver.  The applicability of the Dead Man’s Rule can be waived by calling the adverse party to the stand and eliciting testimony about statements which would otherwise be barred under the rule.  Unlike the Dead Man’s Statute, however, there is no waiver in the eliciting of these statements during discovery.  As with virtually all evidence that may be offered at trial, waiver can also occur by failing to object when testimony is offered in violation of the Dead Man’s Rule.

Jury Instruction.  In cases where a witness’s testimony has been excluded under the Dead Man’s Rule, the trial court is required to instruct the jury as to the application of the rule.  The last sentence of Rule 601(b) provides that a trial court shall “instruct the jury that such person is not permitted by the law to give evidence relating to any oral statement by the deceased or ward unless the oral statement is corroborated or unless the party or witness is called at the trial by the opposite party.”  The purpose of this instruction is to prevent one party from improperly suggesting to the jury that because there is no evidence at trial about decedent’s statements, the decedent must not have made any.

So, the bottom line is that dead men do tell tales inTexas.  Was there ever really any doubt?

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


[1] The Dead Man’s statute never applies in criminal cases.

[2] The rule also applies to guardians of estates.  In this circumstance, prior oral statements by a person later declared incompetent are treated the same as prior oral statements made by a decedent.

[3] But where the two causes of action are intertwined, the Rule would be applicable unless the claims are severable. 


Summaries of Evidence

February 26, 2012

Perhaps the best summary ever written appears in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a fictitious travel guide touted in Douglas Adams’ humorous five-part “trilogy,” Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as the most comprehensive source of information on intergalactic space travel destinations. In the Guide, planet Earth is summed up in two words: “Mostly harmless.”

Summaries are a very efficient means of communication.  They can also be an effective evidentiary tool at trial, especially when a jury, or judge for that matter, would be otherwise overwhelmed with voluminous data necessary to determine a fact issue in dispute.  In recognition of that, the Texas Supreme Court long ago wisely decided that in certain circumstances summaries should be allowed to substitute for voluminous documents at trial and established a three-part test for admission of summaries. Applying this test, a summary of records would be admissible as long as the underlying records on which the summary was based were:  (1) admissible, (2) voluminous, and (3) provided to the opposing counsel for inspection.  

The purpose of this common law rule was convenience and ease in handling of exhibits, a practical solution to the problem presented to the trier of fact who faces massive amounts of documents in evidence. 

Rule 1006 Summaries:

More than a decade later, the Texas Rules of Evidence codified the common law rule on summaries and expanded it to include recordings and photographs.  The three-prong test was also incorporated into the language of the rule.  TRE 1006 now provides: 

The contents of voluminous writings, recordings, or photographs, otherwise admissible, which cannot conveniently be examined in court may be presented in the form of a chart, summary or calculation.  The originals, or duplicates, shall be made available for examination or copying, or both, by other parties at a reasonable time and place… 

 Under Rule 1006, a summary which meets the original three-prong test has one additional hurdle to admission.  Pursuant to the express language of the rule, a proponent must show that the summary is necessary because the voluminous underlying materials “cannot conveniently be examined in court.”  Trial courts are given broad discretion to decide what is convenient and what’s not. Provided the summary meets the requirements of Rule 1006 and does not convey a false impression of the evidence, it should be admitted into evidence.

The value of a Rule 1006 summary is in the use the jury may make of it.  When a summary is admitted into evidence, it is sent to the jury room as an exhibit, the same as would the underlying records on which it is based.  The jury may rely on the summary as evidence and base a verdict on it.  This is the essential difference between a Rule 1006 summary and the next type of summary, the pedagogical summary. 

Demonstrative (Pedagogical) Summaries:

A demonstrative summary, or as the federal courts often call it, a “pedagogical summary,” is the most common summary used at trial.  Like a Rule 1006 summary, a demonstrative summary also summarizes evidence for the jury to consider.  It may look a lot like a Rule 1006 summary, but it serves a different purpose.  While a Rule 1006 summary is used for convenience, a demonstrative summary is generally used as a tool of persuasion. 

For example, a demonstrative summary chart might be used simply to connect evidence that might otherwise seem disjointed or unrelated, as opposed to summarizing voluminous data, which is the purpose of the Rule 1006 summary. While the demonstrative summary may also have the added benefit of being convenient to the jury in considering the evidence, it is used primarily to highlight or organize certain evidence to aid in persuasion.

Trial courts generally permit the use of demonstrative aids, including summaries, during trial, especially during closing argument, because they are useful to the jury in considering the evidence.  However useful they may be, though, demonstrative summaries have no place in the jury room during deliberations.  This is the primary difference between the Rule 1006 summary and the demonstrative summary – a Rule 1006 summary is evidence in and of itself, a demonstrative summary is not.

Business Record Summaries:

There is yet a third type of summary which is frequently offered into evidence at trial.  Like a Rule 1006 summary, it may be received as actual evidence and considered by the jury during deliberations as evidence, yet it doesn’t have to satisfy the Rule 1006 requirements for admissibility.  These are summaries of voluminous business records which are normally maintained in summary format.  If a summary is the format in which business records are normally kept, then they can be admitted under the rules of evidence providing for the admission of business records, such as Rule 902(10), instead of Rule 1006.

To determine whether the summary may be admissible as an exception to hearsay, rather than a Rule 1006 summary, one should look to its purpose.  Rule 1006 summaries (and demonstrative summaries) are prepared for the purpose of litigation.  In contrast, the business summary is prepared for use by the company who keeps the record.  If they are business record summaries, then their admission is governed by TRE 803(6), the business record exception to the hearsay rule.  None of the requirements of Rule 1006 will be a predicate to admissibility.              

As a practice pointer, don’t limit the use of summaries to jury trials.  Even in a bench trial, a well-organized demonstrative summary can be a surprisingly effective persuasive technique.  Perhaps even more helpful, however, is the Rule 1006 summary, which can save a judge countless hours of sorting through records, data or other information necessary to make a decision in a case.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Unfiled Discovery Products As Summary Judgment Evidence

January 29, 2012

Prior to 1999, courthouses across Texas were running out of storage space for the voluminous discovery documents which were being filed in civil cases, particularly in complex litigation matters.  The Texas Supreme Court responded with the promulgation of TRCP 191.4, which for the first time excepted out certain types of discovery documents which, according to the rule, should not be filed with the court.  While this change apparently did accomplish its purpose of reducing the space necessary to store civil files, it also raised new questions as to the proper use and treatment of discovery products relied upon in the summary judgment context.

Generally speaking, if the discovery relied upon to support or defend a summary judgment motion is filed with the court, then a movant or respondent relying upon it need only make specific reference to it in the motion or response for the discovery to be considered properly before the court as summary judgment evidence.  However, if the discovery is unfiled, then additional steps must be taken to ensure that the discovery products are before the court for consideration as evidence in the summary judgment context.

TRCP 166a(d) provides that in order for unfiled discovery products to be used as summary judgment evidence, the party relying upon it must file a “statement of intent” to use the specific discovery as summary judgment proof.   To comply with this rule, many attorneys will file a “Statement of Intent” either as a part of the summary judgment motion or response, or as a separate pleading.  The latter is the safest approach, but is oftentimes unnecessary. 

First, case law is clear that a separate pleading is not required.  Moreover, despite the plain language of the rule, in certain circumstances even use of the words “statement of intent” is not necessary.  The requirement to file a “statement of intent” will be fulfilled when the discovery is attached to the motion and the motion clearly relies on the attached discovery for support, notwithstanding the lack of a formal “statement of intent” on file.  Blake v. Intco Investments of Texas, Inc., 123 S.W.3d 521 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 2003).

The bigger question arises as to whether unfiled discovery need be filed at all.  The rule itself does not clearly state whether it must be filed.  TRCP 166a(d) simply provides that unfiled discovery products may be used as summary judgment evidence if “a notice containing specific references to the discovery” is filed along with a statement of intent to use the specified discovery as summary judgment proof.”  The rule is silent as to whether the unfiled discovery must be attached to the motion or response as well, although the comments following the rule have been read by some to imply that they should be attached.  And, of course, that is the safest approach.

At least one court has applied TRCP 166a(d) to require that the unfiled discovery documents be filed with the court in advance of the hearing.  Gomez v. TriCity Community Hospital, Ltd., 4 S.W.3d 281 (Tex.App. — San Antonio 1999) (the summary judgment evidence was not before the trial court because appellants “failed to file the discovery materials referenced in their notice” prior to the summary judgment hearing).  Two other courts have interpreted the rule to permit specific references to be used rather than requiring a party to file the discovery document itself.  In both of these cases, however, the courts did require a recitation of the substance of the discovery product in order to meet the “specific reference” requirement of the rule.  E.B. Smith Co. v. U.S. Fidelity and Guaranty Co., 850 S.W.2d 621 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1993) (interpreting the term “specific reference” to require the party relying on unfiled discovery to show the court “language” from the document); Salmon v. Miller, 958 S.W.2d 424 (Tex. App. — Texarkana 1997) (holding deposition testimony not properly before the court because movant provided specific page and line number references instead of excerpts). 

One court has held, albeit inferentially, that specific page numbers and other identifiers of that nature will suffice.  Grainger v. Western Casualty Life Insurance Co., 930 S.W.2d 609 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1996) (unfiled deposition identified by deponent, volume and page number, unfiled interrogatories referred to by set and number, with a six-page summary of the evidence in a memorandum filed with the court).  The dissent in Grainger points out the two major problems with this approach.  First, this interpretation leaves no mechanism for a trial judge to access or verify the information which is not on file with the court.  Second, allowing a memorandum summary of the evidence in lieu of actual excerpts blurs the line between argument and evidence.  (In fairness, the opinion in Grainger was also based on the fact that the appellant had waived error by failing to object at the trial court level to movant’s reliance on unfiled discovery in this manner.)

In many ways, the law remains unclear as to how to treat unfiled discovery in the summary judgment context.  Until the Texas Supreme Court weighs in, at minimum, a movant or respondent should provide extensive verbatim quotes of the contents of any unfiled discovery which is being relied upon.  It is never a bad idea to file the discovery products themselves, but keep in mind that even when the discovery products are filed, the inquiry doesn’t stop there.  Especially when such documents are voluminous, specific references must be made to the particular excerpts being relied upon.  Otherwise, the trial court may refuse to consider it.  Kelly v. Gaines, 181 S.W.3d 394 (Tex. App. — Waco 2005).  As one court put it, a court shouldn’t be expected to “sift through a 500-page deposition to search for evidence.”  Guthrie v. Suiter, 934 S.W.2d 820 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1996). 

Amen to that.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Admissibility of Interested Witness Evidence in Summary Judgment Proceedings

January 14, 2012

One of the most striking differences between summary judgment evidence and evidence at trial is in the use of interested witness testimony. While the evidence at most trials includes interested witness testimony – often riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies – the use of this type of evidence in the summary judgment context is quite restricted. 

Rule 166a(c) of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure provides that interested witness testimony used to support a summary judgment must be: 

  1. uncontroverted, 
  2. clear, 
  3. positive and direct, 
  4. otherwise credible and free from contradictions and inconsistencies, and 
  5. capable of being readily controverted. 

Whether interested witness testimony must be excluded pursuant to Rule 166a(c) often depends upon the answers to two questions:

Whose evidence is it?

Which party is offering the evidence should always be the threshold inquiry because the rule is entirely one-sided in application. While the rule is quite clear that a summary judgment cannot be based on the testimony of an interested witness [unless it complies with 166a(c)], the 166a(c) restrictions do not apply to the use of interested witness testimony by a non-movant to overcome a summary judgment motion. In other words, the same type of interested witness testimony that may be objectionable as against a movant seeking summary judgment could actually be used to raise a fact issue on behalf of a non-movant seeking to defeat one.  Tabor v. Medical Center Bank, 534 S.W.2d 199 (Tex. App. — Houston [14th Dist.] 1976) (testimony of interested witness is sufficient to raise a fact issue precluding summary judgment).

Is the witness “interested”?

Another important area of inquiry is whether the witness is actually “interested,” within the meaning of the rule.  Clearly, parties in a case are interested witnesses, as are expert witnesses.  Not so clear is what other types of witnesses are considered “interested” for the purposes of Rule 166a(c).  

Generally speaking, an “interested witness” is one who has a stake in the outcome of the pending litigation.  Brooks v. Sherry Lane National Bank, 788 S.W.2d 874, 877 (Tex. App. – Dallas 1990).  The rule has also been extended to include a witness who has a stake in other litigation involving the same subject matter. Hayes v. E.T.S. Enter, Inc., 809 S.W.2d 652 (Tex. App. – Amarillo 1991). While employees of parties are considered “interested witnesses,” Castaneda v. Texas Dept. of Agriculture, 831 S.W.2d 501 (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi 1992), former employees are not.  Nicholson v. Smith, 986 S.W.2d 54 (Tex. App. – San Antonio 1999).  One court has extended the interested witness rule to include witnesses who have no stake in the litigation and who are not associated with either litigant, but who may have a pecuniary interest in the outcome. Martin v. Cloth World of Texas, Inc., 692 S.W.2d 134 (Tex. App. – Dallas 1985) [a real estate agent who could potentially earn income based on a particular outcome of the suit would have a “partisan feeling” about the case sufficient to subject the testimony to the requirements of 166a(c)]. 

When interested witness testimony is offered to support a motion for summary judgment, the most frequent objections lodged are that the testimony is: 

  • self-serving,
  • not free from contradictions or inconsistencies, and 
  • not readily controverted. 

Because each of these objections is problematic in its own way, attorneys should take care in making and responding to these types of objections.

Self-serving:  When dealing with interested witness testimony, this is perhaps the most common objection raised. Ironically, the term “self-serving” doesn’t even appear in Rule 166a(c) (or any other rule of evidence, for that matter). While interested witness testimony does tend to be self-serving, the mere fact that it is self-serving does not necessarily make the evidence improper in the summary judgment context. Trico Tech Corporation v. Montiel, 949 S.W.2d 308 (Tex. 1997). Assuming the interested witness testimony otherwise complies with Rule 166a(c), the fact that it is self-serving forms no basis for objection.

Contraditions and Inconsistencies:  Most often this objection is raised in the context of a “sham affidavit.”[1]  When raised in this context, this objection is also improper, because the 166a(c) “interested witness” rules apply only to the movant’s evidence.[2] However, when a movant offers contradictory or inconsistent interested witness testimony, then this objection is properly raised.

Not Readily Controverted:  “Could have been readily controverted” generally describes a particular type of evidence that can be effectively countered by opposing evidence. It is not a rule of convenience, it is a rule of possibility. Just because obtaining controverting evidence may be a difficult task does not mean that testimony is not readily controvertible. Casso v. Brand, 776 S.W.2d 551 (Tex. 1989). “Not easily controverted” most often applies to testimony regarding mental state, such as what an affiant knew or intended. When it involves the mental workings of an individual’s mind, the opponent could have no knowledge or ready means of confirming or disputing, and it would be considered not readily controvertible. Lukasik v. San Antonio Blue Haven Pools, Inc., 21 S.W.3d 394 (Tex. App. – San Antonio 2000). Likewise, when the credibility of the affiant may be essential to the resolution of the case, then the testimony is not considered readily controvertible. One court held that since a deponent was not an eye-witness and he based his knowledge only on what others told him, the testimony was not readily controvertible. CEBI Metal v. Garcia, 108 S.W.3d 464 (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.] 2003) (opponent could not readily controvert the deponent’s testimony by cross-examination at the deposition, since one cannot cross-examine a declarant who is not present).[3] Finally, in a spoliation situation, when a critical piece of evidence has been discarded, testimony regarding the missing evidence may not be readily controverted. Id

The importance of recognizing incompetent interested witness testimony cannot be overstated. If a proper objection is not raised in a timely manner, it is waived, and a summary judgment based on improper evidence may be affirmed on appeal. Some summary judgment evidence objections cannot be waived, however. But that’s a blog for another day.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


[1] A “sham affidavit” is an affidavit that contradicts the witness’ earlier testimony in order to create a fact issue to avoid summary judgment.

[2] There is a split in authority as to whether sham affidavits can be stricken in the summary judgment context.  However, rather than striking the affidavit at the summary judgment stage, many courts believe that the safer approach is to impose sanctions for filing an affidavit in bad faith after trial on the merits has been concluded.

[3] This was a novel and seemingly unnecessary use of the rule, since it appears that a simple hearsay objection may have sufficed.


Summary Judgment Evidence – The Pleadings

January 7, 2012

Summary Judgment 101 teaches that pleadings, even sworn pleadings, are not competent summary judgment evidence.  All Texas lawyers learn early-on that they cannot rely on pleadings to prove a fact, raise a fact issue in dispute or otherwise provide evidentiary support for a summary judgment. 

While this is true as a general rule, it is not always so.  There are times when a summary judgment may be properly based upon the pleadings standing alone.  Whether a summary judgment can be based on pleadings depends in part on what cause of action is contained in the pleadings and whose pleadings are being considered.

Movant’s Pleadings

Generally speaking, a party moving for summary judgment cannot rely on statements of fact contained in its own pleadings, even if those pleadings are verified or sworn to.  However, if the plaintiff’s underlying cause of action requires a sworn response and if the defendant has failed to file a verified denial, then the plaintiff may move for summary judgment. 

The most common example of this is in cases involving suits on sworn accounts.  If a plaintiff properly pleads a suit on a sworn account and the defendant fails to file a verified denial of the account, then summary judgment may be granted based on the pleadings alone.  Nguyen v. Short, How, Frels & Heitz, P.C., 108 S.W.3d 558 (Tex. App. — Dallas 2003) (“a defendant’s noncompliance with Rule 185 conclusively establishes that there is no defense to the suit on the sworn account).  Quite often, a respondent may be given an opportunity to cure the pleading defect prior to summary judgment, but failing that, a summary judgment would be appropriate.  In these cases, the movant’s pleadings are not considered summary judgment “evidence,” but absent a verified denial, movant’s pleadings do constitute prima facie proof sufficient to support the summary judgment. 

Non-Movant’s Pleadings

Likewise, a non-movant may not rely on its own pleadings to establish a fact necessary to defeat a summary judgment motion, even if the pleading is verified.  However, under certain circumstances, a movant may rely on the non-movant’s pleadings to establish its entitlement to summary judgment. 

Admissions:  The first way that this can occur is when a non-movant’s pleadings contain statements of fact or conclusions which are not pled in the alternative and which are directly contrary to its own theory of recovery or defense.  Statements of fact such as these contained in the non-movant’s pleadings are considered judicial admissions which are conclusively established without the necessity of other evidence.  For that reason, a non-movant’s pleadings of this nature may support a summary judgment for the moving party.  As with the rule on suits on sworn accounts, admissions contained in the non-movant’s pleadings are not considered summary judgment “evidence” per se, but may nevertheless support the judgment. Judicial admissions are not considered summary judgment proof, but rather a waiver of proof because of their binding effect as an admission.  Galvan v. Public Utilities Bd., 778 S.W.2d 580 (Tex. App. — Corpus Christi 1989) (defendant’s pleadings stating it was “an agency of the City of Brownsville, Texas” held sufficient proof to support plaintiff’s summary judgment on the issue of agency).

No Viable Cause of Action:  The second way that this can occur is when a party’s pleading contains no viable cause of action under the law.  This can occur in one of two ways:  (1) pleading a cause of action which is not recognized under Texas law, or (2) failing to plead any cause of action at all.  In either situation, a movant may support its motion for summary judgment on the non-movant’s pleadings alone.  Helena Lab. Corp. v. Snyder, 886 S.W.2d 767 (Tex. 1994).  Beware, however, that the Supreme Court expects that before a court grants a “no cause of action” summary judgment, the respondent be given an adequate opportunity to plead a viable cause of action.  Friesenhahn v. Ryan, 960 S.W.2d 656 (Tex. 1998) (holding that because the movant’s special exceptions were denied, the respondents were “never on notice that their pleadings may be deficient”; therefore, summary judgment was improper).

While in some cases summary judgment may be based upon pleadings alone, when the summary judgment motion is based on a pleading defect, such as a lack of verification required by law or failure to plead a viable cause of action, the movant should first file a special exception and have that matter heard sufficiently in advance of the summary judgment motion to allow respondent adequate opportunity to cure its pleading defects.  However, with regard to summary judgment motions based on admissions, an opportunity to cure is not required under the law.

In the next blog, we will explore issues regarding use of the more customary types of summary judgment evidence.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas


Exceptions to the Best Evidence Rule

December 12, 2011

Best evidence is a lot like hearsay.  To understand the rule, you must understand the exceptions.  And, although the best evidence rule exceptions certainly aren’t as numerous as the hearsay exceptions, they are significant. 

There are five major exceptions to the best evidence rule, and they are found in Rule 1004 of the Texas Rules of Evidence.  Rule 1004, which codified existing state common law exceptions, specifically authorizes “other evidence” to prove the contents of a document[1] when the document (or its duplicate[2]):

  1. has been lost or destroyed;
  2. cannot be obtained;
  3. cannot be found in Texas;
  4. is in the possession of an opponent who fails to produce it; or
  5. is offered for a collateral purpose

(These Texas exceptions mirror the Federal Rules of Evidence, except that the federal rules contain no geographical exception equivalent to the third exception.)

 The importance of these exceptions can’t be overstated.  If an exception applies, then the best evidence rule no longer bars the use of secondary evidence to prove document contents.  In practical terms, this means that a witness may, through testimony alone, prove up the contents of a memo or a videotape, without ever tendering the memo or the videotape into evidence.  This is why it is so important to understand the exceptions, the applications and the limitations.

Lost or Destroyed:  This exception generally applies to inadvertent loss or destruction.  Under this exception, a claim that despite a reasonable and good faith effort to locate a document, it cannot be located may be sufficient to permit proof of the contents of a document through testimony or other secondary sources.  While the rule envisions accidental loss or destruction, even documents which have been intentionally destroyed may be proved up through secondary sources, assuming no bad faith on the part of the proponent. For example, in one federal case, the I.R.S. was able to use secondary proof of the contents of a taxpayer’s records, even though the agency itself had destroyed the records because the court found the destruction “negligent,” but not in bad faith.    

Not Obtainable:  This exception provides that secondary sources may be used to prove the contents of a document when it can’t be obtained by any available judicial procedure.  The exception is aimed at documents which are not in the possession of any party to the lawsuit which, despite reasonable efforts, simply cannot be obtained, either by informal persuasion or formal process.  Obviously, this exception would not apply to any document which could be obtained through subpoena duces tecum or deposition discovery subpoena. 

Not in Texas:  You don’t have to cross the Red River to look for documents.  As a practical matter, however, it may not be a bad idea to make the trip, since your opponent will not be precluded from doing so.  And if your opponent should obtain the document, then the exception would no longer apply.  In that event, the secondary source of evidence you planned to introduce at trial would now be inadmissible as violative of the best evidence rule, since the document would now be available in Texas.

Opponent Fails to Produce It:  This is an interesting rule which allows one party to put the other party on notice that proof of a particular document under the other party’s control[3] will be a subject of proof.  If, after being put on notice “by the pleadings or otherwise,” the other party does not produce the original, then secondary sources may be used to prove its contents.  One might wonder why this rule is necessary, given all of the discovery tools available today.  Since this exception applies to hearings as well as trials, it could be particularly useful in situations involving time constraints.  For example, when there is no time to obtain discovery prior to a hearing, or when outstanding discovery has been resisted, the contents of a document which has not yet been produced by the other side may be admissible, as long as adequate notice has been given.  Once on notice, then the other side has two choices:  (1) produce the document, or (2) face the secondary proof of its contents. 

Collateral Purposes:  This is perhaps the most important exception to the best evidence rule, and if an attorney can remember only one thing about the best evidence rule, this is it.  The best evidence rule does not apply when evidence is offered to prove something other than the contents of a document or when the contents do not relate to a controlling issue.  For example, the best evidence rule does not apply when the matter sought to be proven is not content, but notice, service or delivery of a document.   Likewise, if a heavy book falls off a shelf and injures a customer standing below, the best evidence doctrine does not require that the book be produced at trial, as the content of the book is a collateral matter. 

Summary: In this last series of three blogs, we have examined what the best evidence rule is and what it is not.  It is a rule which applies only to “documents” and testimony concerning the contents of documents.  It is a rule which allows a duplicate of any document to be just as admissible as the original, with a couple of narrow exceptions. 

What it is not is a rule which requires that the best witness be called or the best proof be offered at trial.  The application of the best evidence rule does not exclude evidence based on any type of qualitative assessment of the evidence as poor, good, better or best.  Its only aim is to insure accuracy of evidence under the premise that proof of the contents of a document should ordinarily come from the document itself.

– Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court, Tarrant County, Texas


[1] The term “document” includes writings, recordings or photographs.  TRE 1001.

[2] Originals and duplicates are used interchangeably here, because TRE 1003 elevates the status of a duplicate to that of an original, except under two narrow exceptions discussed in the last blog.

[3] Rule 1004 uses the word “control,” not merely possession.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers

%d bloggers like this: