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.


Judicial Admissions in Testimony

July 24, 2011

It is a generally-understood principle that a statement of fact contained in a motion or pleading may constitute a formal judicial admission which is accepted as true by the court and jury and binds the party making it.  What is less understood are the circumstances under which this rule may be extended to in-court statements and testimony and when these statements may be held to be equally conclusive.

Although formal judicial admissions may look like the quasi-judicial admissions found in Rule 801 of the Texas Rules of Evidence (statements made during judicial proceedings which are exceptions to the hearsay rule and constitute some evidence, but not conclusive evidence), they actually work more like the discovery admissions of Rule 198 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, because they do constitute conclusive evidence.  The main difference is that they aren’t governed by any rule or statute, and we must look to case law for guidance on their application.

The general rule is that any formal declaration against interest made in open court by a party has the potential for being construed as a judicial admission.  Davidson v. State of Texas, 737 S.W.2d 942 (Tex. App. — Amarillo 1987).  At first blush, it may appear that such a broad rule would carry enormous risk that an unsophisticated or imprudent client might just talk himself right out of court.  Fortunately, the law provides certain safeguards to protect those who lack requisite wordsmithing skills to avoid the heartburn associated with a meal of their own words.

First, courts have clarified that this rule should be applied with caution.  United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Carr, 242 S.W.2d 224 (Tex. App. — San Antonio 1951).  Second, courts seem to indulge an initial presumption that such statements are quasi-admissions, not true judicial admissions, and, as such, some evidence, but not conclusive of the facts admitted.  Mendoza v. Fidelity & Guaranty Insurance Underwriters, Inc., 606 S.W.2d 6924 (Tex. 1980).  Only when a party’s statement satisfies each prong of the Texas Supreme Court’s five-prong test will a quasi-admission be elevated to the status of a formal judicial admission and bind the party making it:

1.  The declaration relied upon was made during the course of a judicial proceeding.  This appears to include deposition testimony, Adams v. Tri-Continental Leasing Corp., 713 S.W.152 (Tex. App. — Dallas 1986) (deposition testimony in that case held not to be a judicial admission due to conflict in the testimony), but not out-of-court statements made after suit was filed but prior to trial. American Baler Co. v. SRS Sys, Inc., 748 S.W.2d 243 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1988).

2.  The statement is contrary to an essential fact embraced in the theory of recovery or defense asserted by the person giving the testimony.  The prong is fairly self-explanatory.  What it seems to suggest is that a party shouldn’t be put in peril of testifying himself out of court on matters that are merely tangential or non-essential.  Therefore, unless the admission goes to the heart of a party’s cause of action or defense, the statement will not bar a party from offering evidence contrary to their own testimony.

3.  The statement is deliberate, clear and unequivocal, and the hypothesis of mere mistake or slip of the tongue has been eliminated.  Most cases focus on this prong.  Unfortunately, they are few in number and most are decades old.  Nevertheless, these cases do provide some good examples of the type of testimony which has been held to be insufficiently “deliberate, clear and unequivocal”:

*          Opinion testimony by a party on matters which a lay person would not be qualified or competent to testify.  Mendoza at 694 (a plaintiff’s opinion about his own physical limitations).

*          Facts which are not peculiarly within the declarant’s own knowledge, but are mere impressions of a transaction or an event as a participant or an observer, especially when there is evidence to the contrary.  Gevinson v. Manhattan Construction Co., 449 S.W.2d 458, 466 (Tex. 1969) (a party’s sworn statement that the other party “foreclosed” on property).

*          Inexactitude in testimony.  Cranetex, Inc. v. Precision Crane & Rigging, 760 S.W.2d 298, 304 (Tex. App. — Texarkana, 1989) (“on or about” a certain date was equivocal as to the date); Bray v. McNeely, 682 S.W.2d 615 (Tex. App. — Houston [1st Dist.] 1984) (“I think so” was ambiguous).

4.  The giving of conclusive effect to the declaration will be consistent with the public policy upon which the rule is based.  There is little to no case law which addresses the application of this prong.  However, the Supreme Court has clearly articulated the public policy which underlies this rule, to wit:  that it would be unjust to permit a party to recover after he has sworn himself out of court by clear, unequivocal testimony.  Mendozaat 694.

5.  The statement is not also destructive of the opposing party’s theory of recovery.  This final prong simply embraces the general rule that applies to all admissions, i.e., that one party’s admissions cannot be used against other parties. Griffin v. Superior Insurance Co., 338 S.W.2d 415 (Tex. 1960).

Given the potential for a party testifying himself out of court, most attorneys should feel at least some degree of trepidation anytime they see their clients raise their hands to take the oath.  Worrisome as that may be, however, there is one thing that is even worse than having your client talk himself out of court.  And that’s when you do it for him.  In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at that.

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


Use of Admissions at Trial

July 16, 2011

Admissions are powerful evidence.  Properly used, they not only conclusively establish the admitted fact, but they also serve to bar any evidence to the contrary.  The bar may be short-lived, however, if vigilance is not exercised to prevent inadvertent waiver.

Rule 198 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure addresses two types of admissions:  (1) admissions and (2) deemed admissions.  Of course, admissions respond to a request for admission by admitting the facts sought.  Deemed admissions occur when no response, or a late response, is made.  Deemed admissions are considered admissions without the necessity of a court order.

Both admissions and deemed admissions will retain their status as admissions until they have been withdrawn or amended by court order.  Hence, untimely denials, even if only a day or two late, are ineffective to negate deemed admissions.  Deemed admissions remain admissions until and through the date of trial, unless their withdrawal is sought and obtained by the trial court.

Most often admissions are read into evidence at trial.  However, this is not necessary if they have been filed with the court.  Admissions which are on file are effective without being introduced into evidence and will support a finding of that fact on final judgment.  Welch v. Gammage, 545 S.W.2d 223, 226 (Tex. App. — Austin 1977) (“[Although] the better practice is to introduce the requests for admissions and the responses into evidence… [nevertheless, they] may be considered as a part of the record if they were filed with the clerk of the court at trial time.”)

Whether admissions are read into evidence or simply filed with the papers of the court, no evidence which contradicts the admission may be introduced at trial over an objection.  In other words, the court should sustain any objection made to evidence which attempts to controvert the admitted fact.  The key, of course, is in lodging a timely objection.  Marshall v. Vise, 767 S.W.2d 699, 699 (Tex. 1989) (“a party waives the right to rely upon an opponent’s deemed admissions unless objection is made to introduction of evidence contrary to those admissions”).

Absent timely objection, however, evidence which controverts the admission may be properly received into evidence.  And once this happens, the admission is automatically downgraded from its status as a conclusively-proven fact and is relegated to mere evidence to be considered by the trier of fact.  Should this occur during a jury trial, then it becomes important that the admissions actually be formally received into evidence as well (as opposed to being on file with the clerk of the court).  Although there appears to be no case law on point, it is logical to assume that admissions which are of mere evidentiary value, i.e., admissions which simply furnish evidence on a fact in dispute, must be heard by a jury (as with any other piece of evidence), or they would not support a jury’s finding of fact consistent with them.

The treatment of admissions at the summary judgment stage, however, differs dramatically from that at trial on the merits.  Notwithstanding whether an objection is lodged, it seems well-established in case law that for purposes of summary judgment, the trial court cannot consider evidence which contradicts admissions.  Controverting evidence of this type will not create a fact issue to preclude summary judgment.  Instead, any evidence which controverts an admission is simply barred.  Beasley v. Burns, 7 S.W.3d 768 (Tex. App. — Texarkana 1999).

Beware, however, the Texas Supreme Court case which reversed a summary judgment based entirely upon deemed admissions.  Wheeler v. Green, 157 S.W.3d 439, 443 (Tex. 2005) (per curiam).  In Wheeler, the Supreme Court held that basing a summary judgment on deemed admissions alone was tantamount to a “merits-preclusive sanction” violative of due process. (“When a party uses deemed admissions to try to preclude presentation of the merits of a case, the same due process concerns [addressed in TransAmerican Natural Gas. Corp.] arise.”)

While Rule 198 places no limits on a party seeking any number of admissions of fact, opinion or application of law to facts, which, when combined, may serve to admit away an entire cause of action or defense, Wheeler cautions that admissions were “never intended to be used as a demand upon a (party) to admit that he had no cause of action or ground of defense.”  In light of this holding, one might expect that summary judgment motions based solely upon deemed admissions would be frowned upon by both trial courts and appellate courts upon review.

There are three other points which merit brief mention.  First, while admissions may be used by all parties in a case, they may only be used against the party who answered (or failed to answer).  This is true even in multi-party cases involving related persons and entities — an admission by one party cannot be used against another party, no matter how similar their interests.  Second, admissions may only be used in the case in which they were made.  And, finally, denials to requests for admissions are not admissible (although erroneous admission into evidence has been held to be harmless error).

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

Update October 27, 2011:  See the recent Texas Supreme Court case reaffirming the holding in Wheeler regarding the use of admissions as a “merits preclusive sanction.”  http://www.supreme.courts.state.tx.us/historical/2011/oct/100854.pdf


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 208 other followers

%d bloggers like this: