Indirect Evidence of E-mail Authenticity Not Enough in Architect’s Defamation Suit – IL ND (Part I of II)

An Illinois Federal court recently expanded on the reach of some common business torts, the grounds to vacate a default judgment, and the evidentiary vagaries of e-mail.

Strabala v. Zhang, 318 F.R.D. 81 (Ill. N.D. 2016), pits an architect against his former partners in a defamation and tortious interference suit based on accusations of unethical conduct and the diversion of partnership assets to foreign businesses.

The plaintiff alleged that two of the defendants e-mailed different businesses and plaintiff’s professional associates and falsely accused him of forging signatures, illegally using copyrighted software and misrepresenting his accomplishments and “tax fraud.”

After a default judgment entered against them, the former partners moved to vacate the judgment and separately moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s suit for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction and defective service of process.  The court vacated the default judgment and partially granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Some highlights of the court’s opinion:

Federal Rules 55 and 60 respectively allows a court to set aside a default order for good cause and a default judgment.  A judgment entered by a court that lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case or personal jurisdiction over a defendant is void and must be set aside.  See FRCP 60(b)(4).  This furthers the law’s established policy of having cases decided on their merits instead of on technicalities.

A party seeking to vacate an entry of default prior to the entry of final judgment must show: (1) good cause for the default; (2) quick action to correct it; and (3) a meritorious defense to the complaint.  The court found that the defendants satisfied the three-prong standard to vacate the default.

E-mail Evidence: Foundational Rules

The defendants sought to offer two emails into evidence – one sent by the plaintiff, the other received by him.  To lay a foundation for documentary evidence, the proponent (here the defendants) must submit evidence “sufficient to support a finding that the item is what the proponent claims it is.”  FRE 901(a).  The foundational standard is lenient. The proponent must only make a prima facie showing of genuineness; it is up to the court or jury to decide whether the evidence is truly authentic.

Here, the defendants failed to lay a foundation for the e-mails.  First, the plaintiff – variously, author and recipient of the e-mails – testified that he believed the e-mails may have been altered and did not concede the e-mails’ authenticity.

Next, the Court rejected Defendants’ argument that the e-mails were self-authenticating under FRE 902(7) – the rule governing inscriptions, signs, tags, or labels that indicate business origin, ownership, or control.

The court found that plaintiff’s electronic e-mail signature and a company letterhead logo were not “trade inscriptions” within the meaning of Rule 902(7) citing to a Seventh Circuit case holding that a trade inscription on the cover of an owner’s manual does not authenticate the contents of the manual.

Plaintiff presented evidence in his affidavit (declaration) rebutting the presumptive authenticity of the e-mails by calling into question whether he signed one e-mail electronically and by stating that the e-mails were on his personal laptop’s hard drive, a device plaintiff claimed the defendants stole from him.  The court held that if the e-mails did originate from plaintiff’s stolen laptop, the evidence would be inadmissible.

Q: So what kind of evidence would have satisfied the court?

A: Direct proof of authenticity.

Q: What would qualify as “direct proof”?

A: Testimony by Plaintiff or the other sender or someone who witnessed the sending of the emails who could attest that the questioned e-mails are the actual, unchanged emails sent by the authors.

The court noted that indirect evidence of authenticity could also work.  Indirect evidence typically involves testimony from “someone who personally retrieved the e-mail from the computer to which the e-mail was allegedly sent” together with other circumstantial evidence such as the e-mail address in the header and the substance of the email itself.

Here, the court found the defendants’ indirect evidence was too flimsy. It noted that the defendants were interested parties and accused of theft (plaintiff claimed they stole his laptop).  The court also held that the defendants’ self-serving testimony that they didn’t alter the e-mails wasn’t enough to establish their authenticity especially in light of plaintiff’s claims that the defendants stole his laptop and that the e-mails appeared to have been changed.

In the end, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion to strike the two e-mail exhibits to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Take-aways:

Given the rampantness of e-mail, this case is instructive for litigators since most cases will involve at least some e-mail evidence.  The case also underscores that while the standard for evidence authenticity is low, it still has some teeth.

Here, the plaintiff’s belief that the emails offered against him were doctored coupled with the fact that the e-mails’ source was stolen property (a laptop), was enough to create a question as to whether the e-mails were authentic.

The next post summarizes the Court’s exhaustive analysis of subject matter and personal jurisdiction under the Illinois long-arm statue and Federal due process standards.