7th Circuit Takes Archaic Hearsay Exceptions to Judicial Woodshed

Decrying them as flawed “folk psychology” with dubious philosophical underpinnings, the Seventh Circuit recently took two venerable hearsay exceptions to task in the course of affirming a felon’s conviction on a Federal weapons charge.

In U.S. v. Boyce (here), the Court affirmed the trial court’s admission of a 911 call recording and transcript into evidence over defendant’s hearsay objections under the present sense impression and excited utterance exceptions.

Defendant’s girlfriend called 911 and said that the defendant was beating her and “going crazy for no reason”.  During the call, she also related how she had just run to a neighbor’s house and that the defendant had a gun. 

When the caller refused to testify against the defendant at trial, the prosecution published the call’s recording and transcript to the jury over defendant’s objection.  Defendant appealed.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the conviction on the basis that the 911 call satisfied both the present sense impression and excited utterance hearsay exceptions, codified in FRE 803(1) and (2) respectively. 

Yet it still spent much of the opinion questioning the continued validity of the two “spontaneity” hearsay exceptions.   

Present Sense Impression

FRE 803(1) – the present sense impression – provides that an out-of-court statement describing or explaining an event while it’s happening or immediately after the declarant perceives it, is not hearsay. 

The exception is premised on the notion that the “substantial contemporaneity” of event and statement nullifies a likelihood of conscious fabrication (e.g. the speaker doesn’t have enough time to lie).

The present sense impression elements are (1) a statement that describes an event or condition with no calculated narration; (2) the speaker personally perceives the event or condition described, and (3) the statement must be made while the speaker is perceiving the event or condition, or immediately thereafter. 

The Court found it difficult to take the rationale underlying the present sense impression exception “entirely seriously” since “people are entirely capable of spontaneous lies.”  The Court bolstered its skepticism by citing to a psychological study that shows it takes less than a second for someone to fashion an impromptu lie.

Excited Utterance

The excited utterance hearsay exception is broader than the present sense impression and applies where (1) a startling event occurs, (2) the declarant makes the statement under the fresh stress of a startling event, and (3) the declarant’s statement relates to the starting event.  

It’s bottomed on the notion that a startling event will prevent a speaker from deliberation or “self-interested reflection” and likely produce an utterance free from calculation or fabrication.

 But the modern trend in psychology, according to the Court, was to recognize that while a stressor may minimize a speaker’s opportunity for reflective self-interest, it’s just as likely (if not more) that the startling event will distort the speaker’s observation and judgment.

Judge Posner’s concurrence goes even further.  He labels the hearsay rule archaic and too complex and also castigates the two “spontaneity exceptions” (present sense impression and excited utterance) as lacking sound science and psychology. 

He views the exceptions as outmoded relics of a prior era that no longer hold water in 21st century culture – especially in light of ongoing developments in cognitive psychology.  Judge Posner believes the 911 call should have come into evidence under FRE 807’s “residual” hearsay exception – a rule he would like to see swallow up FRE 801-806. 

The residual hearsay rule would allow into evidence out-of-court statements that have a sufficient degree of trustworthiness and reliability and that are dispositive of a case’s outcome.

Take-away: Boyce is interesting for its discussion and critique of the data and belief systems underlying the present sense impression and excited utterance hearsay exceptions.  Clearly, time-honored (but not tested) rationales for the rules are suspect. 

The reason: most lies are spontaneous and actually outnumber planned lies (this according to studies cited by the Court).  It will be interesting to see if and when the present sense impression and excited utterance exceptions are either updated or excised completely from Federal and state court trials.

Veil Piercing Claim Triable By Jury; Consumer Fraud Act Applies to Failed Gas Station Sale – IL 3rd Dist.

An Illinois appeals court recently affirmed a $700K money judgment for a gas station buyer in a fraud case against the seller.

The plaintiff gas station buyer in Benzakry v. Patel, 2017 IL App(3d) 160162 sued the seller when the station closed only a few months after the sale.

The plaintiff alleged he relied on the seller’s misrepresenting the financial health and trustworthiness of the station tenant which led the plaintiff to go forward with the station purchase.  Plaintiff sued for common law and statutory fraud and sought to pierce the corporate veil of the LLC seller.

Affirming judgment for the plaintiff, the Third District discusses, among other things, the piercing the corporate veil remedy, the required evidentiary foundation for business records, the reliance element of fraud and the scope of the consumer fraud statute.

Piercing the Corporate Veil: Triable By Bench or Jury?

The jury pierced the seller LLC’s corporate veil and imposed liability on the lone LLC member.

The Court addressed this issue of first impression on appeal: whether a piercing the corporate veil claim is one for the court or jury.  The Court noted a split in Federal authority on the point.  In FMC v. Murphree, 632 F.2d 413 (5th Cir. 1980), the 5th Circuit held that a jury could hear a piercing claim while the  7th Circuit reached the opposite result (only a court can try a piercing action) in IFSC v. Chromas Technologies, 356 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2004).

The Court declined to follow either case since they applied only Federal procedural law (they were diversity cases).  The Court instead looked to Illinois state substantive law for guidance.

Generally, there is no right to a jury trial in equitable claims and piercing the corporate veil is considered an equitable remedy.  However, Code Section 2-1111 vests a court with discretion to direct any issue(s) involved in an equitable proceeding to be tried by a jury.  The appeals court found that the trial court acted within its discretion in deciding that the piercing claim should be decided by a jury. (¶¶ 29-30)

Consumer fraud – Advertisement on Web = ‘Public Injury’

The Third District reversed the trial court’s directed verdict for the defendants on the plaintiff’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) count.  Consumer fraud predicated on deceptive practices requires the plaintiff to prove (1) a deceptive act or practice by a defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that the plaintiff rely on the deception, (3) the occurrence of the deception during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (4) actual damage to the plaintiff, and (5) damage proximately caused by the deception.

The trial court sided with the defendant on this count since the plaintiff didn’t prove that defendants conduct resulted in injury to the public generally.  CFA Section 10a (815 ILCS 505/10a) used to require a plaintiff to prove that a misrepresentation involved trade practice that addressed the market generally.  However, a 1990 amendment to the Act changed that.  The current version of the Act doesn’t require a plaintiff to show public injury except under limited circumstances.

Even so, the Court still held that the defendant’s misstating the gas station’s annual fuel and convenience store sales on a generally accessible website constituted a public injury under the CFA.

Going further, the Court construed the CFA broadly by pointing to the statutory inclusion of the works “trade” and “commerce.”  This evinced the legislative intent to expand the CFA’s scope.  Since defendant’s misrepresentations concerning the tenant were transmitted to the public via advertisements and to the plaintiff through e-mails, the Court viewed this as deceptive conduct involving trade or commerce under the CFA.  (¶¶ 81-82)

Computer-Generated Business Records: Document Retention vs. Creation

While it ultimately didn’t matter (the business records were cumulative evidence that didn’t impact the judgment amount), the Court found that bank statements offered into evidence did not meet the test for admissibility under Illinois evidence rules.

The proponent of computer-generated business records must show (1) the equipment that created a document is recognized as standard, and (2) the computer entries were made in the regular course of business at or reasonably near the happening of the event recorded.

Showing “mere retention” of a document isn’t enough: the offering party must produce evidence of a document’s creation to satisfy the business records admissibility standard.  Here, the plaintiff failed to offer foundational testimony concerning the creation of the seller’s bank statements and those statements shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence.

Take-aways:

1/ The Court has discretion to order that an equitable piercing the corporate veil claim be tried to a jury;

2/ Inadequate capitalization, non-functioning shareholders and commingling of funds are badges of fraud or injustice sufficient to support a piercing the corporate veil remedy;

3/ Computer-generated business records proponent must offer foundational testimony of a document’s creation to get the records in over a hearsay objection;

4/ False advertising data on a public website can constitute a deceptive practice under the consumer fraud statute.

 

 

Secretary of State’s LLC File Detail Report Is Public Record – IL Court (A Deep Cut)

R&J Construction v. Javaras, 2011 WL 10069461, an unpublished and dated opinion, still holds practical value for its discussion of the judicial notice rule, breach of contract pleading requirements and a limited liability company member’s insulation from liability for corporate debts.

The plaintiff sold about $70K worth of construction materials to a concrete company associated with the individual defendant.  The concrete company’s legal name was WS Concrete, LLC, an Illinois limited liability company doing business under the assumed name, West Suburban Concrete.  Defendant was a member of the LLC and point-person who ordered supplies from the plaintiff.

The plaintiff sued the individual and did not name the LLC as a party defendant.

The trial court dismissed the complaint because the plaintiff failed to attach the written contract and there was no evidence the defendant assumed personal responsibility for the contract obligations.  The plaintiff appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Reasons:

The Court first found the trial court correctly dismissed plaintiff’s suit for failure to attach the operative contract.

Code Section 2-606 requires a plaintiff to attach a written instrument (like a contract) to its pleading where the pleading is based on that instrument.  The exception is where the pleader can’t locate the instrument in which case it must file an affidavit stating the instrument is inaccessible.

Here, the plaintiff alleged a written contract but only attached a summary of various purchase orders and invoices to the complaint.  Since it failed to attach the contract, the appeals court found the complaint deficient and falling short of Section 2-606’s attached-instrument requirement.

The court next addressed whether the LLC File Detail Report (see above image), culled from the Illinois Secretary of State “cyberdrive” site was admissible on Defendant’s motion to dismiss.  In ruling the Report was admissible, the Court cited to case precedent finding that Secretary of State records are public records subject to judicial notice.  (Judicial notice applies to facts that are readily verifiable and not subject to reasonable dispute.)

Since the LLC Report plainly demonstrated the proper defendant was the LLC (as opposed to its member), and there was no evidence the individual defendant took on personal liability for plaintiff’s invoices, the trial court correctly dismissed the defendant.

Added support for the defendant’s dismissal came via the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act, 805 ILCS 180/1 et seq.  Section 10-10 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC’s contractual obligations belong solely to the LLC and that a member cannot be personally responsible for LLC contracts unless (1) the articles of organization provide for personal liability and (2) the member consents in writing.

The Court next addressed plaintiff’s agent of a disclosed principal argument.  The plaintiff asserted that since the individual defendant is the person who ordered plaintiff’s construction materials and it was unclear who the defendant represented, the defendant was responsible for plaintiff’s unpaid invoices.

The court rejected this argument.  It noted that under Illinois law, where an agent signs a contract by signing his own name and providing his own personal contact information (address, phone number, SS #, etc.) and fails to note his corporate affiliation, he (the agent) can be personally liable on a contract.  In this case, however, there was no documentation showing defendant ordering supplies in his own name.  All invoices attached to the plaintiff’s response brief (to the motion to dismiss) reflected the LLC’s assumed name – “West Suburban Concrete” – as the purchasing entity.

Afterwords:

(1) the case provides a useful analysis of common evidentiary issues that crop up in commercial litigation where a corporate agent enters into an agreement and the corporation is later dissolved;

(2) Both the LLC Act and agency law can insulate an individual LLC member from personal liability for corporate debts;

(3) Secretary of State corporate filings are public records subject to judicial notice.  This is good news for trial practitioners since it alleviates the logistical headache of having a Secretary of State agent give live or affidavit testimony on corporate records at trial.