Missing “Course Of Dealing” Evidence Dooms Wedding Dress Seller on Summary Judgment – IL ND

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order that quotes Neil Sedaka and Taylor Swift in its footnotes, the District Court in House of Brides, Inc. v. Angelo, 2016 WL 698093 (N.D.Ill. 2016), examines the quantity and quality of evidence required to win a summary judgment motion. 

The plaintiff sold wedding clothes on-line and in retail stores and the defendant was the plaintiff’s main supplier.  The plaintiff sued the dress maker in state court for breach of contract claiming many of the dresses were defective or shipped later than promised. 

After it removed the case to Federal court, the defendant counter-sued the plaintiff for unpaid invoices. The defendant moved for summary judgment on its counterclaims as well as on plaintiff’s claims.

Partly siding with the defendant, the court discussed some common Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) claims and defenses and the required elements of a summary judgment affidavit.

The UCC governs contracts for the sale of goods and wedding dresses constitute goods under the UCC.  A seller who delivers accepted goods to a buyer can sue the buyer for the price of the goods accepted along with incidental damages where a buyer fails to pay for the goods.  810 ILCS 5/2-709.

In a goods contract, written contract terms can be explained or supplemented by a “course of performance, course of dealing, or usage of trade.” However, written terms cannot be contradicted by evidence of a prior agreement or an oral agreement made at the same time as the written one by the parties.

Here, the plaintiff argued that the course of dealing showed that defendant routinely accepted late payments and so defendant’s “net 30” invoice language was excused.

The court rejected this argument.  It held that avoiding the 30-day payment deadline was a material change that would have to be in writing since the Statute of Frauds governs contracts for the sale of goods exceeding $500 and the dresses involved in this suit easily eclipsed that value.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s set-off defense against the defendant’s breach of contract counterclaim since a set-off must relate to the same contract being sued on (the court’s example: a seafood buyer can’t set off the price of frogs’ legs because the seller previously sent bad fish in a previous order)

Next, the court struck the plaintiff’s affidavit in support of its breach of implied warranty of merchantability claim on the basis of hearsay. 

In Federal court, an affidavit in support of or opposing summary judgment must be based on personal knowledge, show the witness’s competence and constitute admissible evidence.  Conclusory statements or affidavit testimony based on hearsay is inadmissible on summary judgment.  

The plaintiff’s affidavit testimony that there were dress defects that required refunds was too vague to survive defendant’s summary judgment motion.  This was because no employee stated that he/she personally issued any refunds or had first-hand knowledge of any dress defects that warranted a refund. 

What’s more, the seller failed to offer any authenticated business records that showed either the claimed dress defects or the refund amounts.  Without admissible evidence, the plaintiff seller failed to challenge the defendant’s breach of contract claim and the court awarded summary judgment to the defendant.

Afterwords:

1/ This case shows importance of furnishing admissible evidence when challenging summary judgment;

2/ Hearsay evidence in a summary judgment affidavit will be rejected;

3/ Course of performance or course of dealing can augment or explain written contract terms but cannot contradict them;

4/ A set-off defense must pertain to contract being sued on instead of a separate agreement;

 

 

 

Getting E-Mails Into Evidence: (Ind.) Federal Court Weighs In

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Since e-mail is the dominant form of business communication across the globe, it’s no surprise that it comprises a large chunk of the documents used as evidence at a business dispute trial.

Email’s prevalence in lawsuits makes it crucial for litigators to understand the key evidence authenticity and foundational rules that govern whether an email gets into evidence.  This is especially true where an email goes to the heart of a plaintiff’s claims (or defendant’s defenses) and the e-mail author or recipient denies the e-mail’s validity.

Finnegan v. Myers, 2015 WL 5252433 (N.D. Ind. 2015), serves as a recent example of a Federal court applying fundamental evidence rules to the e-mail communications context.

In the case, the plaintiffs, whose teenaged daughter died under suspicious circumstances, sued various Indiana child welfare agencies for lodging criminal child neglect charges against them that were eventually dropped.  The plaintiffs then filed Federal civil rights and various due process claims against the defendants.

The defendants moved for summary judgment and then sought to strike some of plaintiffs’ evidence opposing summary judgment.  A key piece of evidence relied on by the plaintiff in opposing summary judgment that the defendants sought to exclude as improper hearsay was an e-mail from a forensic pathologist to child welfare personnel that called into questions the results of a prior autopsy of the deceased.

Denying defendants’ two motions (the summary judgment motion and motion to strike), the Court provides a useful gloss on the operative evidence rules that control e-mail documents in litigation.

  • The Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE) require a proponent to produce evidence sufficient to support a finding the item is authentic – that it is what the proponent claims it to be;
  • FRE 901 recognizes several methods of authentication including witness testimony, expert or non-expert comparisons, distinctive characteristics, and public records, among others;
  • FRE 902 recognizes certain evidence as inherently trustworthy and “self-authenticating” (requiring no additional proof of authenticity).  Evidence in this camp includes public records, official publications, newspapers and periodicals, commercial paper, and certified domestic records of a regularly conducted activity;
  • Authentication only relates to the source of the documents – it does not mean that the documents’ contents are taken as true;
  • E-mails may be authenticated by circumstantial evidence such as (a) viewing the e-mail’s contents in light of the factual background of the case, (b) identifying the sender and receiver via affidavit, (c) identifying the sender by the e-mail address from which the e-mail was sent, (d) comparing the email’s substance to other evidence in the case, and (e) comparing the e-mail to other statements by the claimed author of a given email.

(** 5-6)

Applying these guideposts, the court found that the plaintiff sufficiently established that the subject email was genuine (i.e., it was what it purported to be) and that it was up to the jury to determine what probative value the email evidence had at trial.

The court also agreed with the plaintiff that the pathologist’s email wasn’t hearsay: it was not used for the truth of the email.  Instead, it was simply used to show that the State  agency was put on notice of a second autopsy and changes in the pathologist’s cause of death opinions.

Afterwords:

This case resonates with me since I’ve litigated cases in the past where a witness flatly denies sending an email even though it’s from an e-mail address associated with the witness.  In those situations. I’ve had to compile other evidence – like the recipient’s affidavit – and had to show the denied email is congruent with other evidence in the case to negate the denial.

Finnegan neatly melds FRE 901 and 902 and provides a succinct summary of what steps a litigator must take to establish the authenticity of e-mail evidence.

Process Server’s Return of Service Qualifies As Public Records and ‘Regularly Conducted Business Activity’ Hearsay Exceptions – Florida Appeals Court

My experience with the hearsay evidence rules usually involves trying to get a business record like an invoice or spreadsheet into evidence at trial or on summary judgment.  The business records hearsay exception is found at Illinois Evidence Rule 803(6) and mirrors the Federal counterpart.  “Exception” in the context of hearsay evidence means a document is hearsay (an out-of-court statement used to prove the truth of the matter asserted) and would normally be excluded but still gets in evidence because the document (or other piece of evidence) has an element of reliability that satisfies the court that the document is what it appears to be.

Occasionally though, I’ve found that a working knowledge of some of the more obscure (to me at least) hearsay exceptions can in some cases lead to a victory or at least resurrect a rapidly flagging case.

Davidian v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA, 2015 WL 5827124 (Fla. 4th DCA 2015) (http://www.4dca.org/opinions/Oct.%202015/10-7-15/4D14-2431.op.pdf) a recent Florida appeals court decision, examines some hearsay exceptions as they apply to a process server’s sworn return of service and the persons served are challenging service.

Chase Bank filed a foreclosure suit against defendants/appellants (a husband and wife) and filed returns of service signed by Chase’s process server who certified that he served both appellants at the same time on the same date. The appellants moved to quash service of process on the grounds they were never served. The trial court denied the motion leading to this appeal.

The appeals court affirmed.  It held the appellants failed to show by clear and convincing proof that the returns of service were deficient.

In Florida, the burden of proving proper service of process is on the suing party and the return of service is evidence of whether service was validly made.  A return of service is presumed to be valid and the party contesting service must overcome the presumption by clear and convincing evidence.  A return of service is technically hearsay since it’s an out-of-court statement used to show its truth – that service of summons was in fact made on a party.

Two hearsay rule exceptions recognized not only by Florida courts but various state and Federal courts include the public records and the “regularly conducted business activity” exceptions.  Fla. Stat. s. 90.801, 803(6), (8).

Here, the court found the service return admissible under both exceptions.  The return was a public record – presumably because it was filed as part of the case record.  The return also qualified as evidence of regularly conducted business activity since the process server stated in his affidavit that was his regular practice to prepare such an affidavit detailing the date, time and manner of service.

The appeals court also rejected appellants’ argument that the service returns were defeated by their counter-affidavits in which they denied receiving the summons and complaint.  When faced with a service return and a defendant claiming he/she wasn’t served, the court makes a credibility determination after an evidentiary hearing.   Factual determinations are typically not disturbed on appeal.  The court found that the trial court was in a better position to judge the credibility of the witnesses and upheld the motion to quash’s denial.

Take-aways:

This case presents application of hearsay exceptions in an unorthodox factual setting.  The court expanded the scope of the public records and regularly-conducted-business-activity exceptions to encompass a process server’s return of service.  This case and others  like it validate process servers’ sworn returns and make it easier for plaintiffs to clear service of process hurdles where a defendant claims to have never been served.