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.

Joint Ventures, Close Corporations and Summary Judgment Motion Practice – IL Northern District Case Snapshot

The featured case is Apex Medical Research v. Arif (http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/illinois/ilndce/1:2015cv02458/308072/52/0.pdf?ts=1447939471)

A medical clinical trials firm sued a doctor and his company for breach of contract and some tort claims when the firm learned the doctor was soliciting firm clients in violation of a noncompete signed by him.

In partially granting and denying a flurry of summary judgment motions, the Illinois Northern District highlights the importance of Local Rule 56 statements and responses in summary judgment practice. Substantively, the court provides detailed discussion of the key factors governing whether a business arrangement is a joint venture and what obligations flow from such a finding.

The clinical trials agreement contemplated that plaintiff would locate medical trial opportunities and then provide them to the doctor defendant.  The doctor would then conduct the trials in exchange for a percentage of the revenue generated by them.  The plaintiff sued when the parties’ relationship soured.

Procedurally, the court emphasized the key rules governing Local Rule 56 (“LR 56”) statements and responses in summary judgment practice:

LR 56 is designed to aid the trial court in determining whether a trial is necessary; Its purpose is to identify relevant admissible evidence supporting the material facts.  LR 56 is not a vehicle for factual or legal arguments;

– LR 56 requires the moving party to provide a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue;

– The non-moving party must then file a response to each numbered paragraph of the movant’s statement of facts and if it disagrees with any statement of fact, the non-movant must make specific reference to the affidavits and case record that supports the denial;

– A failure to cite to the record in support of a factual denial may be disregarded by the court;

– The non-movant may also submit its own statement of additional facts that require denial of the summary judgment motion;

– Where a non-movant makes evasive denials or claims insufficient knowledge to answer a moving party’s factual statement, the court will deem the fact admitted.

(**2-3)

The court focused its substantive legal analysis on whether the individual defendant owed fiduciary duties to the plaintiff.  Under Illinois law, a joint venturer owes fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith to his other joint venturer.  So too does a shareholder in a close corporation (a corporation where stock is held in the hands of only a few people or family members) – but only if that shareholder is able to influence corporate policy and management.

The hallmarks of an Illinois joint venture are: (1) an express or implied association of two or more persons to carry out a single enterprise for profit; (2) a manifested intent by the parties to be joint venturers; (3) a community of interest (i.e. joint contribution of property, money, effort, skill or knowledge); and (4) a measure of joint control and management of the enterprise.  (*16).

The most important joint venture element is the joint control (item (4)) aspect.  Here, there were provisions of the parties’ written contract that reflected equal control and management of the clinical trials arrangement but other contract terms reflected the opposite – that the plaintiff could supervise the doctor defendant.  These conflicts in the evidence showed there was a genuine factual dispute on whether the parties jointly controlled and managed the trial venture.

The evidence was also murky as to whether the doctor defendant had enough control over the corporate plaintiff to subject the doctor to fiduciary obligations as a close corporation shareholder.  The conflicting evidence led the court to deny summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ breach of fiduciary duty claim. (**16-17).

Afterwords:

Procedurally, the case presents a thorough summary of the key rules governing summary judgment practice in Illinois Federal courts.  The party opposing summary judgment must explicitly cite to the case record for its denial of a given stated fact to be recognized by the court.

The case also provides useful substantive law discussion of the key factors governing the existence of a joint venture and whether a close corporation’s shareholder owes fiduciary duties to the other stockholders of that corporation.

 

Mechanics Lien Trumps Prior Mortgage in ‘Lien Strip’ Bankruptcy Dispute Involving Residential Property

Priority disputes happen a lot in mechanics’ lien litigation.  Typically, a mortgage lender claims that its first-filed mortgage trumps a later-filed mechanics lien.  The “trumps” part is activated if and when the property is sold and there aren’t enough proceeds to pay both the lender and contractor.  If the lender’s mortgage has priority, it gets first dibs on the sale proceeds, leaving the contractor with little or nothing.

Section 16 of the Mechanics’ Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/16) governs the lien priority issue.  This section provides that (i) prior lien claimants have lien priority up to the value of the land at the time of making of the construction contract; and (ii) mechanics’ lien claimants have a paramount lien to the value of all improvements made to the property after the construction contract is signed.

In re Thigpen, 2014 WL 1246116 examines the mortgage lender-versus-contractor priority question through the lens of a bankruptcy adversary case where the debtors attempt to strip away a mechanics’ lien recorded against their homeresidence.

The debtors filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection and later filed an adversary proceeding to extinguish the lien a contractor recorded against the home. 

The debtors claimed that since there was a prior mortgage on the home and the home’s value had dropped to a sum less than the lien amount, the lien should be removed.

In bankruptcy parlance, this is called “lien stripping” and applies where a mechanics lien lacks collateral; usually because of plummeting property values. 

The contractor argued that its lien took priority to the value of the improvements/enhancements and moved for summary judgment.

Held: Contractor’s summary judgment motion granted.

Q: Why?

A: Applying Section 16 of the Act, the Court held that where proceeds of a property sale are insufficient to pay competing lienholders, a mechanics’ lien claimant takes priority over a lender up to the value the contractor added to the property.

The Court wrote: “the Illinois Supreme Court has expressly recognized that Section 16 of the Act confers first priority, not something less, on mechanic’s lien holders, and that they trump pre-existing mortgages to the extent of the value of the improvements.”  (*2).

While the court found that the contractor’s lien trumped the prior mortgage, the Court did not decide the specific monetary amount of the improvements relative to the home’s value. 

The holding is still significant because now the contractor has a secured claim (as opposed to an unsecured one) against the debtors’ estate which must be paid over the life of the Chapter 13 plan. 

If the debtors default, the contractor can liquidate the collateral –  by forcing a sale of the home – and get paid via the proceeds.  An unsecured creditor, by contrast, has no assets securing its claim.  It must hope that the debtors have unattached assets (e.g. paycheck, bank accounts, accounts receivable) with which to pay the debt.  (Good luck with that!)

Take-away: A big win for the contractor.  Instead of having an unsecured claim (with no collateral tied to the claim), its mechanics’ lien claim is secured.  This means the contractor’s lien attaches to the debtors’ house. 

If the debtor defaults under the plan, the contractor can foreclose its lien and force a sale of the home and take priority to the sale proceeds up to the amount of the improvements (here, about $200,000).  

The case’s unanswered question is how does the contractor prove the dollar amount of his improvements?  The contractor will likely have to produce expert witness testimony or documents to establish the dollar value of the contractor’s time, labor and materials  furnished to the debtors’ home.