Litigation and trial practice

Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky in 2016 is again in the news. As I have mentioned here previously here and here, the President and his campaign have been sued for roughing up protesters at that rally. One of the defendants with the President is Mathew Heimbach, a white nationalist. He is chairman of the Traditionalist Worker Party in Indiana. He was charged with assault for his actions at that campaign rally. He plead a form of “no contest” to a charge of disorderly conduct. See CBS news report.The Traditionalist Worker Party describes itself as “fighting” to secure the future of white children. As part of his plea deal, Mr. Heimbach was ordered to attend anger management classes, a suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay a fine.

In the civil lawsuit against Mr. trump. Mr. Heimbach has claimed he was indeed encouraged by Mr. Trump to rough protesters up.

Some folks refer to the President as the Twitter-in-Chief. Well, he should also be considered as the Litigator-in-Chief. He tossed out provocative statements at campaign rallies like they were candy. At one rally in Louisville, he exhorted his supporters to rough up a couple of protesters. He also added, as the protesters were being forced to leave, “Don’t hurt ’em. Don’t hurt ’em.” Now, those protesters have sued the President and his campaign for encouraging violence. The U.S. District Judge hearing the matter denied a motion to dismiss a few months ago. I previously wrote about this lawsuit here.

Pres. Trump’s attorneys offered creative, if weak arguments, as his lawyers often do. They argued then Candidate Trump was engaging in his First Amendment rights. It was free speech, they argued. The lawyers also argued that Mr. Trump did not encourage violence. He did, after all, encourage the supporters not to harm the protesters. The judge rejected those arguments when he denied the motion to dismiss.

Now, the issue before the court is whether Mr. Trump should appear for a deposition. The President’s lawyers claim his words are clear and do not need explanation. But, in arguing his words have clear meaning, they make a deposition very likely. His words do not have clear meaning. In one passage, he exhorted violence. In a separate set of words he asked them not to harm the protesters. No, his meaning was not clear. In any normal lawsuit, absolutely, Mr. Trump would be deposed. The Litigator-in-Chief has dug his hole. He said things he should not have said, at a time when he should not have said them. People like that often end up in a lawsuit. That is partly why he spent over $500,000 in legal fees in the second quarter of 2017 and almost $200,000 in the first quarter of the year. See Politico news report.

Success rates for plaintiffs in federal court have dropped dramatically from the 1980’s. In a study by two University of Connecticut law professors, they reported a success rate of 70% for plaintiffs in federal court in the mid 1980’s. The study looked at adjudicated civil cases of all types. That rate dropped to about 35% by 1995 and stayed in that range through 2009. The professors cannot explain the large drop. They did note that federal government suits for overpayment of veterans benefits mostly disappeared from the docket by 2009 and those suits were generally sure wins for the plaintiff. Otherwise, they could discern no pattern that might explain the large drop. The researchers discounted some possible theories, that poorer cases were being filed for the time period; that more weak sorts of lawsuits were being filed, such as prisoner cases; and that rise in dispositive motions caused more losses for the plaintiffs. The professors explained that if the dispositive motion theory caused this effect, then the plaintiff success rate should increase. Since, winning at summary judgment would be considered an adjudicated victory for the plaintiff.

The professors theorize that the success rate might relate to certain federal judges. That theory is problematical itself. It would be hard to envision a scenario in which federal judges become hostile to plaintiffs for ten years and then relent. But, even so, there is no way at present to determine if what might have caused such a large drop. See ABA Bar Journal report here. The paper, “The Curious Incident of the Falling Win Rate,” is available here.

In litigation, social media has become a very hot issue. Many parties think they can obtain that final, critical piece of evidence from social media. One example is Facebook. Many employers involved in a lawsuit request the employee’s Facebook posts for a certain time period. The rationale is that a victim of discrimination cannot legitimately claim to be depressed if he posts pictures of himself drinking a cool one at the local pub. Or, some defendants will argue, if the plaintiff posts something about being upset with his family or pet dog, then the employer can use that post to argue he was upset about things other than being fired.

Isiah Lester was involved in a  wreck when a truck owned by Allied Concrete Company swerved into his lane and inflicted multiple injuries to him. The collision killed his wife. Mr. Lester sued. Trial was held and Isiah Lester was awarded $6.2 million. His wife’s parents were awarded money, as well. Sometime after the collision but before trial, Mr. Lester posted a picture of himself on Facebook. In the picture, he is wearing a shirt saying, “I love hot moms” and drinking a beer.

Later, after trial, the defendant apparently learned about Mr. Lester’s Facebook account. The defendant, Allied Concrete Company, sued Mr. Lester and his lawyer for among other things, spoliation of evidence. The next day, the plaintiff’s lawyer told his paralegal to tell Mr. Lester to “clean up” his Facebook page. The paralegal emailed the Mr. Lester, asked him about the picture, and told him to delete other pictures. The plaintiff avoided producing any information about the Facebook account. At Mr. Lester’s deposition, he was evasive. Facebook was still new in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps, they thought they could get away with trying to hide the account.

When the defendant pressed for the Facebook postings, the lawyer at first claimed the Facebook account did not exist. Mr. Lester deleted the account. Later, he re-activated the account, but did delete the pictures. The defendant subpoenaed the Facebook account records and eventually obtained all the pictures. The lawyer did not list the email to his paralegal in the privilege log. It looked like he was trying to hide that email from the Defendant. But, in the end, it was also uncovered.

The defendant sought sanctions. The court found that the plaintiff’s lawyer had intentionally omitted his paralegal’s email from the privilege log. The lawyer tried to blame the omission on the paralegal. The court found the plaintiff:

  • spoliated evidence by deleting his Facebook pictures,
  • tried to mislead the defendant by deactivating his Facebook account, and
  • lied in his deposition about deactivating his Facebook account.

The court sanctioned the plaintiff in the amount of $542,000 and his lawyer in the amount of $180,000. The award was tied to the defendant’s legal costs in pursing this information. The court referred the lawyer to the state bar for ethical violations. The court also referred the plaintiff to the prosecutor for his perjury in a civil matter.

This was the first case to sanction a party for trying to hide social media evidence. See the decision in Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester, 736 S.E.2d 699 (Va. 2013) here. The plaintiff and his lawyer went to a lot of trouble to hide the words of one t-shirt. It may well have turned out that he could have explained that t-shirt to the jury and assured them he was suffering emotionally when he drank that beer. Perhaps, that was his first social occasion since the accident. We will never know the full story. But, he and his lawyer made it much worse than it had to be.

In federal court, sanctions are a real possibility. The parties need to behave themselves and act in a professional manner. That even applies to a settlement conference. In Chen v. Marvel Food Services, Inc., No. CV-15-6206 (E.D. N.Y. 11/21/2016) (FLSA), the court scheduled a settlement conference. The parties were required to come to court and discuss settlement. Under the local rules, that means both parties had to comply with certain deadlines in submitting settlement offers and responses. The plaintiff submitted his settlement offer weeks prior to the conference. But, minutes before the conference was to start in court, the plaintiff doubled his settlement demand. He explained that he had re-evaluated his case. The defendant was unable to proceed with the conference because he had come with authority to settle based on the prior amount.

The Defendant filed a motion for sanctions. The plaintiff did not oppose the motion, but he did move to strike the motion because it contained the prior settlement demands. The plaintiff argued that the motion for sanctions contained confidential information. The court denied the motion to strike. The court noted this was an action based on the Fair Labor Standards Act. Therefore, the ultimate settlement amount was not confidential. The court then found that in doubling his settlement demand just minutes before the conference was to start, the plaintiff acted in bad faith. It sanctioned the plaintiff $1,000, which were the expenses of the defendant’s lawyer for that day. See the decision here.

It is difficult to find a lawyer who specializes in employment law and who represents employees. Most employment lawyers represent the employer and are not willing to represent employees. The typical plaintiff starts out talking to Personal Injury lawyers, because PI lawyers advertise. So, many times, the employment plaintiff must file his/her own case pro se. Pro se means the person represents himself. How do pro se clients fare in court? I have no scientific evidence, but in my experience, they do not fare well.

We see one such case in Mzyk v. Northeast Independent School District, No. 14-00952 (W.D. Tex. 9/1/2015). Ms. Mzyk did not file an actual Complaint. Usually the Complaint is a summary of the allegations against the employer. It is always couched in legal language. But, Ms. Mzyk simply filed a copy of her EEOC charge and the right-to-sue Notice. The court generously accepted the copies as a complaint. The court is required to accord deference to the un-schooled layperson who files her own lawsuit. The suit did not go well for Ms. Mzyk. The employer quickly filed a motion for summary judgment. Responding to a motion for summary judgment requires considerable skill and training. It would be quite difficult for any layperson to respond. Ms. Mzyk filed two extensions seeking more time in which to respond. The judge granted each request. But, still, she did not file a response to the motion.

The judge noted rightly that just because no response was filed, a court may not issue a default judgment. So, the judge went through the process of discussing the evidence. The discussion was brief. The plaintiff had presented no contrary evidence. The judge did discuss Plaintiff Mzyk’s rebuttal information from her deposition. But, the judge was necessarily only seeing the rebuttal testimony provide by the defendant. Any information provided by the defendant, we can expect, would be favorable to the defendant. So, of course, the judge found Ms. Mzyk did not make out her case. Her lawsuit was dismissed. It is fortunate for her that the defendant did not seek sanctions. It did make a counter-claim in its Answer that her lawsuit was frivolous. So, clearly it did occur to the employer that it could seek sanctions.

But, it is unlikely a judge would award sanctions against a pro se plaintiff, anyway. Without the benefit of counsel, the true claims of the plaintiff would almost certainly not be revealed. The defendant did not even seek an award of expenses of defending the lawsuit, normally a routine matter once summary judgment has been granted. The plaintiff was fortunate indeed.

People new to lawsuits do not appreciate how depositions work. No judge is present at a deposition. So, the lawyers’ behavior, good or bad, depends entirely on them. We see this regarding objections. In front of a jury, we lawyers avoid objections, because the jury will not understand. They may think we are trying to hide something – which sometimes we are. But, with no judge and no jury, its “katy bar the door.” Some lawyers go crazy objecting at depositions. In one case, a lawyer was sanctioned by a New York federal court because she objected some 600 times in one deposition. At some point during the eight hour deposition, the parties called the judge’s office, but the judge could not take the call. He told them to make concise objections that only address the form of the question. But, the lawyer, Amatullah Booth, continued to make frequent objections that appeared to affect the testimony of the witness. Her objections appeared on 400 pages and 83% of the transcript.

Later, the lawyers contacted the judge’s office again. The judge’s instructed Ms. Booth to just mark questions in the transcript which she felt should not be answered. Despite that instruction, Ms. Booth later instructed the witness, a police officer, not to answer those questions. Ms. Booth, an assistant corporate counsel, instructed the witness not to answer 20 times. Magistrate Judge Pollack ordered the City of New York to pay for the deposition. The judge found that Ms. Booth sometimes objected “asked and answered” even thought the question had not been answered. Sometimes, she objected based on relevance and harassment, even though the question was relevant.

Magistrate Judge Pollack cited some examples:

Opposing Counsel: “Did you see yourself on the video?”

Witness: “Yes”

Opposing counsel: “What were you doing?

Booth: “Objection. Vague”

Witness: “What — where?”

Another example:

Booth: “Objection. Asked and answered.”

Opposing counsel: “Asked and answered is not an appropriate objection.”

Booth: “Harassment.”

Opposing counsel: “None of those are.”

Booth: “It is harassment.”

See ABA Bar Journal report. It is harder to behave when no judge and no jury are present.

Howard Cohan visits many public establishments. Mr. Cohan is restricted to a wheelchair. He is disabled. But, he visits these public establishments in Florida to see if they are accessible to persons with disabilities. Many restaurants, stores and motels get nervous when they see him rolling toward their front door. See Cohan v. Southeastern Hotels Ltd. Partnership, et al, No. 3:14-cv-393 (N.D. Fla. 6/26/2015), in which he sued some two dozen different motels. See an order here in which instance he could not attend court due to medical treatment. According to one report, he has filed some 1200 lawsuits against non-compliant businesses.

He identifies himself as a “tester.” He tests these places to see if they comply with the ADA. The state of Texas just recently tried to pass a statute limiting the recovery for testers like Mr. Cohan. But, Mr. Cohan is genuinely impaired. And, he genuinely wants businesss to comply with the ADA. Speaking from experience, in some parts of my neighborhood, there are not enough sidewalks. Fredericksburg Road inside Loop 410 lacks sidewalks. So, one young man who uses a wheelchair is forced to travel in the busy street. He wears a huge cowboy hat, and has a tall bicycle flag attached to his chair to make himself more visible. Yet, just a few weeks ago, he was struck by a car. If you are in a wheelchair or suffer some impairment, the concerns of Mr. Cohan are quite genuine.

In Cohan v. Arvilla Motel, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-2174 (M.D. Fla. 1/18/2017), the court declined to award sanctions against Mr., Cohan after he dropped a lawsuit soon after filing it. The court noted rightly that Mr. Cohan has a genuine disability. He visited one motel as a “tester” with an ADA expert and found some violations. The court found that just because Mr. Cohan’s “calculated” presence on the property and his stated claim to return as a “tester” and using a “form” complaint that was not well drafted do not equate to bad faith. He might have failed to prevail on all his claimed violations, but it is apparent from the expert’s report and the photographs, that there was reasonable basis in law and in fact to support the allegations in his Complaint. See the decision here.

The court noted that it reached the same result in another lawsuit field by Mr. Cohan, Cohan v. Island House Resort Hotel, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-21-8 (M.D. Fla. 1/20/2017). Mr. Cohan does stay busy.

At least one news report suggests Mr. Cohan is motivated to sue by greedy lawyers. See a local Florida news station news report. But, the most the plaintiff can sue for is to rectify the barrier and for attorney’s fees. I do not know what Mr, Cohan’s lawyers are seeking as attorney’s fees, but the sooner the defendant settles, the lower the amount of attorney’s fees.

Well, I described the argument as a silly one, but it was not too silly for the Texas Supreme Court. In the case of Redus v. UIW, the Supreme Court ruled that the law enforcement department of a private university is a governmental body for purposes of qualified immunity. With qualified immunity, the law enforcement officers enjoy greater protection from lawsuits. As I indicated then, the Texas Supreme Court is remarkably friendly to defendants in suits for money damages. I previously wrote about the appeal here.

The court reasoned that charter schools are afforded governmental immunity. Although, charter schools are also expressly provided with governmental immunity by the statute creating charter schools. The court then pointed to the various functions performed by campus police officers which equate to the same functions performed by true governmental police officers.

The court notes that the Texas Tort Claims Act provides that to receive governmental immunity, an entity must be an “institution, agency or organ of government” and derive its status and authority as such from laws passed by the Legislature. The court then asks if the UIW campus police department is part of a larger governmental system. The court pointed to the statutory scheme that makes private charter schools part of the broader public school system in Texas. The statutory scheme that created charter schools expressly provides governmnental immunity to those schools. The Legislature did not say anything similar when it allowed private universities to establish campus police departments. But, said the court, the Legislature allowed private universities to use the same resources true governmental entities use to enforce laws: commissioned peace officers. The court concluded that the UIW police department satisfies the requirements of a governmental entity. It left to the court of appeals to determine the final question, whether sovereign immunity would apply to the lawsuit regarding the death of Cameron Redus in 2013. See the decision here. But, if UIW is now an “organ” of government, that result is essentially decided by this opinion.

No dissent was filed, so we assume the decision was unanimous. The court went to great lengths to reach its intended aim, limiting the lawsuit against UIW. No law gives UIW its status as an organ of government. The reasoning tends to suggest a result oriented decision. The court’s opinion would apparently not apply to private security guards, who are not commissioned peace officers. But, otherwise, it appears that any entity that hires commissioned peace officers for security may become a governmental entity for purposes of the Texas Tort Claims Act. That is a remarkable result. For example, under this reasoning, a celebrity passing through Texas who hires a commissioned peace officer for security would probably achieve governmental entity protections just like UIW.

I do not know whether I should laugh or cry as a lawyer at the latest antics of the Trump administration. They have been litigating the Moslem travel ban for some time. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia heard oral arguments about the ban. One of the key issues is whether the ban intentionally targets a religion, the Muslim religion. The judges asked several pointed questions about past statements by Pres. Trump advocating a Moslem ban. The DOJ lawyers argued the Executive Order was not intended to apply to Muslims in particular. The judges even noted that on Pres. Trump’s campaign website, he still advocates a Moslem immigration ban.

Then, on Monday, a reporter asked Sean Spicer at a press briefing if the Trump Pence website still included the language advocating a ban on Moslem immigration. Mr. Spicer said he was not aware of any such language on the website. There was at the time a link that said, “DONALD J. TRUMP STATEMENT ON PREVENTING MUSLIM IMMIGRATION.” Within minutes of that question to Mr. Spicer, the link and the language disappeared. It became a blank URL. Within minutes. See CBS news report.

As a lawyer, I do not know whether I should laugh or cry. Fudging with evidence within minutes of a question like that almost guarantees a conclusion of guilt. It just highlights a web page that might have been ignored for a little longer. How can the administration claim in court that the ban is secular when it has language targeting Muslims on its website? If it has language targeting Muslims, how can it seriously bring attention to that language by making it go away so suddenly? From the Administration’s perspective, this is no way to manage a lawsuit.