Every few years, we have to re-litigate the so-called self-serving affidavit doctrine. I have written about that silly doctrine here and here. The self-serving affidavit more or less, provides that a person making a claim myst have some evidence to corroborate his/her factual statement. That does not make much sense. The U.S. Supreme Court expressly overruled the Fifth Circuit in Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861 (2014), because the Fifth Circuit disregarded competent testimony from a witness who also happened to be the plaintiff. And in Salazar v. Lubbock County Hospital District, No. 20-10322 (5th Cir. 12/7/2020), the Fifth Circuit again rejected the plaintiff’s testimony about her job performance because it was not corroborated. The Fifth Circuit has been making decisions which are best left to the jury.
This issue of which affidavits matter and which ones do not matters only because federal court litigation has become so mired in summary judgment practice. If the courts would reserve summary judgment for the lawsuits with little or no merit, this would not even be an issue.
In the case of Guzman v. Allstate Assurance Co., No. 20-11247, 2021 WL 522810 (5th Cir. 11/10/2021), the Fifth Circuit re-visits the self-serving doctrine again. But, this the time the appellate court overrules the lower court because the lower court applied that old fallacy. In this case, Allstate denied insurance coverage for a deceased male, because he allegedly smoked. On his application for life insurance, Saul Guzman said he did not smoke. But, on his medical records, many of them described Saul as a smoker. But, Saul’s wife, Mirna, and his sister, Martha, both said Saul did not smoke. They testified via affidavits as part of Allstate’s motion for summary judgment. The lower court found the two affidavit to be self-serving.
The appellate court disagreed. The higher court noted that in a lawsuit, the two sides will always be interested in the outcome. “Inevitably,” evidence offered by one side or the other regarding summary judgment will appear to be self-serving. But, such evidence should not be discounted on that basis alone. Self-serving may affect the weight to be given that testimony. But, the particular weight some evidence ought to carry is a decision for the jury, not the court. The court then pointed to some prior Fifth Circuit decisions which found self-serving affidavits were not sufficient, but those cases actually involved affidavits which were conclusory, vague or lacked personal knowledge.
In this case, Martha’s and Mirna’s affidavits were based on first-hand knowledge. The two affidavits include fact based information, not conclusions. Competent testimony suffices for purposes of summary judgment.
Too, Allstate received medical records from Saul before his death which described him as a non-smoker. One of the three records in Allstate’s possession described Saul as a former smoker. All this is enough, said the Fifth Circuit, to deny summary judgment and let the jury decide the matter. See the decision here.