Litigation and trial practice

In every civil lawsuit, we have this process known as “discovery.” One side can ask the other side for the evidence or potential evidence it possesses. For the discovery process to work, there must be some minimal level of cooperation between the two sides. That requirement allows some room for unscrupulous lawyers to ignore or manipulate the discovery process. In one discrimination lawsuit in Massachusetts, that is exactly what happened.

The plaintiff’s lawyer ignored the written discovery. He then ignored two notices of deposition. The defense lawyer traveled from Massachusetts to Cleveland to depose the plaintiff, but the neither the witness nor the attorney appeared for the deposition. Only then did the plaintiff lawyer tell his client what he had been doing. In preparing the plaintiff for his deposition, he told him to lie and say he had been told by his lawyer about the two prior deposition settings. Unknown to the lawyer, Steven Jerome Moody, the plaintiff recorded the conversation. The client was offended that he was asked to lie for the lawyer. Someone filed a complaint with the Ohio Bar association.

The Ohio Bar Association suspended Mr. Moody’s license indefinitely. The lawyer claimed he was transitioning from a paper office to paper-less and had missed entering some entries into his cell phone. He said he was “puffing” to bolster his client’s confidence. The bar association and the Ohio Supreme Court did not believe him. Among Mr. Moody’s comments to his client:

  • “She sent me an interrogatory, request for production of documents, I completely ignored her ass for a few months. And I made her file a motion to compel, and then I called her and said, oh, yeah, I’ll get them to you in two weeks. And then I completely ignored her ass again.”
  • “She’s an arrogant bitch, okay?” and, “I made that bitch fly into town” for the missed deposition.
  • “Obviously, you know, you don’t want to discuss that I played a game with her, you know. But that’s basically it.”
  • “She might ask you, do you know that your attorney didn’t send any discovery, do you know that you were supposed to be here on, whatever the—she had one or two dates. Did your attorney tell you that you were supposed to be present for those depositions? Yes.”

Of course, lawyers are expected not to lie. Perhaps, it needs to be said that we also cannot ask our clients to lie for us. See ABA Bar Journal report for more information.

In your average lawsuit, this is not supposed to happen. Key witnesses are not supposed to suddenly recall something they have previously denied. Yet, that is what happened in the 2020 Census lawsuit. Wilbur Ross, the head of the Commerce department, now suddenly does recall conversations with then advisor Steve Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the citizenship question. The Commerce department is responsible for the census in 2020. Secretary Ross added a question asking whether each person is a U.S. citizen. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend the question is designed to intimidate persons into not completing the census.

Earlier, when he testified before Congress, Secretary Ross denied any such conversation. The Department of Justice said it could neither confirm or deny involvement by AG Sessions. But, now he remembers. Secretary Ross says he recalls a phone call from Steve Bannon in March, 2017 asking him to speak with Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas, and immigration hard-liner. Mr. Ross also now remembers speaking with AG Sessions in the Spring of 2017 and later. See Politico news report here.

The Secretary has been resisting attempts to take his deposition. This latest court pleading apparently seeks to prevent the depositions by admitting to some things the plaintiffs might ask. We can see why he would prefer not to remember these discussions with Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kobach. If this decision to ask about citizenship was based solely on best practices, why would he need to discuss the question with a political advisor like Steve Bannon?

Now, suddenly he remembers things he did not recall months ago. Typically, the memory works in just the opposite way. Usually, we recall things better when asked closer to the event. But, in Mr. Ross’ case, he remembers things better the further away he gets from the event. Uh huh. That’s the ticket…….

Every discrimination case involves some amount of he said/she said. Most acts of discrimination occur behind closed doors. So, the testimony will be all about a swearing match. But, that does not mean the two stories cannot be confirmed or denied. In a discrimination case, we would want to know, for example, the circumstances behind a demotion or a firing. Does the story make sense? Do the surrounding details support or undermine the main story line?

It is the same with Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. The fact that no witness appears able or competent to confirm or deny their respective stories does not mean either story is false. The details become more important in such situations. Dr. Blasey Ford remembers very few details, other than the actual assault. She does recalls, however, that she saw Mark Judge at a nearby Safeway grocery store weeks after the incident. When we look at the book written by Mark Judge, we do indeed see that he worked at a Safeway in the Summer of 1982. Mark Judge wrote a book about his recovery from alcohol abuse. It goes into great detail about his excessive drinking in high school.  So, again, Dr. Blasey Ford’s story is confirmed in another respect, that a young Brett Kavanaugh drank a lot. And, in another important detail, Mark Judge mentions that he and his friend, “Bart O’Kavanaugh” partied hard in high school. See Rolling Stone news report here. “Bart” appears several times in Mark Judge’s book.

That is how a discrimination story is confirmed or denied, on the edges, around the periphery. It is circumstantial proof. But, sometimes circumstantial proof is more trustworthy than someone’s hazy memory.

Judge Fred Biery is a wonderful asset to the San Antonio legal community. Recently, he demonstrated again why he is the right judge at the right time. One of the costliest and most time-consuming lawsuits in recent memory is the House Canary v. Quicken Loans, Inc., No. SA-18-CV-0519 (W.D. Tex. 8/14/2018) lawsuit. A few months ago, a Bexar County jury awarded $700 million to the tech startup, House Canary. The lawsuit stems from a subsidiary of Quicken Loans which had asked House Canary to develop software. The subsidiary sued for fraud and breach of contract. Quicken Loans lost in one of the largest jury verdicts in Bexar County ever. See San Antonio Business Journal report here.

Quicken Loans then filed a related lawsuit in federal court. House Canary moved to dismiss or to transfer the suit to Michigan. At issue are jurisdiction, venue, and opposition to injunctive relief, all the normal requisites for time-consuming and expensive litigation. Judge Biery often speaks to the increased cost of lawsuits. His father and uncle were well known trial lawyers in San Antonio. Judge Biery is qualified to speak to the increased litigation costs in today’s society.

So, he called for a status conference, likely anticipating yet another drawn out legal battle. He wanted the parties to act in a civil manner. He expects zealous advocacy, he said, but no “elementary school behavior.” He expects the parties to produce all information requested in discovery. Lay the cards on the table, he ordered. The Court observed, and the respective lawyers surely know, that all would be revealed anyway if the case is appealed and then remanded. It would be more efficient to first produce what you have.

He asked the parties (i.e. the respective lawyers) to avoid “shrill” pleadings. He warned them that he has in past lawsuits ordered opposing lawyers who violated his rules to sit in timeout in the rotunda of the courthouse. He ordered another set of lawyers to kiss each other on the lips in front of the Alamo with cameras present. He discussed indirectly the change in litigation in San Antonio. Once the city was home to some 300 lawyers, all of whom, knew each other. They did not need court orders, because once they reached an agreement, they would abide by that agreement. He seemed then to point the finger at “Yankee” lawyers, that is lawyers moving into the state from the north and western regions of the country. He helped to make his point by including a map of Texas with arrows pointing at the state boundaries from Oklahoma and New Mexico, indicating migration from those states and beyond. He reminded us of a saying by Hobart Huson, a former San Antonio lawyer and historian, “Texans, you are guarding the wrong river.”

The Judge is certainly correct that us lawyers are more litigious than our predecessors. But, perhaps, if we start guarding the right river, we can find a balance. See Judge Biery’s order here.

I wrote about a pushy judge in the Paul Manafort trial here. The judge was fussing at the prosecutor and the prosecutor fussed back a bit. Now, the judge has apologized and explained to the jury that he was “probably wrong” for criticizing the prosecutor regarding one of the witnesses. IRS agent Michael Welch had been allowed earlier to sit in the court room and observe testimony. Perhaps forgetting his previous order, Judge Ellis fussed at the prosecutors for allowing a witness to sit in the court room prior to his testimony. So, later the prosecutorial team asked the judge to explain his oversight to the jury. See The Hill news report here.

It is probably symptomatic of the poor working relationship between the judge and the prosecutors that this inadvertent mistake occurred. The judge had fussed at them so much that he assumed they had erred. He spoke too soon, apparently.

Trials are not what we see on television. The judges and juries are not always somber, listening closely and making no mistakes. This is real life. The prosecutors saw the error and asked the judge to fix it. The judge is acting strangely. When relating a ruling that the prosecutor, Greg Andres did not like. Judge Ellis said Mr. Andres should not cry. The prosecutor said he was not crying. Judge Ellis remarked that well, his eyes were watery. There was no need for that retort.

In federal court, all lawyers run into the challenge of an overbearing judge. It can happen in state court. But, generally, pushy judges are mot likely to be encountered in federal court. In the Paul Manafort trial, the judge is not necessary overbearing, but he constantly presses the two sides to avoid lengthy, tedious testimony. That pressure has led to verbal fencing between the judge and the prosecutor.

For example, there was this exchange between Greg Andres, the prosecutor and Judge T.S. Ellis:

“The day’s first significant altercation came as Andres sought to question Manafort’s former  deputy, Rick Gates,            about his travels, using his passport as a visual aid.

“Let’s go to the heart of the matter,” Ellis said.

“Judge, we’ve been at the heart. …” Andres replied, before the judge cut him off.

“Just listen to me. … Don’t speak while I’m speaking,” the judge said, sharply. He added that he didn’t see how the testimony on travel “amounts to a hill of beans” with regard to the charges against Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman.

See Politico news report.

There have been several such instances of Mr. Andres sniping at the judge and the judge fussing at him for perceived lack of respect, not looking at the judge, rolling his eyes, etc. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor can sometimes take the judge on like that. But, in a civil trial. the jury will perceive it as bad that the judge is fussing at a lawyer. So, usually in civil trials, we do not fuss back. In any event, it is frustrating that some judges will not let you provide testimony you believe essential to your case.

Pres. Trump and AG Sessions started a policy separating children from their parents at the border last April. It lasted just a few weeks, but resulted in some 2500 children separated form their children. The policy was changed and the federal government was able to re-unify most of the families. But, there are still several hundred children who are apart from some 500 parents.A federal judge in San Diego has presided over a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. The challenge now is those 500 parents were deported. This is a transient, mobile population. It will be very difficult to find them.

In a recent filing, the Department of Justice unwisely said the ACLU could locate these parents. DOJ said with their network of NGO’s. volunteers and other resources, the ACLU could find the parents. The DOJ was apparently trying to make a joke. The ACLU has no such network. It is more or less a national law firm, composed of individual lawyers in various cities. “NGO” refers to non-governmental organizations. The ACLU has no “network” of NGO’s. DOJ knows that. I can only think they intended the comment as a joke of some sort.

The judge, Dana Sabraw, said to be a dignified sort of judge, did not rise to the bait. He simply told the DOJ that this problem, created by the Trump administration must be solved by the Trump Administration. Judge Sabraw said that sort of plan was not “acceptable.”

It is never wise to make jokes about major problems. The judge will remember that callous humor later when DOJ might wish to be taken seriously. See AP news report here.

Judge Lynn Hughes in the Southern District of Texas is a difficult judge. He harangues attorneys who appear before him. He cancels discovery, even though the federal rules of civil procedure provide otherwise. He is a difficult judge on several levels. In the case of USA v. Swenson, No. 17-20131 (5th Cir. 7/3/2018), the US Attorney prosecuted an adoption agency for fraud. Shortly before trial, the US Attorney dumped thousands of documents on the defense. There were indications that the prosecution had been hiding or withholding documents until the defense knew to ask for those specific documents. The day before trial, the parties had another conference in front of Judge Hughes. The prosecution brought yet another large pdf file of documents to the hearing. The prosecutor apologized to the court, saying she had overlooked the documents.

Judge Hughes fussed at the prosecutor. He said she is supposed to know what she is doing. He said it was better in the old days, because the prosecutors wore dark suits and blue ties. They did not let “girls” do this in the old days. The case had been continued three time already. So, the judge dismissed the case with prejudice.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit panel found there was no Brady violation here, meaning the prosecutor did not intentionally withhold material that would have helped the defense. It noted that the district court did not explain why one more continuance – the first continuance to be requested by the prosecutor  – would not suffice. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter back to the district court. But, remarkably, the appellate court remanded the case not back to the same judge, but to the chief judge to re-assign the case to a different judge. That is, the court remanded the case to a different judge, not back to Judge Hughes. See the decision here.

Reassigning to a different judge is as clear a rebuke as judges get. I expect it was the comment about “girls” that concerned the court of appeals. But, Judge Hughes is always a concern for the Fifth Circuit.

Parties to a lawsuit rarely discuss sanctions, but at least in federal court, sanctions are a real, if rare, possibility. Secretary of State for the state of Kansas, Kris Kobach, learned about sanctions. Mr. Kobach was advocating for the state’s voter ID law. The federal judge hearing the matter struck it down, finding that there were only 67 instances of non-citizens registering or attempting to vote in 19 years. The court found that the state of Kansas did not show an actual problem existed.

Secretary Kobach represented the state in the lawsuit. He was the responsible party. The state of Kansas failed to comply with discovery rules several times. The Judge said Secretary Kobach chose to represent himself in this matter. As such, the responsibility is his. The judge had previously found the Secretary of State in contempt for failing to follow court orders regarding voter notices. He had also been ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

Mr. Kobach excluded evidence which had been requested, yet he tried to use the same evidence during trial. That is as clear a violation of the discovery rules as it gets. The judge ordered the Secretary of State to take an extra six hours of Continuing Legal Education credit hours. The case is styled Fisher v. Kobach. See ABA Bar Journal report.

You know you messed up when the judge orders you to take CLE. Most of would suffer acute embarassment over being sent to Sunday school.  But, in the midst of the culture wars, Mr. Kobach may use this as a springboard to higher office. This is the same Kris Kobach who formerly chaired the President’s so-called Commission on Voter Fraud.

Well, the Texas Supreme Court surprisd me. They rejected the City of San Antonio’s appeal regarding the fire fighter’s union contract. I mentioned in 2015 that the City seemed to be relying on an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. See my prior post here. The Supreme Court rejected the City’s appeal with no comment. That can mean the Supreme Court did not believe the issue was worthy of their time. Or, it could mean it did not disagree with the Fourth Court of Appeals decision. We do not know what the denial of the appeal means. When a Supreme Court rejects an appeal, the rules do not require an explanation.

The issue concerned the evergreen clause in the firefighter’s contract. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement ends, the provisions stay in effect for another ten years. That sort of clause is known as an “evergreen clause.”

For the City, whatever the meaning of the denial, the result is the same. They must now deal with a fire fighter union that feels vindicated. See San Antonio Express News report.