Deposition Weirdness

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Category: Civil Procedure, Legal Practice, Legal Profession, Public
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Photocopiers

If you haven’t yet watched this reenactment of a deposition segment about the meaning of the word “photocopier” on the New York Times website, you should.  The New York Times summarizes the lawsuit in which the deposition was taken as follows:

In 2010, the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s Office in Ohio changed their policy about copying records. Digital files would no longer be available, and the public would have to make hard copies of documents for $2 per page.  This would prove to be prohibitively expensive for Data Trace Information Services and Property Insight, companies that collect hundreds of pages of this public information each week.  They sued the Recorder’s Office for access to digital versions of the documents on a CD.  In the middle of the case, a lawyer representing them questioned the IT administrator of the Recorder’s Office, which led to a 10-page argument over the semantics of photocopiers.

The deposition segment starts with a question about whether the Recorder’s Office used “photocopying machines – any photocopying machine?”  The deponent attempts to turn the table: “When you say photocopying machine, what do you mean?”  The ensuing dialogue would not be out of place in an absurdist play. Read more »

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Thoughts on the Navy / Fukushima Litigation

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Category: Civil Procedure, Federal Civil Litigation, International Law & Diplomacy, Public
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There’s an important lawsuit currently pending in federal court in San Diego. In this post, I’ll provide a brief summary and then highlight an intriguing legal question that the parties haven’t addressed.

First the summary: Two months ago, a class of U.S. Navy sailors filed an amended complaint against Tokyo Electric Power Company (“TEPCO”), the operator of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that melted down after an earthquake-induced tsunami destroyed their power systems in March 2011. Within days of the earthquake, the U.S. Navy sent the USS Ronald Reagan to provide humanitarian aid to victims, but inadvertently exposed dozens of sailors to allegedly high levels of radiation in the process. Press reports suggest that the carrier sailed into a plume of radioactive steam a couple of miles off the coast, and that the crew drank and bathed in desalinated seawater that was irradiated. The claimed effects include reproductive problems, leukemia, ulcers, brain cancer, and thyroid illnesses, among others. Upon return from the mission, one sailor allegedly began to lose his eyesight. Another gave birth to a child with multiple birth defects. Some observers believe that the Ronald Reagan–a $6 billion vessel–is now too radioactive to keep in service. According to the complaint, TEPCO is responsible because the company knew about the high levels of radiation emitting from the reactors but nevertheless failed to inform the public, including the ship’s crew. Claims include negligence; strict liability for design defect, failure to warn, and ultra-hazardous activities; public and private nuisance; and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As remedies, the plaintiffs have demanded compensation for lost wages, punitive damages, and a $1 billion fund for medical care. Last month TEPCO filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of international comity, forum non conveniens, the political question doctrine, and various alleged deficiencies in the prima facie case. Read more »

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The Class Action Fairness Act: History, Uses, and Differences from Traditional Diversity Jurisdiction

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Category: Civil Procedure, Federal Civil Litigation, Public
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In 2005, Congress passed the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”) in order to grant class action litigants in diversity cases easier access to the federal courts. The re-formulated sections under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 created a lower threshold to gain access into the federal courts for both the plaintiff class members, and the perspective defendants wishing to remove to federal court. Congress passed these new provisions in order to “restore the intent of the framers of the United States Constitution by providing for Federal court consideration of interstate cases of national importance under diversity jurisdiction.” In its deliberations over the bill, Congress specifically found that certain litigants used the previous jurisdictional regime to create many situations whereby certain cases with national importance did not qualify for federal jurisdiction based upon diversity. Additionally, Congress sought to address the age old concern of discrimination against out-of-state litigants.

Congress also mentions in its findings and purposes prelude to CAFA that over the previous decade (1995 – 2005), abusive practices of the class action device caused numerous harms, thus justifying this remake of the class action jurisdictional regime. But why in 2005? Perhaps because Congress wished to respond to the vast amount of litigation against insurers stemming from Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in August of 2005. Perhaps because in 2005, Republicans held a majority in both the House and the Senate (and held the presidency), and as a general matter, the Republican Party, rightly or wrongly, is viewed as anti-plaintiff. In this view, Republicans wanted to allow insurance companies greater opportunities to remove to federal court (which is also seen, rightly or wrongly, as somewhat less pro-plaintiff than many state courts). Whatever the true reasoning, Congress did pass CAFA, and some of CAFA’s provisions are worth noting.

CAFA grants federal jurisdiction (through diversity) to class action cases where: (1) the amount in controversy, in the aggregate of all of the class members, exceeds $5,000,000 and (2) in a controversy in which ANY member of the class of plaintiffs is diverse from the defendant. CAFA then defines class members as those persons, named or unnamed, who fall within the definition of the proposed or certified class in a class action. Based on these threshold rules, a defendant could rather easily assert diversity from one of the unnamed or proposed class members. The removing party need not identify the diverse class member, but merely show by a preponderance of the evidence, using the face of the complaint or summary judgment type evidence, that it is reasonable to believe at least one class member maintains diversity from the defendant. Hardly a high hurdle to clear. However, several important subsections to CAFA help to qualify these basic underlying tenets, and may impose at least some further obstacles to navigate as a removing party. Read more »

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Manipulation by the Media: Lessons to be Learned from Zimmerman v. NBC

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Category: Civil Procedure, Criminal Law & Process, Media & Journalism, Public, Race & Law
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George ZimmermanNow more than ever, journalism appears to be no longer about reporting facts or the search for truth, but instead about manipulating facts to maximize ratings. A case in point is the complaint George Zimmerman filed last December against NBC. The complaint alleges NBC’s use of edited 911 audio, as part of its coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death, was defamatory and an intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The transcript of the 911 call, released by the City of Sanford, begins as follows:

Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department. . . .

Zimmerman: Hey we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He’s [unintelligible], he was just staring . . .

Dispatcher: OK, he’s just walking around the area . . .

Zimmerman: . . . looking at all the houses.

Dispatcher: OK . . .

Zimmerman: Now he’s just staring at me.

Dispatcher: OK – you said it’s 1111 Retreat View? Or 111?

Zimmerman: That’s the clubhouse . . .

Dispatcher: That’s the clubhouse, do you know what the – he’s near the clubhouse right now?

Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.

Dispatcher: OK.

Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male.

Zimmerman’s complaint alleges “NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” reported a “reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims,” and created a “false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the [911] recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made.” Read more »

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New Supreme Court Ruling on the Alien Tort Statute

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Category: Civil Procedure, International Law & Diplomacy, Public, U.S. Supreme Court
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For those interested in federal courts or U.S. foreign relations law, the Supreme Court just issued an important decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. The basic issue concerned the extent to which the Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) confers jurisdiction upon district courts to recognize a federal cause of action for violations of customary international law. Here’s what happened: Nigerian nationals sued Royal Dutch Petroleum in federal court for aiding and abetting atrocities allegedly committed by the Nigerian military in the early 1990s, when the plaintiffs and many others were protesting the environmental effects of the oil company’s operations in the Niger River Delta. The district court dismissed some of the claims on the ground that the alleged conduct did not violate international law. On appeal, the Second Circuit dismissed the entire complaint on the view that the ATS does not recognize corporate liability. Many thought that the Supreme Court would affirm on similar reasoning, but the Court mostly sidestepped the issue of corporate liability to focus instead on whether the ATS confers jurisdiction over claims alleging violations of international law when the unlawful acts occurred within the territory of a foreign sovereign. Read more »

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Assumptions and Presumptions

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Category: Civil Procedure, Evidence, Legal Practice, Public
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As most students at Eckstein are frantically and diligently studying to ensure we put forth our best efforts during this finals period, I can’t help but think about the certain “presumptions” built into our institution of law. Numerous assumptions and presumptions are used in many different areas of law, but they seem to be accentuated when looking at the Federal Rules of Evidence.

Let’s look at Federal Rule 801 2(b), for instance. Is it really true that a failure to respond makes for an adopted admission? Those who have had, or have, a significant other: have you ever been silent to an assertion made by your significant other? I’m assuming that, like me, you remained silent not because you wanted to tacitly give your approval of the assertion, but rather because you wanted to save the feelings of your significant other, or eliminate a needless argument. I am aware that most things that end up in court may not be so trivial, but nevertheless this example popped into my head rather quickly without much thought. I am sure that the same could be said for many others, and it is the basis of the presumption in general I find unreliable.

Let’s turn to another presumption by looking at Federal Rule 804(b)(2), the “Dying Declaration.”   Read more »

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The Proper Procedure for Facebook Discovery, Part I

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Category: Civil Procedure, Computer Law, Privacy Rights, Public
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An individual is involved in a civil lawsuit against someone — a tort suit, an employment discrimination suit, a civil rights suit — and the opposing party requests production of everything in his or her Facebook account during discovery. The individual refuses, or produces some material but not others, and the requesting party moves to compel. How should the court respond?

This situation is coming up increasingly frequently, and it appears to be confounding in many cases for everyone involved — judges, attorneys, and the parties themselves. Many individual litigants are no doubt surprised by such requests; not being familiar with the ordinary rules of discovery, they may not have realized that suing someone, or being sued, means that all relevant documents must be turned over — which might include every half-witted Facebook post or photograph pertaining to some issue germane to the lawsuit (such as, e.g., the plaintiff’s emotional well-being). Businesses have lived for years with the knowledge that a single wayward email from the CEO can sink a lawsuit; now individuals are experiencing the litigation effects when every decision or even fleeting thought is permanently recorded and archived. And destroying relevant material after the prospect of litigation becomes clear just makes matters worse.

But individual parties are not the only ones surprised by the interaction between civil discovery rules and social networking materials. Judges and attorneys often seem not to know exactly how to categorize the materials on a site like Facebook: is it all one relevant document? Multiple documents? How should the material be produced? Can the material be sought directly from the site via subpoena? Is the material shielded from discovery in any way? This confusion has led in some instances to court orders I’ve criticized as requiring overly broad production of social networking materials, with parties unnecessarily compelled to turn over entire accounts or even, in some cases, passwords to those accounts so opposing counsel can peruse them at will.

By and large most of those cases have been state cases, but federal courts are starting to issue opinions on social networking discovery as well. Over at Eric Goldman’s Technology & Marketing Law Blog, Venkat Balasubramani points to a recent decision from a magistrate judge in the District of Nevada, Thompson v. Autoliv ASP, Inc., No. 09-cv-01375, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85143 (D. Nev. June 20, 2012). In Thompson, the judge ordered production of 5 years’ worth of Facebook and MySpace posts, photographs, and other materials to opposing counsel for its review. On a quick read Thompson might appear to fit into the category of overbroad decisions, but, despite an insufficient number of caveats in the opinion for my taste, I don’t believe it is.

I want to spend this post detailing exactly what’s wrong with an order compelling production of an entire social networking account, and why I think courts issuing such orders are going off the rails. Read more »

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A Jewel in Our Midst

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Category: Civil Procedure, Legal Education, Marquette Law School, Mediation, Milwaukee, Negotiation, Public, Wisconsin Civil Litigation
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Throughout the history of legal education, there has been a consistent call for greater levels of experiential learning and especially clinical education in the law school curriculum. This call has received renewed strength in the Carnegie Report released in 2007. It reminds us again of the importance of building skills for lawyering, for serving as counselors to those who seek our assistance.

Marquette University Law School, for over thirteen years, has been polishing a gem that provides our students with a rich opportunity to some of the very skills required to be an effective lawyer (you might remember the list from the first blog…communication, listening, writing, negotiation and time management, to list only the top five survey responses). This gem is the Small Claims Mediation Clinic.

The Small Claims Mediation Clinic is housed in the Milwaukee County Courthouse and provides pro se litigants an opportunity to access student-led mediation services in an effort to resolve the disputes themselves. This program was the brainchild of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske and I have had the honor and privilege to work with Janine at the Clinic for several years and have served as the faculty member for a number of semesters. Read more »

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Change in Wisconsin Venue Law

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Category: Civil Procedure, Public, Wisconsin Civil Litigation
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Wisconsin Act 61 changed the law in Wisconsin regarding where a lawsuit is venued. Adjunct Professor Erin O’Connor recently wrote this article on the change in the law and its implications for Wisconsin litigation.

The new law affects both where a case may initially be venued, as well as where an appeal may be brought. Professor O’Connor notes in her article that as a general matter, “a plaintiff can file its action against the state in any county – including counties having no connection to the defendant, the plaintiff, or the cause of action.”

With regard to appeals, under the new law, a party seeking an appeal may not file the appeal in the same court of appeals district where the case was originally venued at the circuit court. However, the party may choose among the remaining three Wisconsin court of appeals districts.

 

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The Court of Appeals Speaks in the Recall Case

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Category: Civil Procedure, Election Law, Judges & Judicial Process, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Today, the District IV Court of Appeals issued an opinion that reverses a ruling by the Waukesha County Circuit Court denying a motion to intervene in the case of Friends of Scott Walker v. Brennan.  The practical impact of today’s Court of Appeals decision is that the committees seeking the recall of Governor Walker and other Republican officeholders will be permitted to intervene in the case of Friends of Scott Walker v. Brennan.  As a result, all of the legal rulings made by Judge Davis subsequent to his denial of the motion to intervene must be vacated, so that these legal issues can be reargued with the participation of the recall committees.

This means that Judge Davis’ earlier ruling, interpreting the statutory procedures for recalls under Section 9.10, is now vacated.  On January 5, 2012, Judge Davis ordered the Government Accountability Board (GAB) to take affirmative steps to identify and strike any recall signatures that are fictitious, duplicative or unrecognizable.  Because of this earlier ruling, the GAB went ahead and adopted new procedures, purchased new signature recognition software, and sought additional time in which to review the recall petitions. Read more »

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Arbitrator’s Social Life Overturns Award

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Category: Civil Procedure
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In Dallas last week, a court overturned a $22 million (!) arbitration decision because the arbitrator had failed to disclose that he had socialized with one of the lawyers. 

As the Wall Street Journal law blog reported:

Arbitration awards, as most litigators know, are very difficult to overturn on appeal.

That’s why a Dallas appellate court’s decision this week to vacate a $22 million arbitration award is so notable.

The reason for the appellate court’s ruling: the arbitrator failed to disclose contacts he’d had with a lawyer in the case, including attending a Dallas Mavericks basketball game and sharing meals with the attorney.

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Springtime for Daubert: Insights From the EDWBA Panel

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Category: Civil Procedure, Eastern District of Wisconsin, Evidence, Federal Civil Litigation, Wisconsin Civil Litigation
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In late January the “tort reform” package imposed the staid Daubert rules on the Wisconsin Rules of Evidence. Now it’s spring, although the weather feels a lot like January, and we must get serious about what to do with this gift that the judiciary did not want. The new rules require that expert testimony be based on demonstrably reliable methods and principles. To be determined is whether Wisconsin will be a “strict” or a “lax” Daubert jurisdiction — whatever that is. It is worth noting that the first wave of Wisconsin Daubert cases, which will likely set the mold for what follows, are also those that least interested the tort reformers, namely, criminal cases and “chapter 980” sexually violent offender cases.

Right now, however, we are in a state of nature, legally speaking. Case law under the relevancy test, the current standard, is of little avail. And while the new rules are copied from the federal rules, state courts are not bound by federal precedent (yes, that includes Daubert itself!). Last week alone I spoke at two conferences, one a large, attentive gathering of state judges in Elkhart Lake and the other an even larger, equally engaged joint convocation of state prosecutors, public defenders, and private defense counsel here at Eckstein Hall. There is a clamor for answers and a discernable unease about what to do. Read more »

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