February 20, 2015
At some point after the filing of a lawsuit in Virginia Circuit Court, initial disputes over the sufficiency of the complaint are resolved. The parties are now on notice of their opponents’ claims and defenses. The process of getting to this point was the focus of my previous blog post. Contrary to what one sees on T.V. or movies, parties do not immediately proceed to going to trial. Instead, lawyers and their clients begin to prepare for trial in a period called “discovery.” Discovery involves finding out more facts about the case. This post provides an overview of the basics of civil litigation discovery, with a focus on its purposes and tools in real estate cases. Why is there such a lengthy process for this? Consider three purposes of discovery:
- Hoarding. Preventing one side or another from “hoarding” documents and information about the case to the unfair detriment of others. For example, in a case between different homeowners’ association factions over control of the board of directors, whoever happens to have access to the minutes, resolutions, notices, amendments, etc., kept by the association must provide them to the other.
- Surprises. Lawyers, as a lot, are attracted to springing surprises on their opponents at trial. However, it may be contrary to the principles of justice for one side to hand the other a large stack of documents they have never seen before during the trial and expect the witness questioning to be meaningful. Discovery can mitigate unfair surprise.
- Effectiveness of Trial. The public places greater confidence in trial results that are based on documents and facts rather than the decisions made in the absence of existing evidence.
The methods of discovery are more formal than the fact gathering conducted outside of litigation. Informal investigation includes researching the documents and information within one’s control, talking to friendly witnesses, checking what is publicly available or that one’s bank can provide. Usually this doesn’t answer all questions. So what are the available forms of civil discovery? There are quite a few. The most useful in real estate and construction cases in Virginia circuit court are:
- Document Requests. The rules allow a party to request in writing an opponent’s documents. A party seeking production of documents must send a written request. The responding party then has 21 days in which to respond as to documents within their possession, custody or control. In large cases it usually takes significantly longer than 21 days to resolve a document request. Reviewing the relevant documents of one’s opponent is a central element of trial preparation. Contracts and other documents created before the dispute cannot, absent forgery, be changed to adapt to someone’s current story. When the judge or jury goes to make determinations of facts, the credibility of the parties and the key documents carry great weight. If a party fails to produce a document requested in discovery, they are not normally allowed to use it as an exhibit at trial. The documents of a third-party can be requested by serving them with a subpoena duces tecum.
- Interrogatories. Information sought may not necessarily be reflected in a document. In discovery, a party may submit written interrogatories to another party, seeking answers to specific questions. For example, a party may inquire into the factual support for their opponent’s claims or defenses. Parties usually ask for disclosure of all persons having knowledge about the facts of the case. Interrogatories are also a good tool for finding out about expert testimony that one’s opponent may present at trial. The answering party must respond within 21 days. The answers must be signed by a party under oath or affirmation.
- Requests for Admissions. Last August, I posted an article about the role of a party’s admissions in a federal trial in Maryland. In that case, a lawyer made an oral admission in a closing argument. His opponent did not make a motion to have the admission deemed binding before the jury went to deliberate. The jury made a decision contrary to the admission. The jury verdict ignoring the admission survived post-trial motions and appeal. Party admissions can be requested in discovery before they come out at trial. Parties are entitled to submit to the opponent formal, written requests for admission. The 21 day deadline applies here as well. Admitted responses are binding. These can be useful for resolving uncontested matters so that the trial can focus on what’s disputed.
- Depositions. How will a party or witness react to a line of questions at trial? Does a party or witness know something that can be useful to preparing one’s own case? In discovery, a party may take oral depositions of parties, experts or other witnesses. The deposition usually occurs at a law office. The parties, the lawyers and the witness meet in a conference room with a court reporter. The court reporter places the witness under oath, and then records all of the lawyers’ questions, objections and witness answers. Depositions of parties and experts are an important part of pretrial discovery in large cases.
- View of Real Estate. In many real estate or construction cases, the most significant piece of evidence is the building or land itself. If ordered, the jury travels to the property to view it as evidence. More commonly, the appearance of property is put into evidence by photographs or video. A party not in possession or control of the real estate is entitled to view it. This can be an effective way of expanding one’s knowledge about the case.
Not all of these tools will need to be employed in every case. In addition to these forms of discovery, there are common areas where parties dispute over whether the discovery has been properly sought or provided. These are usually the subject of objections and motions:
- Relevance. Discovery cannot be used to explore any and every topic. The requests must explore relevant, admissible evidence or information that is reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence. Although not unlimited, the scope of discovery is broad.
- Confidentiality. A party may have confidentiality concerns about turning over documents or information. These concerns can be addressed by a protective order regulating the use and disposition of confidential documents or other information.
- Privileges to Withhold. Frequently attorneys will interpose objections to discovery requests. One justification for withholding documents is the attorney-client privilege. Communications between an attorney and his client are not subject to discovery. Despite the apparent simplicity of this concept, disputes over assertion of the attorney-client privilege are a frequent source of discovery disputes. There are other privilege and objections that are applicable in certain situations.
- Spoliation. In the age of computers, e-mails, text messages, computer files and other electronic data are easily created and easily deleted. Once litigation is threatened or pending, parties and witnesses should take action to preserve evidence, including electronically stored information for potential use in the lawsuit.
- Motions to Compel. Lawyers must make reasonable efforts to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of objections, the sufficiency of responses and other discovery disputes without putting it before a judge. When disputes cannot be resolved, typically one party will bring a motion to compel discovery against the other.
- Sanctions. The failure to obey discovery orders can subject a party to a variety of sanctions, including awards of attorney’s fees, dismissal of claims or defenses, exclusion of witnesses and other punishments.
By better understanding the basics of civil litigation discovery, one can adopt strategies that make better use of time, energy and resources pre-trial. Implementing discovery strategies proper to the needs and circumstances of the case pave the way towards a favorable result.
August 20, 2014
On Aug. 12, 2014, I blogged about a judicial admission issue in the trial of Minter vs. Prosperity Mortgage, et al. Today’s post is Part Two in a series on this case. The following focuses on challenges to character at trial.
The integrity of the parties lies near the heart of every trial. The classic test of credibility occurs on cross-examination by the opposing lawyer. Prepared trial lawyers show up with cross-examination questions thoroughly exploring the relevant issues.
Challenges to the character of a party or witness can be a delicate matter. Trial lawyers, including those defending a case, are sometimes accused of “blame the victim” strategies. How does one distinguish between zealous, competent advocacy and unprofessional, undisciplined aggression? In his blog post, “Take Care with Character Attacks,” Jury consultant Ken Broda-Bahm, Ph.D., discusses the Police Department’s release of surveillance footage showing 18-year old Michael Brown robbing a store in Ferguson, MO. They disclosed this video after the police shooting of the unarmed Brown in a later incident. Broda-Bahm used this Ferguson story to discuss how perceived relevance of a character attack may determine whether it is interpreted as (1) a red-herring or (2), information useful to understand disputed events. Audiences largely reject recognized ad hominem fallacies. Broda-Bram observes, “The question of whether a character attack is relevant or irrelevant is often ambiguous – and this is nowhere more true than in law where fact finders are asked to evaluate the credibility of parties and witnesses.”
In the 17-day Minter v. Prosperity Mortgage trial, the parties challenged each other’s credibility. The consumers accused Long & Foster and Wells Fargo Bank of creating Prosperity Mortgage as a “sham” “affiliated business arrangement” to exchange “kickbacks” or commissions violating the Real Estate Settlement Practices Act. Of course, business associations don’t have “character” in the sense that individual persons do. However, the integrity of the defendants’ business practices were on trial in the class action suit. One representative plaintiff alleged paying $945 in settlement charges to Prosperity. The two other representative plaintiffs paid $777.03 in settlement charges to Prosperity.
What is a “sham”? According to the common dictionary meaning, it is “a thing that is not what it is purported to be.” In R.E.S.P.A. compliance matters, “sham” is used as a shorthand for “affiliated business arrangements” that fail to comply with the complex legal requirements.
On appeal, the consumers identified two specific character attacks made by their opponents. When the defense attorney made his closing argument, he accused the plaintiffs’ lawyers of putting on a “sham lawsuit” and having “an interest in the outcome of this case.” The “sham lawsuit” accusation appears to be tit-for-tat for the “sham brokerage” accusation. Everyone is calling everyone else a “sham.”
The second accusation is more interesting – every lawyer has at least one “interest” in the outcome of his case. Lawyers don’t try cases without an attorney-client relationship. The interest might be a financial one, such as a percentage contingency fee or unpaid invoices on hourly work. It might be reputational. It might be relational to a client. It might be malpractice related, or even a personal motive. The apparent inference here is that the plaintiff lawyers had a financial interest in the outcome of the case. Defense counsel suggested that the jurors could punish the plaintiffs’ lawyers financially in their verdict.
While the Federal Appeals Court found these comments inappropriate and improper, they remarked that they only came at the end and did not permeate the whole trial. The Court found them irrelevant. However, their prejudicial effect was mitigated by their isolated context and the jury instructions, where the judge told them that lawyer arguments are not evidence. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision with respect to these comments, letting the defense verdict stand.
It is difficult to say whether the defense verdict was influenced by the improper statements. The jurors disregarded other closing arguments made by the defense. They may have ignored these as well. Juries know that lawyers work for fees.
While the lawyers defending this case succeeded in making improper statements, I think it would be a mistake to interpret this court opinion as an invitation for more character attacks in closing arguments. Challenges to personal or corporate integrity must be carefully considered, evaluated in light of the other evidence, rigorously prepared and reevaluated at all stages of the case.
case citation: Minter v. Wells Fargo Bank, 762 F.3d 339 (4th Cir. 2014).
August 12, 2014
A complex case goes to trial. The parties, witnesses, jurors and lawyers endure weeks of frantic preparation, arguments and witness testimony. Near the end, the defense lawyer faces the jury to deliver his closing argument. He does not want to let his client down by failing to effectively communicate. However, while articulating his client’s position, he admits a key fact.
Perhaps his opponent writes this judicial admission down on a legal pad, shifts back in his chair, smiles modestly and relaxes muscles that have been tense for weeks. Defense counsel concludes his argument. The Judge reads instructions to the jurors. After deliberation, the jury returns with a verdict completely in favor of the defendants, contrary to the admission! Surely relief from the verdict is available, at least on the point of the judicial admission? What amount of jury supervision can attorneys and their clients expect from a trial judge in similar situations?
In June 2013, William Nickerson, a Senior Federal Judge in Maryland, faced a similar situation. He ruled that the plaintiff’s lawyer’s failure to move to revise the jury instructions after the closing arguments rendered the defense lawyer’s admission not binding. On August 5, 2014, Federal Court of Appeals upheld this decision. (This appeals court has authority to also hear appeals from federal trial courts in Virginia) This case illustrates how attention to detail and quick decision-making in jury trials challenges even seasoned litigators. An attorney and client should not bring a lawsuit unless they are willing to prepare to take the case to trial. They must also have sufficient risk tolerance to permit the result to be determined by disinterested judges and jurors.
Class Action Against Long & Foster, Wells Fargo Bank & Prosperity Mortgage:
In the facts of Judge Nickerson’s case, Denise Minter and others used Long & Foster to help them purchase homes. Long & Foster has a joint venture with Wells Fargo Bank called Prosperity Mortgage. Prosperity lends home loans on a wholesale line of credit provided by Wells Fargo. Some of Prosperity’s offices are next door to Long & Foster’s. Ms. Minter used Prosperity to obtain a home loan.
This case caught my attention because Long & Foster has a large market share in residential real estate in Northern Virginia. This case held many business relationships in the balance. On a personal note, Long & Foster has been the listing or buyers agent for every real estate transaction I have been personally involved in. Long & Foster has some agents that I would use again (or refer to others) and some that I would not. I’ve never used Prosperity Mortgage.
Ms. Minter and other common customers (but not me) became dissatisfied with the services of Long & Foster and Prosperity and filed a class action lawsuit. They alleged that Wells Fargo and Long & Foster created Prosperity as a “sham” in order to skirt legal prohibitions on “kickbacks” obtained in settlements that were inadequately disclosed to the consumers. They brought their class action under the Federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.
The trial court certified the plaintiffs class action except for certain claims that could only be brought if Prosperity customers were actually referred by Long & Foster. Those potential claims were set aside for a future, separate trial. In order to get a trial on those other claims, the court required a factual finding at the first trial that Long & Foster referred the plaintiffs to Prosperity.
The jury received extensive evidence in the 17 day trial. Near the end, Long & Foster lawyer Jay Veron presented a closing argument, including, “I think the only thing I agree way (sic) for sure is that Long & Foster did refer the named plaintiffs to Prosperity. There’s no dispute about that.” The jury received predetermined instructions from the Judge. These included Verdict Question No. 3:
Have Plaintiffs proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., referred or affirmatively influenced the Plaintiffs to use Prosperity Mortgage Company for the provision of settlement services.
This question was almost identical to one proposed by the Plaintiffs’ lawyers. After deliberation, the jury answered “No” to Question No. 3.
The consumers’ attorneys moved the court to set aside the jury’s verdict and order a new trial. Counsel argued that Long & Foster’s factual concession during the closing arguments constituted a “judicial admission” that bound Long & Foster in the case.
What is a Judicial Admission? The Circuit Court opinion explains that under federal evidence law, they are a representations by a party or their agent that are conclusive in the court case unless the judge allows them to be withdrawn. They can occur in pleadings, discovery or at trial. The are not limited to written communications. Judicial Admissions include intentional and unambiguous waivers that release the opposing party from its burden to prove the facts necessary to establish the waived conclusion of law.
For these reasons, lawyers routinely counsel clients with strategies designed to avoid making undesired admissions regarding issues in controversy. Even if an admission does not achieve binding effect, it remains fertile ground for cross-examination and falls outside the protection of a hearsay objection.
Mr. Veron’s decision to tell the jury that there was no dispute whether Long & Foster referred the plaintiffs to Prosperity was significant. Perhaps he thought that the jury would think this anyway and that he needed to concede this in order to maintain credibility. The jury either wasn’t listening, didn’t understand or believe him. In many trials, the jurors’ least favorite parts are when lawyers are talking. Veron achieved a complete victory by failing to effectively communicate what he was trying to say to the jury. In the words of the prison warden in the 1967 film, Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is a failure to communicate.” In a 17 day trial, there is bound to be some mis-communication.
The plaintiffs’ attorney needed the Court to accept Mr. Veron’s admission for the consumers to get another trial on separate, related claims predicated on that admitted fact. Plaintiff’s counsel moved to have the jury verdict set aside as contrary to the admission and the evidence. The Judge Nickerson rejected the motion for a new trial, explaining that:
. . .the Court is troubled by the fact that the supposed admission is being raised for the first time post-verdict. While the time between [Long & Foster counsel’s] statement and submission of the case to the jury was indeed short, the Court believes is was sufficient amount of time for Plaintiffs to reconsider the task with which the jury would be charged in light of counsel’s statement, and to raise the supposed admission with the Court and with counsel. Obviously, Plaintiffs did not . . .
Trial advocacy involves knowing when to interject with objections and motions and when to allow the case to simply flow on. In this 17 day trial, undoubtedly there were many objections and motions made by both sides calculated to steer the outcome. However, a trial attorney cannot object or make a motion whenever his opponent tries to accomplish anything. Judges and juries become weary of frequent interruptions of the flow of testimony. When Long & Foster’s attorney made this admission to the jury, the consumers’ lawyer may have thought: “Finally, something unobjectionable and consistent with what I have been saying for the past 17 days.” Unfortunately, by not moving to have the jury instructions and verdict forms changed to reflect this stipulated fact, the jury was permitted to decide it. The jury probably was not aware that there was a whole separate trial that could be precluded based on that factual finding. In the end, the joint venture known as Prosperity Mortgage survived this class action assault.
This Minter trial has several takeaways:
- Just because the parties agree doesn’t mean the jury will.
- Juries have been known to ignore things lawyers say.
- Never give up! Always listen for things that require immediate action to avoid waiver. (This does not mean object to each and every thing.)
- Going to trial, especially with a jury, requires risk tolerance.
- When a problem that requires litigation solution, trial experience counts.
- If an attorney prevails because he fails to communicate what he wants to say, then that is still a happy day for him, his law firm, and his client.
I sympathize for the class action plaintiffs lawyer. He showed opposing counsel respect by assuming that the jury would listen to the judicial admission and decide their verdict in accordance with the fact not in controversy. He also exhibited respect for the jurors, whom he assumed would draw the conclusion based on the arguments and weight of the evidence. He also respected the judge’s desire not to have yet another matter to quickly rule on.
This case illustrates that any system of justice administered by humans will run the risk of inscrutable results. A qualified trial attorney serves clients by managing these risks arising from unresolved legal disputes. This is accomplished through commitment to client service, zealously pursuing the clearest path to victory while exploring reasonable settlement opportunities.
This is Part One in a series of blog posts about the Minter v. Prosperity Mortgage, et al. case. Part Two is about certain challenges to credibility made in closing arguments.
Minter v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 07-3442 (Dist. Md. Aug. 28, 2013)(Nickerson, J.).