Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jury Trials in the Bay Area

The SJ Mercury News (2/05/09, 3B, Leigh Potinger) recently compiled the number of Bay Area jury trials for the fiscal year 2006-2007.

San Francisco County had 509 jury trials.
Contra Costa County had 305 jury trials.
Santa Clara County had 291 jury trials.
Alameda County had 223 jury trials.
San Mateo County had 139 jury trials.
Santa Cruz County had 59 jury trials.

Out of the thousands of cases filed, only a few make it to a jury. The most commonly cited statistic is that only 5% to 10% of cases go to trial, which I presume includes both bench and jury trials. I just completed my first jury trial where I represented an employee alleging retaliation and gender/age discrimination. Here are my thoughts:

1. If you want to win, the jury must like your client. No matter how good your case is legally, if the jury doesn't like your client, you will lose. In employment cases, performance evaluations and peer reviews can be used by either side to show that a plaintiff was either well-liked or unpopular. Although I find a lot of these reviews irrelevant, the Court will probably admit them if one of the performance factors the employer evaluates is "teamwork."

2. Even if you catch the employer/defendant in a lie, it's not over. Jurors told me that yes, I made some people look bad or shifty, but the particular misrepresentations I caught weren't big enough to deliver a slam dunk. Jurors are looking for a major lie and will disregard non-major lies. In general, making your client's supervisors look like morons isn't good enough (though it may make your client very, very happy). Lawyers should try to show that the company came up with special rules or something new or unusual to harass or retaliate against an employee. Plaintiffs' employment lawyers should also try to show their clients were doing one type of work before the discriminatory/retaliatory time period, but after a new supervisor came, they started doing another type of work.

3. Not all corporations are alike. Some corporations have good reputations. If the defendant is a used car dealership or big pharma, you'll probably have an easier time as the plaintiff. But most jurors see technology companies as non-evil. Post-trial, I heard one juror tell the defendant, "Keep making those [semiconductor] chips." I could only sigh to myself.

Big corporations also have advantages because of their pre-determined performance processes, such as giving an employee 90 days to improve performance before termination. Almost every juror mentioned that the employer went through a pre-determined termination process, which, to them, meant my client's termination was probably justified. I was surprised to see jurors acting like the company's disciplinary process was some kind of holy grail. Once again, I could only sigh. Couldn't these people see that the company might have used its internal process to exaggerate minor complaints against my client? Didn't they hear me get an employee handling the process to say he actively solicited negative information about my client? Apparently not. The corporation had involved different people at different stages, making it hard for jurors to believe there was a corporate conspiracy against my client to fire her. The jury didn't buy the idea that general corporate inertia or an poorly done investigation could result in a discriminatory termination.

4. Not even the best lawyering can save "difficult" facts. Jurors told me I did the best I could with the facts I had. It still wasn't good enough. I don't know if they were being polite, but only two jurors were willing to give me criticism. (I specifically asked jurors to tell me what I could have done better.) Overall, however, no juror seemed to think I could have done any better. They believed the semiconductor company complied with its internal procedure and, as far as they were concerned, that was the alpha and the omega.

5. Lawyers should suck up to the judge. (Or, as my friend says, "As far as you're concerned, the judge is G-d.") I know most lawyers defer to judges anyway, but as a matter of principle, I only suck up to people I genuinely like. I've learned I need to suck up to everyone during trial. Any trial, even a jury trial, isn't the best time to let out your inner George "Anti-Establishment" Carlin. Once a judge decides he dislikes your case, he can make the trial as difficult as possible for you.

For example, the defense deemed some of my questions too vague, even though the witnesses probably understood what I was asking. The judge would usually sustain the defense's objection or demand more specificity. The defense's objections caused me to add many details to my questions, making them more difficult to follow. I never anticipated a situation where my questions would be less ambiguous but more confusing. At one point, even after I specified the time period, the location, and the persons involved, the defense and judge only backed off when I looked directly at the jury and asked, "How can I possibly make the question more specific?" Some judges might disregard objections to the form of the question, but only if the attorney is moving his/her case along quickly and being very respectful to the Court. The lesson? Don't count on having your pre-drafted questions automatically accepted, even if you think a witness will understand them.

Behind the scenes, it wasn't much better. The judge wouldn't accommodate my request to take one of my witnesses out of order. Earlier, he said it was okay to take one witness out of order because of her child care responsibilities, but around two days later, he said it was my problem, not his (he's right--it is the lawyer's responsibility to have his/her witnesses available). Still, that's a major problem when the judge also tells you if you don't get done with the witness on Friday, and she can't come back on Monday, he's going to strike her entire testimony.

You haven't even heard the best part. The defense, on the day this witness was going to testify, knew about my witness availability problem and asked for an earlier lunch time. The judge granted their request and the defense got a 2 hour lunch instead of the normal 1.5 or 1.75 hours--the only time during the whole trial I remember having such a long lunch. That's about 30 minutes of precious time taken away from me. Does the jury know anything about this? Nope. So when I finally get my witness on the stand, and the judge tells me to slow down because I'm speaking too fast, I look stupid. Score one for the defense, zero for transparency. (Thankfully, the witness got done in time.)

What was really unexpected, though, was how the judge kept telling me what not to do or say. For example, my client had a male coworker who was much younger than her. I referred to this coworker as a younger male (after all, my case involved age and gender discrimination claims). Later, in chambers, the judge told me that I could no longer use the terms, "younger" and "male" when mentioning this younger male coworker in my questions. The defense hadn't requested this particular instruction--the judge, on his own, felt it was prejudicial to the defense.

Perhaps another judge would not have told me in chambers what I couldn't do (e.g., you can't read from the deposition transcript anymore--you're being too dramatic); or would not have added objections for the other side (Defense: Objection: vague, ambiguous. Judge: it's also argumentative. Sustained. Me: silently, to myself--I can't believe I actually thought I was going to get a decent shot against this major corporation and its army of lawyers.")

For the record, I do not think the judge was biased. I've had two other bench trials before him, and he ruled against my client in one case, and in favor of my client in the other case. In this (jury) trial, he was a little too involved for my liking, but that's his call.

6. Know the hearsay rule and its exceptions by heart. I was surprised at what the judge wouldn't let in. Even when I said the documents were not being offered for the truth of the matter asserted or just to show the defendant received notice of a complaint on a particular date, the judge wouldn't let in my documents. He said my witness could testify orally about the content of the emails, and the emails themselves appeared redundant. You have to be willing to get the evidence in through oral testimony, or to redact documents before asking the court to admit them. Always have a backup plan.

Remember: even if your document isn't admitted, your witness still has it in front of him because you gave him a copy that was marked for identification. Not having it admitted just means the jury can't look at it--your witness can still see the document. So don't get discouraged if a document isn't admitted--just ask a question using the information in the document, like, "On January 2, 2007, did you discuss your workload with Peter, your supervisor? A: Yes. Q: What did you discuss? A: (witness may glance at the email before answering.)"

Doing it this way, I was able to get what I wanted published to a jury, except it came through direct testimony rather than documents. Did this unorthodox method endear me to the judge? No. See paragraph 5, above.

7. The judge may disregard the CACI jury instructions. Despite CRC 2.11050(a) and (e), this judge didn't have much respect for the CACI instructions. He modified them and also accepted most of the defense's special jury instructions, which I thought diluted the impact of the more neutral CACI instructions. By the time he was done, I thought the combination of special and CACI jury instructions bore little resemblance to what the judicial council had issued. When I said the whole point of having pre-drafted jury instructions was to create uniformity and predictability, the judge muttered that I wasn't there when the Judicial Council drafted the CACI instructions.

In addition, this judge wanted us in chambers every morning before trial to discuss the jury instructions. That is ordinarily a really good idea. I just didn't expect to get up at 7:00AM every morning instead of 7:30AM. That extra 30 minutes means a lot when you need as much rest as possible.

When discussing jury instructions, you have to argue that the modified instructions mis-state the law or are prejudicial somehow. Make sure you put your objections on the record to each one. Otherwise, when the judge reads the instructions to the jury, s/he'll probably tell them all the lawyers agreed that the instructions properly state the law.

8. The evidence code stacks the deck against individual plaintiffs. The business records exception to the hearsay rule allows corporations to let in almost any document. A company can offer performance evaluations written by Person X, without ever needing to call Person X to the stand for cross-examination. Sound unfair? You're darn right it's unfair, but that's the way the code is written. To counter this defense tactic, if you're the plaintiff, you may want to subpoena people you think will criticize your client.

In addition, if plaintiff sent an email that referred to other pieces of evidence, like charts or data, the judge may demand those sections be redacted. As this judge told me, your client can't vouch for the accuracy of any of these charts or data she is referring to, so it's inadmissible hearsay. No matter what I said--state of mind, just offering it to show my client's understanding, offering it only to show that words were said on this particular date, we're not saying it's true, etc.--it didn't work. Some judges treat jurors like Pavlovian dogs who, if exposed to certain statements or words, will suddenly rule in favor of Plaintiff based on pure emotion. I find this attitude distasteful and patronizing. I see it as reducing the power of jurors to hear the full facts of a case and to decide themselves whether those facts are accurate. But I'm not a judge. My opinions don't matter.

The lesson? Don't assume you'll get any of your emails or documents in if those documents refer to anything that isn't within your client's personal knowledge. Did your client write to Human Resources that her boss made her watch porn with a coworker on the Sabbath? With some judges, you better make sure your client can identify the pornstars in the movie, the exact brand of the DVD player, and the particular way the boss was waxing his carrot before you try to get that document in. I am kidding--sort of. When in doubt, subpoena all persons who have the most direct personal knowledge on a particular point you want published to the jury.

In my case, the judge said that the charts my client sent to her boss about her workload relative to her peers were inadmissible. He said that even though my client's direct supervisor required monthly reports about the workload of my client and her coworkers; the supervisor received these reports on a regular basis; and the supervisor hadn't questioned their accuracy, it wasn't good enough. The supervisor himself had no direct personal knowledge of his employees' workload, so it was hearsay. When I said I wasn't offering it for the truth of the charts, only to show my client's good faith belief about her unbalanced workload, the judge said I was offering it for the truth, and that was that. (As you can see, judges have a lot of discretion when it comes to evidence.)

I might not have had a problem in federal court publishing company emails to the jury. According to the Hon. James Rosenbaum, District Judge for Minnesota, FRE 808 automatically allows corporate emails and trumps 403 (relevance), 602 (personal knowledge), 902 (authentication), and 803 and 804 (declarant's availability or unavailability). See 12 Green Bag 2D 165, "In Defense of Rule 808, Federal Rules of Evidence." However, I cannot find any trace of FRE 808 anywhere except in this judge's published article. A rule regulating admission of corporate communications seems long overdue. In terms of reliability, there is much difference between a handwritten note and a corporate email between a supervisor and an employee stored on a company's servers.

To be fair, no judge wants to get overturned on appeal. The way the legal system is set up, it's easier for a judge to leave out a piece of evidence than to admit it if there's even a small doubt that admitting it will prejudice the jury. Unfortunately, it's also more likely that a large corporation will have the resources to appeal, which creates systemic problems with administering justice when corporations and individuals are suing each other.

9. Be careful when putting on hostile witnesses on your own direct examination. In my case, opposing counsel used a hostile witness I called to read performance evaluations written by third parties (business records exception to hearsay rule). The defense got in damaging information about my client as part of my own case in chief. (They would have gotten in the information later on, but the timing helped them.)

10. Jurors don't want to talk to your client if they ruled against him or her. They are usually happy to talk to the lawyers, but not the actual individual who lost the case. I made the mistake of putting some jurors in an awkward position by trying to get them to talk to my client.

That's all I can think of right now. I still wish my client had prevailed. My desire in writing this post is to stimulate an informed dialogue about our legal system. Good night, and good luck.

Bonus: more on jury trials, more specifically, jury verdict forms, HERE.

Bonus: Mark Bennett discusses jury selection

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