The question of whether a spouse may be called as a witness in a civil case recently came up in the civil litigation surrounding the sexual assault allegations against comedian Bill Cosby. People often reflexively (and mistakenly) think that the issue is governed by the spousal privilege. In fact, in Massachusetts the spousal privilege is only applicable in criminal cases where one spouse is the defendant. M.G.L. c. 233 sec. 20, cl. 1. In those circumstances, the spousal privilege can be invoked by a witness to avoid being compelled to testify against his or her spouse. Com. v. Szerlong, 457 Mass. 858, 865 (2010). The testifying spouse can also choose to waive the privilege if the spouse wants to testify. Because the spousal privilege is applicable only in criminal proceedings, it is essentially irrelevant in civil litigation.
Massachusetts is one of the few states that has not adopted some version of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The rules of evidence in Massachusetts are not codified, meaning that evidentiary issues are governed by common law. In 1982, the Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") rejected a proposed codification of Massachusetts evidence law, yet encouraged lawyers to cite to the "proposed rules." Lawyers had to understand case law in order to know the evidentiary rules that apply in Massachusetts, as well as be familiar with the federal rules of evidence and the "proposed rules."
The Supreme Judicial Court recently amended Rule 45 of the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, effective as of April 1, 2015. The most significant change in the amended Rule 45 is the allowance of "documents only" subpoenas to non-parties. Previously, if only documents were sought from a non-party, Massachusetts practice involved serving a deposition subpoena that agreed to "waive the appearance" of the non-party at the deposition if the documents were produced. Consistent with the federal practice, now Massachusetts practitioners can serve a "documents only" subpoena when only documents are needed. The last line of Rule 45(b) makes clear that "[a] person commanded to produce documents, electronically stored information, or tangible things, or to permit inspection of premises, need not appear in person at the place of production or inspection unless also commanded to appear for a deposition, hearing, or trial."
In an earlier post, we discussed the initial pleadings and discovery stages of a lawsuit. This post will address the pre-trial and trial stages.
Most first-time litigants are unfamiliar with the process by which a lawsuit moves from filing to resolution. While every lawsuit is unique and different courts have different rules governing litigation procedure, most lawsuits in most courts follow a similar path from initial complaint to final judgment. Understanding the different stages of a lawsuit can help prepare first-time litigants for the unfamiliar process ahead.
The Massachusetts Appeals Court requires some pleadings to be filed electronically, rather than through hard copy. Although the Standing Order concerning electronic filings has been effective for nearly three years, it is still a confusing process that is ripe for errors.
The Supreme Court of the United States issued a recent decision answering the question of whether an appeal period begins after a court determines the merits of the case or after it awards attorney's fees and costs.
I recently attended a continuing legal education seminar where the Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, Joseph Stanton, provided useful information concerning post-oral argument letters, often described as "16L Letters."
The First Circuit has described default judgment - a ruling, as sanction, against a defendant on all of the factual allegations in the plaintiff's complaint - as "strong medicine," that "should be prescribed only in egregious cases." See Hooper-Hass v. Ziegler Holdings, LLC, 690 F.3d 34, 37-38 (1st Cir. 2012).
As a society, we continue to realize the potential for on-line conduct to have real-world ramifications - something the Middlesex Superior Court further illustrated recently in the context of personal jurisdiction - in the first such opportunity for a Massachusetts trial court to do so. In Taylor v. Taylor, MICV2012-01222, 2013 WL 5988569 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2013), a Massachusetts couple ("Plaintiffs"), alleged their daughter-in-law ("Defendant"), who lives in Florida, engaged in a coordinated campaign to defame them and harm their Massachusetts-based real estate business after she lost a series of motions in divorce proceedings against the Plaintiffs' son in Florida. In their Complaint, the Plaintiffs claimed that Defendant, with the help of a private investigator (also a defendant, with his corporation), made a series of identical on-line postings on consumer websites, purportedly written by a disgruntled former employee and warning potential Massachusetts real estate customers to "[a]void [the Plaintiffs' real estate company] at all costs unless you want to fall victim to another couple [J]ewish scammers." According to the Complaint, these postings further claimed that Plaintiffs both take advantage of their employees and "perpetuate the brainwashing of thousands of innocent, hard working people."
A party must act quickly to appeal an adverse judgment. Rule 3(a) of the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure requires that a Notice of Appeal be filed within 30 days with the clerk of the lower court. This is the most important deadline of the appellate process; an untimely filing of the Notice of Appeal is subject to dismissal.
In business litigation, the question of whether a party's spouse is fair game for a deposition often comes up. Sometimes, the question arises simply because a lawyer wants to demonstrate the willingness to "take the gloves off." Other times the issue arises because the spouse may be one of the only people likely to have knowledge of facts that could be central to the case. Regardless of the reason, Massachusetts lawyers should be aware of the applicable rules and the distinction between the spousal privilege and the spousal disqualification, which are set forth at M.G.L. c. 233 sec. 20(a) and (b).