Thursday, January 14, 2021

Sandoval v. County of San Diego (9th Cir. - Jan. 13, 2021)

Your average civil litigator probably doesn't cite a ton of cases involving a guy on probation who eats his stash of methamphetamine to avoid being caught with it and then dies in a holding cell.  Nonetheless, I bet you'll be citing this opinion repeatedly.  Or at least should be.

It's also interesting from a doctrinal perspective, in addition to being practically useful.

It's a civil Section 1983 case.  The trial court grants summary judgment to the defendant, but the Ninth Circuit reverses.

The part of the case that's practically helpful is its discussion of the objections that defendant submitted to the nonmoving party's evidence.  Defendant did what I'm certain you've seen a million times in your own practice:  submitted a ton of one- and two-word objections to a slew of documents and testimony.  Hearsay.  Lacks foundation.  Irrelevant.  Stuff like that.

Inexplicably, the plaintiff elected not to respond to any of those objections.  So in additon to granting the defendant's summary judgment motion, the district court sustained all of the objections and excluded the objected-to materials.

The Ninth Circuit, by contrast, was not amused.

Judge Wardlaw called the evidentiary objections "meritless, if not downright frivolous."  (She upped the ante later in the opinion by affirmatively calling them "frivolous" -- without the caveat.)  The panel hold that there were both substantive and procedural problems with the defendant's objections.

On the merits, Judge Wardlaw thought that the (somewhat boilerplate) objections were silly.  Take the relevance objections, for example.  Judge Wardlaw correctly points out that several of these objections were made to evidence that was definitely relevant.  More broadly, Judge Wardlaw says -- again, in my mind, entirely correctly -- that relevance objections on summary judgment are totally silly anyway.  If the evidence is irrelevant, then it won't create a genuine issue of material fact anyway, so who cares?  Why articulate (or rule on) such meaningless challenges.  Spot on.  Use that holding next time someone makes relevance objections regarding an MSJ.

Judge Wardlaw similarly says that the hearsay objections were also improper because -- and, again, she is definitely right on this -- because evidence on summary judgment doesn't have to itself be admissible and instead all that's required is a showing that evidence on the point might well exist and be able to be admitted.  So even if Joe can't testify as to what Sally said, Sally can, and if such testimony creates a genuine issue, no summary judgment.  Ditto for objections based on foundation.  Again:  You'll use that part of the opinion repeatedly when the other side makes similar objections to your MSJ evidence.  And be aware of the problem when you're making your own objections as well (or editing the objections that your associates puke out).

The opinion also makes an important procedural point -- one that, again, litigators will likely repeatedly employ, though (as I'll discuss) this one's not nearly as self-evidently correct as the others.  The opinion repeatedly finds fault with the one-word nature of the objections.  Judge Wardlaw isn't happy with "the defendants’ failure to explain their one-word objections."  The Ninth Circuit says that "[b]ecause the defendants did not explain these objections, we are largely reduced to guessing at the arguments underlying them" -- a definite factor in the panel's decision to find the district court's acceptance of these objections an abuse of discretion.  Moreove, the panel held that "to the extent the defendants intended to object to only parts of the documents, their unexplained generalized objections were insufficient to raise such an objection."  And a footnote about this point only added insult to injury, saying:  "The defendants provided an explanation for only one of their several objections, but in a twist of irony, that explanation makes clear that the objection lacked merit."

Lots of that can be useful if you want to argue that the objecting party is required to do more than just throw out one-word objections -- which, in my experience, anyway, is almost invariably how most litigators in fact articulate their evidentiary objections on an MSJ.  So definitely keep that in mind as well, both when articulating objections as well as when responding to them.

But as I previewed earlier, I'm less than entirely certain that Judge Wardlaw's critique on this point is unambiguously well-founded.  Lots of times, one word is really all have to -- or, perhaps, can -- say.  A piece of testimony may be hearsay because, well, it's hearsay.  Adding "asserts truth of matter asserted" or "X is testifying about what Y said" wouldn't really add much, would it?  Ditto for foundation or relevance or the vast majority of the typical MSJ objections, including but not limited to the ones here.

Plus, the critique might prove a bit too much.  Judge Wardlaw says we can't really understand the objections -- or the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of sustaining them -- when they're just one word.  But I gotta remind everyone that that's pretty much entirely what we do at trial:  one word, no explanation, and a ruling from the district judge.  Indeed, try to say more, and lots of times you're going to evoke the definite ire of the judge.  If it's good enough for trial, presumably it's good enough for an MSJ, no?

Now, I can see an argument the other way.  At trial, we're worried about distractions, especially for the jury, or being improperly argumentative.  Plus it takes up time.  Not so when an objection is merely on the papers and in front of a judge.  We can afford to explain things there.  Maybe even no reason not to.  For precisely the resasons Judge Wardlaw identifies.

Still, I'm not entirely certain that one-word objections aren't fine.  At least when they're well-founded.  Yeah, sometimes it's hard to tell, and sometimes they're merely boilerplate (like here).  But sometime's they're not.

Regardless:  Litigators will definitely be able to employ the Ninth Circuit's opinion here in a variety of contexts (and on a variety of bases) in connection with MSJ motions.  So definitely a good opinion to know.

And cite.  Often.