Maryland’s Federal Court Strengthens Protections For Seeking Trial (LEGAL UPDATE)
In a recent decision by Judge Hollander of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Baltimore Division, the Court affirmed the fundamental framework under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 that a Court cannot chose among competing affidavits to dismiss a case, or grant judgment without a trial, by adopting one side's disputed point-of-view. Rather, in face of competing affidavit testimony, a trial is required to assess and weigh credibility. EEOC v. M&T Bank, Civ. No. 16-CV-3180-ELH, Mem. Op., Docket No. 77 (D. Md. Sept. 10, 2019).
The Court stated:
Thus, in considering a summary judgment motion, the court may not make credibility determinations. Wilson v. Prince George’s Cty., 893 F.3d 213, 218-19 (4th Cir. 2018); Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015); Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French, 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007). Moreover, in the face of conflicting evidence, such as competing affidavits, summary judgment ordinarily is not appropriate because it is the function of the fact-finder to resolve factual disputes, including matters of witness credibility. See Black & Decker Corp. v. United States, 436 F.3d 431, 442 (4th Cir. 2006); Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 644-45 (4th Cir. 2002).
Mem. Op. at 13. While this may seem common sense under Rule 56, trial courts have been getting it wrong, and reversed, even by the U.S. Supreme Court. Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Cts., 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015) (reversing dismissal under the ADA and remanding as ripe for trial); Tolan v. Cottan, 572 U.S. 650 (2014) (reversing a dismissal because the trial court accepted a police account of a shooting over the affidavit testimony of the victim and eyewitnesses disputing it in detail).
More About EEOC v. M&T Bank:
Rule 56 exists as a gatekeeper procedure to permit decision by law where facts are not disputed, have been provided to the court as "documentary evidence," and can be judged. Id. at 11; see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-51 (1986).
EEOC v. M&T Bank did not focus on competing affidavits involved in finding the alleged lack of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA ripe for trial. Civ. No. 16-CV-3180-ELH, Slip Op. at 1-55. Yet, the decision highlights this procedural cornerstone.
Two Fourth Circuit Supporting Precedent:
The tax dispute in Black & Decker Corp. v. United States, cited by the Judge, is illustrative.
There, the IRS refused a company’s claim of a tax deduction for a business loss, because the IRS viewed it as a sham. In the legal statutory analysis involved, a sham means, roughly speaking, there was no legitimate subjective expectation of a business opportunity and the entire transaction was aimed at offsetting taxes. This all being said, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to set that dispute for trial over this dispute: whether the company suffered a deductible business loss, or attempted to create sham tax savings, because professorial experts on each side offered differing opinions. Their credibility required evaluation. 436 F.3d 431, 442 (4th. Cir. 2006).
As the Fourth Circuit stated:
Weighing all of this expert testimony should have been left for trial because witness credibility cannot be assessed on summary judgment. The IRS's evidence, in sum, was sufficient to create a triable issue on the reasonable profit expectations attaching to Taxpayer's transaction.
Id. The precedent of Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., cited too, is helpful also. Here, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the jury’s trial finding that an employee was passed over due to her gender, and not because of a disorganized hiring process, as claimed at trial.
In upholding the jury verdict, the Fourth Circuit held that competing accounts – much like competing affidavits – require a trial, either way. Judgment as a matter of law under Rule 56 - or the post-trial equivalent - thus was not proper. 290 F.3d 639, 643-50 (4th Cir. 2002).
Maryland’s federal court recently strengthened protections for all parties in seeking trial. See EEOC v. M&T Bank, Civ. No. 16-CV-3180-ELH, Slip Op. at 13, Docket No. 77 (D. Md. Sept. 10, 2019). The decision can be found by clicking here.
Where competing witnesses present conflicting detailed factual accounts, a Court should not take sides, but set the genuine dispute in for trial. See id.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
Mosson Law, LLC