Providing Context: Whether FRE 106 Applies to Oral Statements

The Rule

The Federal Rules of Evidence authorize an adverse party to request an opposing party introduce any part of a written or recorded statement, which ought in fairness be considered, into evidence. Contained within FRE 106 is the idea that this sort of “explanatory” evidence will allow the party to whom the evidence is offered against the opportunity to qualify, explain, and ultimately put into context, the original piece of introduced evidence.

There is no question that the rule applies to written or recorded statements being offered into evidence. The question that has arisen is whether the Rule applies to oral statements as well.

The Split

Ninth Circuit

In United States v. Liera- Morales, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was asked to consider whether the federal district court judge mistakenly excluded exculpatory statements made by the defendant.

The federal government charged Liera-Morales for participating in a human trafficking ring scheme to kidnap a man named Aguilar. While being held in an ICE field office, the defendant made statements to a federal agent. These statements were later introduced at trial. The defendant moved under FRE 106 to have some of the exculpatory statements introduced into evidence. The court denied the motion, and the defendant was convicted.

The Ninth Circuit noted that in the present case, the district court’s decision to exclude the defendant’s statements were not an abuse of discretion because the trial judge carefully considered the government’s proffered statements from the defendant’s post arrest interview and correctly determined that those statements were not misleading or taken out of context.

In affirming the decision of the lower court, the Ninth Circuit cited prior cases within the Circuit, United States v. Ortega and United States v. Hyatt, that held that based on the terms of FRE 106, the rule only applied to written and recorded statements. Despite the fact that the Ninth Circuit did not actually have to decide whether FRE 106 actually applied to oral statements as well, it noted a split of authority on the matter. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit explained that both the Second and Seventh circuits have held that FRE 106 applies to oral statements by virtue of FRE 611(a) which requires the court to make the procedures of examining witnesses and presenting evidence “effective for determining the truth.”

The Second, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits

The facts in United States v. Mussaleen are simple enough.

A federal jury in the Eastern District of New York convicted the defendants for participating in a scheme to smuggle a foreign national into the United States. On appeal, the defendant argued that it was erroneous for the district court to redact parts of his statements. The statements were in fact redacted by the federal prosecutor in order to protect the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Right of his codefendant. In particular, the defendant argued that the redaction distorted his statement, depicting him in a light that failed to convey his limited role, financial arrangements, and lack of parity with the codefendant.

The Second Circuit acknowledged the clear textual reading of FRE 106, but articulated that because of FRE 611’s requirement that federal judges make interrogation and presentation effective for the ascertainment of the truth, by virtue, FRE 106 must also apply to oral testimony.

Similarly, the Seventh Circuit held in United States v. Li that FRE 611(a) requires the rule of completeness to apply to oral statements. Additionally, though not acknowledged by the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Liera-Morales, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has also joined the Second and Seventh Circuit in holding that by virtue of the wording in FRE 611, federal judges are obligated to apply oral statements to the 106 rule of completeness.

The Tenth Circuit in United States v. Lopez- Medina actually cited the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Li, and conducted a thorough discussion on the importance of the rule of completeness in acting as a defensive shield for the defendant by filtering misleading information from the jury.

Looking Forward

There is no doubt that FRE 106 is one of the least interesting evidentiary rules. Its limited textual nature, and as of now, lack of interest by the Supreme Court makes it one that many may overlook. However, judging by the fact that as of now, there is an existing circuit split with the weight of majority in favor of including oral testimony within the rule of completeness, the Supreme Court may step in to resolve the split.

This is important for federal litigation practice because of the component of fairness within the 106 rule. The committee notes on FRE 106 highlight this very importance; misleading impression created by taking matters out of context are often difficult to repair when delayed to a point later in the trial. One can think of countless scenarios where the oral testimony of a defendant is wielded against her in a way that is potentially misleading. The very narrow reading articulated by the Ninth Circuit would give no judicial recourse under FRE 106. This is telling given the committee notes on 611 explain that “the ultimate responsibility for the effective working of the adversary system rests with the judge.” Given the fact that oral statements can be just as damning and prejudicial (See FRE 403) but also potentially exculpatory, in not only the criminal, but civil context, clarity and unity on the rule is necessary within the federal courts.

 

Nominative Use: A Three-Way Split

Today, we’ll tackle a trademark problem ripe for picking by SCOTUS—nominative use.

 What Are Trademarks?

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. Unlike patents which require a lengthy registration process to have any legal redress, trademarks can gain some initial legal protection under common law via mere use.

For those individuals wanting to give more protective #oomph to the holder of a mark, one can register their mark with the US Patent and Trademark Office, granting federal trademark protection under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1051 et.seq.

While the Lanham Act covers a wide range of topics ranging from the gamut of procedures for obtaining federal trademark recognition, the various types of marks that the law recognizes, and specific international trademark protections, our focus turns on the causes of action for infringement granted under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1114. Specifically, an individual is liable in a civil action commenced by a trademark registrant whenever any person without the registrant’s consent:

use[s] in commerce any reproduction, counterfeit, copy, or colorable imitation of a registered mark in connection with the sale, offering for sale, distribution, or advertising of any goods or services on or in connection with which such use is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive…

The importance of such a liability rule is plain—absent protection, a third-rate shoe manufacturer could use the Nike “swoosh” at their leisure, marketing their shoes to consumers who might believe that the pair of kicks they are purchasing are name-brand, not knock-offs. While seemingly straightforward, courts take differing stances on how infringement actions are analyzed and ruled on.

A (trade)Marked Split

The Ninth Circuit established nominative use in 1992, in New Kids on the Block v. News America Pub. Inc. New Kids on the Block v. News America Pub. Inc.

In a move to prevent inordinate control of their fans, New Kids on the Block brought suit against News America for use of the term “New Kids” as part of their phone survey hotline (incidentally focused on the members of the band). The Ninth Circuit reasoned that a strict construction of trademark exclusivity would lead to a practical impossibility in describing well-known products by generic names, bringing up examples of using the phrase “the professional basketball team from Chicago” in lieu of the Chicago Bulls. To facilitate fair use of trademarks, the Ninth Circuit posited the doctrine of “nominative use”:

a non-trademark use of a mark . . . [occurs when a]…trademark does not attempt to capitalize on consumer confusion or to appropriate the cachet of one product for a different one. Such nominative use of a mark—where the only word reasonably available to describe a particular thing is pressed into service—lies outside the strictures of trademark law [and cannot be said to promote unfair competition]…a commercial user is entitled [nominative fair use] provided he meets the following . . . (1) the product or service in question must be one not readily identifiable without use of the trademark; (2) only so much of the mark or marks may be used as is reasonably necessary to identify the product or service; and (3) the user must do nothing that would, in conjunction with the mark, suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder.

The Third Circuit, in 2005, offered a slightly different formulation:

(1) that the use of plaintiff’s mark is necessary to describe both the plaintiff’s product or service and the defendant’s product or service; (2) that the defendant uses only so much of the plaintiff’s mark as is necessary to describe plaintiff’s product; and (3) that the defendant’s conduct or language reflect the true and accurate relationship between plaintiff and defendant’s products or services.

Keeping these two distinct approaches to trademark infringement analysis in mind, the Second Circuit recently complicated the matter in International Information Systems Sec. Certification Consortium, Inc. v. Security University, LLC (2016).

Information Systems brought suit against Security University for allegedly using a particular certification trademark used by Information Systems to denote passing a certain stage of computer security exams, and on appeal the Second Circuit held that the infringement was erroneously evaluated at trial based on the Ninth Circuit’s test for nominative use and not on the Polaroid factors.

The court noted that Information Systems’s mark was part of a special class of marks that are intended to be used by individuals other than the registrant, explaining that:

[the mark in question] is meant to certify quality and characteristics . . .[despite] the differences between certification marks and other types of marks, the Lanham Act provides that certification marks are generally entitled to the same protection from infringement as are trademarks . . . except when used so as to represent falsely that the owner or a user thereof makes or sells the goods or performs the services on or in connection with which such mark is used . . .

In using only the nominative use test, the trial court apparently failed to take into account other ways that trademarks can be infringed under the Polaroid test even if the test factors do not all apply.

In highlighting the weakness of source confusion in the Ninth Circuit test and the inadequacies found in similar nominative use tests in the Third Circuit, the Second Circuit ultimately overturned its own precedent by adopting a much more expansive test for trademark infringement, stating that:

[while there is] no reason to replace the Polaroid test . . . [we recognize that the] the Polaroid factors are a bad fit here and that we have repeatedly emphasized that the Polaroid factors are non-exclusive . . . [and we] “have recognized that a defendant may lawfully use a plaintiff’s trademark where doing so is necessary to describe the plaintiff’s product and does not imply a false affiliation or endorsement by the plaintiff of the defendant . . . [As a result,] district courts are to consider the Ninth Circuit and Third Circuit’s nominative fair use factors, in addition to the Polaroid factors…

Looking Forward

Based on this ruling by the Second Circuit, there are three (somewhat different, somewhat the same) approaches to nominative use. For litigants in the Second Circuit, the mélange approach could potentially require 15 different factors to be considered. Unfortunately, with the recent denial of certiorari, business owners and trademark attorneys across the country must continue to deal with the confusion.

For further reading, see what firms Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Arent Fox have to say on the matter.

Does Similar Mean Identical?  The Meaning of “Similarly Situated” in Employment Discrimination Cases

The Setting

In most employment discrimination cases, the employee alleging discrimination against his employer must show that he was treated differently from similarly situated employees because of his protected class (i.e., his race, gender, sex, religion, age, disability, etc.).

What does “similar” mean though?

The Split

The Fifth

The Fifth Circuit held in Perez v. Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (2004), that “the jury must find the employees’ circumstances nearly identical in order to find them similarly situated.”

In this case, Perez alleged the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) fired him because of his race.  Perez had been arrested and charged with felony assault after he allegedly stabbed a former TDCJ inmate while off-duty at a bar.  He refused to answer TDCJ’s questions about the incident at the advice of counsel.  Perez was subsequently fired for engaging in conduct that jeopardized TDCJ’s integrity.  Perez showed that two other, non-Hispanic employees, who had respectively committed involuntary manslaughter and drunken assault, had not been fired.

The lower court instructed the jury that “similarly situated” means “the quantity and quality of the other employees’ misconduct must be of comparable seriousness to the misconduct of the plaintiff.” The Fifth Circuit found this erroneous because it “suggested that comparably serious misconduct was by itself enough to make employees similarly situated.”  Instead, the court set its hat on a stricter standard of proof, and held that “similarly situated” means “nearly identical.”

TDCJ had distinguished Perez’s conduct from that of other felonious employees because Perez’s alleged victim was a former inmate, whereas the other victims were unaffiliated with TDCJ.  The court found that this sufficiently threw Perez out of “nearly identical” territory, vacated the lower court’s judgment, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this higher standard.

The Seventh

The Seventh Circuit, on the other hand, rejected this narrow interpretation in Ezell v. Potter (2005) and held that “the other employees must have engaged in similar–not identical–conduct to qualify as similarly situated.”   In this case, Wright, an African-American woman, fired Ezell, an over-50, Caucasian letter carrier for taking an unauthorized extended lunch break.  Ezell claimed that because Wright had made derogatory comments about white people, older letter carriers, and men, the reason for his termination was pretext.

The lower court interpreted “similarly situated” to mean that Ezell “must produce a non-Caucasian employee who committed exactly the same infraction and was treated more favorably.”

The Seventh Circuit took issue with this narrow interpretation and found, essentially, that “similar” means “similar” and not “identical.”

Under this broader approach, the court found that Ezell had sufficiently supported his race and sex claims to survive summary judgment because Wright had not herself been fired for falsifying records and because Wright had not fired an African-American man for losing a piece of certified mail.  The court found that these offenses were “very similar” to Ezell’s conduct.  The court also found that Wright sufficiently supported his age claim for summary judgment purposes because he alleged that Wright and her co-supervisor had a plan to fire and replace older letter carriers with younger, faster letter carriers.

The Significance

Employment discrimination is notoriously difficult to prove because it involves a lot of “he said, she said” evidence.  Further, the employee usually is unable to support his or her contentions with documentation in the same way that organized employers are able due to their required and established procedures.  This puts employees at a disadvantage in the conflict.

One way of proving discrimination is by showing that similarly situated employees were treated more favorably.  These allegations usually rely on the alleging employee’s word, but can be supported by documentation from the employer.  This helps level, to some degree, the disadvantage noted in the preceding paragraph by using the employer’s own documentation against it.  However, courts in agreement with the Fifth Circuit’s “nearly identical” ruling, raise the bar even higher for employees alleging discrimination.

Looking Forward

It is standard that alleging parties have the burden of proof.  Nonetheless, it is time for SCOTUS to decide whether similar means similar or whether similar means nearly identical.  Resolving this dispute has implications on the degree to which employees are burdened in an already uneven playing field.

Customary International Law: When does this binding federal law apply?

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What is it?

Customary international law, also known as public international law, is the body of law determined by the “general and consistent practice of states followed by them from a sense of legal obligation.” Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States S102(c)(2). In other words, international law need not arise exclusively from treaties and formal international agreements; it may also arise from an aggregate of states’ actions, states’ official statements, and international legal obligations arising from mutual concerns.

Why do I care?

Whereas treaties and other international agreements are not necessarily self-executing (in that they often require Congressional approval or specific statutes to become binding US law), customary international law is a binding, valid part of United States federal common law. See The Paquete Habana (S.Ct. 1900); Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino (S.Ct. 1964). However, this body of law is for the most part completely inaccessible.

Bringing a cause of action based on customary international law is nearly impossible, and prevailing on such an action carries an even slimmer chance of success. Based a cursory review of Federal case law, one could easily come to the conclusion that the only scenarios under which customary international law can successfully be used to uphold individual rights are those that involve fish, kidnapped anglers, and the Spanish-American War. The Paquete Habana (S.Ct. 1900).

So why the lack of application?

There is no question that customary international law is a valid part of federal common law. Even the Rehnquist court, despite its ideological fault-lines, found consensus on the validity of customary international law as a part of federal common law in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain (2004):

For two centuries we have affirmed that the domestic law of the United States recognizes the law of nations. It would take some explaining to say now that federal courts must avert their gaze entirely from any international norm intended to protect individuals.

Unfortunately one significant problem was – and continues to be – a rather important issue. How do we define what, exactly, customary international law dictates?

The Split

Modern Second Circuit vs. Ye Olde SCOTUS

Customary international law was first recognized as a part of federal common law in the landmark case of The Paquete Habana (S.Ct. 1900), and later upheld for the post-Erie world by Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino (S.Ct. 1964). In the former case, two Spanish fishing boats were captured by the naval blockade surrounding Cuba during the Spanish-American war. The ships and their cargo were taken back to Florida where they were sold at auction as “spoils of war.” The Court, in ruling that such a seizure was a violation of customary international law relied upon the following treatise by Carlos Testa a captain in the Portuguese navy and a legal scholar of the time:

Nevertheless, in this, customary law establishes an exception of immunity in favor of coast fishing vessels. Fishing is so peaceful an industry, and is generally carried on by so poor and so hardworking a class of men, that it is likened, in the territorial waters of the enemy’s country, to the class of husbandmen who gather the fruits of the earth for their livelihood. The examples and practice generally followed establish this humane and beneficent exception as an international rule, and this rule may be considered as adopted by customary law and by all civilized nations.

However, in United States v. Yousef (2003) the Second Circuit rejected such reliance on the work of scholars for clarification of customary international law, declaring such statements as usurpation of legal power by non-state actors if relied upon as anything more than supplementary evidence that relevant customary international law existed.

This notion—that professors of international law enjoy a special competence to prescribe the nature of customary international law wholly unmoored from legitimating territorial or national responsibilities, the interests and practices of States, or (in countries such as ours) the processes of democratic consent—may not be unique, but it is certainly without merit.

Thus, according to the Second Circuit, clarifications of customary international law are invalid as bases of decision. And when Yousef appealed, the Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari.

Looking Forward

Where does this leave customary international law? Can we rely on the work of legal scholars to clarify customary international law as we do for domestic common law under the Restatements? Or is reliance of such clarifications a usurpation of power from national and international actors?

If the former, does this place us at the mercy of academics in deciding matters of international law and diplomacy? If the latter, does a rejection of clarification render this entire body of law unenforceable and functionally useless?

For further reading, see “International Law as Law in the United States”, Michigan Law Review Vol. 82, No. 5/6 (1984); Litigation of International Disputes in U.S. Courts, 2d § 9:2.