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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, July 3, 2008

About Schmidt: Court Of Appeals Of Texas Makes Improper Jury Impeachment Ruling In San Antonio Spurs Case

In my mind, the recent opinion in Medistar Corp. v. Schmidt, 2008 WL 2514802 (Tex.App.-San Antonio 2008), contains a clearly erroneous ruling.  In Schmidt, Medistar Corporation filed suit against several physicians, alleging fraud, breach of contract, breach of partnership, civil conspiracy, promissory estoppel, and other causes of action. Medistar's allegations stemmed from a development project in which Medistar was to develop a medical facility for the physicians.  Specifically, Dr. Schmidt, a team physician for the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, developed the idea to build a state-of-the-art integrated medical plaza adjacent to the training facility Medistar had recently constructed for the Spurs, and Medistar claimed to have spent more than $1 million and devoted thousands of man-hours to developing the medical facility before the physicians excluded Medistar from the project.  After a jury trial, inter alia, the jury agreed with Medistar's promissory estoppel claim against Dr. Schmidt and awarded it $418,069.63 on the claim, but while it also agreed with Medistar's fraud and civil conspiracy claims against Schmidt, it awarded Medistar no damages on those claims.

Both parties appealed, with Medistar moving for a new trial based upon, inter alia, alleged bailiff and juror misconduct.  The alleged juror misconduct consisted of: (1) juror Barbara Poettgen convincing several other jurors that Medistar's Chief Executive Officer, Monzer Hourani, was a litigious litigant who did not deserve any damages, (2) jurors ignoring the court's instructions, and (3) jurors agreeing to let any ten votes determine the answers to the issues.  The Court of Appeals found that none of these acts of alleged misconduct could form the basis for a new trial, and looking at Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b) I agree.  Even if the alleged juror misconduct occurred, Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b) provides that:

     "Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the jury's deliberations, or to the effect of anything on any juror's mind or emotions or mental processes, as influencing any juror's assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment. Nor may a juror's affidavit or any statement by a juror concerning any matter about which the juror would be precluded from testifying be admitted in evidence for any of these purposes. However, a juror may testify: (1) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror; or (2) to rebut a claim that the juror was not qualified to serve."

In other words, because all three of the alleged acts of juror misconduct involved improper internal influences on the jury, they could not form the basis for jury impeachment.  That left the Court of Appeals with the issue of the alleged misconduct by the bailiff.  According to Medistar, when the jurors were deadlocked "7 to 5," (the opinion doesn't indicate the exact nature of the deadlock or which side had 7 votes), the district court bailiff improperly told jurors:

     "(1) they would not be paid their fee if they had to return on another day to continue their deliberations as a result of their being deadlocked; and

      (2) if they remained deadlocked, they would have to wait another week to continue their deliberations since the trial court planned to close the court the following week for spring break vacation."

Because this alleged incident involved improper outside influence on the jury, it could form the basis for jury impeachment and, potentially, a new trial.  Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals found that it could not 

     "conclude that it reasonably appears from the record that injury probably resulted to Medistar from the bailiff's conduct. Medistar did not produce any evidence at the motion for new trial hearing regarding the impact of the bailiff's communications on the jurors. Thus, we are left to speculate as to whether the bailiff's comments actually caused a juror to vote differently than he or she would otherwise have done absent the comments. We must therefore conclude the record does not support Medistar's contention that it was injured as a result of the bailiff's misconduct."

This conclusion is nonsensical under Rule 606(b).  As noted, Texas Rule of Evidence 606(b) strictly prevents a juror from testifying about "the effect of anything on any juror's mind or emotions or mental processes."  In other words, even if jurors could testify about the bailiff's comments because they constituted an improper outside influence on the jury, those jurors could not testify about the effect of those comments; that analysis is left for the court. See, e.g., Pyles v. Johnson, 136 F.3d 986, 992 (5th Cir. 1998). 

Thus, there was no way that Medistar could have "produce[d] any evidence at the motion for new trial hearing regarding the impact of the bailiff's communications on the jurors," and it was the job of the Court of Appeals of Texas, as it is in all Rule 606(b) cases, to "to speculate as to whether the bailiff's comments actually caused a juror to vote differently than he or she would otherwise have done absent the comments."  What the Court of Appeals should have done was make an objective assessment of what effect the bailiff's comments would have had on the average juror and determine whether Medistar likely suffered "substantial prejudice" as a result of the jury's exposure to the extraneous information.

Personally, I believe that Medistar did likely suffer "substantial prejudice" from the bailiff's comments, but the court's error was not in disagreeing with me; instead, its error was in failing to conduct the required analysis altogether.

-CM   

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