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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why Oh, Why Oh, Why Oh?: Ohio Case Reveals That It Might Have Strictest Jury Impeachment Rules In The Nation

A recent case from Ohio reveals that it might just be the place where a jury will least likely be able to impeach its verdict.  In Desai v. Franklin, 2008 WL 3009691 (Ohio App. 9 Dist 2008), Ashokkumar J. Desai and Aris W. Franklin, M.D. entered into an employment agreement whereby Desai would join Franklin's professional corporation, Diagnostic Imaging.  Desai formally resigned as an employee of Diagnostic in 2000.  After Desai's resignation, Desai and Franklin disagreed over the amount of money that Desai was entitled to for his percentage of the accounts receivable and deferred compensation payments that he was due under the employment agreement, and Desai alleged that Diagnostic Imaging had failed to redeem his stock as provided for in a buy-sell agreement.  Desai thereafter sued Franklin claiming causes of action sounding in, inter alai, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, and fraud.  After trial, the jury awarded Desai $50,670.18 for his breach of fiduciary duty claim, $301,597.34 for his unjust enrichment claim, and $116,248.00 for his fraud claim.

After trial, Franklin, inter alia, brought a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court denied and which, on appeal, the Court of Appeals treated as a motion for a new trial.  The motion claimed that there was no evidence to support the award of $116,248.00 on the cause of action for fraud and that the jury's verdict awarded Desai those damages "based on a conversation that one of the parties' attorneys had with the jury foreperson."  As the court correctly noted, this allegation implicated Ohio Rule of Evidence 606(b), which states in relevant part 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 course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror’s mental processes in connection therewith. A juror may testify on the question whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention or whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror, only after some outside evidence of that act or event has been presented."

As far as I can tell, in any other jurisdiction in the country, this would mean that the jury foreperson could testify about what the attorney said to him because the attorney's statements would constitute extraneous prejudicial information and/or an improper outside influence.  So, why couldn't the jury foreperson impeach the jury's verdict in Desai v. Franklin?

Well, according to the court, in Ohio:

     "[s]uch evidence....is generally not admissible to impeach a jury verdict unless there is supporting evidence aliunde....Evidence aliunde is extraneous, independent evidence of alleged conduct based on the firsthand knowledge of one who is not a juror....Franklin fails to argue that any evidence aliunde exists that would impeach the jury's verdict. Consequently, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Franklin's motion."

According to the Supreme Court of Ohio, one of the purposes behind this requirement is "ensuring that jurors are insulated from harassment by defeated parties." State v. Schiebel, 564 N.E.2d 54, 61 (Ohio 1990).  It seems to me, though, that Ohio is splitting the baby by trading harassment by unscrupulous parties for harassment by defeated parties.

In any other jurisdiction, an unscrupulous party knows not to approach/threaten/influence a juror during trial because even if that juror stays silent throughout trial, that party is perpetually Tony Soprano at Holsten's, looking over his shoulder, fearing that the juror can come forward and impeach the jury's verdict.  In Ohio, however, it's open season on the jury pool.  As long as the unscrupulous party threatens/influences the juror in a private place, there is nobody besides the party and the juror with firsthand knowledge, meaning that the party can sleep like a baby after trial, knowing that Ohio's rules will keep the threatened juror silenced.

-CM

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