Thursday, January 6, 2022
Southern District of New York Makes Seemingly Erroneous Best Evidence Ruling in Lawsuit Against Fat Joe Over "All the Way Up"
Federal Rule of Evidence 1002, the Best Evidence Rule, provides that
An original writing, recording, or photograph is required in order to prove its content unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.
That said, Federal Rule of Evidence 1003 provides that
A duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original unless a genuine question is raised about the original’s authenticity or the circumstances make it unfair to admit the duplicate.
Moreover, Federal Rule of Evidence 1004(a) states that
An original is not required and other evidence of the content of a writing, recording, or photograph is admissible if:
(a) all the originals are lost or destroyed, and not by the proponent acting in bad faith.
In Elliott v. Cartagena, 2022 WL 44749 (S.D.N.Y. 2022), the Southern District of New York found that both of these exceptions applied, but I think only the latter applied.
According to the court,
The underlying facts are largely undisputed. Central to the narrative is a meeting between Fat Joe and [Eric] Elliott in March 2016 at which Elliott signed a “piece of paper” and received a $5,000 check....This meeting was preceded by a call between Fat Joe and Elliott in early March 2016, in which Elliott requested payment “up-front or publishing going forward” as a means of credit or compensation for his contribution to “All The Way Up.”...
Following the conversation, Elliott and Fat Joe met at an IHOP in mid-March 2016....At this meeting, Fat Joe presented Elliott with a “piece of paper” and a $5,000 check, which had a memo line that read “write.”...Following a short discussion, Elliott signed the “piece of paper,” which he left with Fat Joe, and took the check, which he later deposited.
Elliott later brought an action alleging copyright infringement based on claims that he is the co-author and co-owner of the song “All The Way Up.” Fat Joe countered by moving for summary judgment, claiming that the piece of paper Elliott signed released all copyright claims. Fat Joe's attorneys, however, could not find a signed copy of the piece of paper. Instead, they presented an unsigned draft of the paper. Fat Joe also submitted a sworn declaration that he printed this draft of the paper "without altering it and brought it to the meeting with Elliott."
The Southern District of New York began by finding that draft of the paper was a duplicate, but I disagree. Federal Rule of Evidence 1001(e) defines a "duplicate" as
a counterpart produced by a mechanical, photographic, chemical, electronic, or other equivalent process or technique that accurately reproduces the original.
This would involved things such as a photocopied or scanned copy of a completed contract. But that's not what we had here. Here we had a copy of an unsigned draft, not a duplicate of an executed original agreement. Therefore, Rule 1003 should not have applied.
That said, the court went on to find that the original signed paper was lost or destroyed in the absence of bad faith, meaning its contents could be proven through secondary evidence, such as the copy of the draft contract.