Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a court to dispose of a case as a matter of law when no genuine issue of material fact exists. Can an affidavit from a party create a genuine issue of material fact even if it is “self-serving and uncorroborated”? In United States v. Stein, Case No. 16-10914 (decided January 31, 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit answered “yes.”
The case involved an IRS tax assessment against Mrs. Stein. The government alleged that Ms. Stein owed outstanding taxes, penalties, and interest for a number of years. The government moved for summary judgment. In support of its motion, it relied upon various tax returns and other documents along with an affidavit from an IRS officer. In opposing summary judgment, Ms. Stein submitted her own affidavit. She stated that “to the best of her recollection” she had paid the taxes and penalties at issue. Opinion, p. 3. Her affidavit offered details about the process for filing her tax returns and what she claimed to have paid. Opinion, pp. 4-5. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the government, finding that Ms. Stein’s affidavit did not create a factual dispute because its assertions were uncorroborated. Opinion, p. 5. A panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the summary judgment, noting that the statements in the affidavit were self-serving. Opinion, p. 5.
The Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, overturned the panel opinion and the earlier Eleventh Circuit opinion upon which it relied. The Court found that nothing in Rule 56 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure prohibits an affidavit from being self-serving or mandates that assertions in the affidavit be corroborated by other evidence. Opinion, p. 7. An affidavit cannot be conclusory and must be based upon the affiant’s personal knowledge. As long as the affidavit met those requirements, however, it could create a genuine issue of material fact.
Summary judgment motions are routine in federal court litigation. As the Eleventh Circuit noted, almost any affidavit from a party offered in litigation is “self-serving.” Opinion, p. 7. The Stein decision may help clarify when an affidavit will create a genuine issue of material fact.