Summary Judgment and the Interested Witness

In its recent decision in Feliciano v. City of Miami Beach, Case No. 12-11397 (decided Feb. 5, 2013), the Eleventh Circuit addressed the recurring issue of how to use the testimony of an interested party in the context of a motion for summary judgment.  The Court offered a strong ruling that such testimony must be credited.

Writing for the panel, Judge Carnes noted that in early common law practice, parties and others with an interest in the outcome of the case were incompetent to testify and excluded as witnesses.  However, courts long ago abandoned such a position.

The Feliciano case involved a claim under Section 1983 arising out of an alleged unlawful search.  In supporting their claim for qualified immunity, the defendant officers contended that when they went to the plaintiff’s apartment and the plaintiff came to the door, the officers saw another person in the apartment with a marijuana cigarette.  They also said that they smelled marijuana.  The officers relied upon these circumstances to justify a warrantless search of the property.  However, the plaintiff testified that the other resident of the apartment did not have a marijuana cigarette and that there was no smell of marijuana.

In reversing the partial grant of summary judgment to the defendants, the Court ruled that the district court was obligated to credit the plaintiff’s version of the facts.  The Court found that the plaintiff’s descriptions were not self-serving conclusions that could be disregarded.  “They are non-conclusory descriptions of specific, discrete facts of the who, what, when, and where variety.”  Slip Opinion, p. 17.  The Court noted that “[a]s a general principle, plaintiff’s testimony cannot be discounted on summary judgment unless it is blatantly contradicted by the record, blatantly inconsistent, or incredible as a matter of law, meaning that it relates to facts that could not have possibly been observed or events that are contrary to the laws of nature.”  Slip Opinion, pp. 18-19.

Summary judgment motions are very common in federal court practice.  The Feliciano opinion reaffirms the principle that factual testimony, no matter how arguably self-interested, must be credited in opposing a motion for summary judgment.  Of course, the denial of summary judgment does not mean that any version of the facts is true.  I means that only a trial can determine which version of the facts is true.

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