Epistemic Nihilism and Ancient Documents

This year, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules proposed abrogation of the current “ancient documents” exception to the rule against hearsay, Rule 803(16). The proposal would, if adopted, become effective on December 1, 2017. See James A. King & Kirsten Fraser, “Say Goodbye to the ‘Ancient Documents’ Rule,A.B.A. Trial Evidence (Feb. 17, 2016).

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, an old document, one over 20 years old, found in a place where one would expect to find it is treated as “authentic.” The finder of fact, judge or jury, may accept the document for what it purports to be simply because of its age and the manner of its discovery. Rule 901(b)(8). The Federal Rules, however, go further and permit the document, authenticated as a so-called “ancient document,” to be accepted for the truth of the statements it contains. Rule 803(16).

The rationale offered by the Deans of Evidence Law for this remarkable exception to the rule against hearsay is that old documents predate the legal controversies in which they might later be used in evidence, and that we might not have any other admissible evidence relevant to events in the distant past (greater than twenty years). “[A]ge affords assurance that the writing antedates the present controversy” wrote the Federal Rules of Evidence Advisory Committee. Fed. R. Evid. 803(16) advisory committee note.

Pithy and pathetic. The proffered rationale was not valid when Rule 803(16) was initially drafted or promulgated, and it is not valid today. Old does not suggest or equate with reliability, and the present controversy is not the only source of bias and error in past statements that happened to be put in writing.

First, contrary to the conjecture of the common law, many documents were and are created with a view to influence potential controversies decades later. Mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures of companies are often governed by documents that explicitly acknowledge controversies that could stretch into the distant future.

Second, sometimes the exact motivation to falsify, fabricate, or fudge is not exactly the same as later will exist in later litigation, but it is similar. So when a young patient misrepresents his smoking history to a physician, he may simply be trying to avoid a disapproving lecture from his healthcare provider. Years later when he has developed lung cancer, and he is trying to blame anything but smoking in a lawsuit, he will rely upon the distorted report of his tobacco consumption. Of course, in many other situations, the motive to create misleading documents will arise from the expectation of the possibility or probability of future litigation over intellectual or real property rights, insurance contracts, etc.

Professor Daniel J. Capra of Fordham Law School, for many years the Reporter to the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules, has not been shy about the slim to none justification for Rule 803(16). In a podcast interview with Professor Ed Cheng, Capra laid out the case against Rule 803(16), and its evanescent rationale. See Excited Utterance website, Daniel Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception” (Aug. 22, 2016). Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence (Aug. 2015). Capra had previously deconstructed Rule 803(16) in a law review article, with the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes and review of historical sources. Daniel J. Capra, “Electronically Stored Information and the Ancient Documents Exception to the Hearsay Rule Exception to the Hearsay Rule: Fix It Before People Find Out About It,” 17 Yale J.L. & Tech. 1 (2015) [cited as Capra].

As Capra puts it, the justification for Rule 803(16) was “never very convincing in the first place,” Capra at 1, 5, and “a radical and irrational hearsay exception – an error of the common law,” Capra at 11. The equating of a document’s authenticity with the trustworthiness of assertions contained within the document is “curious.” Capra at 9. Curiously, Capra balks at complete abrogation.

The law professor may have well said that the rule is capricious. Still, on gossamer grounds, Capra argues to retain the rule for hardcopy old evidence, but to abandon it for electronically stored information. Capra seems to buckle under the prospect of abrogating a rule, which leads him to “split the baby.” As trenchant as Capra’s critique is, most of his defense of retaining the Rule for hardcopy documents is as unsupported as the original Rule 803(16). Capra, for instance, suggests that “the likelihood of finding a hardcopy document that is twenty years old and also relevant to an existing litigation is quite small.” Capra at 5. Capra offers no empirical evidence for this startling assertion. Similarly, Capra claims that Rule 803(16) is rarely invoked, but he cites only to the paucity of cases that discuss this exception. Capra at 12. Capra thus claims negative evidence for the infrequent use, but the failure of judges to discuss this rule in published decisions may well be the result mechanical simplicity of the rule, which rarely leads to post-trial motions and appeals.

The original rational for Rule 803(16), and a rallying cry for its retention, is the supposed necessity to have some evidence to make out the events of times past. The objectors, however, generally fail to make out their case that the residual hearsay rule (Rule 807), as well as the business record and other exceptions, do not accomplish the twin goals of providing some evidence of past events while maintaining some semblance of reliability in fact finding.

The Rule Committee’s proposal has been met with an organized campaign from the lawsuit industry, both through the self-aggrandizingly named American Association for Justice (AAJ) and many of its members.. A rough count suggests that about 82 out of 218 comments came from asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers. See, e.g., Comment from Robert Jacobs, American Association of Justice; Comment from Larry Tawwater, American Association for Justice (AAJ); Testimony of Marc P. Weingarten; Comment from Robert Paul, NA; Comment from Mark Gallagher, NAComment from Joseph Rice, NA.

The lawsuit industry lawyers argue that they will be deprived of the ability to show scienter or knowledge of a risk in latent disease litigation in which disease outcomes are lagged several decades after first exposure. Their argument, however, misses the point that many documents in company files, while not admissible for their truth, will be evidence of “notice” of a potential hazard, and the documents would be admissible for “state of mind,” and not the truth, in any event. Given the changes in epistemic standards for establishing causation, it is unlikely that really ancient documents will move the fact finder any closer to the truth of the actual fact of asserted causation. SeeTime to Retire Ancient Documents As Hearsay Exception” (Aug. 23, 2015); “Ancient Truths” (May 5, 2016).

The asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers thus argue that they would be deprived of important evidence such as the “Sumner Simpson” documents in asbestos cases. See Threadgill v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 928 F.2d 1366 (3d Cir. 1991). The plaintiffs’ argument rests upon an epistemic mistake. If knowledge is true, justified belief, then they do not need Rule 803(16) to show that the Sumner Simpson documents contain true statements; it is enough that they show that the authors believed what they said. In other words, the plaintiffs need only show that the documents reflect the declarants’ state of mind. Whether the statements are justified as true will require a complex mixture of current evidence about what health effects can be shown to be caused by the exposures of old, and what justifications were valid in today’s knowledge that were available and embraced by the declarants in the ancient documents.

Insurance coverage plaintiffs’ counsel have argued that they need Rule 803(16) to meet their burden of proof, and that insureds rely on both internal and external records. A policyholder’s internal records might include financial statements, annual reports, meeting minutes, check registers, contracts referencing insurance, insurance policies referencing other insurance policies, and/or accounting ledgers. Comment from Sherilyn Pastor, NA.

Most of the special pleading of these interest groups is wide of the mark. Old statements may be relevant and admissible for the speaker’s or reader’s statement of mind, and thus not hearsay. Old reliable documents can still be admitted under the residual exception, Rule 807, or under the business records exception, 803(6). Statements made in the making of contracts are operative facts of offer and acceptance, “speech acts,” and not offered for their truth.

The fact that a document is old may perhaps add to its authenticity, but in many technical, scientific, and medical contexts, the “ancient” provenance actually makes the content unlikely to be true. As such, the rule as now in effect is capable of much mischief and undermines accurate fact finding. The pace of change of technical and scientific opinion and understanding is too fast to indulge this exception that permits out-dated, false statements of doubtful validity to confuse the finder of fact. With respect to statements or claims to scientific knowledge, the Federal Rules of Evidence have evolved towards a system of evidence-based opinion, and away from naked opinion based upon the apparent authority or prestige of the speaker. Similarly, the age of the speaker or of the document provides no warrant for the truth of the document’s content. Of course, the statements in authenticated ancient documents remain relevant to the declarant’s state of mind, and nothing in the proposed amendment would affect this use of the document. As for the contested truth of the document’s content, there will usually be better, more recent, and sounder scientific evidence to support the ancient document’s statements if those statements are indeed correct. In the unlikely instance that more recent, more exacting evidence is unavailable, and the trustworthiness of the ancient document’s statements can be otherwise established, then the statements would probably be admissible pursuant to other exceptions to the rule against hearsay, as noted by the Committee. The proposed abrogation of this exception to the rule against hearsay should be welcomed; it is long overdue. And if it Capra is correct that ancient hardcopy rarely exists, and that the ancient document rule is rarely invoked, then abrogation cannot have the effect of defeating expectations and reliance upon this dubious mode of proof.

Of course, witnesses who are the declarants in the ancient documents may have died or moved away, but that is precisely why the law generally has statutes of limitations. When the law has generously created discovery rules, it should not then promulgate unreasonable, unreliable rules of evidence simply because it has extended the life on what otherwise would be stale claims.

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