This question comes up a lot, especially from non-attorneys. The thought is that if something is discoverable, then it must be admissible; the assumption being that a Judge will not allow something to be discovered if it can’t be used in court. The other thought is that everything is discoverable if it pertains to the case and therefor everything is admissible.
Let’s first address what’s discoverable. For good cause, the court may order discovery of any matter (content) that’s not privileged relevant to the subject matter involved in the action. In layman’s terms, if it is potentially relevant to the case, you may have to produce it in discovery or in other words, anything and everything is potentially discoverable. All discovery is subject to the limitations imposed by FRCP Rule 26(b)(2)(C).
With that in mind, let’s look at the subject of admissibility.
In Lorraine v. Markel Am. Ins. Co., 241 F.R.D. 534, 538 (D. Md. 2007), the court started with the premise that the admissibility of ESI is determined by a collection of evidence rules “that present themselves like a series of hurdles to be cleared by the proponent of the evidence”. “Failure to clear any of these evidentiary hurdles means that the evidence will not be admissible”. Whenever ESI is offered as evidence, five evidentiary rules need to be considered. They are:
- is relevant to the case
- is authentic
- is not hearsay pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 801
- is an original or duplicate under the original writing rule
- has probative value that is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice or one of the other factors identified by Federal Rule of Evidence 403, such that it should be excluded despite its relevance.
Hearsay is defined as a statement made out of court that is offered in court as evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted. Hearsay comes in many forms including written or oral statements or even gestures.
It is the Judge’s job to determine if evidence is hearsay or credible. There are three evidentiary rules that help the Judge make this determination:
- Before being allowed to testify, a witness generally must swear or affirm that his or her testimony will be truthful.
- The witness must be personally present at the trial or proceeding in order to allow the judge or jury to observe the testimony firsthand.
- The witness is subject to cross-examination at the option of any party who did not call the witness to testify.
The Federal Rules of Evidence Hearsay Rule prohibits most statements made outside of court from being used as evidence in court. Looking at the three evidentiary rules mentioned above – usually a statement made outside of the courtroom is not made under oath, the person making the statement outside of court is not present to be observed by the Judge, and the opposing party is not able to cross examine the statement maker. This is not to say all statements made outside of court are inadmissible. The Federal Rule of Evidence 801 does provide for several exclusions to the Hearsay rule.
All content is discoverable if it potentially is relevant to the case and not deemed privileged, but discovered content may be ruled inadmissible if it is deemed privileged (doctor/patient communications), unreliable or hearsay. You may be wondering how an electronic document can be considered hearsay? The hearsay rule refers to “statements” which can either be written or oral. So, as with paper documents, in order to determine whether the content of electronic documents are hearsay or fact, the author of the document must testify under oath and submit to cross-examination in order to determine whether the content is fact and can stand as evidence.
This legal argument between fact and hearsay does not relieve the discoveree from finding, collecting and producing all content in that could be relevant to the case.