The Subpoena Power

By | Child Support, Community Property, Custody and Conservatorship, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Separate Property, Trial Issues

There are two types of subpoenas that can command two types of actions. Trial subpoenas command appearance at a trial or hearing and discovery subpoenas command appearance to give testimony for the purpose of discovery of evidence. Either way, the subpoena can also ask for production of documents or tangible items for trial, a hearing or discovery.

The subpoena power can reach beyond the parties in a lawsuit. It can also compel non-parties or entities to comply. Although there are some limits, generally speaking, someone can be compelled to testify or produce documents in a case that they are not directly involved in. For example, Denise Richards could have been subpoenaed in Charlie Sheen’s criminal assault case for his alleged attack on Brooke Mueller. In his suit against Kim Kardashian, Chris Humphries (her 72 day husband) subpoenaed Kanye West (her boyfriend) to appear and give testimony at a deposition, purportedly to show she didn’t intend to marry Chris for legitimate reasons.

Oftentimes, the only way to obtain admissible evidence in a case and prepare for trial is to seek information from third parties using a subpoena. Bank records, computer files, corporate books and records, report cards, medical records, phone records and so forth are good examples. Note: Facebook and other social media sites are protected by federal law from the subpoena power.

Failing to comply with a subpoena could result in contempt charges. The statute allows for a court to assess fines or require the non-appearing party to be confined. Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 176.8.

Pre-Nup Agreement Invalidated in Dallas as Involuntary

By | Community Property, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Pre-Marital Agreements, Separate Property

The 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a trial court’s finding that a pre-marital agreement was invalid and awarded the wife $1.39 million on July 3, 2012. Moore v. Moore, 2012 Tex. App. LEXIS 5290 (Tex. App. Dallas July 3, 2012).

There are many lessons to be learned from the Moore case. For example, don’t say you need a pre-nup because you have a lot of “loans, liens and lawsuits” as Mr. Moore did in this case when in reality he was a millionaire. Also, make sure both parties are represented by good counsel.

In Texas, a pre-nup is not enforceable if the party against whom enforcement is requested proves that he or she did not sign the agreement voluntarily. Tex. Fam. Code § 4.006(a)(1).

The following 4 factors are considered when determining voluntariness in entering a pre-nup: 1. whether a party has had the advice of counsel; 2. misrepresentations made in procuring the agreement; 3. the amount of information provided; and, 4. whether information has been withheld. The court may also hear evidence as to fraud.

That being said, claiming you didn’t know what you were signing when you signed it isn’t enough to invalidate a contract in Texas. In fact, Texas law presumes that a party to a contract knows what he signed, the meaning of what he signed and can comprehend its legal effect. There are a number of exceptions to this principle as demonstrated in the Moore case. Each case is different and there are no bright line rules.

The evidence uncovered at the trial court level in Moore showed the wife signed the pre-nup a few hours before the wedding, that she had been incorrectly informed that it was reviewed and approved by her attorney, that it did not disclose husband’s assets and that it had generally been withheld from her until the morning of her walk down the isle. All of these facts influenced the court in finding that the wife did not sign the pre-nup voluntarily.

According to the Dallas Court, “voluntary” means “an action that is taken intentionally or by the free exercise of one’s will.” While the wife freely signed her name to the pre-nup, it wasn’t enough to make the agreement enforceable in this case with these specific facts. Therefore, the pre-nup was invalidated and the Moore assets were divided up according to “just and right” principles. For more information on “Just and Right“, please follow the link.

Using Social Media as Evidence in a Divorce – What you can and can’t do.

By | Custody and Conservatorship, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Trial Issues

Spouse is cheating, doing drugs, being a bad parent and Facebook can prove it right? All you need is for your lawyer to show the judge. Right?

There are 845 million monthly active users of Facebook and each profile has 40 potential entries of personal information. It goes without saying that a party’s activity on social media sites could be a lightning rod in a family law matter. Case in point: Anthony Weiner’s pictures on Twitter could have affected a would-be divorce brought by his pregnant wife.

Unlike financial records, where information reflecting detailed transaction activity over decades can be discovered via a subpoena, social media and networking sites are protected by federal law from forced disclosure.

Federal law prohibits electronic communication services from disclosing “contents of a communication while in electronic storage by that service” and prohibits remote computing services from disclosing “the contents of any communication which is carried or maintained on that service.” 18 USC § 2702.

Courts have interpreted the meaning of “electronic communication services” and “remote computing services” to include Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Linkedln as well as email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail. Therefore, you can subpoena the records until you are blue in the face, but they are not required to produce anything more than basic information. Even if it were possible, it would be the most expensive route because many of these companies are out of state and a subpoena wouldn’t be considered until the lawsuit is domesticated.

Fear not, there may be another way.

A court in Connecticut recently and quite boldly ordered divorcing parties to exchange Facebook and dating site login and passwords. Although Texas doesn’t have any reported cases involving this kind of exchange, it is within the realm of possibility considering applicable discovery rules.

A party in a Texas lawsuit is entitled to discovery of non-privileged information that is relevant to the subject matter of the case. Even if the information would not be admissible at trial, it may be discovered if it appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Tex. R. Civ. P. § 192.3(a). For more information on discovery, refer to my blog: Finding Hidden Assets in a Divorce.

In the divorce or custody context, this means information relating to fault in the marriage, parenting, child support and everything in between could lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. Content on Myspace or Facebook depicting you behaving like a single person is likely to lead to admissible evidence that you committed adultery. Match.com or eHarmony is a little more obvious. A statement regarding drug use is likely to lead to admissible evidence that you do not have a stable home environment for your children. Therefore, a strong argument can be made that content on social media sites are relevant and in fact valuable in proving your case.

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google 2001-2011.

The best way to discover social media activity is to request it through discovery from the party who controls the account. As you can imagine, your spouse may object and do whatever is necessary to prevent the disclosure of the so-called “private” posts and communications. The privacy argument has been heavily debated but ultimately, the argument is weak in light of how slight the expectation of privacy is on these sites.

There are no bright line rules or tests in Texas that will guarantee you can force disclosure or prevent it. The argument to force disclosure is strengthened by the connection it has to subject matter in the case. It is weakened if there are other means to get the information or if it is out of scope, unduly burdensome or not likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.

Facebook has made it somewhat easier to discover this information by allowing users to download a copy of all their facebook data online. Myspace will allow the production of data with the consent of the account holder. As it gets easier to produce the information, courts may be more inclined to order its production.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that there is a solution to discovering deleted posts so it’s worth hitting the print button on posts you foresee being useful down the road. In situations where crucial information may have been deleted by the user, it may be possible to have a forensic exam of the party’s hard drive.

As always, the analysis will turn on the specific facts of each case and court. Check back for more information as case law in Texas develops.

Finding Hidden Assets in a Divorce

By | Community Property, Divorce, Just and Right, Marital Property Division, Separate Property

In order to effect a just and right distribution of the martial assets, it necessarily follows that the first step is to find all the assets and debts. A divorce lawsuit has the same tools any other commercial lawsuit would have when it comes to finding assets belonging to your spouse or to the community.

There are four basic tools to finding assets: inventories, written discovery, oral discovery and third party discovery.

Each party typically discloses assets and liabilities in an inventory which commonly initiates the exchange of financial information. Inventories list common assets such as real estate, securities, an other interests as well as debts such as mortgages, credit cards and personal loans. They are typically filled out by each party under oath and then exchanged between the parties or their attorneys.

Written discovery is a useful tool for seeking more detailed information regarding assets and debts. Written discovery is comprised of interrogatory requests, production requests, requests for admission and requests for disclosure.

Interrogatories are questions asked of opposing parties that require answers under oath. For example a common interrogatory is, “Please list each and every bank account in which you or your spouse owns an interest.” The responding party is obligated to disclose each bank account in response to this question.

Requests for production often seek corresponding documents to interrogatory responses. For example, a common request for production is, “Please produce bank statements for the preceding 3 years from each account your claim separate property is held.” Requests for production can also include a request for inspection, which could be used to inspect a hard drive or books and records.

Requests for admissions are questions that would typically require a yes or no answer. Although not as popular as other requests, they can be valuable in narrowing the issues. An example of a request for admission is, “Admit or deny that the account ending in 123 is comprised of separate property funds belonging to wife.”

A request for disclosure is a standard set of requests that seek information regarding parties with knowledge of relevant facts, the amount in controversy as well as identification of experts among other essential issues in every lawsuit.

In deserving situations, phones and computers could be required to be produced to conduct forensic discovery on the hard drive. Electronic discovery is expensive as is any other situation in which an expert is needed to analyze data. In more and more situations, the expense is justified.

Discovery is permitted from third parties just as it is from parties in the case and is especially valuable if a party is not forthcoming in the discovery process. For example, the power of subpoena can require a bank, employer, partnership or any entity or person with information pertaining to the debts and assets in a case to produce documents or sit for a deposition.

Oral discovery a/k/a deposition discovery can be used to elicit testimony from a party or any other person or entity that may have information pertaining to the proceedings. A deposition is similar to the questioning one might have at trial except that it is typically performed in an attorney’s office, in front of a court reporter and or videographer. The testimony is still under oath the same as if it was in front of the court and can be used as evidence at trial. A deposition could be used in situations where interrogatories are not sufficient for determining the factual complexities of the issues. For example, if a spouse has a complicated partnership interest and more information is needed to explain partnership documents, a party can take the partner’s deposition to resolve the complexities.