The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Devin Nunes's Libel Lawyering, Employee Witnesses, and the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination


From Nunes v. Lizza, handed down yesterday by Magistrate Judge Mark A. Roberts (N.D. Iowa):

Defendants published an article about Plaintiffs' dairy farm. A thorough statement of the factual background is set forth in Judge Williams's Memorandum and Order regarding Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Because of Judge Williams's ruling, the sole surviving claim is for defamation arising from Defendants' allegedly false statements that Plaintiffs knowingly employed undocumented or unauthorized workers.

Thereafter, discovery focused on the immigration status of Plaintiffs' employees, including, among other things, Plaintiffs' I-9 documentation and records in the possession of the Social Security Administration. Defendants noticed the depositions of six of Plaintiffs' current employees and had them served with subpoenas duces tecum that required them to bring identification to their depositions.

Plaintiffs' counsel, Steven S. Biss, accepted service of the subpoenas on behalf of the employees, but Plaintiffs arranged for separate counsel, Justin Allen, to represent the deponents. F.S.D. was the first such witness to be deposed on May 12, 2021.

While Defendants' counsel was questioning F.S.D. about his purported signature on various documents, Mr. Allen stated, "I've advised my client to invoke his Fifth Amendment right regarding questions about this document. [F.S.D.]—" Mr. Biss then interrupted stating, "Hold on. Hold on. Can we go off the record for just a minute? I'd like to talk to Justin before we do this." In fact, the deposition was delayed for much more than just a minute. More than two hours later, the deposition resumed. When Defendants' counsel attempted to make record, Mr. Biss interrupted him several times insisting that Mr. Allen would make a statement and the deposition would be rescheduled. Once Mr. Biss got his way, Mr. Allen stated,

I am not going to allow [F.S.D.] to answer that question because when we left it I advised him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right. We took a break. We went off the record, and we've had several conversations with lots of people and I've talked to [F.S.D.], and as of now I am no longer representing him. I am not his lawyer.

The depositions were then halted. At the hearing, Mr. Biss stated that a new lawyer had been retained to represent the employee witnesses at their depositions, but he could only identify the new attorney by her first name, Jennifer. Mr. Biss was ordered to provide her name to opposing counsel and the Court. To date, I have not received that information….

Defendants complain about Mr. Biss's behavior during the deposition of F.S.D. Particularly, Defendants assert that Mr. Biss asserted argumentative objections that were disruptive and intended to intimidate or coach the witness. Mr. Biss asserts that his objections were proper and "intended to call out the Defendants' overt harassment of the NuStar employee." Mr. Biss's further explanation on this issue is puzzling and troubling:

No effort was made to "signal to the witness how to answer questions" or to "coach[ ] the witness to testify in a certain way." Counsel for the Defendants got answers to all his questions, including those about [F.S.D.'s] traffic tickets. The deponent was never instructed not to answer. Indeed, he wanted to answer all questions. Plaintiff's counsel sought a side bar with counsel for the witness to determine whether the witness wanted to take the Fifth Amendment. The witness did not, which is why the witness terminated the lawyer with absolutely no prompting by Plaintiffs' counsel.

During the deposition, Defendants' counsel was asking questions about documents such as a bond F.S.D. had posted and a traffic ticket he had received that bore his signature. Mr. Biss made a lengthy speaking objection claiming this was harassment. Here, where the identity and immigration status of the employees is a central issue, it is not harassing or irrelevant to ask questions about such documents. In the context of this case, it is not conducive to obtaining truthful answers from an employee such as F.S.D. to have his employer's lawyer making lengthy, animated objections to those questions.

The most puzzling and troubling aspect of Mr. Biss's explanation, however, is the representation that he "sought a sidebar with counsel for the witness to determine whether the witness wanted to take the Fifth Amendment." This two-hour "sidebar" occurred immediately after Mr. Allen stated, "I've advised my client to invoke his Fifth Amendment right regarding questions about this document."

Normally, one would expect the lawyer for a deponent to be in the best position to ascertain whether the deponent desires to assert a privilege. There is no record of the sidebar, only Mr. Biss's protestations that the employees are not being pressured regarding their rights under the Fifth Amendment. Mr. Biss makes bald assurances that the employees want to answer all questions and not assert their Fifth Amendment rights. Nevertheless, Mr. Biss's behavior—coupled with the facts that (a) the privilege was raised, (b) the privilege was perhaps withdrawn after a lengthy sidebar, and (c) Mr. Allen was fired—gives me little confidence that F.S.D. could make a knowing waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights under these circumstances….

Here, the problem is at least the appearance of an attorney pressuring a witness not to assert a privilege and effectively canceling the deposition to obtain that result. I make no finding based on this record that such pressure did, in fact, occur. Nevertheless, the record lends itself to the appearance that [F.S.D.] may have been subject to pressure not to independently assert his rights….

The judge had the option to appoint counsel for the employees, but concluded:

At this juncture, I decline to appoint counsel because Plaintiffs have represented that independent counsel has been retained to represent the employees. As I stated at the hearing, a lawyer admitted to practice in Iowa should be aware of his or her obligations under Rule 32:1.8(f)(2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which requires independence of professional judgment on behalf of a client, even if someone else is paying for those services. As I intended to convey at the hearing, if concerns arise about the exercise of independent judgment by the attorney replacing Mr. Allen, I may reconsider the necessity of appointing counsel….

You can also read the (fairly heavily redacted) defendants' motion to compel, and the plaintiff's response.