Railroad Management Co. v. Cfs Louisiana Midstream

Citation428 F.3d 214
Decision Date07 October 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-20836.,04-20836.
PartiesRAILROAD MANAGEMENT COMPANY, L.L.C.; et al., Plaintiffs, Railroad Management Company, L.L.C.; Strong Capital I, L.P., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CFS LOUISIANA MIDSTREAM CO., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)

Amy Groves Lowe, Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, Baton Rouge, LA, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Thomas Joseph Forestier, Winstead, Sechrest & Minick, The Woodlands, TX, Mark R. Trachtenberg, Stephen John Maddex, Haynes & Boone, Houston, TX, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before REAVLEY, HIGGINBOTHAM and GARZA, Circuit Judges.

EMILIO M. GARZA, Circuit Judge:

Strong Capital I, L.P. and its agent, Railroad Management Co., L.L.C. (collectively "Strong"), appeal the district court's order granting summary judgment for the defendant CFS Louisiana Midstream Co. ("CFS"). The issues on appeal are whether the district court abused its discretion in excluding evidence proffered by Strong that it had been assigned the right to collect payments from CFS pursuant to a licensing agreement, and whether the district court erred in holding as a matter of law that the parties had not entered into an implied contract.


In 1973, Enterprise Pipeline Company ("Enterprise") and Southern Pacific Transportation Company ("Southern Pacific") entered into a licensing agreement that permitted Enterprise to build a pipeline across Southern Pacific's land. In exchange, Enterprise agreed to pay an annual fee. Through a series of assignments, CFS became liable for making the annual payment and Union Pacific Railroad Company ("Union Pacific") became entitled to receipt of those payments. Strong contends that Union Pacific assigned its rights to it in 2001. Accordingly, Strong sent CFS bills requesting that either the annual payment be made or the pipeline removed. CFS failed to do either. Strong and its agent, Railroad Management, subsequently commenced this action, alleging a claim for breach of contract.

During the course of the litigation, CFS served a discovery request on Railroad Management for a copy of the assignment agreement between Union Pacific and Strong, and filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that there was no evidence that Union Pacific ever assigned its interests to Strong. Strong objected to the discovery request on the ground that the agreement contained proprietary information. Following a discovery conference, the district court ordered Railroad Management to produce the assignment agreement in a redacted form that eliminated the amount that Strong paid Union Pacific for the assignment and the names of other property owners affected by the transaction. Strong cross-moved for summary judgment.

Strong failed to submit a complete copy of the assignment agreement either in opposition to CFS's motion or in support of its own. Instead, it submitted: (1) affidavits of Howard L. Armistead III, Railroad Management's manager, and Greg Pinker, Union Pacific's director of commerce, stating that Union Pacific assigned its rights to Strong; (2) a four-page excerpt of the assignment agreement; and (3) what appeared to the district court to be a retyped version of the assignment agreement, omitting the proprietary information as provided for in the district court's discovery ruling. The district court held that none of this evidence was admissible to prove Strong's right to collect the licensing fees. After finding no evidence of an actual or implied contract between CFS and Strong, the district court granted summary judgment for CFS. Strong appealed.


Strong first contends that the district court abused its discretion in excluding the affidavits of Armistead and Pinker, submitted to prove the existence of an assignment agreement between Union Pacific and Strong, and Strong's rights thereunder. We review a district court's exclusion of evidence for an abuse of discretion. Nat'l Hispanic Circus, Inc. v. Rex Trucking, Inc., 414 F.3d 546, 551 (5th Cir.2005). Resolution of preliminary factual questions concerning the admissibility of evidence are reviewed for clear error. See Bourjaily v. United States, 483 U.S. 171, 181, 107 S.Ct. 2775, 97 L.Ed.2d 144 (1987) (holding that district court's determination that hearsay declarant was defendant's coconspirator for purposes of coconspirator exception to hearsay rule not clearly erroneous).


Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 1002, the district court ruled that the Pinker and Armistead affidavits would be considered for the purpose of proving the existence of an agreement between Strong and Union Pacific, but not to prove the terms of that agreement, one of which was the assignment of the proceeds of the lease to CFS. Strong contends that Pinker's and Armistead's affidavits were not submitted "to prove the content of" the assignment, but instead merely to prove that an assignment of the relevant rights occurred.

Federal Rule of Evidence 1002, commonly called the "best evidence rule", provides "[t]o prove the content of a writing, recording, or photograph, the original writing, recording, or photograph is required, except as otherwise provided in these rules or by Act of Congress." But where the writing is not "closely related to a controlling issue," the Rules of Evidence deem the matter "collateral" and "other evidence of the contents of [the] writing" is admissible. FED.R.EVID. 1004(4).

Difficulty applying the rule commonly arises in situations such as this, where the party proffering the affidavit or testimony contends that it is not intended to "prove the content" of the document it discusses, but merely its "existence." The Rules do not define the difference, but in practice "[t]estimony about a document cannot go very far without referring to its terms." 4 WIGMORE ON EVIDENCE § 1242 (Chadbourne rev.1972). The distinction requires careful consideration of the facts of each case to avoid descent into mere "logical subtlety and verbal quibbling." Id.; see McCORMICK ON EVIDENCE § 233 (John W. Strong ed., 5th ed.1999) (discussing difficulty); 31 WRIGHT & GOLD, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 7184 (2000) (same). Although there are cases from this court differentiating between the content of a writing and the existence of the writing, they generally address the issue in a conclusory fashion and provide little guidance. See, e.g., Dalton v. Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp., 987 F.2d 1216, 1223 (5th Cir.1993) (in suit on defaulted promissory note, plaintiff need not produce documents that show precise payments made by the defendant and amounts owed in lieu of affidavit of bank officer); United States v. Yamin, 868 F.2d 130, 134 (5th Cir.1989) (to prove that trademark on watch was counterfeit, prosecution need not produce actual watch even though "it may be argued that it is the content of [the writing on the watch] that must be proved"); United States v. Carlock, 806 F.2d 535, 551 (5th Cir.1986) (testimony that union officials deviated from an "out-of-work list" used to assign jobs admissible in lieu of the actual list because the purpose of the testimony was not to prove contents of the list, but only to prove that it was not followed); United States v. Levine, 546 F.2d 658, 668 (5th Cir.1977) (in obscenity prosecution, contents of pornographic film must be proved, and testimony concerning contents of that film not admissible in lieu of actual film), abrogated on other grounds by, United States v. Lane, 474 U.S. 438, 106 S.Ct. 725, 88 L.Ed.2d 814 (1986). The authorities from other jurisdictions appear to be in conflict.1 In any event, because application of the best evidence rule generally depends on the "particular state of facts presented in each case and changing slightly in each instance, ... rulings are generally of little profit as precedents." 4 WIGMORE, supra at § 1242; see 31 WRIGHT & GOLD, supra at 7184 ("Rule 1002 is deceptive in its apparent simplicity and ... its application frequently requires a careful consideration of the facts in each case."); Comment, The Best Evidence Rule, 14 ARK. L.Rev. 153, 158-59 (1960) (cautioning against "the danger that particular cases will solidify into unalterable rules and thus be applied when the circumstances of the case would not merit such requirements").

The purpose, flexibility, and fact-intensive nature of the application of the best evidence rule persuade us that the following factors are appropriately considered when distinguishing between whether it is the content of the document or merely its existence that a witness intends to testify concerning:

(a) the relative importance of content in the case, (b) the simplicity or complexity of content and consequent risk of error in admitting a testimonial account, (c) the strength of the proffered evidence of content, taking into account corroborative witnesses or evidence and the presence or absence of bias or self-interest on the part of the witnesses, (d) the breadth of the margin for error within which mistake in a testimonial account would not undermine the point to be proved, (e) the presence or absence of an actual dispute as to content, (f) the ease or difficulty of producing the writing, and (g) the reasons why the proponent of other proof of its content does not have or offer the writing itself.

5 CHRISTOPHER B. MUELLER & LAIRD C. KIRKPATRICK, FEDERAL EVIDENCE § 570 (2d ed.1994); see also McCORMICK, supra at § 233 (arguing that application of the rule should turn "upon the trial Judge's determination of such factors as the centrality of the writing to the litigation, the importance of bringing the precise words of the writing before the trier, and the danger of mistransmission or imposition in the absence of the original"). Although a court must be careful in applying these factors so as not "to hamper the inquiry without at all advancing the cause of truth," United States v....

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