Tippens v. Celotex Corp.

Decision Date09 December 1986
Docket NumberNo. 84-8312,84-8312
PartiesWilliam L. TIPPENS, deceased, Nell P. Tippens, Individually and as widow of William L. Tippens, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. The CELOTEX CORPORATION, et al., Defendant-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Roger B. Lane, C. Darryl Gossett, Brunswick, Ga., for plaintiff-appellant.

Darlene Y. Ross, Savannah, Ga., for defendants-appellees.

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

Before HILL, VANCE, Circuit Judges, and BROWN *, Senior Circuit Judge.

JOHN R. BROWN, Senior Circuit Judge:

Celotex Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment was granted in this case when a non-party affiant's deposition was inconsistent with his prior affidavit. The District Court held the inconsistencies created a sham affidavit and considered only the deposition testimony in granting summary judgment. We do not find the original affidavit inherently inconsistent with the deposition and hold that any question of credibility or weight to be given to the evidence resulting from variances between an affidavit and deposition is a question of fact for the trier of fact, be it the judge or jury. We therefore, reverse the District Court's grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings to consider all of the evidence including both the deposition and the affidavit.

Mrs. Nell Tippens brought suit against Celotex Corporation (Celotex) individually and on behalf of her deceased husband. William Tippens worked at Brunswick Shipyard as a pipefitter on ships of the United States Navy and the Merchant Marines, among others. After serving in the Army, and holding several other jobs, Mr. Tippens worked for twenty-seven years as a supervisor for ITT Rayonier in Jesup, Georgia. Mrs. Tippens alleges that while her husband was employed as a supervisor at ITT Rayonier and as a pipefitter at Brunswick Shipyards, he was exposed to asbestos containing products that were mined, manufactured, and sold by Celotex. 1

In response to Celotex's motion for summary judgment, Tippens submitted the affidavit of a coworker, Frank McIntyre, which stated that McIntyre used several products, including those of the defendant Celotex, while working in close proximity to William Lawrence Tippens. 2 The District Court initially denied Celotex's motion based on McIntyre's affidavit.

Celotex, along with the other defendants, deposed Frank McIntyre. During his deposition, McIntyre was unable to pinpoint any specific instances where he worked in close proximity to William Tippens while using the defendant's product. McIntyre was also unable to identify any specific instances when he used Celotex's asbestos containing products or to identify which Celotex products contained asbestos. However, McIntyre was able to state that he did use Celotex's products. The apparent inconsistency between the affidavit and deposition was merely an inability to recall specific times, places, and situations. 3

Based on the inconsistencies in McIntyre's deposition, Celotex moved for reconsideration of their motion for summary judgment. The District Court reconsidered and granted the motion.

It's Been Said Before 4

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary judgment when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." F.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The District Court shall consider all evidence in the record when reviewing a motion for summary judgment--pleadings, depositions, interrogatories, affidavits, etc.--and can only grant summary judgment "if everything in the record ... demonstrates that no genuine issue of material fact exists." Keiser v. Coliseum Properties, Inc., 614 F.2d 406, 410 (5th Cir.1980) (emphasis in original). 5 "Summary judgment is a lethal weapon, and courts must be mindful of its aims and targets and beware of overkill in its use." Brunswick Corp. v. Vineberg, 370 F.2d 605, 612 (5th Cir.1967). "The principal function of the motion for summary judgment is to show that one or more of the essential elements of a claim or defense ... is not in doubt and that, as a result, judgment can be rendered as a matter of law." Louis, Federal Summary Judgment Doctrine: A Critical Analysis, 83 Yale L.J. 745, 747 (1974).

If one or more of the essential elements is in doubt, then summary judgment must not be granted. Summary judgment is such a lethal weapon, depriving a litigant of a trial on the issue, caution must be used to ensure only those cases devoid of any need for factual determinations are disposed of by summary judgment. Summary judgment should be granted only when the evidence produced by the nonmoving party, when viewed in a light most favorable to that party, fails to establish a genuine issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, --- U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265, 273 (1986); Adickes v. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 146, 154 (1970).

This court decided an almost identical case against the same defendant earlier this year. In Lane v. Celotex Corp., 782 F.2d 1526, 1528 (11th Circuit 1986), we stated:

[T]he district court must not resolve factual disputes by weighing conflicting evidence, see Warrior Tombigbee Transportation Company v. M/V NAN FUNG, 695 F.2d 1294, 1298 (11th Cir.1983), since it is the province of the jury to assess the probative value of the evidence, see Odum v. Celotex Corp, 764 F.2d 1486, 1488 (11th Cir.1985). The district court must not "assess[ ] the probative value of any evidence presented to it, for this would be an unwarranted extension of the summary judgment device." Gauck v. Meleski, 346 F.2d 433, 436 (5th Cir.1965).

The Sham Affidavit Concept

The Second Circuit announced the proposition that a court may disregard an affidavit as a matter of law when it determines that the affidavit is a sham in Perma Research and Development Co. v. Singer Co., 410 F.2d 572 (2nd Cir.1969). As recounted by this court in Lane, the Second Circuit's decision in Perma Research involved a plaintiff who claimed fraud but disclosed no specifics of the fraud claim during extensive depositions. He later filed an affidavit which disclosed the specifics and thus was blatantly inconsistent with his earlier affidavit. "If a party who has been examined at length on deposition could raise an issue of fact simply by submitting an affidavit contradicting his own prior testimony, this would greatly diminish the utility of summary judgment as a procedure for screening out sham issues of fact." Perma Research at 578. The Second Circuit determined that any issue raised by affidavit which was flatly contradicted by an earlier deposition was so suspect of untruthfulness as to be disregarded as a matter of law.

The Eleventh Circuit accepted the proposition that an affidavit can be disregarded when it constitutes a sham in Van T. Junkins and Associates v. U.S. Industries, 736 F.2d 656 (11th Cir.1984). In that case the President of Van T. Junkins "made crystal clear in three places in the deposition" that there was no condition attached to their agreement that he was required to purchase one of their buildings in order to be awarded a dealership. Id. 657. He later submitted an affidavit stating that he would be awarded the dealership only if he would purchase one of their buildings. This court held that the affidavit should be disregarded as a sham. Its flat contradiction to the earlier deposition was unexplained and therefore was inadequate to raise a genuine issue of fact which was denied to exist by the earlier deposition.

Discrepancies: Credibility or Sham

A definite distinction must be made between discrepancies which create transparent shams and discrepancies which create an issue of credibility or go to the weight of the evidence. "An opposing party's affidavit should be considered although it differs from or varies [from] his evidence as given by deposition or another affidavit and the two in conjunction may disclose an issue of credibility." 6 Moore's Federal Practice p 56.15 (2d ed. 1985) (footnote omitted).

The purpose of summary judgment is to separate real, genuine issues from those which are formal or pretended. To allow every failure of memory or variation in a witness's testimony to be disregarded as a sham would require far too much from lay witnesses and would deprive the trier of fact of the traditional opportunity to determine which point in time and with which words the witness (in this case, the affiant) was stating the truth. Variations in a witness's testimony and any failure of memory throughout the course of discovery create an issue of credibility as to which part of the testimony should be given the greatest weight if credited at all. Issues concerning the credibility of witnesses and weight of the evidence are questions of fact which require resolution by the trier of fact. An affidavit may only be disregarded as a sham "when a party has given clear answers to unambiguous questions which negate the existence of any genuine issue of material fact ... [and that party attempts] thereafter [to] create such an issue with an affidavit that merely contradicts, without explanation, previously given clear testimony." Van T. Junkins at 657.

[E]very discrepancy contained in an affidavit does not justify a district court's refusal to give credence to such evidence. See Choudhry v. Jenkins, 559 F.2d 1085, 1090 (7th Cir.) (summary judgment was improper even though party's testimony was "not a paradigm of cogency or persuasiveness," since it was not a "transparent sham"), cert denied sub nom., Indiana v. Choudhry, 434 U.S. 997, 98 S.Ct. 634, 54 L.Ed.2d 491 (1977). In light of the jury's role in resolving questions of credibility, a district court should not reject the content of...

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