Lamson, Dugan and Murray, LLP, Attorneys at Law

Preparing for the Future: Estate Planning for Parents of Children with Disabilities

Posted in Transactional

Parents of special needs children must be cognizant of special considerations in virtually every area of life. Estate planning is no exception. The stringent eligibility requirements of SSDI/SSI and Medicaid/Medicare make the child’s continued eligibility a paramount concern when determining the child’s inheritance. Even if the child is currently employed and not eligible for disability benefits due to the child’s income, parents must evaluate how long the child will be able to continue making enough income to cover disability-related expenses and the impact that inheritance will have on the child’s eligibility for future disability benefits.

To be eligible for SSDI/SSI a disabled individual who is unmarried can only have a mere $2,000 in resources. The resources cap for Medicaid eligibility is $4,000 for an unmarried individual. (For more information on eligibility requirements and the definition of a “resource” under the regulations, visit https://www.ssa.gov/ssi/text-resources-ussi.htm and https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/eligibility/.) These resource caps do not allow for a substantial inheritance by any means. However, parents of children with disabilities can preserve the child’s eligibility for disability benefits by leaving inheritance for the child in a resource-exempt trust or account. Parents should consult an attorney to determine whether to establish any of the following trusts or accounts for their child.

Third Party Special Needs Trusts are irrevocable trusts that can be established by parents, grandparents, legal guardians, or courts, but not disabled individuals who are beneficiaries of the trust. A trust may be funded with the beneficiary’s assets, but the beneficiary cannot act as trustee or control the trust. The beneficiary must be under age 65. At the beneficiary’s death, the remaining assets in the trust are paid to the government to repay any government benefits received by the beneficiary.

Pooled Trusts are irrevocable trusts that are established and maintained by a non-profit charity. A disabled person, parent, grandparent, guardian, or court may establish a subaccount for the beneficiary that is grouped with subaccounts of other beneficiaries into a single pooled trust. The beneficiary may be over age 65.

“529A” Accounts (known as ENABLE Accounts in Nebraska) allow disabled individuals of any age who are medically eligible for SSI or SSDI and became disabled prior to age 26 to contribute up to $14,000 of exempt assets per year to the account (with a maximum exemption cap of $100,000).

While these trusts and accounts may seem to offer disabled children the best of both worlds by allowing them to continue to receive disability benefits even after receiving an inheritance, the reality of these options is not as rosy as one might hope. Each of these trusts and accounts impose spending restrictions for the assets and limit the ability of the child to control the child’s own inheritance, which may be particularly disheartening to parents of children with strictly physical disabilities. Thus, parents must evaluate the totality of their circumstances with sound legal input to develop a customized estate plan that meets the unique needs of their family.

“Nebraska Nice”? Some Say Not As Friendly As Before

Posted in In-House Counsel, Tort Reform

If you track the periodic Lawsuit Climate Survey, published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform, you know the 2017 rankings were issued last month.  The 2017 Survey constitutes the 11th fielding of the survey since the Institute for Legal Reform first began conducting its survey in 2002.

The Survey

This year’s survey was based on telephone and online surveys of 1,321 in-house counsel, senior litigators or attorneys, and other senior executives knowledgeable about litigation matters at public and private companies with annual of at least $100 million. They were asked to give each state a grade (A through F) in the following areas:

  • Enforcing meaningful venue requirements
  • Overall treatment of tort and contract litigation
  • Treatment of class action suits and mass consolidation suits
  • Damages
  • Proportional discovery
  • Scientific and technical evidence
  • Trial judges’ impartiality
  • Trial judges’ competence
  • Juries’ fairness
  • Quality of appellate review

These elements were then combined to create an overall ranking of the states’ liability systems.

According the Survey, a state’s litigation environment may impact a company’s business decisions, including where to locate or do business. Of the survey respondents, 85% reported that the state’s litigation environment is “likely” to impact important business decisions; 42% said “very likely;” and only 5% answered “very unlikely.”

Nebraska’s Results

Historically, Nebraska has fared well in the survey. In the prior 10 iterations of the report, Nebraska ranked No. 2 among the 50 states six times, and ranked 3rd three times.

This year, however, Nebraska dropped four ranks: from 3rd in 2015 to 7th in 2017. It is, in fact, Nebraska’s worst ranking since the survey began. Fear not, though, as the report indicates that there have been changes in the overall ranking criteria, such that the 2017 score “does not provide an apples-to-apples comparison to previous years.”

Beyond the overall score, it is telling to look at how Nebraska ranked in the individual elements. In most areas, Nebraska’s rank in a particular area was comparable to its overall rank.  But there were a few outliers.  For example, it ranked “18” in Enforcing Meaningful Venue Requirements; “11” in Damages, “15” for Juries’ Fairness, and “17” for Quality Appellate Review.

The State’s ranking vis-à-vis Quality Appellate Review is especially surprising considering that Nebraska achieved ranks of “7” and “6” for Trial Judges’ Impartiality and Trial Judges’ Competence, respectively.  It is unclear why Survey respondents believe there to be a disconnect between the quality of our trial court judges and the quality of our review at the appellate court level.

If you would like to review the entire survey, you may find it here.

P.S. As between Nebraska and Iowa, Nebraska is still “Nicer than Iowa,” as Iowa achieved an overall rank of 13.

Nebraska’s Summary Judgment Statute Gets A Facelift

Posted in Motion Practice

One of the challenges of being an attorney is keeping up on the law. Not the case law –the Nebraska Court of Appeals and Supreme Court publish their opinions weekly, here and here.  The day before the opinions are published, they even post advanced notice of their anticipated opinions, here and here. To make sure you don’t miss out on new developments, the Courts will even send you a list of the anticipated and newly-published opinions if you sign up at http://supremecourt.us4.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=ae8e96284b7e00297615727f9&id=e24ff22789.

No, the bigger challenge for attorneys is staying abreast of changes to the statutes.  Unlike the Courts, neither the Nebraska Unicameral nor the Governor’s office sends periodic updates. As a result, legislative changes may impact your daily practice of law and you may not even know about it.

This can be especially problematic when there are legislative makeovers to long-standing procedural statutes.  Attorneys who have been practicing for some time have the more common statutes committed to memory and may not be inclined to look them up. There is no need to look up something you already “know,” right?

Wrong.

Take, for example, Nebraska’s summary judgment statutes.  Did you know one of the provisions recently underwent substantial changes? Or that these changes have been in effect for a few weeks now?

For as long as I have been practicing, Nebraska’s summary judgment statute read:

The motion shall be served at least ten days before the time fixed for the hearing. The adverse party prior to the day of hearing may serve opposing affidavits. The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings and the evidence admitted at the hearing 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. The evidence that may be received on a motion for summary judgment includes depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, stipulations, and affidavits. A summary judgment, interlocutory in character, may be rendered on the issue of liability alone although there is a genuine issue as to the amount of damages.

Besides replacing “issue” with the word “dispute,” the new version of the statute imposes certain requirements with respect to evidence.  Under the new § 25-1332, gone are the days of parties simply parroting the phrase “genuine issue of material fact.” It is now a “genuine dispute of material fact” – and you have to provide citations to the evidence in support of your position. Under subsection (2),

A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by:

(a) Citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions, stipulations, affidavits, or other materials; or

(b) Showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.

Best of all, the Unicameral gave the statute teeth. If the nonmoving party fails to comply with the new rules, the court has a host of options available to deal with the party’s non-compliance.  This includes treating the fact as undisputed for purposes of the motion. Under subsection (3):

If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party’s assertion of fact as required by subsection (2) of this section, the court may:

(a) Give an opportunity to properly support or address the fact;

(b) Consider the fact undisputed for purposes of the motion;

(c) Grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials, including the facts considered undisputed, show that the movant is entitled to summary judgment; or

(d) Issue any other appropriate order.

Of course, the statute also gives judges an ‘out’ by allowing the nonmoving party to address the fact; and the court can “issue any other appropriate order.” As a result, judges are not obligated to hold the parties’ feet to the fire. But for the more rule-oriented members of the bench, they now have legislative permission to strictly enforce the rules.

Oh the Humanity! What to Do When the Nebraska Court of Appeals Cancels Your Oral Argument in an Appeal PART II

Posted in Appellate Work

Cathy Trent-Vilim

This post is authored by Cathy Trent-Vilim, a partner in LDM’s litigation department.  This is Part II of her two part post.

Welcome to Part II.  If you’ve found your way to Part II, chances are you’ve received notice from the Court of Appeals, at one time or another, notifying you that the Court has elected to forego oral argument in your case.  As you learned in Part I, the Supreme Court has now provided parties with a procedural mechanism for requesting oral argument after notice canceling oral argument has been sent.

The question, then, is whether you should choose to take advantage of this procedural tool and request oral argument.  Certainly, the answer is ‘it depends on the facts of your case.’  However, when deciding whether to seek oral argument, consider the following:

  1. Was your case was procedurally complex?  If so, oral argument may help clarify for the Court the procedural background in ways your brief does not, especially if you were constrained in your review of the procedural complexity because of page limitations.
  2. Was the case was factually complex or convoluted?  Like procedural complexity, a factually complex case may be difficult to fully explain in a written brief and oral argument will give the Court an opportunity to ask clarifying questions.
  3. Has there been a change in the relevant law subsequent to the parties’ briefing of the case?  If so, oral argument will give you an opportunity to point out the change in law and how it impacts your case.
  4. Are there issues related to the standard of review applicable to your case (i.e., the standard of review has not yet been decided, or the case law is inconsistent)?  If so, oral argument will give the parties and Court an opportunity to discuss what the proper standard should be.
  5. Can oral argument assist the Court in determining the scope of the question presented?  For example, if the Court is deciding a question of first impression, oral argument may help the Court in tailoring its opinion to the issue in your case, thereby avoiding a broad or sweeping ruling which could have unintended consequences.
  6. Could the Court’s ruling adversely impact an entire business sector or industry?  If so, those issues may not have been fleshed out in the parties’ briefing, but are factors for the Court to consider in its ruling.
  7. Are there important policy considerations the Court should consider when reaching its decision?  As with industry consideration, you may not have the ability to fully address these issues in your brief.  Nevertheless, they are important considerations for the Court.

If one or more of these conditions exist, the Court may very well see the benefit of oral argument.  Do not assume that because the Court has elected to submit your case without oral argument, it has already rejected these considerations.  File your motion and put your best foot forward.

Finally, if you succeed in your motion, come prepared.  As the saying goes, you almost never win an appeal on oral argument; but you most certainly can lose the appeal during oral argument.

Oh the Humanity! What to Do When the Nebraska Court of Appeals Cancels Your Oral Argument in an Appeal PART I

Posted in Appellate Work

Cathy Trent-Vilim

This post is authored by Cathy Trent-Vilim, a partner in LDM’s litigation department.

Imagine stepping up to the plate, preparing to hit your first baseball of the season.  You’ve been looking forward to this moment for months, picturing it in your mind and practicing for what seems like forever.  Just as the pitcher gets ready to wind up, the heavenly floodgates open and a torrential downpour ensues.  Worse yet, the rains persist and the umpire calls the game.  Such disappointment!

Well, if you’re attorney, this is the kind of disappointment you feel when you receive a notice from the Nebraska Court of Appeals informing you that the Court has elected to submit your case “without oral argument.”  For appellate lawyers, oral argument is the functional equivalent of trial.  Certainly, reviewing the appellate record and drafting the appellate briefs can be exciting in their own rights, in much the same way as written discovery and depositions in litigation.  But oral argument – that is the pièce-de-résistance.

In days past, there was nothing to be done after receiving the fateful notice from the Court.  You simply waited for the Court’s opinion.  Recently, however, the Supreme Court amended Neb.Ct.R.App.P. § 2-111(B)(1) to allow parties to file a motion and request oral argument where the Court has otherwise ordered the case submitted without oral argument.

Under the new rule, parties have seven (7) days after the date of the minute entry submitting the case without oral argument to file a motion setting forth the reasons for why the Court should hear oral argument.  The opposing party then has seven (7) days after the filing of the motion to respond.  Once the response period expires, the motion is submitted to the Court for its consideration.

What, you ask, are sound reasons for requesting oral argument, especially when the Court has seemingly already deemed your case unworthy?  Good question.  Read Part II of this blog for the answer.

AAJ Regional Trial Competition

Posted in Cross Examination, Litigation Tips, Trial

Last week I noted that I would be assisting with the AAJ Regional Trial Competition held in Omaha.  I served as a judge for what was, in my view, a very close round between two good teams.  Here are some of the trial tactics I was reminded of:

  1. Do not assume the presiding judge knows your case as well as you do.  This particularly true when responding to an objection as to relevance.  In order to win the objection the judge must either independently see the relevant nature of the evidence.  If not, it is up to you to explain it.  Which inevitably leads me to number 2 . . .
  2. When making a relevance objection you should consider asking the judge to hear the opposing party’s response at the bench.  In order to explain why the other side thinks an item of evidence is relevant they must, in essence, give a closing argument.  If you allow the jury to hear opposing counsel do that, and the judge ultimately agrees with you and keeps the evidence out the jury may be influenced by the losing argument.  If the judge disagrees with you and ultimately let’s the evidence in the jury, without having the heard the explanation, may never pick up on the relevance and may not hear about it if it does not make it into the closing argument.
  3. You must try to limit an adverse witness’s ability to say what they want on cross.  You do this by controlling the witness who wants desperately to expand beyond the scope of what you asked.  Without a doubt this is the single most difficult thing for law students and many lawyers to learn.  But without doing so the evidence you want the jury to absorb is cluttered with the other side’s spin.  Because it is difficult many lawyers give witnesses too much leeway; hoping, it seems, that exposition will be short.  It rarely is.  In fact, the longer you let it go the more it happens.

I always find it rewarding to watch trials; even pretend trials tried by law students.  It can serve as a good reminder of what works and what doesn’t.  It is also nice to have the perspective of observer rather than being in the line of fire.

 

Judging AAJ Regional Trial Competition

Posted in Trial

This week Omaha plays host to a regional trial competition sponsored by the American Association for Justice.  Nine law schools from the Midwest region will send a total of 16 teams to compete.  I, along with many of my Omaha attorney colleagues, will serve as performance and presiding judges for the rounds.  This is a big moment in the lives of the participating law students.  It is where they have the opportunity show off the hard work they have put into developing their trial strategies and skills.  As I have said in other posts, watching these students can be a great learning experience for practitioners of all skill levels.  I look forward to participating and, next week, I will send out a report on the good work that I was able to observe.

Use Of Original Deposition Testimony When There Has Been Substantive Change With Errata Sheet

Posted in Deposition Preparation, Depositions, Expert Witnesses

This post is authored by LDM lawyer Maria Lighthall.

The sworn deposition testimony is taken, but then comes the Errata Sheet with both form and substantive changes that contradict prior testimony.  Are such changes in testimony admissible at trial?  The Majority rule says yes.

writing on white ruled paper

Pursuant to the plain language of Neb. Ct. R. Disc. §6-330(e), changes to deposition testimony in form or substance are permitted so long as the changes are accompanied by the reasons for the change.  Specifically, §6-330(e) provides that “[A]ny changes in form or substance which the witness desires to make shall be entered upon the deposition by the officer with a statement of the reasons given by the witness for making them.” (emphasis added).

Although there appears to be no Nebraska case law directly addressing §6-330(e), Nebraska courts will look to federal case law for guidance because the Nebraska Rules of Discovery are generally and substantially patterned after the corresponding discovery rules in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Gernstein v. Lake, 259 Neb. 479, 480, 610 N.W.2d 714, 716 (2000).  The traditional view adopted by federal courts in interpreting Rule 30(e) is that any changes are permitted, regardless of whether they contradict deposition testimony.  Lugtig v. Buttermaid Bakeries, Division Ward Foods, Inc., 89 F.R.D. 639, 641 (N.D. Ill. 1981), Summerhouse v. HCA Health Servs., 216 F.R.D. 502, 508 (D.Kan. 2003) (permitting changes in form and substance but limiting changes that materially bear upon an essential element or defense).  The rule does not require a judge to examine the sufficiency, reasonableness, or legitimacy of the reasons for the changes. Lugtig, 89 F.R.D. at 641.

One final word of caution: even though you can make substantive changes – the original response can be used for impeachment purposes.

Werner v. Platte County (Part II): Don’t Get Too Excited About the Excited Utterance Hearsay Exception

Posted in Appellate Work, Cross Examination, Direct/Redirect Examination, Discovery, Litigation Tips, Trial, Witness Preparation

Cathy Trent-Vilim   LDM Partner Cathy Trent-Vilim continues her discussion of her recent case in this post.

You read in Part I of Werner v. Platte County how the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that statements by Mr. Werner made to the EMT while at the scene of the accident qualified for the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule.  The purpose of this post is to discuss why similar statements made to a Nebraska State Patrol officer only a few hours later at the hospital were declared inadmissible hearsay, and why the trial court’s erroneous admission of that evidence did not warrant a new trial.

After being airlifted to a hospital, Mr. Werner was questioned by a trooper from the Nebraska State Patrol, which Platte County had called in to investigate the accident.  Although he does not recall the event, Mr. Werner informed the officer that:

  1. the other occupant was driving the vehicle, which was traveling approximately 120 miles per hour, and
  2. during the pursuit Mr. Werner told the driver to let him out.

The trooper testified to each of these statements over the County’s objections.

On appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected Werner’s position that these statements were also excited utterances.    Despite the fact that he was still reeling from the immediate effects of the accident, the court determined that too much time had elapsed since the accident for the statements to be excited utterances.  Further, the statements were made in direct response to questioning by law enforcement and therefore did not meet the spontaneity element.  Finally, although Mr. Werner had been medicated, was discussing his likely paraplegia with the medical team, and was still unaware of the driver’s condition, the trooper also testified that Mr. Werner was alert, conscious and responsive.  As a result, the excited utterance exception did not apply (the court also rejected arguments that the statements were prior consistent statements, verbal acts, or statements of Mr. Werner’s state of mind).

The determination that the evidence had been admitted in error, however, did not end the court’s analysis.  To constitute reversible error, the County had to demonstrate that the erroneous admission of the evidence was unfairly prejudicial to a substantial right.  The County argued that the trial court’s reference to, and reliance upon, this evidence demonstrated undue prejudice.  But erroneously admitted evidence is not prejudicial if it is cumulative of other admissible evidence.  In this case, the EMT’s testimony about similar statements made at the scene was properly admitted.  Additionally, the trooper’s testimony about the identity of the driver was a “relatively small” part of the total evidence the trial court relied upon in deeming Mr. Werner a passenger and in finding Mr. Werner’s testimony credible.

In the end, the trooper’s testimony was a case of ‘no-harm, no-foul.’  Should you find yourself in a similar position, where the opposing party is arguing that testimony was improperly received, be sure to scour your appellate record and look for instances of similar evidence.  Even if your trial evidence was improperly received, you may be able to avoid re-trial court on the basis of the cumulative evidence rule.

Werner v. Platte County (Part I): Get Excited About the Excited Utterance Hearsay Exception

Posted in Appellate Work, Direct/Redirect Examination, Discovery, Litigation Tips, Trial, Witness Preparation

LDM attorneys Cathy Trent-Vilim and Bill Lamson recently received a decision from the Nebraska Supreme Court affirming the maximum $1 million judgment obtained on behalf of Brian Werner in a suit against Platte County, Nebraska, arising from injuries Mr. Werner suffered while a passenger in a vehicle being pursued by a Platte County deputy.

Cathy Trent-Vilim

LDM Partner Cathy Trent-Vilim  discusses her recent case in this post.

In appealing the judgment, Platte County assigned numerous errors related to the trial court’s receipt of hearsay into evidence.  This post will discuss the Supreme Court’s analysis of the excited utterance exception.  In order to understand the Court’s analysis, a few facts about the case are necessary.

The vehicle in which Mr. Werner was riding was traveling at approximately 113 miles per hour when the driver lost control and the car veered down a ditch, into a cornfield, and rolled end-over-end several times.  Neither the driver nor Mr. Werner was wearing a seatbelt and were ejected.  The driver suffered a head injury and has never regained consciousness.  Mr. Werner suffered a back injury and is a paraplegic.  While Mr. Werner was being attended to by emergency personnel, he uttered statements to an EMT to the effect of ‘I told him he was going way too fast’ and ‘I kept telling him to let me out.’  These statements were critical to Mr. Werner’s case, for in order to recover under Nebraska’s vehicular pursuit strict liability statute, Mr. Werner had to prove he was not a person sought to be apprehended by law enforcement (i.e., not the driver) and was an “innocent third party” (i.e., that he had not promoted, provoked or persuaded the driver to flee). These statements were evidence of both.  Mr. Werner, however, did not recall making any such statements at the scene.

Over the County’s hearsay objections, the trial court allowed the EMT to testify to both statements under the excited utterance hearsay exception.  It then relied on these statements in finding for Mr. Werner.  Addressing the County’s assignment of error, the Nebraska Supreme Court recited the elements for the excited utterance exception:

  1. there was a startling event;
  2. the statement related to the event;
  3. the statement was made while the declarant was under the stress of the event.

According to the Court:

[t]he key requirement is spontaneity, which ‘requires a showing the statements were made without time for conscious reflection.’

Mr. Werner’s statements to the EMT met the excited utterance exception.  First, the pursuit and accident constituted a startling event.  Second, Mr. Werner’s statements related to the startling event.  Finally, Mr. Werner made the statements while “lying on his back, paralyzed, in a cornfield fighting for his life” and therefore under the stress of the event.  Further, the Court rejected the County’s argument that the statements were not spontaneous because they were made in response to questioning by law enforcement.  After reviewing the record, the Court noted that while there was some evidence to support the County’s allegations, other evidence indicated that the statements were uttered “several time[s], over and over,” before any provocation by law enforcement.  Since the focus of the spontaneity question is whether the statements were made “without conscious reflection,” and the evidence indicated that Mr. Werner had made the statements while “confused at times” and “moaning in pain,” the trial court’s finding that the statements were spontaneous was not clearly erroneous.

Stay tuned for Part II to learn why these same statements, made to someone else, were inadmissible hearsay.  Also learn why the trial court’s erroneous admission of these statements did not constitute grounds for a new trial.