Reversing Verdict For Court’s Failure To Assess Impact Of Extrinsic Evidence Brought Into Jury Room

In a civil trade secret action concerning a safety clamp, after trial court learned that one juror had unilaterally brought a clamp into the jury room during deliberations, the judge failed to "take any steps to determine the possible prejudicial effect of” the extrinsic evidence on the jury, requiring reversal of the jury verdict, in Atlantic Research Marketing Systems, Inc. v. Troy, _ F.3d _ (Fed. Cir. Oct 6, 2011) (Nos. 2011-1002, 2011-1003)

Normally, there is a presumption that jurors cannot be questioned about a jury verdict in order to set aside or cast doubt on the validity of the verdict. See, e.g., United States v. Connolly, 341 F.3d 16, 34-35 (1st Cir. 2003) (“There are significant policy considerations underlying such a rule, including finality, maintaining the integrity of the jury system, encouraging frank and honest deliberations, and the protection of jurors from subsequent harassment by a losing party.”) (citing McDonald v. Pless, 238 U.S. 264, 267-68 (1915)).

This long-standing principle is reinforced by FRE 606(b) which provides that “a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith.” However, narrow exceptions are recognized when either “ extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention” or “any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror.”

In a trade secret action, after the trial evidence was presented, the jury began its deliberations. During the third day of deliberations, one jury note advised:

We are currently stuck in a deadlock. It appears we have argued all points of the case to the best of both sides ability. We firmly feel that an [sic] unanimous decision cannot be made. Also, a juror brought in a clamp from his/her basement trying to make an argument. Is bringing outside items allowed? …
Troy, _ F.3d at _ (emphasis added).

The trial court “instructed the jury that ‘I need to take [the clamp] out of the jury room.’” The judge questioned counsel on how to proceed and whether the jurors could be questioned about any influence the clamp may have had during the deliberations. No action was taken and the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, concluding that the defendant had misappropriated trade secrets and awarding more than $1.8 million in damages. After the verdict, the court gave each juror four questions:

  1. “What’s your name?”
  2. “What was the clamp?”
  3. “Who brought it in?” and
  4. “When was it brought in?”
Troy, _ F.3d at _.

Each juror identified a copper clamp similar to one used in plumbing. One juror admitted he brought the clamp into the jury room. At a subsequent hearing, “The juror explained that he brought out the clamp for “maybe ten minutes,” and that he showed it to the jurors as an example of what a clamp was. The juror stated that the clamp was not further discussed.” Troy, _ F.3d at _. On appeal, the defendant contended that the trial court “failed to properly investigate and remedy the possibility of jury taint due to the presence of extraneous evidence in the jury room during deliberations.” Troy, _ F.3d at _.

The Federal Circuit agreed and vacated the jury verdict, remanding the case. The circuit noted that FRE 606(b) governed the ability of the trial court to engage in a post-verdict inquiry with the jurors. The inquiry undertaken by the trial court was woefully inadequate:

The district court failed to take any steps to determine the possible prejudicial effect of the clamp prior to the issuance of the verdict; it never even asked if the jurors could remain impartial after viewing the clamp. By default, the court did not investigate the issue in a “satisfactory manner.” This alone warrants a reversal and a grant of a mistrial.
. . .

Although it is possible that the clamp did not influence any juror, the district court’s inquiry was insufficient to allow that court to make such a determination. The district court based its decision on the interview with the offending juror weeks after the incident took place. Importantly, at this subsequent interview, the district court only questioned the juror who brought in the clamp. It never sought to question any of the other jurors in more detail. It is the impact of the extraneous evidence on the other jurors, however, that is the most important fact to determine during this inquiry. By failing to conduct an adequate inquiry, the district court abused its discretion.
Troy, _ F.3d at _ (citing United States v. Bristol-Martir, 570 F.3d 29, 43 (1st Cir. 2009) (“[C]rucially, the district court did not inquire, either in a group setting or on an individual basis, as to whether jury members had been influenced by the errant juror’s improper research and presentation.”)).

The circuit acknowledged that “discerning what is and is not permissible under Rule 606(b) is” not always readily apparent. However, the limited inquiry in this case justified reversal notwithstanding that the circuit was “cognizant of the judicial resources already spent in trying this case.” Troy, _ F.3d at _.

The Troy case underscores the duty on the trial court to assess any impact of extraneous evidence on the jury. For a discussion involving the previously noted Bristol-Martir case, see Juror Internet Research Leads To Reversal.


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