The issue? Whether the affidavit, presented in opposition to a motion for summary judgment, complied with Rule 56(e) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure.
That Rule says that "supporting and opposing affidavits shall be made on personal knowledge, shall set forth such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and shall show affirmatively that the affiant is competent to testify to the matters stated therein."
The affidavit in Bird came from a private investigator who had been tailing the boyfriend of the Plaintiff’s ex- wife. The Plaintiff was trying to show that his ex was cohabitating with her boyfriend. If that were so, it meant that the Plaintiff’s obligation to pay alimony would end.
The ex-wife said she wasn’t cohabitating. She moved for summary judgment. In opposition, the husband presented his investigator’s affidavit. The wife objected to the PI’s testimony, saying that it wasn’t based on personal knowledge.
She had a point. The problem was that the affidavit was written in cop-speak. It said things like:
[The subject] was observed during the months of February and March 2007.
During the investigation, [the subject] was observed at [the wife’s] residence for a minimum of eleven (11) consecutive nights.
[The subject] was observed to park, regularly, in [the wife’s] garage.
[The subject] was regularly observed assisting [the wife] with chores such as walking the dog, taking care of the dog, unloading the vehicle when she returned from trips, and assisting her when she returned from the grocery store.
The ex-wife said the trial court should have refused to consider the affidavit. In her brief, she said that "the deliberate use of the grammatical construction, ‘was observed’, does not affirmatively show that she was the observer." She said that it was reasonable to assume that the investigator "was recounting the observations found in the report of one of her associates, and therefore found it necessary to use the passive voice." Defendant characterized the affidavit as "curiously devoid of pronouns."
The Court of Appeals majority said that notwithstanding the stilted construction of the affidavit it would conclude that the investigator herself was the "observer" and that the affidavit was therefore based on personal knowledge. The Supreme Court affirmed.
Justice Martin said "the trial court’s duty to treat indulgently the Rule 56 materials of the party opposing the motion reasonably encompasses the passive voice averments set forth in the . . . Affidavit." In a footnote, he said "as has been aptly observed, ‘[i]n spite of generations of textbooks, use of the passive [voice] has increased.’"
This doesn’t mean you should assume that this type of phrasing will carry the ball on summary judgment. The basis of both the Court of Appeals decision and the Supreme Court decision was that the affidavit had been offered by the non-moving party. The non-movant gets the benefit of the doubt on summary judgment, but the moving party doesn’t. The Supreme Court said in a 1998 decision that "the evidence forecast by the party against whom summary judgment is contemplated is to be indulgently regarded while that of the party to benefit from summary judgment must be carefully scrutinized." Creech v. Melnik, 495 S.E.2d 907, 911 (N.C. 1998).
The affidavit in Bird probably wouldn’t have passed that "careful scrutiny" if it had been offered by the moving party. That’s my observation. I made it.