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D.Md.: FLSA Plaintiffs Residing In Honduras May Testify At Trial Via Videoconference; Good Cause Demonstrated By Visa Issues And Cost Of Travel
Lopez v. NTI, LLC
This case was before the Court on several motions. As discussed here, several of the plaintiffs who resided out of state and out of the country, requested that they be permitted to testify at trial via videoconference in lieu of appearing in person in court. Granting plaintiffs motion in part and denying in part, the court held that the international plaintiffs had demonstrated the requisite good cause, because of visa issues and high cost of international travel. However, the court denied the out of state plaintiffs’ motion for failure to demonstrate the requisite good cause.
Discussing the plaintiffs’ motion, the Court reasoned:
“Plaintiffs have moved for an order permitting certain Plaintiffs residing in Honduras, Tennessee, and Virginia to testify via “contemporaneous transmission” (Paper 70), namely videoconferencing. In support, Plaintiffs note the difficulty of securing a visa from Honduras and the substantial expense of travel. Defendants oppose, arguing that (1) the non-resident Plaintiffs need to be in the courtroom to establish their identity, (2) the use of videoconferencing would impede central credibility determinations, and (3) financial considerations weigh in favor of Defendants, not Plaintiffs.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 43 governs the taking of testimony at trial. That rule expressly provides for the possibility of videoconference testimony, stating that “[t]he court may, for good cause shown in compelling circumstances and upon appropriate safeguards, permit presentation of testimony in open court by contemporaneous transmission from a different location.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 43(a). Although Rule 43 provides some flexibility in accepting remote testimony, it seems obvious that remote transmission is to be the exception and not the rule. See Fed.R.Civ. P. 43 advisory committee’s note on 1996 amendments (“The importance of presenting live testimony in court cannot be forgotten. The very ceremony of trial and the presence of the factfinder may exert a powerful force for truth telling. The opportunity to judge the demeanor of a witness face-to-face is accorded great value in our tradition.”). Courts have also recognized that, even with the benefits that technology provides, substitutes for live testimony are necessarily imperfect:
Videoconference proceedings have their shortcomings. Virtual reality is rarely a substitute for actual presence and … even in an age of advancing technology, watching an event on the screen remains less than the complete equivalent of actually attending it. The immediacy of a living person is lost with video technology…. Video conferencing … is not the same as actual presence, and it is to be expected that the ability to observe demeanor, central to the fact-finding process, may be lessened in a particular case by video conferencing. This may be particularly detrimental where it is a party to the case who is participating by video conferencing, since personal impression may be a crucial factor in persuasion. Thornton v. Snyder, 428 F.3d 690, 697 (7th Cir.2005) (quotations and citations omitted).
Despite videoconferencing’s deficiencies, courts in this circuit and elsewhere have approved or affirmed its use in the civil context. See generally Rusu v. INS, 296 F.3d 316 (4th Cir.2002) (asylum proceeding); United States v. Baker, 45 F.3d 837 (4th Cir.1995) (civil commitment hearing); Edwards v. Logan, 38 F.Supp.2d 463 (W.D.Va.1999) (civil rights action); see also In re Merck Prods. Liab. Litig., 439 F.Supp.2d 640, 642 (E.D.La.2006) (listing cases). These cases reflect a “consistent sensitivity to the utility of evolving technologies that may facilitate more efficient, convenient, and comfortable litigation practices.” 9A Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2414 (3d ed.2008). And while videoconferencing has its shortcomings, it at least appears to be favorable to alternative methods, such as the submission of written deposition testimony. Sallenger v. City of Springfield, No. 03-3093, 2008 WL 2705442, at *1 (C.D.Ill. July 9, 2008).
In this case, Plaintiffs have demonstrated good cause as to those Plaintiffs residing in Honduras. The cost of international travel can provide good cause for contemporaneous transmission of testimony. See, e.g., Dagen v. CFC Grp. Holdings, No. 00 Civ. 5682, 2003 WL 22533425, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2003). In some cases, travel cost and inconvenience have justified contemporaneous transmission even when the parties where located within the United States, in contrast to the internationally resident Honduran Plaintiffs in this case. See, e.g., Beltran-Terado v. INS, 213 F.3d 1179, 1186 (9th Cir.2000) (affirming use of telephonic testimony for hearing in California where witness was in Missouri); Scott Timber, Inc. v. United States, No. 05-708C, 2010 WL 2947090, at *1 (Fed.Cl. July 28, 2010) (approving use of videoconferencing for trial in Washington, D.C., where witness was in Oregon); Fed. Trade Comm’n v. Swedish Match N. Am., Inc., 197 F.R.D. 1, 2 (D.D.C.2000) (finding good cause for videoconferencing where witness was in Oklahoma and hearing was in Washington, D.C.). Forcing the Honduran Plaintiffs in this case to travel to the United States would impose substantial inconvenience and cost on persons with strikingly few financial resources. (Paper 76-1). When viable alternatives like videoconferencing are available, compelling individuals who make no more than $7,000 a year to travel hundreds of miles seems fundamentally unjust. And although the court sympathizes with Defendants’ claim that this litigation has already imposed substantial costs on them as well (Paper 75, at 4-5), those costs do not justify imposing needless expense on Plaintiffs.
The use of videoconferencing for the Honduran Plaintiffs will not prejudice Defendants. Each of the witnesses will testify in open court, under oath, and will face cross-examination. Even if Defendants are correct that this case presents complicated issues (Paper 75, at 3), the protections of the oath and cross-examination will provide them with the tools necessary to resolve those issues. With videoconferencing, a jury will also be able to observe the witness’ demeanor and evaluate his credibility in the same manner as traditional live testimony. Indeed, one judge who presided over two hearings using videoconferencing has concluded that “there is no practical difference between live testimony and contemporaneous video transmission.” Swedish Match, 197 F.R.D. at 2; see also Scott Timber, 2010 WL 2947090, at *1 (observing that videoconferencing does not have a “significantly adverse effect” on factfinder’s ability to make credibility determinations).
Plaintiffs’ motion is not limited to the Honduran Plaintiffs; it requests an order permitting contemporaneous transmission of testimony for all Plaintiffs “outside a 100 mile radius of this Court.” (Paper 70-2). Although Plaintiffs have shown good cause as to the Honduran Plaintiffs, good cause has not been shown as to the remaining Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs do not address the Plaintiff residing in Richmond, Virginia anywhere in the motion papers, and the court cannot discern any reason why the Richmond Plaintiff would be unable to attend. The court is also unconvinced that the financial expense of travelling from Tennessee merits videoconferencing for that witness. Therefore, Plaintiffs’ motion will be denied as to those two witnesses.
In sum, Plaintiffs have shown good cause for contemporaneous transmission of the testimony of those Plaintiffs currently residing in Honduras. Those Plaintiffs are Marvin A. Mejia, Jesus Orellana, Victor Perez, Juan Pineda Gonzalez, Josue Roberto Pineda, Nery Armando Pineda, and Oscar Pineda. The Plaintiffs have not shown good cause as to any other Plaintiff.”
Not discussed here, the Court also denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment based upon the plaintiffs prior settlement of a portion of their claims with some of the co-defendants.
To read the entire opinion, click here.