Judicial Estoppel Prevents Litigants from Contradicting Themselves

When I’m involved in litigation, I always look for recent cases involving my opposing party, to mine those cases for similar issues, useful facts, and relevant admissions to use in my case.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a recent opinion, at Polly Spann Kershaw v. Jeffrey Levy  (Tenn. Ct. Apps, Mar. 28, 2018, No. M2017-01129-COA-R3-CV), that reminds me that this is a good idea.

In that case, a former client sued her lawyer, alleging that, as a result of his alleged bad advice and malpractice, she entered into an unfair and generally bad divorce settlement after he withdrew from the case.

But, as part of her divorce settlement, she signed a sworn Marital Dissolution Agreement, which included the affirmation that “the Agreement is fair and equitable and that it is being entered into voluntarily…”

In response to the client’s claims that she was forced into an “unfair” divorce settlement, the lawyer filed for summary judgment, citing those sworn statements in the divorce pleadings and arguing, under the concept of “judicial estoppel,” that she can’t change her position.

The Court of Appeals agreed, saying that “[t]he sworn statement is not merely evidence against the litigant, but (unless explained) precludes him from denying its truth. It is not merely an admission but an absolute bar.” Further, judicial estoppel “seeks to ensure that parties do not ‘play fast and loose with the courts’ by contradicting a previous sworn statement or testimony.”

A litigant may have different incentives in front of different courts, and this is certainly useful when an opposing party has filed Bankruptcy or divorce–both settings where it may be beneficial to understate their income or the value of their assets.  I’ve specifically used it where a litigant affirms a debt or lien in Bankruptcy Schedules, which are signed under oath, and then, later in state court, tries to contest my bank’s claims.

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