Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Material World

Whether you’re a new law student learning to brief cases or a seasoned veteran writing a brief, identifying the material facts is crucially important to your success.

But what is a material fact? Generally, a fact is material if it tends
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to prove or disprove a required element of a claim or defense. That’s a fancy way of saying material facts are the ones that matter—the ones that could make or break the case. Material facts will differ from case to case, and the same fact could be material in one case and immaterial in another. The best way to identify material facts is to identify the elements of your client’s claims or defenses and ask: does this fact have any bearing on my ability to prove or disprove those elements. If the answer is no, the fact isn’t material.

In my upcoming text with Adam Lamparello, we use the example of a professional-baseball-player client. If you’re drafting a motion to suppress drugs found on the client during a traffic stop, the client’s 95-mph fastball and two World Series rings likely aren’t material.  But if you represent the same client in a medical malpractice case where a doctor’s negligence damaged the client’s elbow ligaments and cost him his baseball career, the client’s 95-mph fastball and Word Series Rings are material because they speak to the extent of the client’s damages.   

This look-for-the-elements strategy for identifying material facts will work no matter the type of case you’re handling. Assume you are representing a party claiming breach of contract. The defense is that the parties had no binding contract. Any facts that tend to prove or disprove the existence of an offer, acceptance of that offer, a meeting of the minds, and consideration are material. Writings between the parties that you contend constitute offer and acceptance—material. The content of a telephone conversation between the parties that you contend shows a meeting of the minds—material. The length of time the plaintiff and defendant have been in business—probably not material. The parties’ expertise in their respective businesses—also not likely material.

When briefing a case or writing a brief, you may need to provide non-material facts to give background and enable the reader (whether it’s you later, your boss, opposing counsel, or a judge) to understand the context in which the case arose. But the only facts that matter are the material ones, so you need to focus your attention on understanding how they impact the case.

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