The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has overruled prior case law and ruled that both parties in a case have the right to present testimony that contradicts evidence already presented and that the trial court does not have discretion to refuse to hear that evidence when a litigant proffers it.
The case of R.C. v. L.C. and K.C., Case No. 2031155 (Ala. Civ. App. April 8, 2005) involved conflicting claims for custody between the mother and the paternal grandparents. The trial court allowed the maternal grandparents to present their full case, involving four witnesses, portions of two days of trial, and 161 pages of testimony.
In the middle of the testimony of the mother’s first witness (approximately an hour into the presentation of the mother’s case), the court announced that it was 2:40 p.m. and that it planned to “close this thing off about 3:15.” The court allowed the first witness to finish, allowed the mother to testify, and then refused to allow the mother’s attorney to call any more witnesses or present any more evidence, saying “No, I have heard enough testimony to make a decision.” The mother’s presentation of her case constituted 85 pages of testimony. The trial court awarded custody to the paternal grandparents.
The Appeals Court reversed and remanded on the grounds that the trial court had denied the mother due process. The Appeals Court distinguished and ultimately overruled a line of Alabama cases that had permitted (without expressly stating the principle) the exclusion of some evidence that was not cumulative.
Although a trial court has discretion to exclude cumulative evidence, we stated clearly in Morrison [v. Morrison, 628 So.2d 839 (Ala. Civ. App. 1993)] that not all of the evidence sought to be introduced by the father was cumulative. Therefore, we must question the conclusion reached in Morrison. The conclusion that the failure to admit testimony that contradicts the already presented evidence on material points is harmless error appears untenable in light of a party’s due-process right to present evidence and controvert the other party’s claims. Because our harmless-error determination in Morrison is not supported by the law as it pertains to a party’s rights to due process or the exclusion of cumulative evidence, we overrule Morrison on that point.
It’s clear what the Appeals Court did not like about the trial court’s handling of this case:
The trial court in the present case conducted a trial over a portion of two days. A vast majority of the time allotted by the trial court for the trial was taken up by the paternal grandparents’ attempt to establish the mother’s unsuitability for custody. Although, in response to an objection to the limitation of time made by counsel for mother, the trial court stated, “It’s … on the record I told everybody in plenty of time to call their witnesses,” the record reflects that the trial court warned the parties of the arbitrary time limit only 35 minutes before the expiration of that time limit. In addition, the trial court did not equally limit both parties to a certain amount of time for presentation of evidence. The paternal grandparents reaped the benefits of being the petitioners by being allowed to completely present their case by calling every witness they chose to call and establishing every fact they wished to establish. The mother, by virtue of her position as respondent, was severely limited in her ability to present her evidence and her arguments, and she was denied “a reasonable opportunity to controvert the opposition’s claims.” Crews [v. Houston County Dep’t of Pensions & Sec., 358 So. 2d 451 (Ala. Civ. App. 1978)] at 455.
What is not so clear is what the new standard is to be. Is the court required to admit ANY evidence that is not cumulative? Is there now a requirement that both sides receive equal time? Is the judge required to notify the parties beforehand of any time limits? Those questions remain unanswered for now.