Baker v. General Motors Corp.

PETITIONER: Baker
RESPONDENT: General Motors Corp.
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 96-653
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 522 US 222 (1998)
ARGUED: Oct 15, 1997
DECIDED: Jan 13, 1998

ADVOCATES:
Laurence H. Tribe - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Paul T. Cappuccio - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

After working for General Motors Corporation (GM) for fifteen years as a vehicular fire analyst, Ronald Elwell sued GM for wrongful discharge. In an eventual settlement agreement reached in a Michigan county court, the parties agreed to a permanent injunction barring Elwell from testifying against GM without its consent, unless subpoenaed to do so by another court or tribunal. Thereafter, when Kenneth Lee Baker commenced a product liability action against GM in a Missouri county court, Elwell was subpoenaed to testify on Baker's behalf. When GM argued that Elwell was barred from testifying under the Michigan court injunction, the Missouri court disagreed and permitted his deposition and testimony. After suffering an adverse verdict in the Baker case, GM appealed on the basis that Elwell's testimony was illegally admitted. When a federal appeals court agreed with GM, Baker appealed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Question

Was a Missouri county court's admission of a witness's testimony, barred by a Michigan county court's injunction, a violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of Article IV?

Media for Baker v. General Motors Corp.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 15, 1997 in Baker v. General Motors Corp.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, we'll hear argument first this morning in Number 96-653, Kenneth Lee Baker and Steven Robert Baker v. General Motors Corporation.

Mr. Tribe.

Laurence H. Tribe:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

One judge in Michigan, without an adversary hearing, enters a consent decree as part of a stipulated monetary settlement between G.M. and an employee, Ron Elwell.

The employee can give testimony about G.M.'s practices that it considers damaging but is unable to suppress in the usual manner... that is, by persuading a judge that the testimony is inadmissible because of attorney-client privilege, trade secrets, and the like.

The decree permanently enjoins the employee from being deposed or testifying without the consent of General Motors as a witness of any kind in State or Federal litigation brought against G.M. anywhere by anyone, whether a private plaintiff seeking damages or a public official enforcing health and safety regulations or criminal statutes.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Tribe, you refer to the Michigan proceeding as a consent decree.

What are you... what precisely do you mean by that?

Laurence H. Tribe:

What I mean, Mr. Chief Justice, is that there was no adversary hearing and though consent decree is sometimes used to refer to a class action, here it was a stipulated settlement entered on the record by the judge after--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, that's true of all settlements, isn't it, that there's no adversary hearing?

Laurence H. Tribe:

--Sure.

This is not... we're not suggesting that there was anything unique or unusual about it.

What's unusual, or at least what some people think is unusual, is that the request for a subpoena to depose the employee or to call him as a witness comes from a litigant who was not a party to and had no notice of the little proceeding that led to the quite usual entry of the decree.

Now, the district--

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, even if Baker had had notice in Missouri, I take it your position is he wouldn't have to go to Michigan.

Laurence H. Tribe:

--That's certainly true--

Well--

Laurence H. Tribe:

--but it makes it, if anything, worse that they didn't have notice.

David H. Souter:

--I take it your position would be the same if there had been an adversarial proceeding and... which had resulted in--

Laurence H. Tribe:

Absolutely.

I make that point only because at various points in the brief by General Motors it's suggested that there were some elaborate findings that this was the only possible way of protecting privilege.

Our position would be the same anyway, but I just wanted to note the fact.

The district--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

--I thought, Mr. Tribe, that you made that point to underscore that issue preclusion has no part in this case at all, because nothing was ever actually litigated.

Laurence H. Tribe:

--That's certainly true, Justice Ginsburg--

So--

Laurence H. Tribe:

--and it's in addition true that if there had been litigation, it's somewhat ironic that a determination by Judge Hathaway in Michigan that, for example, some document was privileged in a proceeding between General Motors and Elwell would obviously not be binding against the Bakers here, and yet the intriguing thing is that this decree, the injunction, has this enormous effect on them.

The question is, does it matter that they weren't there?

The district court thought it mattered a great deal, invoked what it called the rights of third parties... at page 28a--and essentially took the position that the full--

William H. Rehnquist:

--This is the district court in Missouri now?