subpoena and pen

The language in which much of the law is written and conducted in can be downright confusing…it’s not called legalese for nothing! Even basic words, like property and trust, can take on varied and more specific meanings than their normal everyday meanings. But other words and phrases are a part of most adult Iowan’s peripheral lexicons if even from watching shows like The Good Wife or the nightly news Certain events or people can also spark an interest in legal-based terminology. For instance, many more people have now heard of the legal term “inclusion rider” thanks to Frances Dormand’s Best Actress acceptance speech at the recent Academy Awards. We’ve seen plenty of headlines featuring the word “subpoena” in the news cycle recently particularly in relation to a former outspoken Trump aide. It’s one of those words you kind of know, or think you may know, but again aren’t for sure. In order to better understand what’s going on with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, let’s review what the legal term “subpoena” really means and if you can simply ignore it or refuse to cooperate if you want to…looking at you, Sam Nunberg.

What Does Subpoena Mean?

A subpoena is a formal court-ordered command to do something specific. There are two main, different kinds of subpoenas. (Quick phonetics lesson: the “b” is silent and the “poe” makes a long “e” sound.”) We’ll use the former Trump campaign aide (and defendant in a Trump lawsuit) Sam Nunberg as an example throughout.

Subpoena duces tecum

One type, subpoena duces tecum, demands you present a kind of tangible evidence like a physical item or document. For instance, a subpoena could request letters, photographs, emails, audio recordings, video footage, and text messages related to the case. (In fact, as a practical matter, a subpoena duces tecum will generally request all these items).

In the case of Sam Nunberg, the subpoena requested documents and communications dating back to November 2015 with people related to the scope of the investigation such as Donald Trump, former campaign advisor Roger Stone, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, among others. The subpoena was issued by a grand jury. (Grand jury reminder: a prosecutor establishes a grand jury to determine if there is enough probable cause, or evidence, to pursue a criminal case.) Earlier this week, Nunberg said in an interview he “objected to the subpoena because it asks for information about people whom he either never talked to or with whom he had close relationships.” Nunberg also asserted that it wasn’t fair for the investigation to demand his personal communications and that his emails weren’t relevant to the investigation.

subpoena nunberg

An excerpt from Nunberg’s subpoena | The New York Times

Subpoena ad testificandum

The other type of subpoena is ad testificandum, which compels a person to give their oral testimony at a specific time before an authorized legal body, such as a court, congressional/legislative body, grand jury, or government administrative agency. Before such a subpoena is issued, the person or group seeking information will typically first seek testimony on a voluntary basis. (For example, Trump’s White House attorneys have provided the investigation team with voluntary testimony.)

In the two-page subpoena, Nunberg was also requested to appear before a federal grand jury testimony and deliver oral testimony this Friday, March 9.

Subpoenas & Enforcement

Quite literally the word subpoena is derived from the similar Latin term sub poena which means “under penalty.” This makes it pretty obvious that there are penalties involved if you don’t do whatever is requested without a valid reason. If you receive a subpoena and you don’t cooperate with the (presumptively reasonable) request, you could be held in contempt of court and/or hit with time in jail and/or a fine.

Relating this back to our infamous subpoenaed headliner—when Nunberg was asked by MSNBC if he was worried about being arrested for defying the subpoena, he didn’t seemed concerned and said, “I think it would be really, really funny if they wanted to arrest me because I don’t want to spend 80 hours going over emails I had with Steve Bannon and Roger Stone.”

If no proper legal reason was asserted by Nunberg’s attorneys, and he failed to testify in front of the federal grand jury, prosecutors could ask a judge to grant a bench warrant for Nunberg’s arrest.

supreme court building

Can You Refuse a Subpoena at all?

Some scenarios allow you to present a valid legal defense against complying with the subpoena. You can claim the subpoena’s request(s) is overly taxing or too expansive in scope. You could also refuse if the material(s), info, or data requested is eternally lost, or is privileged in nature. (Think attorney-client, executive, or physician-patient privilege.) Another avoidance tactic for a subpoena in criminal cases is asserting it violates your Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate yourself. (This, however, would still require you to show up, you just wouldn’t have to answer questions). Of course, these efforts aren’t always successful, and the subpoena could still be enforced.

In short, Nunberg’s defense of “screw that” without anything to back it up, is not a proper excuse.

In the latest reporting on Nunberg, apparently he’s indicated he will now cooperate with Mueller and comply with the subpoena.

Subpoenas are serious legal documents and always require serious legal advice. It’s important to seek counsel from a trusted attorney if you get served with a subpoena, most especially if you want to deny a subpoena request.

chess board

Applicability of this Knowledge to Nonprofits

You may be thinking, “wow, this is all really interesting, and thanks so much, but what the heck does this have to do with nonprofits?”

It’s true that the mission of Gordon Fischer Law Firm is to promote and maximize charitable giving in Iowa.

Realize that nonprofits can receive subpoenas, too! And they do!

Remember, as was stated earlier, subpoenas can be issued not only by grand juries, but also by government agencies. So, if a disgruntled ex-employee complains, you might receive a subpoena from, say, OSHA, or the Department of Labor, or the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. It’s critically important that if this happens to you, or your fave nonprofit, you understand all the legal rights and responsibilities by contacting appropriate counsel.

Questions? Thoughts? Tell me in the comments section below or contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077).

No sooner had I written a blog post on how the Academy Awards relate to estate planning, did one of the award recipients bring up another legal topic that needed to be covered!

Best Actress winner Frances McDormand gave a powerful speech about gender equality in Hollywood. Her words seemed a fitting continuation of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up initiatives that had a clear presence (both spoken and unspoken) in Los Angelas’ Dolby Theatre. At the conclusion, Ms. McDormand said, “I have two words for you: inclusion rider.”

https://www.facebook.com/ABCNetwork/videos/1880602121983915/

What is a Rider?

You may already know that a “rider” is an addition or extra to the main contract. Riders have special meaning when it comes to the entertainment world.

Perks!

Riders can be used to grant certain perks to an artist (like all of the actors and actresses present at last night’s Academy Awards).

Does a principal dancer want a certain kind of water available backstage? Is the guitarist picky about what foods will be available in the green room before and after a concert? If you’re an entertainer (dancer, comic, actor, musician, speaker, etc.) with a reasonable amount of bargaining power (i.e. star power!), you would want to be sure that your contracts include all your favorite little extras. These extras, or demands, should be placed in writing in each legal contract so that they must be honored by the other party such as a film production company, concert promotor, performance venue, and the like.

guitarist on stage

Finance

Riders can also cover specific financial elements. If a pop star, for example, wants a percentage of a concert’s profits, she might request this through a rider. A television actor could attempt to request something similar from online streaming sales.

Inclusion Rider 

Tack the specific word “inclusion” onto rider and you have a contractual clause that actresses/actors can insist be inserted in contracts that requires cast and crew on a film to meet a certain level of diversity (both racial and gendered).

The concept was explored in a TED talk in 2016 by Stacy Smith. Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, believes that inclusion riders (also called an “equity clause”) could be part of the solution for the lack of diversity in films. In a 2014 piece she penned for The Hollywood Reporter, she wrote:

What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot. If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls.

Smith asserts that there’s no reason why the majority of the minor roles (on average, 30-ish or so roles) cannot reflect the demographics of the realistic environment where a story is taking place. An A-list actor or actress can use their contract to stipulate that the supporting roles in the film (or show) reflect equitable diversity in terms of both race and gender.

Smith said she’s worked with attorneys in the past to craft specific language for the provisions where if the other party failed to meet the inclusion rider requirements, they would need to pay a penalty to a fund or charitable cause that supports underrepresented persons in the industry.

It’s a smart, common sense move that could mean a big change in countering the bias (both conscious and unconscious) in auditions and casting. The intended result is for greater representation and opportunities for women, persons of color, the LGBT community, and persons with disabilities in entertainment. Plus, as actress and comedian Whitney Cummings said, this increased pressure for inclusivity “will make movies better.

McDormand on Inclusion Riders

Backstage after the Oscars ceremony, McDormand said of inclusion riders, “I just found out about this last week. There has always been available to all, everybody who does a negotiation on a film, which means you can ask for or demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting and the crew. The fact that I just learned that after 35 years in the film business – we aren’t going back.”

Inclusion Riders & You

While you may not be nominated for an Academy Award anytime soon, the takeaway is twofold.

First: if you support increased representation of different genders and races in movies you can support the films that respect inclusion riders with your money. You can also spread the word with the tag #EquityRider when tweeting to actors and actresses asking for them to support the concept through their own contract.

Second: this goes to show the power of the contact and negotiation process. Because the contract can dictate how the relationship between employer and employee (or production company and talent, for instance) run, it’s important to hire an attorney to help you stand up for your wants and needs in respect to the relationship.

To this point, if you’re a nonprofit organization looking to make some new hires or an employee wondering if the contract you’re about to sign will actually be in your best interest, don’t hesitate to contact me.

A will may provide for disposition of the testator’s assets at the time the will is executed, but of course it may be many years—many decades, even—between the will’s execution and the testator’s death. What if between the execution of the will and the testator’s death, there are changes in circumstances (such as the death of beneficiary) which make it impossible for the executor to follow the dispositive provisions of the will? That’s where estate planning gets complicated and can open the door to litigation.

Changed Circumstances = Default

Of course, we would first look to the language of the will. But, what if the will fails to address the changed circumstances? In such cases, Iowa law provides default rules. Obviously, it is much preferable for the estate planner to raise the possibility of changed circumstances with the testator during the drafting process, and address them accordingly with clear language in the will. (Yet, another reason to use a lawyer to draw up your estate plan.) And, yes, you should keep your will (and overall estate plan) updated.

Death of a Beneficiary

If Grace provides in her will, “I give Lawrence $10,000,” and Lawrence dies before Grace, the will can’t be followed exactly as written. Of course, this situation can and should be avoided by careful drafting – the estate planner asking what the testator wants if a beneficiary should predecease the testator. If, continuing this example, Grace wants the bequest to pass to Lawrence’s estate or Lawrence’s children if Lawrence predeceases her, Grace should so specify in her will. If instead Grace wants the bequest to go to other beneficiaries, the will should spell that out, too.

The Doctrine of Lapse

Let’s take our example and apply the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, a bequest would fail, or lapse, if the beneficiary predeceased the testator. The bequest would simply fall back to the estate.

Iowa’s Anti-Lapse Statute   

Iowa is among the majority of states which have adopted anti-lapse statutes. Iowa Code Section 633.273 provides that if a beneficiary (actually, the statute uses the legal term devisee) dies before the testator, leaving children who survive the testator, the devisee’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will is clear and explicit to the contrary.

Real Life Case

Clyde Guthrie executed a will in 2002 and died in 2006. His wife predeceased him, and so did two of his five children. Both of the predeceased children died before Guthrie executed his will. That turned out to be a key fact. Guthrie’s will left his entire estate equally to his five children except “in the event any of my children should predecease me leaving issue who survive me, then the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me . . .” His three surviving children claimed that the will language meant to include only them—the decedent’s children that survived him, and not the grandchildren of one of their deceased siblings. That predeceased sibling only had one child, and that child also predeceased the decedent, but left two surviving children–great-grandchildren of the decedent. (The other predeceased child died without having had children).

 

old hand and baby hand

Application of Facts to Iowa Code Section 633.273

On first glance Guthrie’s will appeared to be clear. Again, his will stated that if children predeceased him, “the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me.” However, the Iowa anti-lapse statute defines “devisee” as a person who dies after execution of the decedent’s will unless the will clearly specifies otherwise. Here the pre-deceased child that left surviving issue died long before the decedent executed his will. So, the anti-lapse statute didn’t apply, and the great-grandchildren were not beneficiaries of their great-grandfather’s estate.

Guthrie of course knew that two of his children had already died. The language of the Guthrie’s will, the Iowa Court of Appeals reasoned, could only possibly refer to the possibility of any or all of the three remaining children dying before he did – and the decedent’s will did not clearly state that issue of an already pre-deceased child should be included. (Review the case: Estate of Guthrie v. Busch, No. 8-093/07-1427 (Iowa Ct. App. May 14, 2008).

Back to the Basics: Let’s Review

With that example in mind, let’s review again the basics of the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, if a beneficiary dies before the testator, the bequest lapses, i.e., goes back to the estate.

Iowa changed this rule by adopting an anti-lapse statute. Under current Iowa law, if the beneficiary dies before the testator, but leaves children who survive the testator, the beneficiary’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will are clear and explicit to the contrary.

Of course, the problem of lapse/anti-lapse can be avoided through careful drafting by a trained professional, as well as annual reviews to see if your estate plan needs updating.


Have questions about your own estate plan that may be in need of revisions after learning about lapse? Contact me and we can talk about what changes would be wise for you to incorporate into your estate plan.