Authentication of Document and the “Reply Letter Doctrine”
Authenticating evidence, such as a document, is important to show that the document being admitted into evidence is what it purports to be. See Fla. Stat. s. 90.901 (“Authentication…of evidence is required as a condition precedent to its admissibility. The requirements…satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.”) Thus, it’s a reliable document so it can be admitted into evidence.
For instance, if a letter is sent or an e-mail is sent, you want someone to be able to testify that they sent that letter / e-mail, they recognize the signature of the handwriting on the letter, they received the letter or e-mail, and/or that the e-mail addresses on the e-mail accurately reflects the sender’s and/or recipient’s e-mail addresses.
What if you sent a letter / document to someone else and received a response with a handwritten notation on the letter / document, but you did not recognize the handwriting. In an ideal world, you would want the person that handwrote on the letter / document to authenticate their handwriting. But, this is a problem if you don’t know whose handwriting is on the letter / document.
The case of Sunbelt Health Center v. Galva, 7 So.3d 556 (Fla. 1st DCA 2009) is a good example of this scenario and what is known as the “reply letter doctrine.” This case dealt with a workers compensation issue and, specifically, the selection of an orthopedist. The lawyer for the injured claimant’s employer and workers compensation insurer wrote a letter to the claimant’s lawyer about the claimant’s one-time change in her orthopedist and wrote letters confirming the name of the new orthopedist. In one of the letters, the lawyer for the employer and insurer asked the claimant’s lawyer whether the new doctor was the claimant’s one-time change in orthopedist and received a reply fax of the letter with the handwritten notation “Macksound is alt. ortho. Thanks.” The judge excluded the handwritten note that was purportedly signed by the claimant’s lawyer because there was no testimony authenticating the handwriting.
In finding that the handwritten signature should have been admissible, the appellate court discussed the “reply letter” doctrine:
The requirements of the evidence code are satisfied by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims. The use of circumstantial evidence to authenticate is permissible. Authentication occurs in a situation where the offered item, considered in light of the circumstances, logically indicates the personal connection sought to be proved. Pursuant to the “reply letter” doctrine, a letter can be authenticated upon a showing that it was “apparently in reply” to an earlier letter sent to the purported author of the reply letter. Once a prima facie case of authenticity has been established, the document is authenticated, and the trier of fact must resolve any disputes regarding the genuineness of the exhibit.
Sunbelt Health Care, 7 So.3d at 559-560 (internal citations omitted).
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