Obstructing justice by filing a false answer in a civil case?

This issue was recently addressed in United States v. Liew, No. 14-10367 (9th Cir. May 5, 2017). In Liew, prior to being investigated by the FBI for a variety of crimes centered on the theft of trade secrets from DuPont, the defendants were sued by DuPont for the misappropriation of trade secrets. The defendants filed an answer stating that “they never wrongfully obtained or possessed any” DuPont trade secretes nor “misappropriated any information from DuPont.”

The defendants were later indicted for a variety of crimes related to the theft of trade secrets from DuPont. One count alleged that the defendants conspired to obstruct an official proceeding in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1512(k) by agreeing to file an answer to DuPont’s civil complaint that contained a false statement. At trial, the defendants were convicted of that count.

On review, the Ninth Circuit reversed the defendants’ conspiracy to obstruct justice convictions. The Court reasoned that the defendants’ statement in their civil answer that they “never misappropriated any information from DuPont or any of its locations” was “tantamount to a general denial of legal liability.” The Court distinguished such a legal denial from an overt factual false statement, and held that making a general, legal denial of guilt did not constitute obstruction of justice. However, the Court stopped short of holding that filing an answer in a civil case can never constitute obstruction of justice. As such, Liew illustrates that it can be helpful to seek counsel from an experienced criminal defense lawyer while navigating a civil case.