Homeowners are dismayed and even claim court bias when the report of a self-proclaimed expert is barred from evidence. Or they become equally incensed when the court allows the report into evidence but gives it zero weight in rendering a decision. But the court is, to that extent, merely following the rules that govern what Judges should or should not do.
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Appeals Court Reverses Grant of “11th Hour” Motion to Strike Expert
Parties will frequently seek to strike the opinions offered by their adversaries’ experts as legally insufficient. While there are a variety of bases for such motions—including that the report does not set forth the “whys and wherefores” of the expert’s opinion, or that it does not satisfy other evidentiary rules for its admissibility—the strategic purpose is clearly to weaken or even destroy the opposing party’s case by barring key testimony. These limiting, or in limine, motions typically will be brought just before trial after the expert’s opinions have been discovered and often after the expert has given deposition testimony about the support for the opinion. A recent New Jersey Appellate Division case now seems to suggest that due process requires that (1) such a limiting motion must be made with enough time for the opponent to respond adequately, and (2) the trial judge must conduct a hearing prior to deciding to exclude the challenged expert’s opinions.
The issues arose in a lawsuit over a failed real estate deal, Berman, Sauter, Record & Jardim, P.C. v. Robinson, Dkt. No. A-5650-11T3 (App. Div., Nov. 17, 2016). The plaintiff law firm sued a seller claiming that it wrongfully breached a purchase agreement and caused the law firm’s loss of fees from the deal. The defendant seller then counterclaimed and filed a third-party claim alleging that the plaintiff and third-party defendant law firms had committed legal malpractice by failing to include an express termination clause in the purchase agreement, a claim supported by the opinion of a legal malpractice expert. The plaintiff law firm filed a pre-trial motion to strike the expert’s testimony because the expert did not explain the bases for his legal malpractice conclusion and his testimony was therefore an inadmissible “net opinion.” One week before trial, the pre-trial judge denied that motion “so that the trial judge can hear the testimony and determine whether the expert’s opinions—which seem to set forth the whys and wherefores at least in their reports—were [legally] sufficient[ ] . . .” Because the pretrial judge was not going to be available for the entire trial, a different judge presided over the trial. After jury selection, the trial judge decided to revisit the court’s prior in limine ruling on the expert. Without taking testimony, he concluded the expert had rendered a net opinion and thus excluded the testimony. Because the defendant was left without an expert to support its case, the trial judge also entered an order dismissing the legal malpractice claim and the remainder of the lawsuit quickly settled.
The Appellate Division reversed. The appeals court first noted that the motion to strike the expert was “nothing more than a thinly veiled summary judgment motion” because it essentially was dispositive of the defendant’s claims. The court recognized that the notice provisions for summary judgment motions were meant to satisfy due process by giving parties an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful matter. In addition to failing to provide the 28-day notice required for summary judgment motions, the motion did not give the “one week in advance of trial” notice required for an in limine motion, leaving the defendant with no opportunity to present written opposition. And, because the trial judge had not ruled on the earlier summary judgment motions in the case, he did not have the defendants’ opposition to that motion.
The appeals court held that the trial court should not have granted a motion that was dispositive of the plaintiff’s claim without holding a hearing under Rule 104 of the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. The trial court had decided the motion in a way that was “fundamentally unfair” to the defendant. Fairness required the trial court have conducted a hearing before “barring an expert’s testimony based upon a report, particularly if doing so will be dispositive of a case, when the expert has not had the opportunity to explain his opinions through testimony.” Slip op. at 10. The court left it to the trial court’s discretion whether to conduct the hearing before or during the trial.
The importance of the Berman, Sauter decision is that trial counsel can no longer leave to the last minute in limine motions that seek to exclude expert testimony or any other evidence that could be dispositive of the lawsuit. If trial counsel believes that expert’s opinions are inadmissible, it must give sufficient notice to the court and its adversary—and the Appellate Division suggested that it might not be enough just to comply with the one week notice provision if the in limine motion would have the same effect as a summary judgment motion. Berman, Sauter will make trial judges more likely to order pre-trial hearings when an in limine motion seeks to preclude the expert’s opinions and virtually a certainty if such a motion is made without the expert having given deposition testimony explaining his or her opinions.