Daubert Doesn’t Ask Judges To Become Experts On Statistics

Back in 2012, I wrote: “Scientific evidence is one of those rare areas of law upon which every lawyer agrees: we are all certain that everyone else is wrong.”


There have been some missteps in the law’s use of scientific proof as evidence in civil litigation — like when the Supreme Court affirmed a trial court holding in Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999), that an engineer with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering who had worked in tire design and failure testing at Michelin was nonetheless incompetent to testify about tire failures — but, by and large the standard articulated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993) makes sense. Courts review an expert’s methods, rather than their conclusions, to ensure that the expert’s testimony has an appropriate scientific basis.


To go with the baseball metaphors so often (and wrongly) used in the law, when it comes to Daubert, the judge isn’t an umpire calling balls and strikes, they’re more like a league official checking to make sure the players are using regulation equipment. Mere disagreements about the science itself, and about the expert’s conclusions, are to be made by the jury in the courtroom.


In practice, though, the Daubert standard runs into problems when courts erroneously decide factual disputes about methodology and conclusions, issues which are better left to cross examination of the experts at trial. Consider the June 27, 2014 opinion in the Zoloft birth defects multidistrict litigation, which struck the testimony of plaintiffs’ “perinatal pharmacoepidemiologist,” Dr. Anick Bérard. Dr. Bérard holds a Ph.D. in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from McGill University, teaches at the Université de Montréal, and has conducted research on the effects of antidepressants on human fetal development. The expert was going to opine that “Zoloft, when used at therapeutic dose levels during human pregnancy, is capable of causing a range of birth defects (i.e., is a teratogen),” an opinion based upon her review of a variety of studies showing a correlation between SSRI use and birth defects. The court had multiple grounds for striking the opinion, but a key issue relating to statistics jumped out at me. Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

This Is Rice: How To Get Better At The Practice Of Law


This month the Smithsonian has long profile on Anthony Bourdain that ends with, “What would you like your last meal to be?” In typical Bourdain fashion, the meal he has in mind is virtually impossible to get without reservations weeks in advance: a sushi course at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three Michelin star restaurant profiled in the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. As Bourdain explains:


Watch the film and you will understand. It is an 88-year-old man doing the same basic 30 or 40 basic cuts of Edo-style sushi, meaning nothing innovative. Every night he’s been going to sleep for his entire life; how do I make that standard shrimp over rice better, better, better, better? …

Rice is magical. Rice is an explanation of everything.


Jiro’s rice has been described as “like a cloud.” The documentary interviews Jiro’s rice dealer, who scoffs at the frequent requests he gets from other restaurants and hotels to sell them the same rice — none of them realize the the enormous amount of effort and skill it takes to cook the rice properly.


If you haven’t seen it, you can read more about the documentary in various reviews online, like this one from The New Yorker. Here’s a clip where Jiro explains what it means to be a shokunin, improving his craft bit by bit every day.


I thought that idea could make a nice setup for a post, and then I realized I couldn’t possibly write about something like that without reviewing Keith Lee’s The Marble and the Sculptor, which came out back in November. He sent me a copy with a handwritten inscription over the title page promising that, if I didn’t like it, the author would be sacked. I have no doubt that Keith consciously decided to write a handwritten note because he felt it would make more of an impact (which it did), and that he inferred I would recognize the Monty Python joke (which I did). Keith is one of those folks who recognizes and attends to details like that, which is why his book is worth reading.


“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for,” is an insightful quote often attributed to Socrates, although the closest Socrates quote I can find with a historical source is “while gold and silver cannot make men better, the thoughts of the wise enrich their possessors with virtue.” The point is the same either way, and Keith has plainly employed his time thusly. The book touches upon many of the best writings in self-improvement, ranging from James Altucher on career development (page 17) to George Orwell on writing (page 35) to Winston Churchill on public speaking (page 37) to Peter Drucker on work performance (page 93) to Henry Rollins on discipline (page 108). (The links I’ve put here are to informative writings by each.)  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

Can A Lawyer Interrupt A Deposition For A “Conference” With A Witness?

Two weeks ago, I attended the Pennsylvania Bar Institute’s Federal Bench-Bar Conference, which featured a panel discussion on “Ethical Issues During Depositions: Hypothetical Scenarios.” The panel included two federal judges and two Fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers.


The panel raised a number of interesting issues. It also tried to tackle the vexing questions of how, exactly, you stop an opponent from obstructing your deposition and how you identify and prevent manipulation of a witness’s testimony. Deposition misconduct and discovery obstructionism are subjects I’m keenly interested in (and subjects I’ve spoken on as part of an ABA panel), so I had to go.


Before we get into the substance, let’s discuss a bit of background. Most of my writings on the subject are gathered in this post on deposition preparation, along with links to others’ reactions. An ABA article (“Ethical Preparation of Witnesses for Deposition and Trial”) a few years ago summarized the general ethical considerations at play:


A lawyer has a duty to prepare a witness to testify. This preparation may include discussion concerning the application of law to the events in issue. But “[a]n attorney must respect the important ethical distinction between discussing testimony and seeking improperly to influence it.” Geders v. United States, 425 U.S. 80, 90 n.3(1976); Hall v. Clifton Precision, 150 F.R.D. 525, 528 (E.D. Pa. 1993). Thus, the prohibition of counseling or assisting a witness to testify falsely also applies to the influence that an attorney may have on the substance of a witness’s testimony in the preparation process.” An attorney enjoys extensive leeway in preparing a witness to testify truthfully, but the attorney crosses a line when she influences the witness to alter testimony in a false or misleading way.” Ibarrav. Baker, 338 F. App’x 457, 465 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing John S. Applegate, Witness Preparation, 68 Tex. L. Rev. 277(1989)).


Now, let’s get back to the substance of the panel. The most interesting part to me was the discussion over when a lawyer can stop a deposition, despite a pending question, to speak with their client. We’ll call this a “witness conference.”  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

Taking The Law Out of Harvard Law School


An article last month in The Harvard Crimson (“The Changing Face of the Law Professor”) explained that, fifty years ago, the typical Harvard Law School professor was someone who knew a little about the law but nothing about how it works:


“Somebody who got into a top law school, did very well and then completed a prestigious clerkship was well situated to be hired on the basis of those credentials,” said Law School professor Richard H. Fallon, who attended Yale Law School and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell.


These days, however, the typical Harvard Law professor is someone who knows a little about the law, a little about something else, and nothing about how either works in real life:


Now, however, the Law School looks for a greater breadth of academic qualifications in its prospective faculty, including “demonstrated scholarly accomplishment, a promising research agenda offering both relevance to legal analysis or law practice, and an ability to present and effectively defend a thesis or argument before faculty members,” according to Law School Dean Martha L. Minow.


Notice the elephant not in the room: a prospective faculty member does not need to show any ability whatsoever to practice law, nor any ability to effectively teach the law to students. They can get by with “scholarly achievement,” “a promising a research agenda … [relevant to] legal analysis,” and an ability to charm other faculty members.


Only legal education tolerates this sort of circular, self-referential pedagogy in a practical field. Doctors are trained by practicing physicians. Even “academic medicine” is closely tied to the actual practice of medicine by way of teaching hospitals and clinical research. Would you learn how to design and build cars from people who had never designed one before?


This isn’t a new issue (the impractical nature of legal education has naturally been the focus of intense legal scholarship, none of which produced any useful change), and Harvard Law’s approach is by no means unique to them. Law schools across the country have increasingly considered experience to be unnecessary. That’s not new.


What’s new is to see the law school that produces the most politicians, the most federal judges, the most law professors, and, with one of the largest graduating classes of any law school, a helluva lot of practicing lawyers, look out on the dismal field of legal instruction and then tout inexperience and non-legal scholarship as virtues. It’s a smack in the face to everyone who has tried to fix the problems with law school, and it creates two big problems, one for the quality of legal practice, the other for the health of our democracy. Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

The Supreme Court’s Results-Oriented Summary Judgment Precedent

Civil procedure in the federal courts has changed dramatically over the past few years, primarily through the Supreme Court’s manipulation of doctrine to encourage lower courts to dismiss tort, class action, antitrust, and civil rights cases. As I wrote a year ago in a guest post at TortsProf:


[A]s the courts become increasingly obsessed with deciding complicated cases by reference to procedural doctrines that ask the court to leave its expertise in the law and feign expertise in complex factual situations, courts run an increasing risk of becoming wholly unmoored from the facts of the disputes they are trying to decide. If a primary concern about tort litigation is that it is unpredictable — as is often stated by tort reformers — then everyone should be concerned when judges decide for themselves the dispositive facts of cases.


In early May of this year, Professor Suja Thomas had published an article in Judicature explaining how the summary judgment standard had “become a proxy for a judge’s own view of the evidence.” In one of her examples, she compared the majority and dissent opinions in Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769 (2007), a civil rights case involving a police chase, and just how far the majority had to leap to enter summary judgment for the defendant, preventing the plaintiff from ever presenting his case to a jury.


Then, on May 5, 2014, came Tolan v. Cotton, a civil rights case with depressingly common facts: with slim-to-none probable cause, a police officer instigated a confrontation with homeowners and ended up shooting a family member, permanently injuring him. There, all nine members of the Supreme Court agreed that the underlying court had dismissed the case based on their own view of the evidence, and so reversed the entry of summary judgment:  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

Tom Goldstein (“The Hustler”) and Atticus Finch

The most sacrosanct tenet of American law is enshrined on the facade of the Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.” The aspiration is ancient; the phrase comes from Pericles’ funeral oration. My favorite rendition of the concept as applied in American law is in To Kill A Mockingbird:


But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.


Apart from the obvious examples (e.g., the Equal Protection Clause), the law promotes equal justice in a variety of ways, including by preventing lawyers from arguing to a jury that a party’s wealth or poverty either absolves or indicts them. It may be true, as a practical matter, that a wealthier party can sometimes use their superior resources to thwart equal justice — or, at least, delay it — but lawyers all agree, or at they’re expected to say they agree, that any injustice is a shame on the legal system.


With that context, let’s talk about “The Hustler,” which was The New Republic’s name for Tom Goldstein, founder of SCOTUSBlog and name partner at Goldstein & Howe, which is self-described as “an appellate boutique focusing on representation before the United States Supreme Court.” He’s made a living off of arguing consumers can’t sue natural gas companies for manipulating prices, or that cities should be able to shut of residents’ water because their landlord didn’t pay the bill, or that it’s unconstitutional for West Virginia to tax coal companies for the coal pulled out of their mountains, or that drug companies have a right to use patient data to lean on doctors who don’t prescribe their medications enough.


These days, Goldstein is representing multi-millionaire poker player and stuntman Dan Bilzerian, who received a demand letter from Janice Griffith related to an accident that occurred after she apparently agreed to be thrown off a roof into a pool last month as part of a photoshoot for Hustler magazine. Here’s a video of the incident. She didn’t make it all the way to the pool, and broke her foot.  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

Judge Cote And The Pre-Trial Preview In The Apple–Amazon e-Books Case

Vanity Fair has a profile of Federal Judge Denise Cote (of the Southern District of New York) that revolves around her involvement in the Apple–Amazon e-books antitrust brouhaha. The article is helpfully titled “The Judge That Apple Hates” for anyone who didn’t know how the case turned out.


I wrote about that case when the Department of Justice first filed it, voicing my support for the DOJ’s claims. Whatever one thinks of Amazon’s impact on the book publishing world, it’s hard to dispute that Apple and the publishers entered into a collusive agreement for the purpose of raising prices — the primary evil our antitrust laws are designed to prevent. In the end, all the book publishers settled, and the DOJ went to trial against Apple alone. Judge Cote ruled in favor of the DOJ, and the case is now on appeal.


Vanity Fair’s description of the opening statements at the trial caught my eye:


Only 10 days [before trial] Cote … had shared a “tentative view” on the merits of the case with the lawyers, just as she had done in many other cases and as she said she would do here if both sides consented. Stressing it was tentative—as she noted, she had only reviewed the court papers and had yet to hear the testimony and arguments—she said she believed the government would be able to prove that Apple “knowingly participated in and facilitated a conspiracy to raise prices of e-books.”


So now, playing a clearly losing hand in Cote’s courtroom, [Apple’s lawyer Orin] Snyder chose to meet Cote head-on—and challenge her fairness. To a judge who prides herself on her scrupulousness, it was a declaration of war. “No party, big or small, whether the biggest company in the world or an individual defendant, should start trial with the deck stacked against it,” he pleaded. “So we respectfully and humbly ask this Court to erase, hit the delete button on any tentative view that might exist in the Court’s mind today.”


Has corporate America and its lawyers become so accustomed to winning in the courts, so self-assured by judicial recognition of their “right” to manipulate elections and to quash consumer lawsuits with arbitration agreements and insurmountable legal standards, that one of the most profitable and valuable corporations in the world feels ‘the deck is stacked against it’ if a judge fails to give their self-serving assertions a round of applause?  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

ACOG Improves Its Guidelines On Brain Injury At Birth (A Little)

For lawyers who represent birth malpractice victims, few phrases conjure up as much ire and frustration as “the ACOG report,” the shorthand for a 2003 document put out by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (“ACOG”) called “Neonatal Encephalopathy and Cerebral Palsy: Defining the Pathogenesis.” Despite its title, the report made no effort to explain how a doctor could determine the cause of a particular child’s cerebral palsy, and it made no effort to explain how the incident of neonatal encephalopathy (i.e., newborn brain damage) could be reduced. (Bob Schuster has a little more on its origins, and MedScape has a summary of it.)


Rather, the sole purpose of the report was to prevent children with cerebral palsy caused by labor and delivery malpractice from obtaining compensation, which it accomplished by giving a cover to insurance company’s efforts to confuse judges and juries into believing that babies could survive hours without adequate oxygen and suffer no consequences. The report established core four “essential” criteria, and five “suggestive” criteria that, ACOG claimed, had to be met before a child’s cerebral palsy could be linked to hypoxia at birth.


Sure, in the “Task Force on Neonatal Encephalopathy and Cerebral Palsy,” ACOG dressed up their preordained conclusions in scientific and medical jargon and gave passing nods to basic principles of honest medical research, but the report was worthless from a medical standpoint. It wasn’t a real compilation of medical information, like a Cochrane Review or UpToDate, and it didn’t give any recommendations on how to diagnose or treat patients.


Instead, the report was used constantly in birth injury litigation by paid experts testifying on behalf of obstetricians and hospitals sued for ignoring the signs and symptoms of fetal distress and failing to treat fetal hypoxia. If you brought a hypoxia birth injury claim anywhere in the United States after 2003, you could be assured that the ACOG report would be front and center in the defense, with the veneer of “scientific” and “medical” proof.


ACOG wasn’t responsible for coming up with most of the “essential” and “suggestive” criteria, but instead cut-and-pasted them from the International Cerebral Palsy Task Force’s 1999 “template for defining a causal relation between acute intrapartum events and cerebral palsy,” available here. You can see a comparison of the ACOG and International guidelines on table 3 of this article.


The International Task Force’s criteria was suspiciously strict to begin with, like with their criteria for blood pH and Apgar scores.  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

Boilerplate Objections And “Good Faith” Requirements Are Ruining Civil Discovery

“If there is a hell to which disputatious, uncivil, vituperative lawyers go, let it be one in which the damned are eternally locked in discovery disputes with other lawyers of equally repugnant attributes.” Dahl v. City of Huntington Beach, 84 F.3d 363, 364 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Krueger v. Pelican Prod. Corp., No. CIV-87-2385-A (W.D. Okla. Feb. 24, 1989).


The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, better known as Philadelphia state court, is one of the most efficient high-volume civil justice court systems in the country. Part of this success owes to the “Day Forward” program implemented years ago, which years ago began pooling together all the cases of a given year together for management by a single judge, particularly when it comes to discovery disputes. (Years later, in 2009, the American College of Trial Lawyers began recommending “A single judicial officer should be assigned to each case at the beginning of a lawsuit and should stay with the case through its termination.”)


To avoid an endless hell of discovery-related oral arguments, the “team leader” judges schedule one day each week to batch together all of their discovery motions for that week. By the time 9am rolls around, the bulk of motions end up either abandoned, withdrawn, or entered by agreement, after which the contested motions are heard one after the other. Litigators love to complain about discovery court, because sitting through even 15 minutes of someone else’s oral argument when you’re ready for yours can feel like spending a day in a traffic jam, but I tend to sit back and listen, to see what works and doesn’t work for the lawyers, and to see the judge’s general approach to the discrete issues presented.


Last week, I listened to a dozen or so motions, and virtually all of them involved a party unreasonably objecting to discovery. Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn

The Professor And The Grad Student (A Civil Litigation Story)

Yesterday afternoon’s “Breaking News” alert from The Legal Intelligencer was certainly intriguing:

Suit Sparked by Prof’s Affair With Student Survives

A former University of Pittsburgh professor who engaged in an affair with a research assistant can continue with his defamation case against the assistant over claims she affected his ability to get another teaching job and sent a picture of his penis to his wife and 37 associates.

I can’t say that I’m particularly interested in university gossip, but this headline piqued my interest in the relationship between the civil justice system and university life — see, e.g., my posts on the scandalous efforts by fraternities to avoid lawsuits, on the misguided doctrine of “academic abstention,” and on universities trying to avoid anti-discrimination law — and I’ve represented both plaintiffs and defendants in lawsuits arising from tortious conduct at universities.Thus, after reading the story in the Legal, I had to pull the Western District of Pennsylvania’s Order and the Complaint in Wang v. Lee.


In many ways, a close inspection of the case makes it less interesting than it seems it would be. There are a variety of salacious allegations, and one party’s oddly specific wish to be reborn as a mermaid, but those details are mere gossip in a situation that seems to have had rather severe consequences personally and professionally for all involved. The court’s opinion denying summary judgment — thus allowing the professor’s defamation lawsuit against the grad student to go forward– is rather humdrum from a legal perspective; most of the claims are plainly sound if the facts alleged are proven, like Invasion of Privacy (largely for the picture), Wrongful Use of Civil Proceedings (for filing an allegedly frivolous protection from abuse petition in Washington State), and Defamation (for suggesting in the email that the professor was threatening her). I have my doubts about the viability of a negligence claim in the midst of a romantic disputes, but that’s an issue for another day.


Nonetheless, two issues jumped out at me.  Continue reading

Tweet Like Email LinkedIn