For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

FOIA Exemptions Gobble Up The Statute

November 27th, 2015

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which petitioners sought review of a First Circuit decision that upheld the “commercial information” exemption (exemption 4) to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA). New Hampshire Right to Life v. Dep’t Health & Human Services, 778 F.3d 43 (1st Cir. 2015). See Lyle Denniston, “Court bypasses FOIA challenge,” SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2015).

An anti-abortion group filed a FOIA request to obtain documents that Planned Parenthood had sent to the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, in support of federal funding, for family planning activities in New Hampshire. The requested documents described Planned Parenthood’s internal medical standards and guidelines, as well as its set fees for various services. The federal trial court upheld the agency’s refusal to disclose the Planned Parenthood documents on the basis of § 552(b)(4) (Exemption 4, for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a per­son and privileged or confidential”), as well as internal agency documents, on the basis of § 552(b)(5) (Exemption 5). The First Circuit affirmed the non-freedom of information. 778 F.3d 43.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the Court’s denial of review. New Hampshire Right to Life, No. 14–1273, SCOTUS (Nov. 16, 2015) [Thomas Dissent] Justice Thomas intimated that the First Circuit’s decision may well have offended the Supreme Court’s interpretation of FOIA as reflecting “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language.” Department of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U. S. 487, 494 (1994).

Justice Thomas noted that the First Circuit based its conclusion not on the ordinary meaning of the term “confidential,” but on speculation whether FOIA disclosure might harm Planned Parenthood’s position in a conjectured market. The First Circuit ordained the Planned Parenthood manual confidential because “[a]potential future competitor could take advantage of the institutional knowledge contained in the Manual” to com­pete against the organization in the future. Justice Thomas intimated that he, and concurring Justice Scalia, disapproved of this speculation upon speculation approach. Thomas Dissent at 2. The dissenters also noted that the Supreme Court has yet to interpret Exemption 4, to FOIA, and that the lower courts have embraced this exemption as a broad exclusion, in derogation of the language and spirit of FOIA.

In discovery efforts to obtain information about litigation science, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Science (NIEHS), FOIA officers appear to invoke Exemption 4 routinely to deny disclosure. One case in point was the effort to obtain information about NIEHS-funded research of Dr. Brad A. Racette, on the prevalence of parkinsonism among welding tradesmen in Wisconsin Great Lakes shipyards. Racette is an academic researcher, on the faculty of Washington University St. Louis; he is not engaged in any commercial enterprise, in any imaginable use of the word “commercial.” His Wisconsin research was sponsored by the Boilermakers’ union, which had worked with the litigation industry (trial bar) to develop a litigation case against the manufacturers of welding rods. FOIA requests for scientific data, protocols, and analyses were met, by NIEHS, with over-zealous redactions with the invocation of FOIA exemptions, including assertions that data and analyses were “confidential commercial information.”

The redaction of one of Racette’s ESNAP reports, on Grant Number SR01ES13743-4, is illustrative. The multi-year grant, entitled “Epidemilogy [sic] of Parkinsonism in Welders,” was awarded to principal investigator Brad Racette in 2007. On October 29, 2009, Racette submitted a report that included data and data analysis. The NIEHS, on its own, or acting at the request of the principal investigator, redacted data, analyses, and conclusions, on grounds of “confidential commercial information.” Invoking an exemption for “commercial information” for federally funding of an epidemiologic study, conducted by university-based scientists seems an extreme distortion of the FOIA statute.

Cynics may say that Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented in the Planned Parenthood case because they were eager, to advance their theological ideology to exploit the opportunity to order disclosure that could hurt the good work that Planned Parenthood does. The dissenting justices deserve, however, to be taken at their word, and applauded for chastising their colleagues who were willing to abide the frustation of the word and spirit of the FOIA statute. Sadly, federal agencies seem to be determined to make information unfree. In the most recent evaluations, the Department of Health and Human Services received a failing grade, among the lowest grades for FOIA performance and responsiveness; only the State Department failed with a lower score. National Freedom of Information Coalition, “FOIA report card shows federal agencies missing the mark,” (Mar. 16, 2015); Center for Effective Government, “Making the Grade – Access to Information Scorecard 2015.”

Vaccine Court Inoculated Against Pathological Science

October 25th, 2015

Richard I. Kelley, M.D., Ph.D., is the Director of the Division of Metabolism, Kennedy Krieger Institute, and a member of the Department of Pediatrics, in Johns Hopkins University. The National Library of Medicine’s Pubmed database shows that Dr. Kelley has written dozens of articles on mitochondrial disease, but none that concludes that thimerosal or the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine plays a causal role in causing autism by inducing or aggravating mitochondrial disease. In one article, Kelley opines:

“Large, population-based studies will be needed to identify a possible relationship of vaccination with autistic regression in persons with mitochondrial cytopathies.”

Jacqueline R. Weissman, Richard I. Kelley, Margaret L. Bauman, Bruce H. Cohen, Katherine F. Murray, Rebecca L. Mitchell, Rebecca L. Kern, and Marvin R. Natowicz, “Mitochondrial Disease in Autism Spectrum Disorder Patients: A Cohort Analysis,” 3 PLoS One e3815 (Nov. 26, 2008). Those large scale population-based studies to support the speculation of Kelley and his colleagues have not materialized since 2008, and meta-analyses and systematic reviews have dampened the enthusiasm for Kelley’s hypothesis.[1]

Special Master Denise K. Vowell, in the Federal Court of Claims, has now further dampened the enthusiasm for Dr. Kelley’s mitochondrial theories, in a 115 page opinion, written in support of rejecting Kelley’s testimony and theories that the MMR vaccine caused a child’s autism. Madariaga v. Sec’y Dep’t H.H.S., No. 02-1237V (Ct. Fed. Claims Sept. 26, 2015) Slip op. [cited as Madariaga].

Special Master Vowell fulsomely recounts the history of vaccine litigation, in which the plaintiffs have presented theories that the combination of thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine cause autism, or just the thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism. Madariaga at 3. Both theories were tested in the crucible of litigation and cross-examination in a series of test cases. The first theory resulted in verdicts against the claimants, which were affirmed on appeal.[2] Similarly, the trials on the thimerosal-only claims uniformly resulted in decisions from the Special Masters against the claims.[3] The three Special Masters, hearing the cases, found that the vaccine-causation claims were not close cases, and were based upon unreliable evidence.[4] Madariaga at 4.[5]

In Madariaga, Special Master Vowell noted that Doctor Kelley had conceded the “absence of an association between the MMR vaccine and autism in large epidemiological studies.” Madariaga at 61. Kelley attempted to evade the force of his lack of evidence by retreating into a claim that “autistic regressions caused by the live attenuated MMR vaccine are rare events,” and an assertion that there are many inflammatory factors that can induce autistic regression. Madariaga at 61.

Special Master described the whole of Kelley’s testimony as “meandering, confusing, and completely unpersuasive elaboration of his unique insights and methods.” Madariaga at 66. Although it is clear from the Special Master’s opinion that Kelley was unbridled in his over-interpretation of studies, and perhaps undisciplined in his interpretation of test results, the lengthy opinion provides only a high-altitude view of Kelley’s errors. There are tantalizing comments and notes in the Special Master’s decision, such as one that reports that one study may have been over-interpreted by Kelley because he ignored the authors’ comment that their findings could be consistent with chance because of their multiple comparisons, and another that paper that failed to show statistical significance. Madariaga at 90 & n.160.

The unreliability of Kelley’s testimony appeared to be more than hand waving in the absence of evidence. He compared the child’s results on a four-hour fasting test, when the child had not fasted for four hours. When pressed about this maneuver, Kelley claimed that he had made calculations to bring the child’s results “back to some standard.” Madariaga at 66 & n.115.

Although the Special Master’s opinion itself was ultimately persuasive, the tome left me eager to know more about Dr. Kelley’s epistemic screw ups, and less about vaccine court procedure.

[1] See Vittorio Demicheli, Alessandro Rivetti, Maria Grazia Debalini, and Carlo Di Pietrantonj, “Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children,” Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., Issue 2. Art. No. CD004407, DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD004407.pub3 (2012) (“Exposure to the MMR vaccine was unlikely to be associated with autism … .”); Luke E. Taylor, Amy L. Swerdfeger, and Guy D. Eslick, “Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies,” 32 Vaccine 3623 (2014) (“Findings of this meta-analysis suggest that vaccinations are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder. Furthermore, the components of the vaccines (thimerosal or mercury) or multiple vaccines (MMR) are not associated with the development of autism or autism spectrum disorder.”).

[2] Cedillo v. Sec’y, HHS, No. 98-916V, 2009 WL 331968 (Fed. Cl. Spec. Mstr. Feb. 12, 2009), aff’d, 89 Fed. Cl. 158 (2009), aff’d, 617 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2010); Hazlehurst v. Sec’y, HHS, No. 03-654V, 2009 WL 332306 (Fed. Cl. Spec. Mstr. Feb. 12, 2009), aff’d, 88 Fed. Cl. 473 (2009), aff’d, 604 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2010); Snyder v. Sec’y, HHS, No. 01-162V, 2009 WL 332044 (Fed. Cl. Spec. Mstr. Feb. 12, 2009), aff’d, 88 Fed. Cl. 706 (2009).

[3] Dwyer v. Sec’y, HHS, 2010 WL 892250; King v. Sec’y, HHS, No. 03-584V, 2010 WL 892296 (Fed. Cl. Spec. Mstr. Mar. 12, 2010); Mead v. Sec’y, HHS, 2010 WL 892248.

[4] See, e.g., King, 2010 WL 892296, at *90 (emphasis in original); Snyder, 2009 WL 332044, at *198.

[5] The Federal Rule of Evidence technically do not control the vaccine court proceedings, but the Special Masters are bound by the requirement of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 590 (1993), to find that expert witness opinion testimony is reliable before they consider it. Knudsen v. Sec’y, HHS, 35 F.3d 543, 548-49 (Fed. Cir. 1994). Madariaga at 7.

On Amending Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence

October 17th, 2015

No serious observer or scholar of the law of evidence can deny that the lower federal courts have applied Daubert and its progeny, and the revised Federal Rule of Evidence 702, inconstantly and inconsistently, in their decisions to admit or exclude proffered expert witness opinion testimony. Opponents of trial court “gatekeeping” of expert witnesses applaud the lapses in hopes that the gates have been unhinged and that there will be “open admissions” for expert witness testimony. These opponents latch on to the suggestion that the Rules favor “liberal” admissibility with a libertine; they lose sight of the meaning of “liberal” that conveys enlightened, with an openness to progress and salutary change, and the claims of knowledge over blind faith.  Supporters of gatekeeping lament the courts’ inability or unwillingness to apply a clear statutory mandate that is designed to improve and ensure the correctness of fact finding in the federal courts. A few have decried the lawlessness of the courts’ evasions and refusals to apply Rule 702’s requirements.

Given the clear body of Supreme Court precedent, and the statutory revision to Rule 702, which was clearly designed to embrace, embody, enhance, and clarify the high Court precedent, I did not think that an amendment to Rule 702 was needed to improve the sorry state of lower court decisions. Professor David Bernstein and lawyer Eric Lasker, however, have made a powerful case for amendment as a way of awakening and galvanizing federal judges to their responsibilities under the law. David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker,“Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2015) [cited below as Bernstein & Lasker].

Bernstein and Lasker remind us that Rule 702 is a statute[1] that superseded inconsistent prior judicial pronouncements. The authors review many of the more egregious cases that ignore the actual text of Rule 702, while adverting to judicial gloss on the superseded rule, and even to judicial precedent and dicta pre-dating the Daubert case itself. Like the Papa Bear in the Berenstain Bear family, the authors show us how not to interpret a statute properly, through examples from federal court decisions.

The Dodgers’ Dodges

Questions about whether expert witnesses properly applied a methodology to the facts of a case are for the jury, and not the proper subject of gatekeeping.

As Bernstein and Lasker document, this thought- and Rule-avoidance dodge is particularly shocking given that the Supreme Court clearly directed close and careful analysis of the specific application of general principles to the facts of a case.[2] Shortly after the Supreme Court decided Daubert, the Third Circuit decided a highly influential decision in which it articulated the need for courts to review every step in expert witnesses’ reasoning for reliability. In re Paoli RR Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 745 (3d Cir. 1994). The Paoli case thus represents the antithesis of a judicial approach that asks only the 10,000 foot level question whether the right methodology was used; Paoli calls for a close, careful analysis of the application of a proper methodology to every step in the case. Id. (“any step that renders the analysis unreliable … renders the expert’s testimony inadmissible … whether the step completely changes a reliable methodology or merely misapplies that methodology”).

While the Paoli approach is unpopular with some judges who might prefer not to work so hard, the Advisory Committee heartily endorsed Paoli’s “any step” approach in its Note to the 2000 amendment. Bernstein & Lasker at 32. Bernstein and Lasker further point out that the Committee’s Report, Professor Dan Capra, acknowledged, shortly after the amendment went into effect, that the Paoli “any step” approach had a “profound impact” on the drafting of amended Rule 702. Bernstein & Lasker at 28.[3]

Having demonstrated the reasons, the process, and the substance of the judicial and legislative history of the revised Rule 702, Bernstein and Lasker are understandably incensed at the lawlessness of circuit and trial courts that have eschewed the statute, have ignored Supreme Court precedent, and have retreated to vague judicial pronouncements that trace back to before some or any of the important changes occurred in Rule 702.[4]

Let’s Cherry Pick and Weigh of the Evidence; Forget the Scale

Along with some courts’ insistence that trial judges may not examine the application of methods to the facts of a case, other courts, perhaps mindful of their citation practices, have endorsed “cherry picking” as a satisfactory methodology for partial expert witnesses to support their opinions. Id. at 35-36. Our law review authors also trace the influence of plaintiffs’ counsel, through their “walking around money” from the breast implant litigation, in sponsoring anti-Daubert, anti-gatekeeping conferences, at which prominent plaintiffs’ advocates and expert witnesses, such as Carl Cranor presented in favor of a vague “weight of the evidence” (WOE) approach to decision making. Id. at 39. Following these conferences, some courts have managed to embrace WOE, which is usually packaged as an abandonment of scientific standards of validity and sufficiency, in favor of selective review and subjective decisions. To do this, however, courts have had to ignore both Supreme Court precedent and the clear language of Rule 702. In Joiner, the high Court rejected WOE, over the dissent of a single justice,[5] but some of the inferior federal courts have embraced the dissent to the exclusion of the majority’s clear holding, as well as the incorporation of that holding into the revised Rule 702.[6] An interesting case of judicial disregard.

Other Dodges

The law review authors did not purport to provide an exhaustive catalogue of avoidance and evasion techniques. Here is one that is not discussed: shifting the burden of proof on admissibility to the opponent of the expert witness’s opinion:

“Testimony from an expert is presumed to be helpful unless it concerns matters within the everyday knowledge and experience of a lay juror.”

Earp v. Novartis Pharms., No. 5:11–CV–680–D, 2013 WL 4854488, at *3 (Sept. 11, 2013). See also Kopf v. Skyrm, 993 F.2d 374, 377 (4th Cir.1993); accord Koger v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., No. 1:08–0909, 2010 WL 692842, at *1 (S.D.W.Va. Feb. 23, 2010) (unpublished).

Whence comes this presumption? Perhaps it is no more than a requirement for the opponent to object and articulate the flaws before the trial court will act. But the “presumption” sure looks like a covert shifting of the burden of proof for the requisite reliability of an expert witness’s opinion, which burden clearly falls on the proponent of the testimony.

The Proposed Amended Rule 702

There are several possible responses to the problem of the judiciary’s infidelity to basic principles, precedent, and legislative directive. Bernstein and Lasker advance amendments to the current Rule 702, as a blunt reminder that the times and the law have changed, really. Here is their proposed revision, with new language italicized, and deleted language shown to be struck:

“Rule 702. Testimony by Expert Witnesses

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the testimony satisfies each of the following requirements:

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data that reliably support the expert’s opinion;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable and objectively reasonable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case and reached his conclusions without resort to unsupported speculation.

Appeals of district court decisions under this Rule are considered under the abuse-of-discretion standard. Such decisions are evaluated with the same level of rigor regardless of whether the district court admitted or excluded the testimony in question. This Rule supersedes any preexisting precedent that conflicts with any or all sections of this Rule.

Bernstein & Lasker at 44-45.

Before discussing and debating the changes, we should ask, “why change a fairly good statute just because lower courts evade its terms?” The corrupt efforts of SKAPP[7] to influence public and judicial policy, as well as the wildly one-sided Milward symposium,[8] which the authors discuss, should serve as a potent reminder that there would be many voices in the review and revision process, both from within plaintiffs’ bar, and from those sympathetic to the litigation industry’s goals and desires. Opening up the language of Rule 702 to revision could result in reactionary change, driven by the tort bar’s and allies’ lobbying. The result could be the evisceration of Rule 702, as it now stands. This danger requires a further exploration of alternatives to the proposed amendment.

Rule 702 has had the benefit of evolutionary change and development, which have made it better and also possibly burdened with vestigial language. To be sure, the rule is a difficult statute to draft, and while the authors give us a helpful start, there is many problems to be subdued before a truly workable working draft can be put be forward.

The first sentence’s new language, “the testimony satisfies each of the following requirements,” is probably already satisfied the use of “and” between the following numbered paragraphs. Given the judicial resistance to Rule 702, the additional verbiage could be helpful; it should be unnecessary. The conditionality of “if,” however, leaves the meaning of the Rule unclear when that condition is not satisfied. The Rule clearly signifies that “if” in the introductory sentence means “only if,” and the law and litigants would be better off if the Rule said what it means.

Proposed Subsection (b)

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data that reliably support the expert’s opinion;

The authors do not make much of a case for striking “sufficient.” There will be times when there are perfectly good facts and data supporting an expert witness’s opinion, in a completely reliable opinion, but the supporting facts and data do not support an epistemic claim of “knowledge,” because the support is indeterminate between the claim and many other competing hypotheses that might explain the outcome at issue. The reliably supporting facts and data may amount to little more than a scientific peppercorn, and really be too much of too little to support the claim. Deleting “sufficient” from subsection b could be a serious retrograde move, which will confuse the judiciary more than instruct it.

The revised subsection also fails to address the integrity of the facts and data, and the validity of how the data were generated. To be sure, Rule 703 could pick up some of the slack, but Rule 703 is often ignored, and even when invoked, that rule has its own drafting and interpretation problems. SeeGiving Rule 703 the Cold Shoulder” (May 12, 2012); “RULE OF EVIDENCE 703 — Problem Child of Article VII” (Sept. 19, 2011). Also missing is an acknowledgment that the facts or data must often be analyzed in some way, whether by statistical tests or some other means. And finally, there is the problem in that reliable does not necessarily connote valid or accurate. Subsection (b) thus seems to cry out for additional qualification, such as:

“the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data, reliably, accurately, and validly ascertained, and analyzed, which facts or data reliably and validly support the expert’s opinion”

Proposed Subsection (c)

Bernstein and Lasker propose modifying this subsection to inject “and objectively reasonable” before “principles and methods.” The authors do not explain what objectively reasonable principles and methods encompass, and they qualification does seem self-explanatory. Perhaps they are calling for principles and methods that are “generally accepted,” and otherwise justified as warranted to produce accurate, true results? Is so, that might be a helpful addition.

Proposed Subsection (d)

Here the authors bolster the language of the subsection with a prohibition against using unsupported speculation. OK; but would supported or inspired or ingenious speculation be any better? Subsection (a) speaks of knowledge, and it should be obvious that the expert witness’s opinion has an epistemic warrant to be something more than a mere subjective opinion.

Whether Bernstein and Lasker have opened a can or a Concordat of Worms remains to be seen.

[1] The authors provide a great resource on the legislative history of attempts to revise 702, up to and including the 2000 revision. The 2000 revision began with a proposed amendment from the Advisory Committee in April 1999. The Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure approved the proposal, and forwarded the proposed amendment to the Judicial Conference, which approved the amendment without change in September 1999. The Supreme Court ordered the amendment in April 2000, and submitted the revised rule to Congress. Order Amending the Federal Rules of Evidence, 529 U.S. 1189, 1195 (2000). The revised Rule 702 became effective on December 1, 2000. See also Bernstein & Lasker at 19 n. 99 (citing Edward J. Imwinkelried, “Response, Whether the Federal Rules of Evidence Should Be Conceived as a Perpetual Index Code: Blindness Is Worse than Myopia,” 40 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1595, 1595-98 (1999) (noting and supporting the Supreme Court’s interpretation and application of the Federal Rules of Evidence as a statute, and subject to the judicial constraints on statutory construction). For a strident student’s pro-plaintiff view of the same legislative history, see Nancy S. Farrell, “Congressional Action to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702: A Mischievous Attempt to Codify Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.”, 13 J. Contemp. Health L. & Pol’y 523 (1997).

[2] General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997) (reviewing and analyzing individual studies’ internal and external validity, and rejecting plaintiffs’ argument that only the appropriateness of the methodology in the abstract was subject of gatekeeping); Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 156-57 (1999) (“stressing that district courts must scrutinize whether the principles and methods employed by an expert have been properly applied to the facts of the case”) (quoting what was then the proposed advisory committee’s note to Rule 702, Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence: Request for Comment, 181 F.R.D. 18, 148 (1998)).

[3] citing Stephen A. Saltzburg, Edwin J. Imwinkelried, & Daniel J. Capra, “Keeping the Reformist Spirit Alive in Evidence Law,” 149 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1277, 1289-90 (2001). The authors note that other circuits have embraced the Paoli “any steps” approach. Bernstein & Lasker at 28 at n. 152 (citing Paz v. Brush Engineered Materials, Inc., 555 F.3d 383, 387-91 (5th Cir. 2009); McClain v. Metabolife Int’l, Inc., 401 F.3d 1233, 1245 (11th Cir. 2005); Dodge v. Cotter Corp., 328 F.3d 1212, 1222 (10th Cir. 2003); Amorgianos v. Nat’l R.R. Passenger Corp., 303 F.3d 256, 267 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting In re Paoli, 35 F.3d at 746).

[4] See, e.g., City of Pomona v. SQM N. Am. Corp., 750 F.3d 1036, 1047 (9th Cir. 2014) (rejecting the Paoli any step approach without careful analysis of the statute, the advisory committee note, or Supreme Court decisions); Manpower, Inc. v. Ins. Co. of Pa., 732 F.3d 796, 808 (7th Cir. 2013) (“[t]he reliability of data and assumptions used in applying a methodology is tested by the adversarial process and determined by the jury; the court’s role is generally limited to assessing the reliability of the methodology – the framework – of the expert’s analysis”); Bonner v. ISP Techs., Inc., 259 F.3d 924, 929 (8th Cir. 2001) (“the factual basis of an expert opinion goes to the credibility of the testimony, not the admissibility, and it is up to the opposing party to examine the factual basis for the opinion in cross-examination”).

[5] General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146-47 (1997) (holding that district court had the “discretion to conclude that the studies upon which the experts relied were not sufficient, whether individually or in combination, to support their conclusions that Joiner’s exposure to PCB’s contributed to his cancer”). Other federal and state courts have followed Joiner. See Allen v. Pa. Eng’g Corp., 102 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996) (“We are also unpersuaded that the ‘weight of the evidence’ methodology these experts use is scientifically acceptable for demonstrating a medical link between Allen’s EtO exposure and brain cancer.”). For similar rejections of vague claims that weak evidence add up to more than the sum of its parts, see Hollander v. Sandoz Pharm. Corp., 289 F.3d 1193, 1216 n.21 (10th Cir. 2002); Magistrini v. One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning, 180 F. Supp. 2d 584, 608 (D.N.J. 2002); Caraker v. Sandoz Pharm. Corp., 188 F. Supp. 2d 1026, 1040 (S.D. Ill. 2001); Siharath v. Sandoz Pharm. Corp., 131 F. Supp. 2d 1347, 1371 (N.D. Ga. 2001), aff’d sub nom. Rider v. Sandoz Pharm. Corp., 295 F.3d 1194 (11th Cir. 2002); Merck & Co. v. Garza, 347 S.W.3d 256, 268 (Tex. 2011); Estate of George v. Vt. League of Cities & Towns, 993 A.2d 367, 379-80 (Vt. 2010).

[6] Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 639 F.3d 11, 17-18 (1st Cir. 2011) (reversing the exclusion of expert witnesses who embraced WOE). Milward has garnered some limited support in a few courts, as noted by Bernstein and Lasker; see In re Fosamax (Alendronate Sodium) Prods. Liab. Litig., Nos. 11-5304, 08-08, 2013 WL 1558690, at *4 (D.N.J. Apr. 10, 2013); Harris v. CSX Transp., Inc., 753 S.E.2d 275, 287-89, 301-02 (W. Va. 2013).

[7]SKAPP A LOT” (April 30, 2010).

[8]Milward Symposium Organized by Plaintiffs’ Counsel and Witnesses” (Feb. 13, 2013); [].

Woodside on Access to Underlying Research Data

October 10th, 2015

Access to underlying data and materials, source codes, and other research materials is a two-edged sword. Many scientists who hold forth on the issue, including some prominent plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, have been extremely critical of the pharmaceutical and other industries for not sharing underlying data of their research. On the other hand, some of the same people have resisted sharing data and information when the litigants have sought access to these materials to understand or to challenge the published conclusions and analyses.[1]

Dr. Frank Woodside, of Dinsmore & Shohl, kindly sent me a copy of his recent law review article, written with a colleague, which advocates for full disclosure of underlying research data when research becomes material to the outcome of litigation.[2] Frank C. Woodside & Michael J. Gray, “Researchers’ Privilege: Full Disclosure,” 32 West. Mich. Univ. Cooley L. Rev. 1 (2015). The authors make the case that the so-called researcher’s privilege has little or no support in federal or state law. My previous posts have largely supported this view, at least for research that has been published, and especially for research that is being relied upon by testifying expert witnesses in pending litigation. As Lord Chancellor Hardwicke put the matter, “the public has a right to every man’s evidence,”[3] and scientists should not be immune to the requirement of giving and sharing their evidence.

Woodside and Gray have updated the scholarship in this area, and their article should be consulted in any ongoing discovery, subpoena, or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle. Their discussion of the evolving case law under FOIA is especially timely. Despite the strong presumption in favor of disclosure under FOIA,[4] and President Obama’s pronouncements[5] about a new era in FOIA openness and transparency, the government’s compliance is at an all-time low. See Ted Bridis, “Obama administration sets new record for withholding FOIA requests,” PBS News Hour (Mar. 18, 2015). Court decisions have made clear that researchers cannot refuse to produce underlying data simply “because disclosure would diminish the researchers’ ability to publish their results in prestigious journals.”[6] And yet the National Institute of Environmental Health and Safety continues in its aggressive resistance to disclosure of underlying data, often by invoking FOIA exemption number four. In my cases, I have seen the NIEHS resort to this exemption that protects documents that reveal “[t]rade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,”[7] even when the research in question was conducted by academic researchers funded by the NIEHS.

[1] See, e.g., Enoch v. Forest Research Institute, Inc., N.J. Law Div. Hudson Cty., Civ. Div. L-3896-14, Order Granting Defendants’ Motion to Compel Production of Documents Necessary to Verify the Validity and Accuracy of a Study by Plaintiffs’ Expert, Anick Berard, Ph.D. (Oct. 9, 2015) (Jablonski, J.) (ordering plaintiffs to “produce the documents sought by the Forest defendants to verify the validity and accuracy of the study known as “Berard et al., Sertraline Use During Pregnancy and the Risk of Major Malformations, Am. J. Obstet. Gynecol. (2015), doi 10.1016/j.ajog.2015.01.034, namely the study’s SAS source codes and the specific generalized estimating equation models that were used to generate Table 2 of the study”).

[2] And I should thank Dr. Woodside and Mr. Gray for their generous citations to your humble blogger’s posts on this subject.

[3] Debate in the House of Lords on the Bill to Indemnify Evidence, 12 Hansard’s Parliamentary History of England, 675, 693, May 25, 1742, quoted in 8 Wigmore on Evidence at 64, § 2192 (3d ed. 1940).

[4] See S. REP. No. 89-813, at 3 (1965) (the purpose of FOIA is to “establish a general philosophy of full agency disclosure . . . and to provide a court procedure by which citizens and the press may obtain information wrongfully withheld”).

[5] See Executive Order, Memorandum, 74 Fed. Reg. 4685 (Jan. 21, 2009).

[6] See Burka v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Serv., 87 F.3d 508, 515 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

[7] See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(4).

The opinions, statements, and asseverations expressed on Tortini are my own, or those of invited guests, and these writings do not necessarily represent the views of clients, friends, or family, even when supported by good and sufficient reason.