Judicial Dodgers – Reassigning the Burden of Proof on Rule 702

Explaining the denial of a Rule 702 motion in terms of the availability of cross-examination is just one among several dodges that judges use to avoid fully engaging with Rule 702’s requirements.[1] Another dodge involves shifting the burden of proof on admissibility from the proponent of the challenged expert witness to the challenger. This dodgewould appear to violate well-established law.

The Supreme Court, in deciding Daubert, made clear that the question whether an expert witness’s opinion was admissible was governed under the procedure set out in Federal Rule of Evidence 104(a).[2] The significance of placing the Rule 702 issues under the procedures set out in Rule 104(a) is that the trial judge must make the admissibility determination, and that he or she is not bound by the rules of evidence. The exclusion of the admissibility determination from the other rules of evidence means that trial judges can look at challenged expert witnesses’ relied-upon materials, and other facts, data, and opinions, regardless of these materials’ admissibility. The Supreme Court also made clear that the admissibility of an expert witness’s opinion testimony should be shown “by a preponderance of proof.”[3] Every court that has directly addressed the burden of proof issue in a Rule 702 challenge to expert witness testimony has clearly assigned that burden to the proponent of the testimony.[4]

Trial courts intent upon evading gatekeeping responsibility, however, have created a presumption of admissibility. When called upon to explain why they have denied Rule 702 challenges, these courts advert to the presumption as an explanation and justification for the denial.[5] Some courts even manage to discuss the burden of proof upon the proponent, and a presumption of admissibility, in almost the same breath.[6]

In his policy brief for amending Rule 702, Lee Mickus traces the presumption innovation to Borawick v. Shay, a 1995 Second Circuit decision that involved a challenge to hypnotically refreshed (or created) memory.[7] In Borawick, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s challenge turned upon whether Borawick’s testimony was competent or admissible, and that it did not involve the “the admissibility of data derived from scientific techniques or expert opinions.”[8] Nevertheless, in dicta, the court observed that “by loosening the strictures on scientific evidence set by Frye, Daubert reinforces the idea that there should be a presumption of admissibility of evidence.”[9]

Presumptions come in different forms and operate differently, and this casual reference to a presumption in dictum could mean any number of things. A presumption of admissibility could mean simply that unless there is a challenge to an expert witness’s opinion, the opinion is admissible.[10] The presumption could be a bursting-bubble (Thayer) presumption, which disappears once the opponent of the evidence credibly raises questions about the evidence’s admissibility. The presumption might be something that does not disappear, but once the admissibility is challenged, the presumption continues to provide some evidence for the proponent. And in the most extreme forms, the (Morgan) presumption might be nothing less than a judicially artful way of saying that the burden of proof is shifted to the opponent of the evidence to show inadmissibility.[11]

Although Borawick suggested that there should be a presumption, it did not exactly hold that one existed. A presumption in favor of the admissibility of evidence raises many questions about the nature, definition, and operation of the presumption. It throws open the question what evidence is needed to rebut the presumption. For instance, may a party whose expert witness is challenged not defend the witness’s compliance with Rule 702, stand on the presumption, and still prevail?

There is no mention of a presumption in Rule 702 itself, or in any Supreme Court decision on Rule 702, or in the advisory committee notes. Inventing a presumption, especially a poorly described one, turns the judicial discretion to grant or deny a Rule 702 challenge into an arbitrary decision.

Most importantly, given the ambiguity of “presumption,” a judicial opinion that denies a Rule 702 challenge by invoking a legal fiction fails to answer the question whether the proponent of the expert witness has carried the burden of showing that all the subparts of Rule 702 were satisfied by a preponderance of the evidence. While judges may prefer not to endorse or disavow the methodology of an otherwise “qualified” expert witness, their office requires them to do so, and not hide behind fictional presumptions.


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[1]  “Judicial Dodgers – The Crossexamination Excuse for Denying Rule 702 Motions” (May 11, 2020).

[2]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592 n.10 (1993).

[3]  Id., citing Bourjaily v. United States, 483 U. S. 171, 175-176 (1987).

[4]  Barrett v. Rhodia, Inc., 606 F.3d 975, 980 (8th Cir. 2010) (quoting Marmo v. Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc., 457 F.3d 748, 757 (8th Cir. 2006)); Beylin v. Wyeth, 738 F. Supp. 2d 887 (E.D. Ark. 2010) (MDL court) (Wilson, J. & Montgomery, J.); Pride v. BIC Corp., 218 F.3d 566, 578 (6th Cir. 2000); Reece v. Astrazeneca Pharms., LP, 500 F. Supp. 2d 736, 742 (S.D. Ohio 2007).

[5]  See, e.g., Cates v. Trustees of Columbia Univ. in City of New York, No. 16CIV6524GBDSDA, 2020 WL 1528124, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2020) (discussing presumptive admissibility); Price v. General Motors, LLC, No. CIV-17-156-R, 2018 WL 8333415, at *1 (W.D. Okla. Oct. 3, 2018) (“[T]here is a presumption under the Rules that expert testimony is admissible.”)(internetal citation omitted); Powell v. Schindler Elevator Corp., No. 3:14cv579 (WIG), 2015 WL 7720460, at *2 (D. Conn. Nov. 30, 2015) (“The Second Circuit has made clear that Daubert contemplates liberal admissibility standards, and reinforces the idea that there should be a presumption of admissibility of evidence.”); Advanced Fiber Technologies (AFT) Trust v. J & L Fiber Services, Inc., No. 1:07-CV-1191, 2015 WL 1472015, at *20 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2015) (“In assuming this [gatekeeper] role, the Court applies a presumption of admissibility.”); Crawford v. Franklin Credit Mgt. Corp., 08-CV-6293 (KMW), 2015 WL 13703301, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 22, 2015) (“[T]he court should apply ‘a presumption of admissibility’ of evidence” in carrying out the gatekeeper function.); Martinez v. Porta, 598 F. Supp. 2d 807, 812 (N.D. Tex. 2009) (“Expert testimony is presumed admissible”).

[6]  S.E.C. v. Yorkville Advisors, LLC, 305 F. Supp. 3d 486, 503-04 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (“The party seeking to introduce the expert testimony bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the proffered testimony is admissible. There is a presumption that expert testimony is admissible … .”) (internal citations omitted).

[7]  Borawick v. Shay, 68 F.3d 597, 610 (2d Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1229 (1996).

[8]  Id.

[9]  Id. (referring to Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C.Cir.1923)).

[10]  In re Zyprexa Prod. Liab. Litig., 489 F. Supp. 2d 230, 282 (E.D.N.Y. 2007) (Weinstein, J.) (“Since Rule 702 embodies a liberal standard of admissibility for expert opinions, the assumption the court starts with is that a well-qualified expert’s testimony is admissible.”).

[11]  See, e.g., Orion Drilling Co., LLC v. EQT Prod. Co., No. CV 16-1516, 2019 WL 4273861, at *34 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 10, 2019) (after declaring that “[e]xclusion is disfavored” under Rule 702, the court flipped the burden of production and declared the opinion testimony admissible, stating “Orion has not established that incorporation of the data renders Ray’s opinion unreliable.”).

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