Attorney May Testify as Expert on Standard of Care, Not on Legal Conclusions that Determine Outcome of the Case

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Clay Cox (“Cox”), successor trustee for a coop formed to build and operate an ethanol facility, sued attorneys Michael Evans and Nancy Schell and their law firm, Froehling, Weber, Evans & Schell, LLP, (together “Defendants”) for legal malpractice. Defendants designated attorney Walker Filbert (“Filbert”) as their expert witness concerning whether Defendants “met the standard of practice for attorneys practicing law in central Illinois and that their conduct did not proximately cause any injury to the Coop.” Id. at 6. Cox moved to bar Filbert’s testimony, memorandum in support, and Defendants’ response. The motion was granted in part and denied in part.

In ruling on Cox’s motion, the Court applied the Daubert analysis, which requires evaluation of “(1) the proffered expert’s qualifications; (2) the reliability of the expert’s methodology; and (3) the relevance of the expert’s testimony.” Id. at 7, see Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). With respect to Filbert’s qualifications, Cox argued that his “experience as a lawyer in central Illinois and a CEO of an ethanol company” did not qualify him to give testimony in this matter because he had “no experience with professional responsibility and legal malpractice.” Id. at 9. The Court disagreed, explaining that as “a practicing attorney, Filbert would have been required to understand the rules of professional conduct governing his practice of law and to follow those rules. Those obligations encompassed the dispute at issue here—ascertaining the standard of care for an attorney.” Id. at 10. As to Filbert’s methodology, Cox claimed his report was devoid of any proposed methodology and rested “entirely on his alleged expertise as a lawyer, drawing conclusions without any analysis.” Id. The Court sided with Defendants again, holding that Filbert’s opinions “were informed by his legal experience and his knowledge of practicing law in central Illinois” and that his “report and proposed testimony sufficiently link the facts he relies upon with his conclusions so as to be reliable.” Id. at 11. The Court also held that Filbert’s testimony was relevant, as the “touchstone of admissibility under Rule 702 is helpfulness to the jury” and “the lay juror is unlikely to have a strong understanding of the business considerations surrounding the purchase or sale of commercial property” as in this case. Id.

Cox did find success in arguing that some aspects of Filbert’s report “invade[d] the province of the jury and are based upon unsupported assumptions.” Id. Specifically, Cox objected to Filbert’s conclusion that Defendants’ alleged acts or omissions did not proximately cause the damages claimed. The Court agreed that this was an impermissible conclusion, explaining that expert testimony “as to legal conclusions that will determine the outcome of the case is inadmissible.” Id. at 12. It clarified that “while Filbert may not offer an opinion in front of the jury as to proximate cause, he may opine, consistent with his deposition testimony, that market forces and the state of the ethanol industry following the transaction affected the viability of the grain handling facility and the prospects of obtaining financing.” Id.

Cox v. Evans, No. 18-CV-1105-JES-JEH, 2020 WL 2093371 (C.D. Ill. May 1, 2020)

(This is for informational purposes and not legal advice.)

Illinois Legal Malpractice and Defense of Lawyers Blog — Novack and Macey LLP

 

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