Court Excludes Unreliable Expert Testimony in Defamation Case

A court’s role is to act as a “gatekeeper” where evidence is concerned, and under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, a court should exclude expert testimony that is not reliable and helpful to the jury. Rule 702 provides that an expert’s opinion is reliable if (1) it is based upon sufficient facts; (2) it is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia recently applied this three prong test and granted a defendant’s motion to exclude expert testimony in a defamation case.

In Parsi v. Daioleslam, Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and NIAC filed a defamation action against Seid Hassan Daioleslam alleging that Daioleslam published numerous false and defamatory statements on internet websites characterizing plaintiffs as members of a subversive and illegal Iranian lobby. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant’s statements injured their reputations, hampered NIAC’s effectiveness as an advocacy group, and damaged their fundraising efforts. In support of their claims, plaintiffs proffered two experts. Plaintiffs hoped that the testimony of Debashis Aikat, a journalism professor, would establish that defendant’s writings did not meet the standard of care for journalists. Plaintiffs submitted the testimony of Joel Morse, a financial economist, to establish plaintiff’s economic damages suffered as a result of the alleged defamation. Defendant moved to exclude both men’s testimony, arguing that neither expert’s testimony met the standards of admissibility.

The court found all three reliability prongs of Rule 702 lacking in Aikat’s testimony. First, the “sufficient facts” Aikat relied on were defendant’s articles and sources cited therein. Because Aikat read only a haphazard selection of defendant’s sources and no background material, the court found the “facts and data” Aikat relied on to be teacher.jpginsufficient. Second, the court found Aikat’s testimony was not the product of reliable principles and methods. Aikat refused to give any description of his methodology beyond reading and viewing. The court noted that Aikat’s methodology could have been to compare defendant’s performance to applicable professional standards, which would have been an acceptable methodology.

However, the court concluded that Aikat’s view of the applicable professional standard was driven less by objective sources and more by his personal views which is not an acceptable methodology. Finally, the court held that even if Aikat identified an objective professional standard, he failed to reliably compare defendant’s writings to that standard. He did not systematically review defendant’s source materials, and he decided inexplicably that secondary materials were insufficient. He opined that defendant had not allowed plaintiffs to respond to claims made in defendant’s writings, but did not explain this conclusion, and he ignored evidence that subjects had been given the opportunity to respond. Because none of the three Rule 702 prongs were met, the court did not examine whether Aikat’s testimony would be helpful to the jury.

The court went on to examine the testimony of Joel Morse to determine whether it was relevant and reliable under Rule 702. The court found troublesome Morse’s assumption that defendant’s writings alone were responsible for NIAC’s financial position, particularly when evidence indicated that NIAC’s finances were affected by increased expenses and general economic conditions in the country. The court also had concerns about some of Morse’s calculations–he used seemingly arbitrary baselines which he did not explain yet which aided plaintiffs’ damages calculations. Morse did not discount any of his damages figures to their present value which the court found to be inexplicable as tort awards must be so discounted. The court found that “[g]iven the multiple factual, arithmetical, and theoretical errors,” Morse’s calculations were not reliable enough to put before a jury. The court therefore granted both of defendant’s motions to exclude plaintiffs’ expert testimony.

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