Saturday, December 10, 2011

Show Me the Evidence!

Tariff classification disputes are rarely very sexy. On the other hand, that is not always the case. A recent pair of decisions from the Court of International Trade are good examples of the latter. Both involve the tariff classification of an upper garment for women described as a top with "shelf bra" or as a "bra top." You can probably see where this is going and, if you are offended by the sort of humor that comes from 12-year-old boys, you might want to avoid this post. The two cases are Lerner New York, Inc. v. United States and Victoria's Secret Direct LLC v. United States. Both of the decisions are preliminary determinations having to do with an important evidence question.

What it comes down to is whether a woman, whose professional work is in part to serve as a fit model, may testify as to the functioning of the imported merchandise in providing support for her bosom. Solely for purposes of providing context to my readers to ensure an adequate understanding of what is at issue here, I provide the picture below of the model in question as Blogger's Exhibit 1 for identification:

[The image is copyrighted by MSA Models and used here for education and commentary, which is a fair use.]

The government moved to preclude testimony by this witness on the grounds that her testimony would be based on her professional experience making her an expert witness. As an expert, the plaintiff would be required to provide a written report of her expected testimony. Because that was not done, the government wants her precluded her from testifying. In response, the plaintiff says that her testimony will not be as an expert but as a fact witness concerning the fit and function of the apparel. According to the plaintiff, the witness will not be providing opinions and, therefore, is not required to provide an expert report.

All of this relates to Federal Rules of Evidence 701 and 702, which deal with opinion testimony. Rule 701 permits a lay person to give an opinion in court where it is rationally based on the witness’s perception; helpful to clearly understanding the witness’s testimony or to determining a fact in issue; and not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge. In this case, the support provided by the garment is clearly within the witness' perception. She is, after all, the one in need of support and has worn the garment. Assuming the question of support remains in dispute (note that there seems to be some question on that point), her testimony on this point seems as if it will be helpful (if not just interesting). Finally, this is not a scientific question. All in all, this sounds very much like a Rule 701 lay witness. 

Rule 702, on the other hand, permits experts to give opinions in truly technical or scientific questions. This rule reads:
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:
(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;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
Based on the authority of Rule 701, the Court of International Trade denied the defendant's motion to exclude this testimony. The most immediate result of that decision may be that these cases will break all Court of International Trade records for public attendance at the trial of a classification case.

The thing I find interesting about this, other than the obvious, is that this appears to me to be symptomatic of an increasing focus on evidence questions in Court of International Trade litigation. It strikes me that most of these questions are a distraction from getting to a result on the merits. Now, I am not accusing anyone of improper conduct. There are rules of evidence and they are there to ensure a fair resolution of the case. Either party may properly object to the attempted use of improper evidence. But, I also think that many of the technical details involving the admissibility and consideration of evidence are of greater importance in jury trials than in the summary judgment or bench trial process we have at the CIT. Moreover, I think it is important to remember that Federal Rule of Evidence 102 requires that the rules be interpreted "so as to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination." To my way of thinking, if the judges of the Court of International Trade are experts in tariff classification and are charged with reaching the correct result, they should be trusted to assess the credibility of witnesses and sort out what is reliable or unreliable evidence. Trusting them to do so might help speed up litigation at the Court. Nevertheless, it is important that all of us who represent parties before the court stay abreast of the rules of evidence . . . so to speak.


David Trumbull said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Trumbull, NTA said...

The courtroom scene with Jane Russell in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" flashed through my mind. Since I represent the companies that make warp knit fabric which is used in the production of brassieres this is relevant to my work. Really! God, this is when I love my work!

green investments said...

So, you put up a picture like that, and than expect readers to remember what the post was about:)

Matt said...

Au contraire, Green Investments. In fact, I have reviewed this posting carefully, every day, to make sure I fully understand FRE 107.
Or 710.