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American National Propery and Casualty Co. v. Stutte

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

April 13, 2015

AMERICAN NATIONAL PROPERY AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROL ANN STUTTE, et al., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

LEON JORDAN, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is the Defendants and Counter-Plaintiffs' (hereafter, collectively the "Stuttes") "Motion to Exclude the Opinion Testimony of Document Examiner Jane Eakes" [doc. 107]. The Stuttes filed a brief in support of their Motion [doc. 108] and the Plaintiff, American National Property and Casualty Co. ("ANPAC") responded [doc. 109]. The Stuttes filed a reply to ANPAC's response [doc. 114]. No oral argument is necessary and the Motion [doc. 107] is ripe for determination.

The key issue in this action is whether the ANPAC is obligated to cover the total loss of the Stuttes' home under a homeowners' insurance policy. Simply put, there is a dispute over whether the Stuttes set fire to their home intentionally. The respective theories of the parties are not relevant to this Motion except to note that ANPAC's proffered version of the events includes an allegation that one of the Stuttes spray-painted the word "QUEERS" on the home in effort to stage a fraudulent crime scene. To support this allegation, ANPAC disclosed a handwriting expert, Jane Eakes ("Eakes"), who intends to give an opinion matching certain handwriting exemplars to the questioned graffiti. Both Eakes's expert report and portions of her deposition transcript have been submitted to the court in connection with this Motion.

Eakes testified as to the process she followed in her analysis. She first considered a number of exemplars received from ANPAC's counsel, which included photographs of spray-painted words on plywood, photographs of handwritten labels printed on storage cartons, copies of documents bearing Laura Stutte's signature, copies of insurance claim forms with handwritten notes, and a hotel "check-in" form with "Stutte, L" written at the top. She believed that the documents had been written by either Laura Stutte or Carol Stutte, but she did not know which. None of the exemplars were written for the purpose of the analysis; they were pre-existing documents. Eakes selected twelve of the exemplars to use as "evidence documents" in her analysis. The selected evidence documents included some of the spray-painted samples and the hotel check-in form. Eakes testified that she rejected certain samples that were provided to her because she could not conclusively identify them as having common traits with the other documents. (Eakes Depo. at 46:4-9, 14-25). ANPAC has submitted a template outlining the process that Eakes testified she used in her analysis.

Eakes identified multiple writing similarities among the evidence documents, particularly in the letters "E", "U", and "S". Comparing the characteristics in the evidence documents to the questioned writing, Eakes's report concluded that the QUEERS graffiti "was probably written by the same person(s) writing the known documents of Laura and/or Carol Stutte." She later testified to the conclusion that the handwriting on the evidence documents matched that of the graffiti.

The authorship of the evidence documents is now in dispute. As exhibits to this Motion, each of the Stuttes submitted a separate affidavit claiming to have authored some of the documents. Notably, Carol Stutte asserts that her handwriting appears in the spray-painted exemplars (Eakes 0040-44). Laura claims authorship of several other documents, and both Stuttes deny that they authored the hotel check-in sheet; they attribute this writing to an unknown hotel clerk. The Stuttes seek to exclude Eakes's testimony under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Admissibility Standard for Expert Testimony

Handwriting analysis is generally recognized as an area of expertise, and must therefore pass Rule 702's reliability test. See U.S. v. Jones, 107 F.3d 1147, 1159 (6th Cir. 1997). The rule provides:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony 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.

Both scientific and non-scientific expert testimony, including that based on experience and skill, are subject to the same level of rigor under Rule 702. Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999). The task of determining whether an expert's opinion meets the requirements of 702 is assigned to the court's discretion. The trial judge is the gatekeeper and must decide whether an expert's opinion is admissible under Rule 702. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). "[W]here testimony's factual basis, data, principles, methods, or their application are called into question, the trial judge must determine whether the testimony has a reliable basis[.]" Kumho, 526 U.S. at 150. "The judge' role is to keep unreliable and irrelevant information from the jury because of its inability to assist in factual determinations, its potential to create confusion, and its lack of probative value." Wellman v. Norfolk and Western Ry. Co., 98 F.Supp.2d 919, 924 (S.D. Ohio 2000). Thus, the district court has the responsibility to screen expert testimony. Jahn v. Equine Services, PSC, 233 F.3d 382, 388 (6th Cir. 2000) (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 589). "When a party proffers expert testimony, the district court must determine whether the testimony is both relevant and reliable when ruling on its admission." Id. (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590-91). However, the court's gatekeeping role is not intended to supplant the jury's function as to the credibility of the expert or weight of the evidence. "[C]ross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the appropriate means of attacking shaky, but admissible evidence." Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596.

Analysis

Turning to the present Motion, we must first consider whether Eakes is qualified to render an opinion on handwriting analysis and whether that opinion will assist the jury. "The issue with regard to expert testimony is not the qualifications of a witness in the abstract, but whether those qualifications provide a foundation for a witness to answer a specific question." Berry v. City of Detroit, 25 F.3d 1342, 1351 (6th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1111 (1995). ANPAC submitted a detailed CV listing Eakes's qualifications and experience, including some thirty years of work in the field and many court appearances as an expert handwriting analyst. Eakes's CV contains information demonstrating that she has the requisite "knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education" to offer the opinions which they have. Fed.R.Evid. 702. Moreover, the Stuttes do not challenge her qualifications to testify. The Court is thus satisfied that Eakes is sufficiently qualified to testify as a handwriting analyst. The Court is also convinced that Eakes's testimony will assist the jury. The authorship of the QUEERS graffiti is relevant to disputed issue of fact. Eakes's specialized knowledge and training allow her to make certain observations that a lay person cannot make. Her testimony can therefore assist the jury in deciding who authored the graffiti, which is relevant to the critical issue of whether the Stuttes burned down their house.

The Court next considers whether Eakes's analysis employed reliable methodology. The purpose of the reliability inquiry is to "assess whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issu e." Daubert, 509 U.S. 579. Again, it is not the province of the Court to weigh the value of an expert's conclusions. "The focus, of course, must be solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate." Kumho, 526 U.S. at 150.

ANPAC submitted a form worksheet outlining the procedures Eakes followed. She testified that the form reflects her training in handwriting analysis, and further testified to using books and treatises that were "recognized authoritative treatises in [the] field." She testified that her methods have been subject to peer review. Moreover, as with the first inquiry under 702, the Stuttes do not levy their attack at her process, nor do they argue that the conclusions of handwriting analysis are not sufficiently certain for court or that the principles of the field are unreliable. The Stuttes ...


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