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CAN YOU USE EXPERTS TO OPPOSE SUMMARY JUDGEMENT MOTIONS IN NEW YORK? ONLY IF YOU PAY ATTENTION TO THE RULES

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IMG_00000027.jpgThe rules regarding expert’s disclosure in New York, concerning when a Plaintiff or Defendant has to disclose to its opponent an expert witness that it intends to testify at trial if it hopes to use the expert’s affidavit in support of or opposition to a motion for summary judgement, might seem confusing. The rules have caused so much misunderstanding that the Appellate Division, Second Department, went out of its way to clarify them, in a recent decision, Rivers v. Birnbaum, 102 A.D.3d 26, 953 N.Y.S.2d 232 (2nd Dept. 2012). The key to understanding the rules is to understand the decision, both its rationale and the reasons the Second Department went out of its way to explain it in the first place.

As we have previously discussed, if a party serves expert’s disclosure after the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness has been filed, without moving to vacate the Note of Issue first, the trial court has the discretion to refuse to consider an expert’s affidavit served in regard to a timely motion for summary judgement. See Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra,102 A.D.3d 26, 953 N.Y.S.2d 232 (2nd Dept. 2012), and Constr. by Singletree, Inc. v. Lowe, 55 A.D.3d 861, 866 N.Y.S.2d 702 (2nd Dept. 2008). In other words, a party might still be able to use the expert’s affidavit or it might not; it depends on the trial court and, as long as the trial court does not abuse its discretion, the party has to live with whatever the trial court decides. The real trick is to figure out what constitutes an abuse of discretion.

Before the Second Department decided Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra, last October, there was a widespread, mistaken, belief that a court would not and could not consider an expert’s affidavit in conjunction with a summary judgement motion unless the party that wanted to rely on it disclosed the expert before the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness were filed. Many read Constr. by Singletree, Inc. v. Lowe, supra, as creating such a hard and fast rule. Whether that was wishful thinking or panic, it was reading something into the court’s decision that was not there. As we discussed last time, Constr. by Singletree, Inc. v. Lowe, supra, only held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse to consider such an expert’s affidavit.

Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra, was the perfect vehicle for the Second Department to clarify the rule. It was a medical malpractice action that had a sympathetic plaintiff, a mother who claimed the doctors, hospital, and other health professionals, who cared for her during her pregnancies missed obvious warning signs of gynecological cancer she since has suffered from. At the conclusion of discovery, after the Plaintiff filed the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness, many of the defendants moved for summary judgement; they used affidavits from experts, however, that they had not previously disclosed. If there had been a hard and fast rule, as many believed Constr. by Singletree, Inc. v. Lowe, supra, provided, then the defendants would have been precluded from relying on those experts’ affidavits. The trial court, however, even though the plaintiff cried foul, considered the defendants’ experts’ affidavits and granted the defendants summary judgement. The Second Department upheld the decision, and its reasoning is enlightening.

The main point behind the Second Department’s decision in Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra, is that the central purpose of a motion for summary judgement is to determine whether there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires a trial; if there is one, the motion must be denied. As the court said, precluding a party from relying on an expert’s affidavit merely because it did not disclose the expert prior to the conclusion of discovery, would not necessarily achieve that goal. Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra,102 A.D.3d at 42, 953 N.Y.S.2d at 243 (2nd Dept. 2012). In other words, an arbitrary decision to uphold an unclear deadline, may not be the best way to ensure that justice between the parties to a given lawsuit is done. What makes this guiding principal even clearer is that the Second Department explicitly stated that a trial court could impose strict deadlines for the completion of expert’s disclosure and, as long as the deadline was clearly set beforehand, the trial court could sanction a party for violating it. Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra, 102 A.D.3d at 39, 953 N.Y.S.2d at 241 (2nd Dept. 2012).

In Rivers v. Birnbaum, supra, the court found that the defendants, through the use of their experts, had made a prima facie showing, as they were required to in this medical malpractice action, that, in treating plaintiff, they had not deviated from the accepted standard of medical care. It also found that plaintiff had not raised a triable issue of fact about this; it was not even a close call. As the court pointed out in great detail, plaintiff’s experts’ affidavits were vague, conclusory, and otherwise deficient.

Therein lies the key. Why would the court deny summary judgement, and either require a trial or let plaintiff win, when plaintiff could not establish even the arguable existence of a genuine issue of material triable fact in opposition to the summary judgement motions? Precluding the defendants from relying on their experts’ affidavits merely because they had failed to disclose their experts prior to the filing of the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness, especially when the trial court had not set that point as the deadline for expert’s disclosure, would be a waste of time and a miscarriage of justice.

This rationale explains other, more recent decisions. In Brande v. City of White Plains, 107 A.D.3d 926, 966 N.Y.S.2d 911 (2nd Dept. 2013), which was decided June 26, 2013, the injured plaintiff tripped over a speed bump in an indoor parking garage. Plaintiff could not recover if the speed bump was open and obvious. The defendant showed it was painted bright yellow, was two inches high, ten inches wide, and six feet long. The first time plaintiff disclosed any evidence to the contrary was in opposition to defendant’s motion for summary judgement. There should have been no surprise that the court refused to consider plaintiff’s expert’s affidavit; it seems clear that it would not have made any real difference anyway.

In Salcedo v. Weng Qu Ju, 106 A.D.3d 977, 965 N.Y.S.2d 595(2nd Dept. 2013), decided on May 22, 2013, the main issue was whether the defect in the sidewalk plaintiff tripped over was on defendant’s property. When the defendant moved for summary judgement, the trial court refused to consider plaintiff’s expert’s affidavit for the sole reason the expert had not been disclosed before the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness had been filed. The Second Department found that the trial court abused its discretion. It cited the fact that plaintiff’s opposition, including its expert’s affidavit, created a triable issue of fact as to whether the defect was on the defendant’s property.

The actual rule in the Second Department appears to be that it is an abuse of discretion for a trial court to refuse to consider an expert’s affidavit that can decide a motion for summary judgement merely because the expert was not disclosed before the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness were filed. If an expert’s affidavit raises a genuine issue of triable fact to defeat summary judgement or establishes the lack of a triable issue of fact to grant summary judgement, it should be considered; except, presumably, in egregious cases of intentional delay and resulting prejudice to the opposing party. In other words, where the expert’s affidavit can make all the difference, chances are it will be considered.

Ray Grasing