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Langbord v. United States Department of the Treasury

May 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Legrome D. Davis, J.



This litigation arises out of a dispute over ten 1933 Double Eagle gold coins. In August 2004, Plaintiffs Roy, Joan and David Langbord, acting through their counsel Barry Berke ("Berke"), contacted officials of the United States Mint to inform them that they had discovered the Double Eagles in a family safety deposit box in Philadelphia. According to Plaintiffs, the coins had belonged to their late family member, Israel Switt ("Switt"), and passed to Plaintiffs following the deaths of Switt and his wife. On September 22, 2004, Plaintiff Roy Langbord, accompanied by Berke, opened the safe deposit box and turned the coins over to Mint officials. The parties disagree over the purpose and legal effect of that event. In June 2005, Mint officials informed Plaintiffs that the Mint would not be returning the coins to them. The Mint and the United States Department of the Treasury rejected Plaintiffs' subsequent demands for return of the coins based on the agencies' determination that the coins had been stolen from the United States Government. In December 2006, Plaintiffs instituted this civil action against Defendants the United States Department of the Treasury, the United States Mint, and numerous governmental officials, alleging, in part, causes of action for conversion, violations of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, and violations of Plaintiff's Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.

One of the questions in this case that may become significant at trial is whether the ten 1933 Double Eagle coins at issue were obtained legally from the United States Mint or the Department of Treasury. Both sets of parties have sought to introduce expert testimony that bears on that question. Plaintiffs' proposed expert witness, David Bowers ("Bowers"), is an established professional numismatist and author who has written on the history of coins, including the history of Double Eagles. Bowers's expert report offers the opinion that the coins could have been obtained by a member of the public directly from the United States Mint or the Department of Treasury pursuant to those agencies' practices and policies in place at the relevant time. Defendants' proposed expert witness, David Tripp ("Tripp"), is also an established professional numismatist and has also written works on the history of coins, including the history of the 1933 Double Eagles. Tripp's expert report concludes that the 1933 Double Eagles at issue were never officially released from the United States Mint.

Plaintiffs have moved to exclude Tripp's expert opinion, and Defendants have moved to exclude Bowers's expert opinion. We consider the admissibility of each expert's opinion below.


A. Standards for Admission of Expert Testimony

Pursuant to the Federal Rules of Evidence, this Court must act as a "gatekeeper" to ensure that "all expert testimony or evidence is not only relevant, but also reliable." Pineda v. Ford Motor Co., 520 F.3d 237, 243 (3d Cir. 2008). In so doing, however, we must keep in mind that the Rules of Evidence "embody a strong preference for admitting any evidence that may assist the trier of fact" and have "a liberal policy of admissibility" with respect to expert testimony. Id. Federal Rule of Evidence 702,*fn1 which governs the admissibility of expert testimony, has three major requirements:

(1) the proffered witness must be an expert, i.e., must be qualified; (2) the expert must testify about matters requiring scientific, technical or specialized knowledge; and (3) the expert's testimony must assist the trier of fact.

Id. at 244 (internal citations omitted). The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has summarized these requirements as "a trilogy of restrictions on expert testimony: qualification, reliability and fit." Schneider v. Fried, 320 F.3d 396, 404 (3d Cir. 2003).

1. Qualification

Under the first factor, in order to be qualified, the witness must "possess specialized expertise." Id. The Third Circuit has interpreted this requirement liberally, holding that "a broad range of knowledge, skills, and training qualify an expert." Id. (citing In re Paoli Railroad Yard PCB Litig. (Paoli II), 35 F.3d 717, 741-43 (3d Cir. 1994)). The Third Circuit has also highlighted that this liberal approach "extends to the substantive as well as the formal qualifications of experts." Pineda, 520 F.3d at 244. Specifically, the Third Circuit has held that "[i]t is an abuse of discretion to exclude testimony simply because the trial court does not deem the proposed expert to be the best qualified or because the proposed expert does not have the specialization that the court considers most appropriate." Id. (citing Holbrook v. Lykes Bros. S.S. Co., 80 F.3d 777, 782 (3d Cir. 1996)). As the Third Circuit emphasized in Holbrook:

[M]ost arguments about an expert's qualifications relate more to the weight to be given the expert's testimony, than to its admissibility. Thus, witnesses may be competent to testify as experts even though they may not, in the court's eyes, be the "best" qualified. Who is "best" qualified is a matter of weight upon which reasonable jurors may disagree . . . . [I]nsistence on a certain kind of degree or background is inconsistent with our jurisprudence in this area.

Holbrook, 80 F.3d at 782. In fact, according to the Advisory Committee Notes on the 2000 Amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 702, experience alone may be a sufficient ground for qualifying a witness as an expert. See Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory committee's note ("[T]he text of Rule 702 expressly contemplates that an expert may be qualified on the basis of experience. In certain fields, experience is the predominant, if not sole, basis for a great deal of reliable expert testimony.").

2. Reliability

The reliability standard requires that "the expert . . . have good grounds for his on her belief." Schneider, 320 F.3d at 404 (citing Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 742). The test is whether the expert's "particular opinion is based on valid reasoning and reliable methodology." In re TMI Litig., 193 F.3d 613, 665 (3d Cir. 1999). The Third Circuit has explained that:

The grounds for the expert's opinion merely have to be good, they do not have to be perfect. The judge might think that there are good grounds for an expert's conclusion even if the judge thinks that there are better grounds for some alternative conclusion . . . . [T]he judge should not exclude evidence simply because he or she thinks that there is a flaw in the expert's investigative process which renders the expert's conclusions incorrect. The judge should only exclude the evidence if the flaw is large enough that the expert lacks the "good grounds" for his or her conclusions.

Id. (citing Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 742). The Third Circuit has also explained that the parties do not have to prove that the conclusions of the experts are correct. Id. Rather, they "only have to demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence that their opinions are reliable." Id. (citing Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 744). Therefore, "the evidentiary requirement of reliability is lower than the merits standard of correctness." Id. (citing Paoli II, 35 F.3d at 744).

Under the Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and the Third Circuit's decision in United States v. Downing, 753 F.2d 1224 (3d Cir. 1985), the factors that a court ...

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