Friday, November 16, 2007
Usually Something Rolled This Big Is Illegal: California Court Makes Improper Impeachment Ruling in ADA LAwsuit Against Chipotle
Maurizio Antoninetti, a paraplegic individual requiring a wheelchair for mobility, has filed a lawsuit against Chipotle Mexian Grill. His claim is that Chipotle's "Customers With Disabalities" policy does not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act Guildelines. Both parties filed motions in limine seeking to exclude certain pieces of evidence, leading to an order by the United States District Court for the Southern District of California on November 8, granting in part and denying in part the motions.
While there were several interesting rulings in the order, I will only address one which I feel was made incorrectly. Chipotle moved to exclude any evidence regarding allegations that its "expert witness Kim Blackseth had conflicts of interest or misused his position with the California Building Standards Commission during his service with that agency." Antoninetti v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., 2007 WL 3333109 at *7 (S.D. Cal. 2007). It claimed, inter alia, that any extrinsic evidence to impeach Blackseth would be inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 608. Antoninetti countered that, inter alia, Mr. Blackseth's reputation in the disabled community as a person whose opinions are biased and not credible are admissible pursuant [to] Federal Rule of Evidence 608. The court sided with Chipotle, concluding that Rule 608 "expressly state[s] that specific instances of a witness' conduct that are offered for the purpose of attacking or supporting the witness' credibility may not be proven by extrinsic evidence."
If one were only to look at the language of Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b), the court's decision might seem correct. Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b) states that specific instances of conduct of a witness, for the purpose of attacking or supporting the witness' character for truthfulness may not be proved by extrinsic evidence, although they may be inquired into on cross-examination of the witness in certain circumstances. The general theory under which this extrinsic evidence is exluded is that it is "collateral" to the issue at trial.
For example, in a case where a defendant is on trial for murder, defense counsel might want to impeach an alleged eyewitness with evidence that he cheated on his taxes to show that his testimony cannot be trusted. However, because the issue of whether the eyewitness cheated on his taxes is collateral to the issue of whether the defendant committed the murder which is the subject of the trial, Federal Rule of Evidence 608(b) would prohibit defense counsel from introducing extrinsic evidence of the tax fraud such as a copy of the eyewitness' tax form or the testimony of a witness with knowledge.
In this case, however, Antoninetti is presumably claiming that Blackseth is biased and has a conflict of interest in this case, and it is well established under both Supreme Court and Ninth CIrcuit Court of Appeals precedent that extrinsic evidence of prior misconduct is admissible to show a witness' possible bias or self-interest in testifying. See United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45, 49 (1984); Lewy v. Southern Pacific Transportation Company, 799 F.2d 1281, 1298 (9th Cir. 1986).
The reason for this distinction is that with evidence of bias, it is being claimed not that the witness is untrustworthy based upon a prior act unrelated to the trial, but instead that the witness has a specific reason to provide trustworthy or untrustworthy testimony in the trial because he is biased against or in favor of a party or a class to which he belongs. Thus, the issue of the witness' bias is related to an issue which is the subject of the trial and thus provable by extrinsic evidence.