Article by David Greene
Fox Rothschild LLP
A trial court may not rely on a legal opinion offered by a party’s expert witness. Florida’s Third District recently reversed dismissal of a mortgage foreclosure action based on this rule in Citibank, N.A., v. Martin and Jitka Olsak, 3rd DCA Case No. 3D15-1032 (Nov. 30, 2016).
In Olsak, the borrowers called as a witness at trial a mortgage foreclosure fraud investigator and securitization officer, who was not a lawyer. He testified that, in his opinion the plaintiff, which was a trust, was not allowed to acquire a promissory note that had been endorsed in blank and that the endorsement on the Olsaks’ note violated certain IRS provisions. Relying on this opinion, the trial court entered judgment for the borrowers, finding that the plaintiff trust had not acquired an interest in the note or mortgage and, thus, did not have standing to foreclose.
The appellate court reversed because “even witnesses qualified as experts, generally are precluded from providing testimony in the form of legal conclusions.” It follows that opinion testimony about legal conclusions are inadmissible, so it is reversible error for a trial court to rely on expert opinions to decide questions or law. Finding that the borrowers’ expert witness offered only legal opinions, not facts, and that the trial court based its rulings on that testimony, reversal was required. It probably didn’t help that the appellate court found the expert’s testimony to be “often of dubious relevance” and of “questionable probative value.”
Olsak is a good reminder that, regardless of whether or not expert opinions may be relevant, those opinions are not admissible if they are simply legal conclusions.