Testimony of Human Resources Expert Witness Rejected for Failure to Demonstrate how her Experience Informed her Conclusions

Testimony of Human Resources Expert Witness Rejected for Failure to Demonstrate how her Experience Informed her Conclusions

In the summer of 2020, Alexandria L. Erwin, the Plaintiff, was hired by OBI Seafoods, LLC, the Defendant, to work as a fish processor at its Egegik, Alaska fish processing plant. Erwin, who is Black, reported instances of racial harassment and discrimination in the workplace. She claimed that coworkers made explicit comments objectifying her and complained of seeing graffiti of swastikas and other derogatory terms on the bunkhouses where she lived for the summer, along with slogans like “white power” being directed toward her in the workplace. After Erwin engaged in OBI’s investigation concerning some of the allegations, Erwin received an unfavorable performance evaluation from OBI managers. Erwin was initially told she was eligible for rehire but her review was subsequently modified by the managers to indicate that she was “ineligible for rehire.”

On August 21, 2023, Plaintiff listed Judith Clark on her Expert witness Disclosure and provided OBI with a copy of Clark’s report pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2)(B). The Plaintiff indicated that Clark, informed by her years of experience and extensive training on human resources practices, would testify regarding typical employer practices and human resources standards related to addressing, investigating, and remedying reports of discrimination and harassment, as well as preventing retaliation in the workplace. According to Erwin, “standard human resources and employment practices” constituted matters central to the case and made Clark’s testimony all the more relevant considering the average person was not typically familiar with such terms.

Defendant OBI Seafoods, LLC (“OBI”) requested the Court to grant the Motion to Exclude Plaintiff’s Expert Witness, Judith Clark. OBI argued that Clark’s report on the Plaintiff’s employment frequently ventured beyond the scope of permissible expert testimony by making conclusions of law or defining the law. As a result, the report did not meet the standards of reliability and relevance set forth in the Daubert test.

Human Resources Expert Witness

Judith Clark, SPHR, CPC, is a highly experienced human resources professional with over 40 years of industry expertise, including more than 30 years in consulting. She has an extensive background in teaching, having served as adjunct faculty at the University of Washington for 27 years and at the Atkinson School of Management at Willamette University. Clark holds multiple certifications, including Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) from the Human Resource Certification Institute, Certified Professional Consultant (CPC) from the International Guild of Professional Consultants, and Certified Professional in Public Sector HR Management (IPMA-CP) from the International Public Management Association – HR Division. She has also made significant contributions to the field through her leadership roles, including serving on the national Board of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for six years and completing a six-year term on the Board of the SHRM Foundation.

Discussion by the Court

Erwin enlisted Clark as a “Human Resources (HR) expert” to provide testimony on typical employer practices and human resources standards regarding responding to, investigating, and remedying reports of discrimination and harassment, as well as preventing retaliation at work. Additionally, Clark was tasked with rebutting the testimony of OBI’s four witnesses. OBI moved to exclude Clark’s testimony, arguing that it was neither reliable nor relevant. Erwin countered that Clark’s testimony was reliable, drawing from her extensive experience and training in human resources practices, and relevant because standard human resources and employment practices are often unfamiliar to the average person and are crucial to the case.

OBI argued that Clark’s testimony lacked reliability, stating it was based on personal opinions rather than professional expertise. They asserted that Clark’s testimony lacked sufficient methodology and failed to meet the expected analytical rigor of a testifying expert, as it did not sufficiently explain the fundamental basis for her opinions or how exactly her “relevant” experience was applied to the facts. OBI contended that Clark’s report lacked reference to any objective, independent validation to support her conclusions, citing Easton v. Asplundh Tree Experts, Co., Case No. C16-1694RSM (W.D. Wash. Sept. 12, 2017) and Arjangrad v. JP JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. Case No. 3:10-cv-01157-PK (D. Or. May 23, 2012) where similar expert testimony was excluded from consideration. 

Erwin countered by asserting that Clark’s testimony was reliable, arguing that Human Resources (HR) does not fit into the traditional category of science that Daubert considerations are developed to address. Erwin highlighted Clark’s over 40 years of experience in HR and maintained that her extensive professional experience validated her opinions, as they were grounded in well-established industry practices.

The Court observed that reliability in expert testimony necessitated a solid basis in the knowledge and experience of the relevant discipline. When addressing testimony concerning “non-scientific” issues, the typical Daubert factors like peer review and potential error rates are not applicable. In such cases, the reliability of the testimony heavily relies on the expertise and experience of the expert rather than the methodology or theory behind it. However, when an expert primarily relies on experience, they must elucidate how that experience led to their conclusion, why it constitutes a sufficient basis for their opinion, and how it is reliably applied to the facts. The trial court’s gatekeeping function requires more than merely accepting the expert’s assertions at face value.

Henceforth, human resources experts, despite operating in a “non-scientific” field, are still subject to scrutiny under Rule 702. In Easton, the district court excluded an HR expert witness because his report failed to identify the source of his cited “HR best practices” before jumping into impermissible conclusions about the defendant employer’s policies and actions being “reasonable, especially despite the lack of explanation or analysis as to how those policies and actions were consistent with any HR ‘best practices.’” Similarly, in the Arjangrad case, the district court deemed an HR specialist’s expert testimony unreliable because the expert failed to clarify how his experience in discrimination investigations or advising employers and HR professionals informed his understanding and definition of generally accepted standards of HR investigation practices.

Even with a liberal interpretation of Rule 702 in favor of admissibility, Clark’s expert testimony failed to illustrate how her experience informed her conclusions on best or “typical” practices in the HR field. The Court noted a lack of methodological connection between her experience and her conclusions.

As for OBI’s contention that Clark opined beyond the acceptable bounds of an expert on HR practices and standards, the Court disagreed in part, observing that certain portions—but not all—of Clark’s report threatened to invade the role of the jury and judge by asserting legal conclusions. Nevertheless, because Clark’s expert testimony was unreliable, the Court decided exclude her testimony and declined to address that portion of the Daubert test.


The Court granted OBI Seafoods, LLC’s motion to exclude Plaintiff’s Expert Witness Judith Clark.

The Court has not arrived on an outcome for this case since the remaining issues involved in this case still await resolution.

Key Takeaways

The Court’s decision to exclude Judith Clark’s expert testimony in the case Alexandria L. Erwin filed against OBI Seafoods, LLC underscores the critical importance of reliability and relevance in expert testimony. While Clark was designated as a Human Resources (HR) expert to provide insight into typical employer practices and HR standards, the Court ultimately deemed her testimony unreliable. This ruling highlights the necessity for expert witnesses to clearly demonstrate how their experience informs their conclusions, particularly in non-scientific fields like HR. The Court’s discussion emphasized the need for a methodological nexus between an expert’s experience and their conclusions, which Clark’s testimony lacked. The decision draws attention to the rigorous standards that expert witnesses must meet, including the clarification of the basis for their opinions and the reliable application of their experience to the case at hand. In summary, this case underscores the importance of thoroughness, clarity, and methodological rigor in expert testimony, serving as a reminder of the Courts’ gatekeeping function in ensuring the integrity and reliability of evidence presented.

Case Details

Case CaptionErwin v. Obi Seafoods, LLC
Docket Number2:22cv893
CourtUnited States District Court, Washington Western
Citation2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24461
Order DateFebruary 12, 2024


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