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Hart v. Larson

United States District Court, S.D. California

December 5, 2019

HOYT HART, Plaintiff,
SCOTT R. LARSON, et al., Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Hoyt Hart's motion for a new trial. [Doc. 147.] The motion is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This action arose out of an attorneys' fees dispute between Plaintiff Hoyt Hart and Defendants Scott Larson and Scott Larson, P.C.[1] In April 2013, Jo Ann Storm suffered a brain injury while visiting the Welk Resort in Cathedral City, California. Subsequently, the Storms hired their friend and neighbor, Colorado attorney Larson, to sue Welk Resort and its insurer. In August 2014, Larson invited Hoyt Hart to act as California local counsel on the Storm case. Following settlement of the Storm lawsuit, Plaintiff Hoyt Hart brought a claim for fraud against Larson.[2] Hart alleged that Larson misrepresented the state of settlement negotiations between the Storms and the Storm defendants at the time that he and Larson negotiated how the Storm contingency fee would be split.

         The matter was tried by jury from August 13 to August 15, 2019. A seven-person jury unanimously rendered a verdict for Defendants, finding that Larson did not make a false representation of fact to Hart. Doc. 133 at 2. On August 19, 2019, the Court entered judgment against Hart and for Larson in accordance with the jury's verdict. Doc. 136, Following the verdict on August 15, 2019, the Court ordered that all post-trial motions be filed no later than September 4, 2019. See Doc. 127. Hart filed his motion for a new trial on September 16, 2019, twelve days after the deadline set by the Court.[3] For the reasons discussed below, Hart's motion is DENIED.


         Hart moves for a new trial based on two of the Court's evidentiary rulings. Under Rule 59, a new trial may be granted "only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice." Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods., 212 F.3d 493, 510 n. 15 (9th Cir. 2000). A new trial may not be granted "merely because [the court] might have come to a different result from that reached by the jury." Roy v. Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 896 F.2d 1175, 1176 (9th Cir, 1990). In support of his motion, Hart contends the Court erred in admitting two categories of evidence: (1) evidence relating to a disciplinary action brought against him by the State Bar of California and (2) evidence that the IRS asserted tax liens on his assets because of his failure to pay taxes.

         A. Evidence of Hart's False Statement to the State Bar

         Hart argues the Court erred in admitting evidence that the State Bar of California disciplined him for knowingly making a false statement to a State Bar investigator. Hart contends that evidence should have been excluded under both Federal Rules of Evidence 403 and 608(b). The Court disagrees.

         The evidence Hart disputes is limited to a single question and answer during defense counsel's cross-examination of Hart Defense counsel asked, 'Ts it true or not, in 2002, you admitted you made a misrepresentation to the California State Bar, which under State Bar rules was an act of moral turpitude?" Hart responded, "Yes, seventeen years ago." The inquiry then ended, in compliance with the Court's prior ruling.[4] No other questions were asked regarding the issue, and no extrinsic evidence was admitted regarding Hart's State Bar discipline.

         1. FRE 403

         Hart contends the Court should have excluded the question under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, which provides that relevant evidence may be excluded if "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice," Fed, R. Evid. 403. Importantly, "Rule 403 ... is an extraordinary remedy to be used sparingly because it permits the trial court to exclude otherwise relevant evidence," United States v. Mende, 43 F.3d 1298, 1302 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, evidence of Hart's discipline by the State Bar for an act of moral turpitude is highly probative of his credibility as a witness because, as Larson argues, it bears on his willingness to lie to advance his personal interests. Moreover, contrary to Hart's position, his credibility was very much at issue where (1) he brought a fraud claim against Larson, (2) he took the stand to offer his own testimony as evidence on each element of his fraud claim, and (3) the merits of that claim came down to a credibility determination: whether the jury believed his version of events or Larson's. Thus, the Court again finds that the evidence, limited to the fact of Hart's State Bar misconduct, is and was highly probative of his credibility.

         The Court also did not err by finding the high probative value of Hart's misconduct outweighed the danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence to be excluded under FRE 403, "the danger of prejudice must not merely outweigh the probative value of the evidence, but substantially outweigh it." Mende, 34 F.3d at 1302. Further, "[r]elevant evidence is inherently prejudicial," and thus, "it is only unfair prejudice, substantially outweighing probative value, which permits exclusion of relevant matter under Rule 403." United States v. Hankey,203 F.3d 1160, 1172 (9th Cir. 2000) (quoting 1972 Advisory Committee Notes to FRE 403) (emphasis added). The fact that Hart made his false statement seventeen years prior to trial does lower the evidence's probative value to some degree but not so much so that it is outweighed by a ...

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