Expert testimony can play a significant role in shaping the outcome of cases that go to trial. For example, in a case lacking witnesses or evidence that could directly support or undercut the plaintiff’s accusations of severe sexual misconduct, what stood out most was the expert testimony.
On August 8, 2017, a two-week jury trial ended with a New Jersey mayor being cleared of any wrongdoing under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), while his accuser, who remains employed by the township he leads, must pay damages for defamation. Tamara Smith v. Township of Irvington and Anthony Vauss, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County.
According to her initial complaint, the plaintiff was hired by the Township in 2004, and, in mid-2005, became a Public Works Inspector with the Township’s Department of Public Works. Leading up to the Township’s mayoral election in May 2014, the plaintiff allegedly reported to the eventual winner of that election, Anthony Vauss.
As Smith alleged in the complaint, her work environment became “toxic” in August 2013, when Vauss allegedly propositioned her for a discrete sexual relationship (Smith and Vauss both had spouses who also worked for the Township). In return, Vauss allegedly promised that, as Mayor, he would get Smith promoted and would otherwise attend to the financial needs of Smith and her husband. When Smith rebuffed his advances, Vauss allegedly raped her.
Smith sued Vauss as well as the Township under LAD. LAD prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, including by condoning sexual harassment. Moreover, alleged victims of prohibited discrimination can sue not just their employers, but also individual supervisors who are accused of aiding and abetting the alleged discrimination.
Faced with the prospect of going to trial with just Vauss’ word against Smith’s, Vauss’ legal team ultimately won the battle by using expert witnesses. First, a psychological evaluation revealed that Smith was battling depression and experiencing delusions. Second, a linguistics expert, by studying Smith’s speech patterns, was able to connect her to an anonymous letter received by the local newspaper attacking Vauss for completely unrelated, allegedly false reasons.
In cases with few witnesses to the alleged wrongdoing, defense teams can benefit from considering the value of expert witnesses to establish a critical element in their defense. This case demonstrates how that tactic was employed successfully to undermine the motives of the plaintiff.