The Trial Court's Substantial Discretion Under FRE 403

Can animals be allowed in the courtroom as a demonstrative exhibit depending on the nature of the trial issues? In an action alleging that the disability provisions of the federal and state Fair Housing Act were violated by the exclusion of a condominium association owner's dog, the trial court allowed the dog to be present during the plaintiff's trial testimony; circuit concludes that the decisions rested within the substantial discretion afforded the trial court under FRE 403, in Bhogaita v. Altamonte Heights Condominium Ass'n, Inc., _ F.3d _ (11th Cir. Aug. 27, 2014) (Nos. 13–12625, 13–13914)

In Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379 (2008), the Supreme Court emphasized the substantial discretion normally given to the trial court on matters concerning relevance under a href="http://federalevidence.com/rules-of-evidence#Rule401">FRE 401, and unfair prejudice under FRE 403. A recent case in the Eleventh took note of this case in reviewing the discretion of the trial court to permit a dog to be present during a portion of the trial.

Trial Court Proceedings: Dog As Demonstrative Exhibit

In the case, plaintiff Bhogaita brought an action alleging that his condominium association violated disability standards under the Federal and Florida Fair Housing Acts, "when it enforced its pet weight policy and demanded Bhogaita remove his emotional support dog from his condominium." Bhogaita, _ F.3d at _. The plaintiff testified at trial. During his testimony, the plaintiff was allowed to testify with his dog present over defense objection. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff. On appeal, the association contended that "the dog’s presence in the courtroom and at Bhogaita’s side during his testimony was unfairly prejudicial, as it suggested that Bhogaita required the dog at all times, and that this prejudicial effect substantially outweighed any probative value the dog may have had" under FRE 403.

Eleventh Circuit Review: Noting Trial Court's Discretion

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the presence of the dog during the trial testimony. The circuit noted that the trial court's decision to allow the dog to tbe present rested within

the nature of the broad discretion granted to trial courts determining evidentiary matters. Gray ex rel. Alexander v. Bostic, 720 F.3d 887, 893 (11th Cir. 2013) (explaining that the abuse of discretion standard implies a range of choices). And this discretion is particularly broad with respect to Rule 403 determinations. Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379, 384–85, 128 S. Ct. 1140, 1145 (2008). A district court abuses its discretion to admit relevant evidence when its decision rests on [1] a clearly erroneous fact-finding, “an [2] errant conclusion of law, or [3] an improper application of law to fact.” Fid. Interior Constr., Inc. [v. Se. Carpenters Reg’l Council of the United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners of Am.], 675 F.3d 1250, 1258 (11th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). Nothing suggests that the district court’s decision allowing the dog to remain present as a demonstrative exhibit rested on any of the three.

Bhogaita, _ F.3d at _.

Conclusion

The Bhogaita highlights the substantial discretion given to the trial court under FRE 403. For more on the Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, case, see Supreme Court Watch: Trial Court's Essential Role In FRE 401/403 Relevance Determinations.

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