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Douglas v. Owens

filed: March 24, 1995.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 89-cv-01879).

Before: Cowen, Nygaard and Alito, Circuit Judges.

Author: Cowen

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

This civil rights action was filed with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a state prisoner who alleges that he was beaten by numerous prison guards in the aftermath of a prison riot. The prison guards appeal the jury verdict and entry of judgment in favor of the plaintiff. We are called on to determine whether the district court: (1) abused its discretion in limiting the scope of cross-examination of a witness for the plaintiff; (2) abused its discretion in instructing the jury on the law governing the use of force against prisoners; and (3) erred by permitting the jury to render a special verdict on an issue which had not originally been submitted to them.

Because we conclude that the district court abused its discretion by improperly limiting the scope of cross-examination of a key witness for the plaintiff, we will reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for a new trial. In light of our decision to remand for a new trial, it is not necessary to address the issue of the jury instruction regarding the law governing the use of force against prisoners. Nonetheless, because of the likelihood that this issue will undoubtedly arise again during the new trial, we will give directions on the issue to the district court. Finally, as to the special verdict issue, we conclude that the district court erred in allowing the jury to consider whether a prison guard approved an excessive use of force when the only theory of liability submitted to the jury was that the prison guard actually participated in the beating.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Defendants in the district court and appellants before us are four prison guards from the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Camp Hill").*fn1 Andre Douglas ("Douglas"), plaintiff in the district court, was an inmate at the same institution and alleges that he was beaten on two separate occasions by prison guards in the immediate aftermath of riots which occurred in October of 1989 at SCI-Camp Hill.

Douglas filed two complaints which alleged that appellants and seven others, all prison guards or prison officials, violated his constitutional rights when they beat him, observed others beat him, and failed to protect him. Summary judgment was granted in favor of two defendants. The case against the remaining defendants, including appellants, was tried before a jury.

Testimony at trial elicited that on October 25 and 26, 1989, riots broke out at SCI-Camp Hill. Prior to and during the riots, Douglas was confined in the Restricted Housing Unit ("RHU"), also known as "D block," within the prison. During the riots, the security of RHU had been compromised, requiring a thorough search or "shakedown" of the RHU, which was conducted on October 31, 1989. Douglas claimed that he was twice beaten without cause by corrections officers: once on October 31 after the shakedown and once on November 3, immediately before he was transferred to the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.*fn2 Douglas claims that during the October 31 incident, he was handcuffed and then beaten with a baton in his cell, dragged out of his cell, beaten again, and then threatened with a shotgun.

Defendants attempted to show that Douglas was never beaten by offering the following evidence: (1) all of the defendants denied beating Douglas; (2) members of the Pennsylvania State Police who patrolled SCI-Camp Hill during the riots and were on duty during the alleged beating testified that Douglas had not been beaten; (3) although medical records at the prison indicate that Douglas complained of and was treated for chest pain following the riots, the medical records did not note any bruises or contusions that Douglas claims were present on his chest; and (4) a videotape of Douglas taken upon his arrival at Lewisburg shows no visible injuries to his head or face. Additionally, when asked by correction officials in the videotape if he had any injuries, Douglas answered that he did not.

Douglas attempted to corroborate his claim with testimony from the Imam Quadir Sabir ("the Imam")*fn3, who at the time was an Islamic chaplain at SCI-Camp Hill. The Imam testified that at some point between October 25 and November 3, 1989, he observed that Douglas had "abrasions or bruises in the chest area and around the neck area." App. at 73. On cross-examination of the Imam, appellants attempted to establish that the Imam had been fired by the Department of Corrections because of his involvement with the rioting inmates at SCI-Camp Hill and his failure to cooperate in an investigation of the riots. The district court, however, refused to permit this line of questioning on cross-examination and instead only allowed the jury to learn that the Imam's employment had been "terminated."*fn4

At the Conclusion of his case, Douglas voluntarily dismissed one defendant. In addition the district court granted another defendant's motion to dismiss. The jury returned special verdicts finding that appellants Simoncini, Enriquez, and Ardabell had used excessive force against Douglas and that appellant Griffith had approved the use of excessive force. The jury awarded Douglas a total of $10,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.*fn5

Appellants argue that the district court improperly limited their scope of cross-examination of the Imam. Next, appellants take issue with the district court's refusal to instruct the jury that not all force used against a prisoner is excessive. They argue that had the jury been informed that prison guards may lawfully use reasonable physical force when necessary in the prison setting, the jury may have concluded that such force was justified under the circumstances. Finally, appellants claim that it was improper for the district court to allow the jury to impose liability on Griffith for approving the use of excessive force, when throughout the litigation and in the charge to the jury Douglas only claimed that Griffith used excessive force.

II. Discussion

A. Scope of Cross-Examination

We review a district court's ruling concerning the allowable scope of cross-examination for abuse of discretion. United States v. Werme, 939 F.2d 108, 117 (3d Cir. 1991) (citing United States v. Reed, 724 F.2d 677, 679 (8th Cir. 1984)), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 1092, 112 S. Ct. 1165 (1992).

We begin our analysis by noting that a party is guaranteed "only 'an opportunity for effective cross-examination, not cross-examination that is effective in whatever way, and to whatever extent, the defense might wish.'" Kentucky v. Stincer, 482 U.S. 730, 739, 107 S. Ct. 2658, 2664, 96 L. Ed. 2d 631 (1987) (quoting Delaware v. Fensterer, 474 U.S. 15, 20, 106 S. Ct. 292, 294, 88 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1985)) (emphasis in original). We also recognize that the district court is required to strike a balance between the opportunity to cross-examine and the need to prevent repetitive or abusive cross-examination. United States v. Casoni, 950 F.2d 893, 919 (3d Cir. 1991). Thus, the district court may properly exercise its discretion in this area by imposing reasonable limits on the scope of cross-examination, weighing such factors as undue prejudice, relevancy, and delay due to repetition. As stated recently by the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, "trial Judges retain wide latitude to ...

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