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Jacobs v. Carlson

March 17, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge


On March 10, 2009, the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants Scott Carlson ("Carlson"), Gregory Giddens ("Giddens"), Ronald Collings ("Collings"), and Earnest Hall ("Hall," and together with Carlson, Giddens, and Collings, "defendants"), and against plaintiff Andre Jacobs ("Jacobs" or "plaintiff") on all counts. On March 18, 2009, Jacobs filed three motions: (1) motion for trial transcripts (Docket No. 211), (2) motion for new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) (Docket No. 212), and (3) motion for relief from judgment or new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) (Docket No. 214). On June 1, 2009, Jacobs filed a supplemental motion for new trial and/or request for sanctions pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 37, 59, and 60 (Docket No. 221).

As a preliminary matter, the motion for trial transcripts will be granted. Payment for the cost of producing the transcripts is to be made from the court‟s pro hac vice fund. If plaintiff is successful in this case and receives funds from defendants, plaintiff is responsible for paying back the cost of the transcripts. With respect to the remaining motions, the court will deny those motions for the reasons set forth below.

I. Background

Plaintiff‟s action arose from events occurring on February 24, 2004, at SCI Fayette. (Br. in Supp. of Pl.‟s Mot. for New Trial 1 (Docket No. 213.)) The events at issue with respect to the pending motions concern Cell 23 and Cell 10-11 of SCI Fayette. Cell 23 was where plaintiff was found to have assaulted defendant Carlson, and Cell 10-11 was where plaintiff was sprayed with Oleoresin Capsicum Spray ("OC") after he refused to comply with an order. The events with respect to Cell 10-11 were recorded on videotape.

II. Rule 59 Motions

A. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) provides, in relevant part:

A new trial may be granted to all or any of the parties and on all or part of the issues . . . in an action in which there has been a trial by jury, for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States . . . .

FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a). Rule 59(a) does not set forth specific grounds on which a court may grant a new trial. "The decision to grant or deny a new trial is confided almost entirely to the discretion of the district court." Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980)); see Coney v. NPR, 312 F. App‟x 469, 471 (3d Cir. 2009).

The scope of a district court's discretion in evaluating a motion for a new trial depends upon whether the motion is based upon a prejudicial error of law or a verdict alleged to be against the weight of the evidence. See Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). When the motion involves a matter within the sound discretion of the trial court -- such as the court's evidentiary rulings, points of charge to the jury, or a prejudicial statement made by counsel -- the district court has wide latitude in ruling on the motion. Foster v. Nat‟l Fuel Gas Co., 316 F.3d 424, 429-30 (3d Cir. 2003).

B. Discussion

In his motions filed pursuant to Rule 59, plaintiff argues that a new trial is warranted for three reasons. First, plaintiff argues that he was improperly prevented from introducing evidence about the effects of OC on other inmates. (See Pl.‟s Mot. for New Trial (Docket No. 212).) Second, plaintiff argues that the court incorrectly ruled that collateral estoppel prevented him from introducing evidence concerning specific events that took place in the course of his altercation with defendants in Cell 23. (See id.) Third, plaintiff argues that counsel for defendants lied to him in telling him that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (the "DOC") does not have a system tracking complaints raised by inmates against DOC employees. (See Pl.‟s Supplemental Mot. for New Trial (Docket No. 221).) Each argument will be addressed.

1. Evidence on the Effects of OC Spray

Plaintiff argues that because he was prevented from introducing evidence at trial on the issue of the dangerousness of OC, he was unable to show effectively that the use of OC was excessive force under the circumstances, and, therefore, could not prove defendants‟ subjective state of mind. Plaintiff's evidence on this point consisted of witnesses who sought to testify that they had been harmed by OC without being directly sprayed with it, simply by being in the vicinity when it was used. At trial the court sustained defendants‟ relevancy objection and did not permit plaintiff to introduce that kind of evidence. The court concluded that any limited probative value the evidence might have was substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice to defendants.

Relevant evidence is defined by Federal Rule of Evidence 401, which provides that relevant evidence is "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." FED. R. EVID. 401. All relevant evidence will be admissible unless it is excluded by another rule of evidence. United States v. Siryuth, 98 F.3d 739, 745 (3d Cir. 1996). Under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, relevant evidence will be excluded if the court determines that the risk of unfair prejudice to a party substantially outweighs the probative value of the evidence. FED. R. EVID. 403.

At trial, the court instructed the jury that in order to reach a verdict in favor of Jacobs the jury was required to find that defendants used force against Jacobs for the purpose of causing harm, rather than in a good faith effort to carry out their duties as corrections officers. The court noted that relevant facts to this determination included: whether the defendants each used force against the plaintiff; whether there was a need for such application of force (i.e., in the incident in cell 23); whether there was a need for the application of force by defendants after plaintiff assaulted defendant Carlson; the relationship between that need for force, if any, and the amount of force applied; the relevant facts and circumstances defendants individually reasonably believed to be true at the time of the encounter; whether defendants individually reasonably perceived a threat to the safety of staff or inmates, and if so, the extent of that threat; whether each of the defendants made any efforts to temper the severity of the force used; and whether plaintiff was physically injured and, if so, the extent of plaintiff‟s injuries.

Plaintiff argues that the evidence he sought to offer was relevant to the determination whether the force used was reasonable under the circumstances, because the evidence would demonstrate that the OC used was so potent that it could harm other prisoners who were not directly sprayed with it. Defendants argue that the witnesses in question did not testify to the effects of OC on that specific instance, but rather to the effects of OC generally, that the testimony was inflammatory and prejudicial, and that it was not relevant to the determination whether the force used in the specific instance at hand was reasonable.

This issue was raised and resolved by the court during the trial, and the court is not inclined to reconsider its ruling under the circumstances.*fn1 The court is not aware of any law or argument not already considered in reaching the conclusion to not permit the introduction of that evidence. The court notes that the effect of second hand OC on other prisoners from the perspective of those prisoners will not show defendants‟ state of mind at the relevant time or the effect of the OC on plaintiff in this particular instance. The proposed evidence offered by plaintiff would only show the effects of OC on certain other prisoners, and not what the effects were on plaintiff during the incident in question. In addition, plaintiff did not proffer that defendants were involved in administering the OC to the other prisoners or that defendants were aware of the effect of the OC on the other prisoners. The undisputed evidence at trial showed that plaintiff was directly sprayed with OC, and plaintiff testified about the effects the OC upon him. Plaintiff introduced evidence of a video recording of the use of the OC on him, his own testimony and the testimony of eyewitnesses with respect to the immediate effect of the OC upon plaintiff, as well as the residual effects of OC remaining on his skin. As the court set forth on the record, the proffered testimony had little relevance, and could unfairly prejudice defendants.

For the reasons set forth above and on the record at trial, the court was within its discretion in precluding the introduction of this evidence, and plaintiff was not ...

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