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Williams v. Klem

September 22, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson

Judge Caldwell


I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This is a civil rights action brought by Barry Williams, a state inmate, arising out of a June 8, 2005 affray between Williams and correctional staff. (Doc. 1.) This matter now comes before the Court on a Motion for Sanctions for Spoliation of Evidence filed by Williams. (Doc. 55.) This motion has been fully briefed by the parties, (Docs. 55, 56, 74), and is now ripe for resolution.

As described by the parties, this dispute relates to discovery materials which Williams has received. Specifically, Williams alleges that portions of videotapes of this June 8, 2005 incident have been "blacked out", and are not found on the videos preserved by prison officials. Williams also insists that an unnamed correctional supervisor prohibited a prison physician's assistant from taking photographs of his injuries, and claims that a videotape of a second altercation by Williams with staff has been withheld from him. (Doc. 55).

For their part, the Defendants oppose this request for spoliation sanctions. With respect to the various claims made by Williams, the Defendants have provided a declaration from a corrections official, which explains that the DVD that Williams was shown is the only video in existence related to the altercation between him and the corrections officers. SeeGavin Declaration, ¶ 11. According to the Defendants, in 2005 SCI-Mahanoy had approximately 200 cameras positioned throughout the institution, but only six or seven monitors from which officers could view and tape prison interactions at any one time. Id. at ¶ 14. The monitors were generally focused upon locations where the greatest number of inmates were congregated, such as in the dining halls during meal times and in the exercise yards during "yard out." Id. The monitors were operated from the Control Center. Id. At the time of the incident involving Williams, the officer in the Control Center was viewing the dining halls during the evening meals. Id. at ¶ 15. That officer did not know to switch the monitor to the camera outside the dining hall to record what was occurring there until after he received notice from the scene of the incident. Id. at ¶ 16. By the time that the officer switched the monitor to capture what was on the cameras outside the dining halls, Williams had been restrained. Id. at ¶ 17.

Having provided this explanation for the incomplete nature of the videotape evidence, the Defendants go on to dispute Williams' claim that a correctional supervisor refused to permit photographs of Williams' injuries. Arguing that Williams has failed to carry his burden of proof regarding any culpable spoliation of evidence, the Defendants insist that this pre-trial motion for spoliation sanctions should be denied.*fn1

For the reasons set forth below, Williams' motion will be denied without prejudice to the renewal of these claims at trial.

II. Discussion

We begin with the familiar proposition that evidentiary rulings, including rulings regarding whether a spoliation inference is appropriate, rest in the sound discretion of the court. Ward v. Lamanna, 334 F.App'x 487, 492 (3d Cir. 2009). That discretion is guided, however, by settled legal tenets, tenets which define both the fundamental nature of spoliation and the appropriate sanctions for acts of spoliation.

"Spoliation is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another's use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation. Mosaid Techs., Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd., 348 F. Supp. 2d 332, 335 (D.N.J.2004)." Fortune v. Bitner. No. 01-111, 2006 WL 839346, *1 (M.D.Pa. March 29, 2006); see Ogin v. Ahmed, 563 F. Supp. 2d 539, 542 (M.D. Pa. 2008).

As a general rule, the burden of proof on a spoliation claim lies with the party asserting that spoliation of evidence has taken place. Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell, Bd. of Ed., 243 F.3d 93, 107-08 (3d Cir. 2001). In order to carry this burden of proof on a spoliation claim:

[R]elevant authority requires that four (4) factors be satisfied for the rule permitting an adverse inference instruction to apply: 1) the evidence in question must be within the party's control; 2) it must appear that there has been actual suppression or withholding of the evidence; 3) the evidence destroyed or withheld was relevant to claims or defenses; and 4) it was reasonably foreseeable that the evidence would later be discoverable. Mosaid, 348 F.Supp.2d at 336 citing Brewer, 72 F.3d at 334; Scott v. IBM Corp., 196 F.R.D. 233, 248-50 (D.N.J.2000); Veloso v. Western Bedding Supply Co., 281 F.Supp.2d 743, 746 (D.N.J.2003). Additionally, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recognized: "While a litigant is under no duty to keep or retain every document in its possession, even in advance of ...

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