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Carl Miller v. North Belle Vernon Borough

February 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge, U.S. District Court



In this matter, in which trial is imminent, at issue is whether Plaintiff was removed from a Council meeting in violation of the First Amendment's right to speak, petition the government for redress of grievances, and be free of retaliation for protected speech. Before the Court are the parties' Motions in Limine.

As a preliminary and guiding matter, I emphasize to the parties that at issue in this case is Defendants' reaction, or lack thereof, to Plaintiff's speech at the October 10th meeting, and not Defendants' motive to retaliate against Plaintiff for his speech or activities at any time prior to that meeting. The jury will be so instructed, and the proof at trial admitted or excluded accordingly. I will not allow the trial to devolve into a mechanism for rehashing a history of grievances that the parties might have with each other, or with the operation of the Borough or its employees; this is not a referendum on proper municipal management. Nonetheless, certain aspects of the parties' relationship may bear on whether Defendants were motivated by the content of Plaintiff's speech at that meeting, or instead by other factors. Thus, even if the following Opinion and Order deny any aspect of the Motions in limine without prejudice, the parties shall exercise care to adhere to these principles when attempting to introduce evidence at trial. In turn, the Court will exercise care to preclude collateral issues from demanding undue time and attention during trial.


I. Applicable Standards

Relevant evidence is defined as 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. In turn, relevant evidence may be excluded if its "probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." Fed. R. Evid. 403. "Rule 403 authorizes a district court in its broad discretion to exclude collateral matters that are likely to confuse the issues." United States v. Casoni, 950 F.2d 893, 919 (3d Cir. 1991). The inquiries under Rules 401 and 403 are fact-intensive, and context-specific. Sprint v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379, 128 S. Ct. 1140, 170 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2008). The burden of establishing the admissibility and relevance of evidence rests on the proponent. E.g., Yibulayin v. Yellow Freight Sys., No. 4-3690, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23836, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 18, 2005).

II. Defendants' Motions

A. Defendants' First Motion

Defendants have filed three Motions in limine. The first seeks to exclude twenty-eight specified documentary exhibits, on grounds of relevance, and pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 403.

The sum total of Defendant's argument on those grounds is that none of them are relevant to the issue to be tried, and that "many" of them were not previously produced. I agree that certain of the exhibits listed are excludable as irrelevant. In addition, the minimal probative value of the evidence, if any, is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice and confusing the issues. Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, proof relating to a particular Defendant's general "character" or "disposition" bears insufficient relation to the issues to be tried. For other pieces of evidence, Plaintiff has specified no basis for admission at all, and even potential relevance is not apparent. For these reasons, the following evidence shall not be admitted at trial: (a) Simboli petition for grant of letters of administration; (b) Notice from register of wills; (x) docket of DPW claim against Mayor Lyons' wife; (y) public records re: divorce and debt collection involving Simboli; (z) public records relating to Officer Naylor's divorce; (aa) public records relating to Betty Shine-Hill; (bb) documents relating to child molestation case against Tina Prinkney.

As emphasized supra, at issue in this case is whether Plaintiff's First Amendment rights were violated solely with respect to his speech at the October 10, 2006 meeting. These parameters have been set by Plaintiff's Complaint, which was drafted by counsel, and by previous Court rulings. Regarding the exhibits listed in Defendants' Motion as (i), (u), (v), and (w), Plaintiff has not identified their relevance, or any legitimate grounds for admissibility. A voter registration form,*fn1 photographs of Simboli's and Borough property, and a newspaper article regarding infighting among Defendants, do not tend to make any fact at issue in this case more or less likely. Moreover, any potential probative value of this evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of misleading the jury and confusion of the issues, and thus it is excludable under Rule 403.

Regarding the remaining evidence, Defendants' assertion that "many" exhibits were not previously or timely produced or disclosed does not provide me sufficient information to permit adjudication on those grounds. At the time of trial, Defendants may make more particularized objections on that basis. As regards relevance, it appears that several of the documents might relate to the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendants prior to the meeting in question, which might relate to Defendants' motive; in addition, several might provide context for the events that occurred at the Council meeting. Moreover, absent specific argument, it does not appear that any of the remaining exhibits are unduly prejudicial.*fn2 In sum, I am unprepared to exclude, wholesale and absent specific argument from the parties, the remaining exhibits set forth in Defendants' Motion. Defendants may reassert their challenges at trial.

I will, however, impose a blanket time limitation grounded in Rule 403. The parties are advised that I will exclude all evidence regarding to the relationship between Plaintiff and Defendants that relates to events occurring more than two years prior to the meeting in question. Given that liability may only be imposed for events occurring at the subject Council meeting, all evidence relating to facts older than two years can only be of minimal probative value, and ...

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