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Julia Quagliarello v. Officer Joshua Dewees

July 20, 2011

JULIA QUAGLIARELLO
v.
OFFICER JOSHUA DEWEES, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baylson, J.

MEMORANDUM RE: MOTIONS IN LIMINE

I. Introduction

Currently pending before the Court in this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law are the parties' cross-motions in limine to exclude certain evidence at trial. Defendants filed the following three motions: 1) a Motion in Limine to Preclude Opinion Testimony of Walter Signorelli, Plaintiff's Police Expert; 2) a Motion in Limine to Preclude Evidence of Pre-Incident Lawsuits and Settlements; and 3) a Motion in Limine to Preclude Plaintiff from Offering Evidence at Trial of Citizen Complaints filed Against Police Officer Dewees and Prior Disciplinary Records.

Plaintiff filed a Motion to Preclude Introduction of Plaintiff's Plea of Guilty in State Criminal Proceedings and to Preclude Testimony from Defendants' Witnesses Anna Marie Murphy, Esquire, Anthony Amoroso, Esquire, Jay Mettera, Esquire, Sam Yim, Esquire and Donna Gorbey on June 1, 2011.

The Court has reviewed the parties' motions and responses in opposition, and held oral argument on pending motions on May 24, 2011. Defendants' Motion in Limine to Preclude Opinion Testimony of Walter Signorelli (ECF No. 25) will be granted in part and denied in part.

The Court will reserve decision on Defendants' Motions in Limine to Preclude Evidence of Pre-Incident Lawsuits and Settlements (ECF No. 30) and to Preclude Evidence of Citizen Complaints filed Against Police Officer Dewees and Prior Disciplinary Records (ECF No. 31) until trial. Plaintiff's Motion to Preclude Introduction of Plaintiff's Plea of Guilty in State Criminal Proceedings and to Preclude Testimony from Murphy, Amoroso, Mettera, Yim, and Gorbey (ECF No. 37) will be granted.

II. Factual and Procedural History

The case arises out of an incident that occurred on the morning of January 29, 2009, when Plaintiff Julia Quagliarello ("Plaintiff"), then an 18-year-old student, was driving to Widener University in Chester, PA. Compl. ¶¶ 8-9 (ECF No. 1). The Complaint alleges that Plaintiff made a left-hand turn from East 22nd Street onto Melrose Avenue and drove approximately four to six blocks when she saw a police vehicle with flashing lights behind her. Compl. ¶¶ 10-11. Plaintiff pulled over her vehicle at the intersection of East 14th Street and Melrose Avenues. Compl. ¶ 12. Chester Police Officer Joshua Dewees ("Officer Dewees") exited the police vehicle with gun drawn, ordered Plaintiff to get out of the car, and Plaintiff complied. Compl. ¶¶ 13-14. Officer Dewees forcibly handcuffed Plaintiff and took her to the Chester Police Department, where she was charged with fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer and disorderly conduct, and held for three hours. Compl. ¶¶ 15-17. Following a hearing on July 8, 2009 in the Court of Common Pleas, Delaware County, all charges against Plaintiff were withdrawn. Compl. ¶ 18.

Plaintiff alleged the following claims against Officer Dewees and the City of Chester (collectively, "Defendants"): violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be secure in one's person (Count I); false arrest and false imprisonment (Count II); deprivation of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights (Count III); negligent failure to train and supervise (Count IV, against City of Chester only); assault and battery (Count V, against Officer Dewees only); malicious prosecution (Count VI); and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VII). No dispositive motions were filed in this case.

III. Defendants' Motion in Limine to Preclude Opinion Testimony of Walter Signorelli, Plaintiff's Police Expert (ECF No. 25)

Plaintiff's police expert Walter Signorelli ("Signorelli") filed reports in this case on July 31, 2010 (Ex. A to Defs.' Mot. Limine), October 1, 2010 (Ex. B to Defs.' Mot. Limine), and October 18, 2010 (Ex. C to Defs.' Mot. Limine). Defendants move to preclude Signorelli from testifying to or otherwise presenting evidence of opinions that fall into four categories: 1) opinions that embrace ultimate legal issues; 2) opinions as to credibility of witnesses; 3) opinions as to Officer Dewees's state of mind; and 4) opinions that have no basis in fact or law and will prejudice or inflame the jury. The Court examines each of these issues below.

A. Ultimate Legal Issues

Defendants argue that Signorelli offers opinions embracing the ultimate legal issues in the case, which intrude on the role of the jury and should be excluded under Fed. R. Evid. 704(a). These opinions include whether the police had probable cause to stop and arrest Plaintiff, whether the police used unreasonable and unnecessary force, whether Officer Dewees acted in a reasonable or necessary manner, whether the City of Chester was indifferent to Plaintiff, and whether Plaintiff's actions were a "public annoyance." Plaintiff, in her response (ECF No. 41), contends that Signorelli's statements are descriptive and not intended to have legal import.

Federal Rule of Evidence 704(a) provides that, in general, "testimony in the form of an opinion or inference otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact." "Rule 704 of the Federal Rules of Evidence 'provides that opinion testimony is not objectionable because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided.'" United States v. Roman, 121 F.3d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting United States v. Theodoropoulos, 866 F.2d 587, 591 (3d Cir. 1989)). However, such testimony can be excluded if it is not "otherwise admissible." Fed. R. Evid. 704(a). As the Rules Advisory Committee explained, "[t]he abolition of the ultimate issue rule does not lower the bars so as to admit all opinions," because the expert testimony must be helpful to the trier of fact and not waste time pursuant to Rules 701, 702, and 403. Fed. R. Civ. P. 704 Advisory Committee's Note. Collectively these rules of evidence "afford ample assurances against the admission of opinions which would merely tell the jury what result to reach," and require the court to "exclude opinions phrased in terms of inadequately explored legal criteria." Id. An expert's "opinion on a question of law" is not admissible. Haberern v. Kaupp Vascular Surgeons Ltd. Defined Ben. Plan & Trust Agreement, 812 F. Supp. 1376, 1378 (E.D. Pa. 1992) (Huyett, J.) (citing 1 McCormick on Evidence, § 12, at 50 (John W. Strong ed., 4th ed. 1992)).

Defendants cite Burger v. Mays, 176 F.R.D. 153 (E.D. Pa. 1997) (Van Antwerpen, J.) for the proposition that the court should exclude an expert's "testimony that the Defendant's use of force was unreasonable under the circumstances or that the Defendant unreasonably seized the Plaintiff." Id. at 157. In Burger, the plaintiff in a civil rights action against an arresting officer sought to call a criminologist as an expert to testify that the officer did not follow proper police procedure in apprehending the plaintiff, and that the officer's use of force was unreasonable. Id.

at 156. The court found that the expert's testimony regarding police procedures was "relevant to the jury's determination that the Defendant unlawfully seized and assaulted the Plaintiff" and did not "intrude upon the jury's role to determine the ultimate issues in this case," and thus was admissible. Id. at 156-57. However, the court distinguished the expert's testimony regarding the unreasonableness of the force used in the seizure, finding that the opinion "would be instructing the jury what result to reach and would be expressing a legal conclusion." Id. at 157 (citing Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 364 (2d Cir. 1992)). The testimony regarding the reasonableness of the defendant's use of force was not admissible. Id.

Similarly, in Tschappat v. Groff, Civ. A. No. 3:CV-01-2279, 2004 WL 5509087 (M.D. Pa. June 2, 2004) (Blewitt, M.J.), the court held that a police expert "should be allowed to testify as to what proper police procedures are in apprehending a suspect and whether Defendant Groff failed to follow proper police procedures," and also "to the prevailing use of force standards," which were relevant to the jury's determination whether the officer unlawfully seized and assaulted the plaintiff. Id. at *3. However, the expert was not permitted "to testify that Defendant Groff unreasonably seized the Plaintiff or that Defendant Groff's conduct was unreasonable under the circumstances," because such testimony "would intrude upon the jury's function to decide one of the ultimate issues in this case" and "impermissibly expresse[d] legal conclusions." Id. See also Berry v. City of Detroit, 25 F.3d 1342, 1353-54 (6th Cir. 1994) (testimony by a purported police expert that a city's failure to discipline its officers for using unwarranted deadly force constituted "deliberate indifference" was an inadmissible legal conclusion); Whitmill v. City of Philadelphia, 29 F. Supp. 2d 241, 246 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (Hart, M.J.) (police expert was not permitted to offer an opinion on the legality of the plaintiff's seizure because the issue "was a matter for the jury to decide after proper instruction from the court" and the expert testimony "would have usurped the role of the court and the jury").

Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendants' motion to preclude Signorelli's opinions as to ultimate legal conclusions, including whether Officer Dewees used "unreasonable" force, whether Dewees had "probable cause," whether the treatment of Plaintiff was "unlawful," and whether the City showed "indifference." The Court will admit Signorelli's opinions about police training, prevailing standards for use of force, and proper police procedures (e.g., "Police Officers are trained that they may use force only when necessary and reasonable").

B. Credibility Determinations

Defendants argue that the Court should exclude Signorelli's testimony about witness's credibility as impermissible under Fed. R. Evid. 702.*fn1 "Evaluation of witness credibility is the exclusive function of the jury." Bhaya v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 832 F.2d 258, 262 (3d Cir. 1987) (citing Carter v. Duncan-Huggins, Ltd., 727 F.2d 1225, 1234 (D.C. Cir. 1984)). In Whitmill v. City of Philadelphia, the district court precluded a police expert's proposed testimony concerning the credibility of the officer defendants. Whitmill, 29 F. Supp. 2d at 246-47. The court explained that allowing the expert to testify about the officer's credibility "would have usurped the jury's role in accessing credibility." Id. at 247.

In this case, Defendant cites eight examples of supposed credibility assessments in Signorelli's expert reports, including the following statements and phrases: the "alleged traffic signal violation"; Plaintiff's "explanation" of her actions; Officer Dewees "may have been annoyed" by Plaintiff; Officer Dewees "should have known that he could not shoot the Plaintiff for going through a red light and failing to stop";*fn2 Officer Dewees "did not describe any threatening moves" by Plaintiff; Officer Dewees "has not articulated any facts or observations to support his conjecture"; "it is reasonable to assume that [Officer Dewees's] failure to note that he had drawn his firearm was done by design," and Officer Dewees ...


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