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William Victor v. R.M. Lawler

August 19, 2011


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

(Judge Nealon)


I. Statement of the Case

This case is a prisoner civil rights lawsuit lodged by the plaintiff, William Victor, against correctional staff at SCI Huntingdon. In this lawsuit, Victor alleges, inter alia, that he was the victim of staff assaults in June 2008.

Victor has now filed a motion, styled as a motion for emergency relief, (Doc. 374) which invites us to reconsider prior discovery rulings in this litigation. Specifically, Victor urges us to reconsider our prior May 18, 2011 rulings, (Doc. 367), on Victor's earlier motion for sanctions, for other relief related to alleged spoliation of evidence, and to compel production of materials. (Doc. 169.) This motion was filed by Victor in January of 2010 and has now been the subject of three prior rulings by this Court. (Docs. 188, 213 and 367). In these prior orders we first directed an in camera review of certain records, and then ordered redacted copies of those records released to Victor. We also received, and reviewed, supplemental submissions from the defendants relating to Victor's requests for access to prison policy manuals pertaining to videotaping of cell extractions. (Docs. 217 and 218.) In these submissions, the defendants objected to the release of these policy manuals and identified a single section of one policy manual which related to videotaping cell extractions, stating:

The Corrections Defendants object to the release of the 6.3.1 Procedures Manual. Most of the Procedures Manual has nothing to do with the issue of when use of force is to videotaped or videotape retention. The only pertinent section is Section 32. The release of the other sections will compromise safety and security within the institution. The same applies to the 6.5.1 ("Administration of Security Level 5 Housing Units") Procedures Manual. (Doc. 217, pp.4 and 5.)

With respect to Victor's request for copies of the Department of Corrections Policy Manuals 6.5.1 and 6.3.1, which dealt with facility safety and security matters, Victor's initial request (Doc. 169) was unaccompanied by any detailed explanation of the relevance of this information to his lawsuit or any limitations in terms of the scope of the request, factors which led the defendants to object to this request, (Doc. 177) citing the justifiable security concerns that the institution would have releasing these sensitive operations manuals to an inmate. In response to these well-grounded concerns of the defendants, Victor narrowed and refined his request, (Doc. 183), explaining that he was seeking limited information which was directly relevant to his spoliation argument involving what are alleged to been missing prison tapes relating to Victor's June 28, 2008 cell extraction, an incident in which it is alleged that Victor's jaw was broken, and the subsequent medical treatment provided to Victor immediately after this cell extraction. Focusing on this incident, and the medical treatment which followed, Victor asserted that he was only seeking those portions of the procedure manuals which provide instruction and guidance on documenting cell extractions and preserving video evidence of those cell extractions.

This much narrower request sought evidence that may be relevant to a fully-informed assessment of Victor's spoliation claims relating to what are conceded to be missing videos from the time period of the cell extraction episode.(Doc. 183.)With its scope narrowed in this fashion, we found on May 18, 2011, that Victor's request was more reasonably calculated to lead to discoverable evidence under Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which authorizes "discovery regarding any non-privileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense" and further defines relevant evidence in the following terms: "Relevant information need not be admissible at trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence." Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). Having conducted this in camera review we granted Victor's request, in part, and instructed the Corrections Defendants to provide Victor with a declaration which fully and accurately summarized the cell extraction videotaping policies set forth in Section 32 of the 6.3.1 Procedures Manual, a disclosure which protected valid institutional security concerns while addressing Victor's proffer of relevance in this case.

Additionally, Victor sought spoliation sanctions, including a spoliation inference instruction at trial, as a penalty for what he alleged was the deliberate destruction of prison videotapes which he claims would have documented some of the allegations which he has made in this lawsuit. (Docs. 169, 183, 361.) In response, the defendants conceded that some tapes could not be found, and apparently were destroyed, but argued that spoliation sanctions were inappropriate because there was insufficient evidence to justify a finding of deliberate or negligent spoliation of evidence. (Doc. 177.)

In our May 18, 2011 ruling, (Doc. 367), we denied this request without prejudice to Victor renewing this argument for spoliation sanctions at trial, noting that many of the considerations which determine whether a spoliation sanction is appropriate are factual matters. Therefore, to the extent that Victor sought a spoliation inference instruction at trial, his entitlement to this instruction would turn on the precise nature of the proof at trial, and the credibility of various witnesses.

Recognizing this fact, we stated that this issue should be deferred to trial, observing that the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has cautioned us that "pretrial [rulings regarding evidentiary questions] should rarely be granted. . . ." In re Paoli R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829, 859 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 453 (3d Cir. 1994) (noting that the Third Circuit's "cautious approach to Rule 403 exclusions at the pretrial stage . . . ."). Since Victor had not consented to proceed before this Court, and appellate case law cautioned against pre-trial resolution of evidentiary matters like the spoliation inference Victor sought at trial, we concluded that the appropriate course here was to deny Victor's request for such a spoliation inference finding at this time, without prejudice to him renewing this request at trial before the trial judge.

Victor now invites us to reconsider, and reverse, these prior discovery rulings. (Doc. 374.) Because Victor's pleadings do not demonstrate that reconsideration of these rulings is warranted here, the motion will be denied.

II. Discussion

The legal standards that govern motions to reconsider are both clear, and clearly compelling. "The purpose of a motion for reconsideration is to correct manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered evidence." Harsco Corp. v. Zlotnicki, 779 F.2d 906, 909 (3d Cir. 1985). Typically such a motion should only be granted in three, narrowly defined circumstances, where there is either : "(1) [an] intervening change in controlling law, (2) availability of new evidence not previously available, or (3) need to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice". ...

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