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William Lawler v. Richardson

June 20, 2012


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

June ___, 2012


Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial (Doc. 66) and Defendants' Response in Opposition thereto (Doc. 67). Upon careful consideration of the parties' arguments, and for the reasons set forth more fully herein, Plaintiff's Motion is denied.


On January 15, 2010, Plaintiff, William Lawler ("Lawler") initiated this action against the City of Philadelphia ("the City"), Police Officer Daniel Richardson ("Richardson"), and Officers John Doe 1-3. Plaintiff later amended his Complaint on April 16, 2010 to identify Police Officer Shawn Mays ("Mays") and Sergeant James Lane ("Lane") as two of the John Doe defendants. Plaintiff then identified Officer Dimitrios Loizos ("Loizos") as the third John Doe defendant in his Second Amended Complaint filed on July 14, 2010. Plaintiff asserted claims against Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his rights under the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as state tort claims for false arrest and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. Plaintiff also asserted a Monell claim against the City.

Plaintiff alleged that his claims arose when on April 19, 2008, Officer Richardson stopped Plaintiff for a traffic violation. Plaintiff alleged that Officer Richardson actually stopped Plaintiff as a result of the politically-charged bumper stickers on his car.*fn1 During the stop, Officers Richardson and Loizos asked Plaintiff if he was in possession of a firearm. Plaintiff responded affirmatively and also told the officers that he had a valid permit to carry a concealed weapon. The officers asked Plaintiff to surrender his firearm and exit his vehicle so that they could conduct a search. Upon exiting the vehicle, Plaintiff locked his doors to prevent Defendants from searching the vehicle. The officers searched Plaintiff and confiscated his keys, and then placed Plaintiff in handcuffs and into the back of Officer Richardson's police vehicle. After the officers completed the search of the vehicle, they informed Plaintiff that his firearm would be confiscated, and Officer Richardson drove Plaintiff to the police station where Plaintiff was given a receipt for his firearm. Defendants also issued Plaintiff a traffic citation.

Plaintiff's claim proceeded to trial on the issues of Plaintiff's alleged violations under the First and Fourth Amendment, as well as his state law claims for false arrest and false imprisonment.*fn2 The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Defendants as to all counts. Plaintiff has now filed this Motion for New Trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides: "The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." FED. R. CIV. P. 59. Rule 59 permits a court to grant a new trial if the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence, or if substantial errors occurred in the admission or exclusion of evidence, or in the jury instructions. Kimble v. Morgan Props., No. 02-9359, 2005 WL 2847266, at * 2 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 25, 2005) (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)).*fn3 In his Motion for New Trial, Plaintiff argues both that the Court committed trial error and that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.*fn4


A. The Court committed no harmful trial error.

In evaluating a motion for a new trial on the basis of trial error, the Court must: (1) determine whether an error was made in the course of trial; and (2) "whether that error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice." Farra v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 838 F.Supp. 1021, 1026 (E.D. Pa.1993) (citations omitted). Where a party contends that "a new trial is based on the admissibility of evidence, the trial court has great discretion . . . which will not be disturbed on appeal absent a finding of abuse." Threadgill v. Armstrong World Indus., 928 F.2d 1366, 1370 (3d Cir.1991) (citing Links v. Mercedes-Benz of N. Am., Inc., 788 F.2d 918, 921 (3d Cir.1986)).

1. The Court did not err in granting Defendants' Motions in Limine.

Plaintiff first questions the Court's granting of Defendants' Motion in Limine regarding various witnesses and newspaper articles which Plaintiff sought to admit during trial. Plaintiff's primary contention is that the exclusion of these articles and witnesses was prejudicial because the evidence bore directly upon Plaintiff's claim that the Philadelphia Police Department had a custom, policy, or practice of "violating civilian's constitutional rights as it pertains to the [S]econd and [F]ourth amendments" by improperly confiscating firearms. (Pl.'s Br. at 17). The newspaper articles at issue provided accounts of Philadelphia police officers improperly confiscating firearms throughout the City. Similarly, the witnesses Plaintiff sought to introduce were individuals whose firearms were improperly confiscated and, like Plaintiff, not returned.

The Court first analyzes the preclusion of the newspaper articles. Newspaper articles are generally considered hearsay, and may only be used during trial in exceptional circumstances. See, e.g., Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig. (No. VI), No. 09-069125, 2011 WL 1539883, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 22, 2011); Campbell v. City of New Kensington, No. 05-0467, 2009 WL 3166276, at *8 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2009) ("[T]o the extent that Plaintiff relies on these articles for the truth of the matters contained therein, the newspaper articles are hearsay, and in some instances, hearsay within hearsay, and cannot be considered on a motion for summary judgment.").

The Court committed no error in denying admission of the newspaper articles. Plaintiff argues that the newspaper articles were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted, but to demonstrate that the City had notice that the police department's customs or policies were resulting in widespread constitutional violations. However, in order to demonstrate that the City was on notice of these violations, we must assume that the violations and practices described in the articles actually occurred. Thus, as the Court concluded at trial, it is apparent that Plaintiff was offering these articles for the truth of the matter asserted. As a result, the Court properly excluded the newspaper articles as inadmissible hearsay.

As for the witnesses precluded from testifying, during the hearing on Defendants' Motion in Limine, Plaintiff argued for the admission of testimony from two witnesses in particular, Jeff Lavalliere and John Solomon. During the hearing, the Court indicated that their testimony was only relevant to prove police conduct which affected them, and not to prove any custom, policy, or practice of the City's Police Department. (Mot. Hr'g Tr. 8: 10-19). The Court further noted that none of the officers involved in Solomon's or Lavalliere's weapon confiscations were Defendants in this case. (Mot. Hr'g Tr. 7: 13-17). The Court concluded that "one or two other incidents that occurred to other civilians . . . does not go to establish a policy of the City of Philadelphia." (Mot. Hr'g Tr. 8: 16-19).

Federal Rule of Evidence 403 provides that "[a]lthough 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. The trial court has broad discretion to exclude evidence under Rule 403. Cowgill v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 832 F.2d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 1987).

Courts in the Third Circuit have relied upon Rule 403 to preclude evidence similar to the evidence Plaintiff attempted to admit here. For example, in Strauss v. Springer, the district court upheld its decision at trial to exclude an expert's testimony regarding a "shooting book" which the plaintiff wished to introduce as evidence that the City of Philadelphia had a custom or policy of using excessive force against citizens. 817 F. Supp. 1211, 1221 (E.D. Pa. 1992). "Shooting books" are investigatory files regarding any discharge of a firearm by a Philadelphia police officer, whether on or off duty. Id. This particular shooting book contained twenty-five cases which the plaintiff wished to present, none of which involved a similar situation to the case at issue. Id. at 1222, 1224. The plaintiff's expert intended to testify about his opinion that the Internal Affairs Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department had wrongly concluded that some of those shootings were proper. Id. The district court excluded the testimony on the grounds that testimony regarding the shooting books "would have required a separate mini-trial for each to determine whether the decision of the Philadelphia Police Review Board as to each one was right or wrong." Id. at 1224. Moreover, the plaintiff would have had to present facts regarding each shooting, and Defendant would have had to cross-examine on each incident. Id. Such mini-trials "would have taken a substantial amount of time to do, would have confused the central issue of the case, and mislead the jury by introducing factual scenarios not related to the facts of this case." Id.

Similarly, in Clark v. City of Philadelphia, as part of its municipal liability claim, plaintiff sought to admit evidence of civilian complaints against each of the defendant police officers. No. 92-4700, 1994 WL 388559, at *10 (E.D. Pa. July 27, 1994). The complaints against one defendant officer involved his conduct in a variety of circumstances over a period of years. Id. The Court excluded the complaints reasoning that "[i]f I would allow plaintiffs to present evidence of the complaints, I also would have to allow defendants opportunity to rebut that evidence." Id. Pursuant to Strauss and Rule 403, the Court concluded that such a process would have been confusing to the jury and overly time-consuming. Id.

Courts will typically only admit evidence of prior incidents when they come in a narrow period of time and are of a similar nature to the incident at issue. See, e.g., Beck v. City of Pittsburgh, 89 F.3d 966 (3d Cir. 1996) (permitting admission of five complaints against the defendant officer as evidence that the City knew or should have known of the officer's propensity for violence when making arrests); see also Smith v. City of Phila., No. 06-4312, 2009 WL 3353148 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2009) (permitting admission of one complaint previously filed against a defendant officer which resulted in the finding of use of excessive force, and occurred approximately one month before the alleged assault on the plaintiff); Wakshul v. City of Phila., 998 F. Supp. 585 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (refusing to admit complaints against the defendant officers because the plaintiff offered no information regarding the chronology, subjects, or contexts of the investigations).

Based on this case law, it is clear that the Court made no error in denying the admission of Lavalliere and Solomon's testimony. First, none of the Defendant Officers involved in Plaintiff's claim were involved in the incidents involving Solomon or Lavalliere, which renders the relevance of their testimony questionable at best. Then, as Defendants note, even assuming that the testimony would have been relevant, Plaintiff would have had to put on evidence to demonstrate that Lavalliere and Solomon's weapons were unconstitutionally confiscated. In turn, the Court would have had to permit Defendants to cross-examine Lavallierre and Solomon to dispute their contentions regarding each of these instances. Such a mini-trial would certainly have confused the jury, been overly time-consuming, and as a result, unfairly prejudicial to Defendants. As a result, the decision to exclude such evidence was completely within the Court's discretion, and was not harmful error.

2. The Court did not err in denying Plaintiff's "for cause" challenges of Jurors 4 and 5.

Plaintiff next argues that the Court erred in denying Plaintiff's for cause challenges of two jurors -- Jurors 4 and 5 in particular. Plaintiff contends that the Court should have excluded the jurors because when asked whether they were "more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer merely because he is a police officer," they answered affirmatively. When probed by Plaintiff's counsel, Juror 4 indicated that he could "try to be fair, but, according to Plaintiff's counsel, he will follow his conscious," and Juror 5 "indicated that she could be fair but she changed her answers too many times." (Voir Dire Tr. 1:10-17). The Court informed the parties that if Juror 5 "indicated that she could be fair," that would not be questioned, however, the Court proceeded to call Juror 4. (Voir Dire Tr. 2:7-9). When questioned, Juror 4 also indicated that he could follow the instructions of the Court.*fn5

"[D]istrict courts have been awarded ample discretion in determining how best to conduct the voir dire." Kirk v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 61 F.3d 147, 153 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting United States v. Salamone, 800 F.2d 1216, 1226 (3d Cir. 1986)). "In determining whether a particular juror should be excused for cause, [the Court's] main concern is 'whether the juror holds a particular belief or opinion that will prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'" Id. "A juror is impartial if he or she can lay aside any previously formed 'impression or opinion as to the merits of the case' and can 'render a verdict based on the evidence presented in court.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Polan, 970 F.2d 1280, 1284 (3d Cir. 1992)). A juror's protestations of impartiality may not be accepted blindly, however, particularly if "other facts of record indicate to the contrary." Id. (citing Gov't of the Virgin Islands v. Dowling, 814 F.2d 134, 139 (3d Cir. 1987)) (holding that, in an asbestos case, a district court improperly refused to strike a juror who worked with asbestos for years, had two uncles who had been exposed to asbestos die from lung cancer, knew many colleagues who presumably had asbestos-related medical problems, believed he was likely to contract an asbestos-related disease himself, and indicated he was leaning in favor of the plaintiff).

In this case, Jurors 4 and 5 made assurances that they would be fair in applying the law and following the instructions of the Court. Other than their original answers to Plaintiff's voir dire, the Court had no reason to question the jurors' representations that they could be impartial in following the Court's instructions. This case is far from analogous to Kirk, in which the district court had a plethora of other evidence to refute the juror's contention that he could be impartial. Here, the mere fact that the jurors indicated that they were more likely to believe a police officer simply because of his station, without more, did not automatically lead to the conclusion that they could not be impartial. Thus, because Plaintiff presented no further facts of record to establish the jurors' inability to be impartial, the Court committed no error in refusing to strike the jurors for cause.

3. The Court did not err in refusing to permit Plaintiff to cross-examine Officer Richardson regarding the Fourth Amendment.

Plaintiff's third argument that a new trial is warranted is that the Court did not permit a certain line of questioning during Plaintiff's cross-examination of Officer Richardson. The relevant portion of the ...

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