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Bray Jibril Murray v. Paul A. Ennis

September 11, 2012

BRAY JIBRIL MURRAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PAUL A. ENNIS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This matter is before the Court upon a Motion for New Trial: Altering or Amending the Judgment (ECF No. 145) and an Amended Motion for New Trial (ECF No. 162) filed by Plaintiff Bray Jibril Murray ("Plaintiff") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a).*fn1 We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

By way of background, Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on October 1, 2008, naming as defendants approximately twenty-three current and former employees at the State Correctional Institution at Forest, in Marienville, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Forest"). (ECF No. 5). An Amended Complaint was filed on March 16, 2009. (ECF No. 27). A Motion to Dismiss followed on May 21, 2009. (ECF No. 31). Pursuant to that motion, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against ten of the defendants on February 5, 2010. (ECF No. 45). The remaining defendants - Laura Banta, Margaret Bensel, William Dombrowski, Paul Ennis, Chad Ford, William Gill, Steven Ireland, Mike Nevling, Shawn Nicholson, James Reed, Andrew Repko, Edward Wojcik, and Michael Barone - filed an Answer on February 12, 2010. (ECF No. 46).

In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleged that the remaining Defendants violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for utilizing the inmate grievance process on three occasions while he was incarcerated at SCI-Forest in 2008. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that on June 30, 2008, Defendants Ennis, Barone, Wojcik, Reed, Bensel, Ford, Nevling, Dombrowski and Repko placed him in the Restrictive Housing Unit under Administrative Custody status because of several grievances he had filed against the Activities Department staff. Plaintiff further alleged that Defendants Ireland, Gill and Nicholson denied him access to the law library from October 4, 2008 through October 19, 2008 because of a grievance he had filed on September 23, 2008. He also asserted that Defendants Ireland, Gill, Nicholson and Banta issued him a false misconduct on October 25, 2008 and sanctioned him to disciplinary custody because of a grievance he filed on October 19, 2008, challenging the aforementioned denial of access to the law library between October 4, 2008 and October 19, 2008. In addition, Plaintiff contended that Defendants Ennis, Barone, Wojcik, Reed, Bensel, Ford, Nevling, Dombrowski and Repko participated in a conspiracy to place him in the Restrictive Housing Unit under Administrative Custody status, in violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights.

The case proceeded to trial on September 19, 2011 and concluded with a jury verdict on September 27, 2011. (ECF No. 143, at 1). The jury found in favor of twelve of the thirteen defendants with respect to all of Plaintiff's claims. They found against Defendant Ennis only with respect to Plaintiff's claim that he was placed in Administrative Custody on June 30, 2008 in retaliation for having filed a grievance against staff members, awarding nominal damages of 1 dollar. (ECF No. 143, at 2).

On October 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial. (ECF No. 145). He filed an amended motion for a new trial on August 1, 2012. (ECF No. 162). The matter has been fully briefed. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's motions will be denied.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), a court has the discretion to grant a new trial when the grounds invoked indicate that a verdict was against the weight of the evidence, or another circumstance -- such as the improper admission or exclusion of evidence, or the provision of an improper charge to the jury -- made the trial unfair to the moving party. Cipriani v. Lycoming County Hous. Auth., 177 F. Supp. 2d 303, 309 -- 10 (M.D. Pa. 2001) (citing Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)). To sustain a claim that a verdict was against the weight of the evidence, the record must show the jury's verdict to be a "miscarriage of justice" which "shocks our conscience." Id. (quoting Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F. 2d 1344, 1353 (3rd Cir. 1991)). Errors alleged in the admission or exclusion of evidence, or provision of instructions to the jury, must be substantial errors. Id. (citing Montgomery Ward, 311 U.S. at 251).

It is incumbent upon a reviewing court "to uphold the jury's award if there exists a reasonable basis to do so." Ford Motor Co. v. Summit Motor Products, Inc., 930 F. 2d 277, 290 (3rd Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). "[T]he court does not have the prerogative to 'substitute its own judgment . . . for that of the jury . . . regardless of whether the trial judge agrees or disagrees with the jury's verdict.'" Cipriani, 177 F. Supp. 2d at 310 (quoting New Market Inv. Corp. v. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co., 774 F. Supp. 909, 917 (E.D. Pa. 1991)).

As it pertains to Plaintiff's Motion for an Amended/Corrected Judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) and (e), "[t]he standard of review of a jury's damage award is similar to that employed in the determination of a motion for new trial." Ruhlman v. Hankinson, 461 F. Supp. 145, 150 (W.D. Pa. 1978). "[I]t should stand if there is ample evidence to support it or unless it shocks the conscience of the court." Id. "The court is not permitted to arbitrarily substitute its judgment for that of the jury." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Conspiracy to Retaliate

Plaintiff contends that the jury's conclusion that two or more Defendants did not conspire to violate his rights by retaliating against him was against the weight of the evidence. The jury was charged as follows with respect to Plaintiff's § 1983 conspiracy claim:

I will now instruct you concerning the law relative to the Plaintiff's § 1983 conspiracy claim against Defendants Ennis, Barone, Wojcik, Reed, Bensel, Ford, Nevling, Dombrowski and Repko. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Ennis, Barone, Wojcik, Reed, Bensel, Ford, Nevling, Dombrowski and Repko participated in a conspiracy to place him in the Restrictive Housing Unit under Administrative Custody status, in violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights. You will not consider this claim unless you found that two or more of those Defendants violated the Plaintiff's Constitutional rights by retaliating against him.

A civil rights conspiracy is an express or implied agreement between two or more persons to deprive the Plaintiff of his Constitutional rights. In order to prevail on this claim, you must find the following by a preponderance of the evidence: first, the existence of an express or implied agreement among the Defendants to deprive the Plaintiff of his Constitutional rights, and second, an actual deprivation of those rights resulting from the agreement.

To be liable as a conspirator, a Defendant must be a voluntary participant in the common venture, although he or she need not have agreed on the details of the plan or even know who the other conspirators are. It is enough if the person understands the general objectives of the plan, accepts them, and agrees, either explicitly or implicitly, to do his or her part to further them. To be a member of the conspiracy, the Defendant need not join at the beginning or know all the other members or the means by which its purpose was to be accomplished.

Because direct evidence of a conspiracy is usually impossible to obtain, absent the testimony of a co-conspirator, circumstantial evidence is the usual manner of proving a civil conspiracy. In deciding whether the charged conspiracy exists, you may consider the actions and statements of every one of the alleged participants. An agreement may be proved from all the circumstances and the words and conduct of all the alleged participants which are shown by the evidence.

In deciding whether a particular Defendant joined the conspiracy, you must base your decision only on what that Defendant did or said. In determining what that Defendant did or said, you may consider that Defendant's own words or acts. You may also consider the words or acts of other persons to decide what that Defendant did or said, and you may use them to help you understand what that Defendant did or said.

If you find from your consideration of all the evidence by a preponderance of the evidence that there was an agreement by two or more Defendants to place the Plaintiff in the Restrictive Housing Unit under Administrative Custody status in violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights, and that two or more Defendants agreed to do his or her part, either explicitly or implicitly, to facilitate the placement, then you should find the Defendant liable for conspiracy.

A conspirator is responsible for the Constitutional violation committed by his or her fellow conspirators if he or she was a member of the conspiracy when the Constitutional violation was committed in furtherance of and as a foreseeable consequence of the conspiracy.

(ECF No. 135, pp. 4-10). Here, based on the evidence presented, it was well within the province of the jury to conclude that no other Defendant conspired with Ennis to retaliate against the Plaintiff. Plaintiff argues that when he "questioned Barone, Wojcik and Reed on what steps they took to confirm information from Ennis was accurate, each testified they did not attempt to prove or disprove the information from Ennis [was accurate], for they took it on face value he was being truthful." (ECF. No. 146, p. 12). However, the jury was not ...


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