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Curtician v. Kessler

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 6, 2013

UNIT MANAGER KESSLER, et al., Defendants.


CATHY BISSOON, District Judge.[1]


Presently pending before the Court is the Motion for New Trial (ECF No. 122) filed by Plaintiff, Steven Curtician. For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be denied.


Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on October 17, 2007, against numerous officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, claiming that his rights under the First and Eighth Amendments were violated while he was an inmate at the State Correctional Institution ("SCI") at Albion. Named as Defendants were: Unit Manager Rebecca Kessler ("Kessler"); Marilyn Brooks ("Brooks"), former Superintendent at SCI Albion; SCI Albion's Emergency Response Team ("CERT"); and Jeffrey Beard ("Beard"), Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. (ECF No. 3).

On June 24, 2008, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint adding Patty McKissock ("McKissock"), Hearing Examiner at SCI Albion, and Lt. William McConnell ("McConnell"), corrections officer at SCI Albion, as Defendants. (ECF No. 22). Plaintiff asserted retaliation, Eighth Amendment, and/or Fourteenth Amendment due process claims against these Defendants. (ECF No. 22). On September 19, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, asserting further retaliation and Eighth Amendment claims based upon the placement of more inmates in his cell who he deemed undesirable and/or a danger to his safety. (ECF No. 39). Plaintiff supplemented his Second Amended Complaint on January 15, 2009 to include an incident that occurred on October 27, 2008, wherein he suffered a broken jaw at the hands of an inmate named Stiefel, necessitating surgery. (ECF No. 51 at ¶ 13).

Following the disposition of several rounds of motions, see (ECF No. 54, 59, 73, 84, 85, 93), the remaining claims that proceeded to trial on September 26, 2011 were: (1) a retaliation claim against McConnell for an alleged false misconduct dated December 21, 2007 based on Plaintiff's December 20, 2007 request to staff form; (2) a retaliation claim against Kessler for grievances filed against her prior to October 27, 2008; and (3) a failure to protect claim against Kessler based upon his placement in Stiefel's cell on October 27, 2008.

At the conclusion of the trial on September 29, 2011, the jury ultimately found in favor of both Defendants. (ECF No. 120). On October 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Motion for New Trial. (ECF No. 122). On October 31, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Notice of Appeal. (ECF No. 123). This appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on February 7, 2012, due to the Plaintiff's failure to pay the requisite filing fee or file a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. See Curtician v. Unit Manager Kessler, et al. , No. 11-4053, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Order entered Feb. 7, 2012).[2] Defendants filed a Response to Plaintiff's Motion, (ECF No. 133), and the matter is now ripe for disposition.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) governs a motion for new trial. According to Rule 59(a), a court may grant a new trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." FED.R.CIV.P. 59(a)(1). This relief may be sought on the grounds "that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that damages are excessive, " that the court committed substantial errors of law in the admission or rejection of evidence or instructions to the jury, or that the trial was otherwise not fair to the moving party. Montgomery Ward & Co., v. Duncan , 311 U.S. 243, 251, 61 S.Ct. 189, 85 L.Ed. 147 (1940). The decision of whether or not to grant a new trial "is committed to the sound discretion of the district court." Bonjorno v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Corp. , 752 F.2d 802, 812 (3d Cir. 1984), cert. denied , 477 U.S. 908 , 106 S.Ct. 3284, 91 L.Ed.2d 572 (1986); see also Allied Chemical Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc. , 449 U.S. 33, 36, 101 S.Ct. 188, 66 L.Ed.2d 193 (1980); Wagner v. Fair Acres Geriatric Ctr. , 49 F.3d 1002, 1017 (3d Cir. 1995).

The district court's latitude varies, however, depending on the type of error alleged. Klein v. Hollings , 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). Its latitude "is broad when the reason for interfering with the jury verdict is a ruling on a matter that initially vested within the discretion of the court, " such as evidentiary rulings. Id . In this regard, "a District Court must first determine whether an error was made, and must then determine whether that error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice.'" Jackson v. City of Pittsburgh , 2011 WL 3443951 at *8 (W.D.Pa. 2011) (quoting Bhaya v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp. , 709 F.Supp. 600, 601 (E.D.Pa. 1989)). The court's discretion is more limited when granting a new trial on the basis that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence; in such cases a new trial should be awarded "only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or when the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience." Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp. , 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991); Moussa v. Comm. of Pa. Dept. of Public Welfare , 89 F.Supp.2d 639, 648 (W.D.Pa. 2003).[3]


Evidentiary Rulings

Prior to trial, Defendants filed a Motion in Limine seeking to exclude a number of Plaintiff's proposed exhibits from being introduced as evidence at trial. (ECF No. 111). Here, Plaintiff claims that he was "ambushed" by the filing of the Motion "only a few days before trial" and was forced to "re-write" his case due to the Court's ruling. (ECF No. 122 at 1). The Court finds no error warranting a new trial.

Defendants' Motion was filed on September 20, 2011, and the certificate of service reveals that it was sent to Plaintiff via e-mail for hand delivery to the Superintendents' Assistants at SCI-Albion and SCI-Smithfield for hand delivery to Plaintiff. (ECF No. 111 at 14). Trial in the instant matter did not commence until September 27, 2011, and Plaintiff concedes that he received the Motion prior to trial. (ECF No. 122). In addition, after advising the Court that his opening remarks had been "based mostly" on the evidence excluded by the Court, the Court recessed in order to allow Plaintiff time to refine his opening statement in light of the Court's rulings. (ECF No. 128 at 33-35). The Court advised Plaintiff:

... Mr. Curtician, remember again what the three claims are. And the focus is, with respect to two of those claims, with respect to Kessler, the focus is any evidence that tends to prove that shows she was retaliating against you for alleg[edly] placing you with that inmate on the date in question. Secondly, any evidence that you would believe you can introduce that supports your contention that she was aware that there was a substantial risk to you if you were placed with that inmate. Those are the two claims relative to her. Thirdly, your opening statement, and then the evidence that you offer should be on the McConnell claim, limited to your contention that the misconduct report which you were issued and which you subsequently suffered an adverse action... [t]he focus of your evidentiary effort there should be to establish that McConnell was aware of previous grievances, and that was a substantial or motivating factor in why he issued you an allegedly false misconduct. So that's the relatively small universe of claims that has been pared down....

(ECF No. 128 at 34-35). Following the Court's recess, the Court specifically inquired as to whether Plaintiff was ready to proceed with his opening statement, and Plaintiff responded that he was. Id . at 35.

Moreover, to the extent Plaintiff challenges Judge McLaughlin's exclusion of certain evidence, the Court also finds no error. The Court ruled that the following evidence was inadmissible because it was irrelevant to the Plaintiff's three pending claims:[4]

(1) Exhibit A, consisting of Grievance #199982, which related to an incident in September 2007 when Plaintiff's cellmate, Pehlman, was found with a hand-made "shank;" a traced copy of the "shank;" Declaration from inmate Larkin relating to the Pehlman incident; and Declarations from inmates Huertas and Bartela, concerning an incident where Superintendent Sobina allegedly placed Plaintiff in the restrictive housing unit. (ECF No. 99-1 at 1-14).
(2) Exhibit B, consisting of Grievance #256910 against Health Care Administrator Overton in January 2009 regarding his placement into the general population while recovering from his broken jaw; Misconduct marked "Other" #B043649, related to Plaintiff's placement in administrative custody by Superintendent Sobina; transcripts from Plaintiff's preliminary injunction hearing on February 24, 2009; and Grievance #'s 260199 and ...

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