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Spencer v. Biggins

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 6, 2014

Pfc. T. J. BIGGINS; Pfc. S. T. HIGGS; DET. T. G. GUISE; and DEPUTY MILLER, Defendants


SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.

Presently before the court is Plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. Background

In this civil action, pro se plaintiff Joshua M. Spencer brought an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 against several police officers for violations of his Fourth Amendment rights as a result of the alleged use of excessive force during his arrest on October 31, 2009. (Doc. 1.) As the parties are familiar with the facts of this case, the following background is sufficient for purposes of Plaintiff's motion for a new trial.

On October 28, 2013, the court entered an order scheduling trial to commence on January 21, 2014. (Doc. 115.) The court identified that the only issues remaining for trial were excessive force claims against Defendants Higgs and Biggins for allegedly pushing Plaintiff into a creek and slamming a police vehicle door onto Plaintiff's feet. ( Id. ) The order directed each party to file a pretrial memorandum no later than December 16, 2013 and established a briefing schedule for the filing of motions in limine. ( Id. ) The court further ordered Plaintiff to file, in camera, an addendum to his pretrial memorandum identifying, inter alia, the names of all proposed witnesses that he intended to present, together with the prisoner number and location for any incarcerated witness, and the substance of the testimony for each proposed witness. ( Id. )

On November 12, 2013, Defendants filed a motion in limine to admit the prior convictions of Plaintiff and his anticipated witness, Jose Rojo. (Doc. 118.) In addition, Defendants filed a motion to preclude Plaintiff from testifying about any injuries he received during his arrest and about Defendant Biggins' reputation for using excessive force. (Doc. 120.) Plaintiff did not file a response to either motion. By order dated January 3, 2013, the court granted the motion to admit the prior convictions of Plaintiff and his witness with several restrictions. (Doc. 131.) The court also granted the motion to preclude Plaintiff's testimony as to Defendant Biggins' reputation, but denied the motion as to evidence of Plaintiff's physical injuries. ( Id. )

On January 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed several pretrial motions, including an additional motion for the appointment of legal counsel and a motion to continue trial. ( See Docs. 132-35.) The court denied the motions by order dated January 9, 2014. (Doc. 136.) In the order, the court noted that Plaintiff had failed to file a pretrial memorandum, despite the court directing him to do so in its October 28, 2013 order and providing him with a pretrial memorandum form to use as a guideline. ( Id. )

On January 21, 2014, approximately one hour prior to jury selection, the parties convened for a pretrial conference. (Notes of Testimony, January 21-22, 2014, p. 3 ("N.T. at p. __").) During the conference, Plaintiff disclosed to the court for the first time that he intended to call Jose Rojo, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute of Camp Hill ("SCI-Camp Hill"), to testify on his behalf at trial. ( Id. at 3-4.) Plaintiff offered no explanation as to why he failed to comply with the court's October 28, 2013 order and elected not to file a pretrial memorandum or otherwise notify the court of his proposed witness. ( See Doc. 115.) Due to the last-minute nature of Plaintiff's request, the court prohibited the use of the witness, explaining that the court did not have the opportunity to file a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum in order to have the witness appear at trial. (N.T. 4, Jan. 21, 2014.) Following additional discussion with the parties wherein Plaintiff conceded that his facial injuries were not caused by either of the events remaining at issue in the case, the court also prohibited the presentation of evidence concerning Plaintiff's facial injuries. ( Id. at 7.)

During his case-in-chief, Plaintiff testified on his own behalf ( id. at pp. 26, 30-45) and admitted several photographs as exhibits ( id. at pp. 44-45). He then rested his case. ( Id. at p. 45.)

In support of their defense, all three defendants testified on their own behalf. ( Id. at pp. 47-62.) Defendants also presented the testimony of two additional witnesses ( id. at pp. 65-76) who had been properly identified as potential witnesses in Defendants' pretrial memorandum ( see Doc. 123). Plaintiff did not object to any of the testimony and took the opportunity to cross-examine each witness. ( See N.T. at pp. 47-76.) At the conclusion of their case, Defendants presented a Rule 50 motion for a directed verdict with respect to each defendant ( id. at p. 77), and the court granted the motion as to Defendant Guise ( id ).

At the start of the second day of trial, the court presented its proposed jury instructions to the parties. ( Id. at p. 81.) Plaintiff twice advised the court that he had no objections to the instructions. ( Id. at pp. 81, 86.) Prior to closing arguments, Plaintiff, for the first time, moved for the admission of his hospital records. ( Id. at p. 86.) In response, the court reminded Plaintiff that the evidence had been closed and precluded him from supplementing the record. ( Id. ) After instructing the jury, the court again asked Plaintiff if he had any objection to the jury instructions. ( Id. at p. 115.) Plaintiff offered no objection for the third time. ( Id. ) At the close of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the two remaining defendants. ( Id. at p. 145.)

II. Standard of Review

A motion for new trial is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. Under this rule, after a jury trial, "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues... 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(a)(1)(A). In the Third Circuit, a new trial is warranted "when the verdict is against the great weight of the evidence or errors at trial produce a result inconsistent with substantial justice." Sandrow v. United States, 832 F.Supp. 918, 918 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (citing Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735-36 (3d Cir. 1988)).

When a motion for a new trial is based on a prejudicial error of law, the court has broad discretion to order a new trial. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3d Cir. 1993). If, however, a motion for a new trial is premised on a verdict that is allegedly against the weight of the evidence, the court's discretion is more limited. Williamson v. Consol. Rail. Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991). Under these circumstances, a new trial should only be granted when the verdict "cries out to be overturned or shocks the conscience." Id. In reviewing a motion for a new trial, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the verdict winner. Marino v. Ballestas, 749 F.2d 162, 167 (3d Cir. 1984).

III. Discussion

Plaintiff asserts numerous grounds to support his motion for new trial, though his precise arguments are unclear. The court interprets them as follows:

(1) The court's jury charge was misleading and unclear;
(2) The court erred in permitting the testimony of Deputy Miller because he had been dismissed from ...

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