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Tighe v. Purchase

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

May 1, 2015

ERIC J. PURCHASE, personal administrator of the Estate of Mona Buschak, individually and in her official capacity as President of the General McLane School Board; and THE GENERAL MCLANE SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants.

Elizabeth Farina Collura, Esquire, Richard A. Lanzillo, Esquire, Christopher J. Sinnott, Equire, Gary Eiben, Esquire


Terrence F. McVerry Senior United States District Judge

I. Introduction

Pending before the Court is DEFENDANTS’ MOTION IN LIMINE TO EXCLUDE EVIDENCE OF PLAINTIFF’S CLAIMED BODILY INJURY, REPUTATIONAL HARM, AND ECONOMIC DAMAGE (ECF No. 158). Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition to the motion (ECF No. 159). Accordingly, the motion is ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

In Defendants’ motion, they seek to preclude Plaintiff from claiming several items of compensatory damages, to wit: damages for the high blood pressure allegedly caused by the stress and anxiety of being ruled out of order on August 18, 2010; reputational harm; economic loss caused by the funding of his criminal defense; lost wages; and economic loss caused by the funding of this litigation. Relatedly, Defendants argue that certain evidence identified by Plaintiff as relevant to the issue of damages is not admissible. Defendants also argue that Plaintiff is precluded from recovering punitive damages because such damages are not available against a decedent or a government entity. Plaintiff responds that he is not claiming damages for economic loss in the nature of lost wages or for the costs of funding his criminal defense. On the other hand, he claims that all other items of damages, including punitive damages, are recoverable and properly supported by admissible evidence. The Court will first address the issued related to compensatory damages and then turn its attention to the question of whether punitive damages may be recovered in this case.[1]

A. Compensatory Damages

A § 1983 plaintiff’s “level of damages is ordinarily determined according to principles derived from the common law of torts.” Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 305-06 (1986) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As is the case under ordinary tort law, “‘the basic purpose’ of § 1983 damages is ‘to compensate persons for injuries that are caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights.’” Id. at 307 (quoting Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 254 (1978)). Compensable injuries under § 1983 include “not only out-of-pocket loss and other monetary harms, but also such injuries as ‘impairment of reputation . .., personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering.’” Id. at 309 (quoting Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974)). However, absent proof of an actual injury, in any of these forms, compensatory damages cannot be awarded. See Id. (holding that “damages based on the abstract ‘value’ or ‘importance’ of constitutional rights are not a permissible element of compensatory damages”). In such case, only nominal damages ($1.00) are recoverable. Bolden v. Se. Penn. Transp. Auth., 21 F.3d 29, 34 (3d Cir. 1994) (“There is no right to damages other than nominal ones for violation of a constitutional right unless actual injury is proven.”).

Whenever impairment to reputation, personal humiliation, mental anguish/suffering, or some other type of emotional distress is claimed, there must be “competent evidence” to support it. Chainey v. State, 523 F.3d 200, 216 (3d Cir. 2008). In Gunby v. Pennsylvania Electric Co., for instance, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a jury’s award of $15, 000 in damages for emotional distress and humiliation where the only evidence to support such damages was testimony from the plaintiff that he was “very upset” by the defendant’s actions. 840 F.2d 1108, 1121-22 (3d Cir.1988). Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals does not “require that a specific type of evidence be introduced to demonstrate injury in the form of emotional distress.” Bolden, 21 F.3d at 36 (citing Carey, 435 U.S. at 263-64). It is also clear that expert medical evidence is not necessary to prove emotional distress or mental anguish in § 1983 actions. Id. (sustaining jury’s award of compensatory damages based on testimony of plaintiff, “two of his friends, and his wife and daughter . . . that he had changed a great deal in the wake of” the alleged constitutional violation). Rather, “[a]lthough essentially subjective, genuine injury in this respect may be evidenced by one’s conduct and observed by others.” Carey, 435 U.S. at 264.

1. Damages to Plaintiff’s Reputation

Plaintiff seeks to recover compensatory damages for the alleged harm done to his reputation by the incident at the August 18 School Board meeting. In support of this claim, he has identified two witnesses, Duane James and A1 Pernisek, who purportedly can testify that his reputation has suffered.

As already noted, a § 1983 plaintiff can recover compensatory damages for “‘impairment of reputation . . . .’”[2] Stachura, 477 U.S. at 307 (quoting Gertz, 418 U.S. at 350). The impairment, if any, to a plaintiff’s reputation “must be measured by the perception of others, rather than that of the plaintiff because ‘“reputation is the estimation in which one’s character is held by his neighbors or associates.”’ Sprague v. Am. Bar Ass’n, 276 F.Supp.2d 365, 370 (E.D. Pa. 2003) (quoting Gaetano v. Sharon Herald Co., 426 Pa. 179, 231 A.2d 753, 755 (1967) (quoting Restatement, Torts § 577, comment b (1938)). There must therefore be evidence upon which the jury can judge the consequences of the alleged constitutional violation on the plaintiff’s reputation in the community – evidence of his reputation before the alleged violation and evidence showing that people in the community saw him differently after the alleged violation. Otherwise, there would be no way to determine whether his reputation has, in fact, been impaired.

With respect to James’ testimony, Plaintiff points to an episode James described in his deposition, when he overheard a man in a gun shop sometime in January 2014 say that “Matt Tighe is a fucking asshole.” Plaintiff contends that “[b]ased on his observation of the conversation in the gun shop, [James] perceived Mr. Tighe’s reputation to be damaged, and that damage was caused by the Defendants’ unconstitutional conduct.” Pl.’s Br. 11, ECF No. 164.

The Court disagrees. Whenever James’ deposition testimony is read as a whole, it actually tends to undermine Plaintiff’s claim that his reputation has suffered. For one thing, James testified that he never discussed Plaintiff with other people (except for when his brother asked him about a job that Plaintiff had done for him). James Dep. 44:5-22, ECF No. 164-1. He also testified that his neighbor had spoken “very, very highly of [Plaintiff] . . .” in the fall of 2010. Id. 47:16-17. Even though he speculated that it was “quite possibl[e]” that Plaintiff’s reputation had suffered since then on account of “what is going on, ” id. 49:19-21, the only incident he could cite in support of that supposition was what he purportedly overhead at the gun shop. However, that stray comment by an unidentified man some three years after the incident in question says nothing about whether Plaintiff’s reputation was tarnished as a result of Buschak’s conduct. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that the unidentified man who made the comment felt differently before the incident on August 18, 2010. For all James or Plaintiff or anybody else knows, the man may have held that belief about Plaintiff irrespective of what transpired between Plaintiff and Buschak on August 18. In addition, as James himself acknowledged, to the extent Plaintiff’s reputation had been tarnished, it was “from ...

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