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Keiser v. Borough of Carlisle

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 11, 2017



          Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         This is a workplace age discrimination lawsuit brought by the plaintiff against a local municipality under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 (“ADEA”). The plaintiff in this action, Michael Keiser, worked for 27 years as the Director of Public Works for the Borough of Carlisle before he was fired on May 1, 2014, just hours after formally complaining to his supervisor about what he perceived as his supervisor's repeated ageist and discriminatory comments and criticism. Keiser alleges that his firing constituted unlawful age discrimination and was retaliatory.

         The Borough, and Keiser's supervisor, Mathew H. Candland, Sr., maintain that Candland was compelled to terminate Keiser's employment because it had become impossible to work cooperatively with Keiser; because of fundamental disagreements over significant public-works projects; and because morale had reached an unacceptable low within Keiser's department. Keiser retorts that these given reasons were pretextual cover for his unlawful firing.

         With respect to these competing claims and defenses, we have previously concluded that this case is riddled with factual disputes that make summary judgment inappropriate. Accordingly, we have scheduled this case for trial in October 2017 and in anticipation of that trial the parties have filed an array of motions in limine, including a motion in limine filed by the plaintiff which seeks to exclude evidence of criminal complaints or charges filed against Keiser prior to his discharge. (Doc. 61.) The parties have fully briefed this motion in limine, (Docs. 62 and 95.), and this motion is, therefore, ripe for resolution.

         These briefs reveal the following factual background relating to this evidentiary issue: In April of 2014, shortly before his employment with Carlisle Borough was terminated Keiser was involved in a dispute with a neighbor. The dispute involved Keiser's use of weed killer on his property, weed killer that was alleged to have blown onto a neighbor's land. When that neighbor complained to Keiser she alleged that Keiser sprayed additional weed killer in her direction. The neighbor summoned police who cited Keiser for harassment and disorderly conduct and admonished him to stop. These citations were reported in the local newspaper on April 16, 2014, when this incident took place. These citations were subsequently dismissed in July of 2014.

         Three days prior to Keiser's termination, on April 28, 2014, the Carlisle Borough Council held an executive session meeting. Given the public attention which this police citation had received, the citation and Keiser's future employment status were discussed at this meeting. Recollections of this meeting differ in ways that define disputed issues of fact for trial. Some participants recall Keiser's supervisor, Matthew Candland, categorically informing borough council members that Keiser's employment was not in jeopardy. It appears that the plaintiff wishes to present evidence from these witnesses describing what they understood to be Candland's categorical statements on April 28, 2014, that Keiser's job was not in jeopardy in order to bolster their claim that the termination of Keiser's employment three days later after he complained of age discrimination in the workplace was retaliatory.

         In contrast, Candland and other witnesses allege that Candland's statements at this April 28 meeting were much more guarded and limited, and pertained exclusively to the question of whether Keiser's dispute with his neighbor and the harassment citation standing alone provided grounds for his dismissal. In fact, Candland has indicated that he endeavored to limit his statements to this criminal citation out of a concern that any broader discussion of Keiser's workplace job performance issues would be reported to Keiser if they were disclosed by Candland at this executive session meeting. With the recollection of witnesses sharply divided on this issue, Keiser now moves in limine to preclude any reference to this criminal citation whatsoever, a ruling which would allow the plaintiff to present testimony from those witnesses who recalled Candland's denial of any plan to terminate Keiser in categorical terms, but would hobble Candland and other witnesses in any effort to explain the more qualified nature of Candland's intended statements at this borough council meeting.

         For the reasons set forth below, this motion in limine will be GRANTED in part, in that we will instruct the parties to refrain from a discussion of Keiser's criminal charges, without the prior approval of the court. However, if the plaintiff wishes to offer evidence relating to this executive session which seeks to present Mr. Candland's remarks about Keiser's future employment in categorical terms, we will permit Candland and other witnesses to explain that these statements related solely to news reports that police had been summoned to address a dispute between Keiser and a neighbor, and Candland simply meant to indicate that this incident, by itself, would not provide grounds for firing Keiser. We will also instruct the parties to endeavor to reach a stipulation regarding this issue, while reserving the right to make a trial ruling relating to the appropriate scope of this testimony.

         II. Discussion

         The Court is vested with broad inherent authority to manage its cases, which carries with it the discretion and authority to rule on motions in limine prior to trial. See Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n.4 (1984); In re Japanese Elec. Prods. Antitrust Litig., 723 F.2d 238, 260 (3d Cir. 1983), rev'd on other grounds sub nom., Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574 (1986) (the court exercises its discretion to rule in limine on evidentiary issues “in appropriate cases”). Courts may exercise this discretion in order to ensure that juries are not exposed to unfairly prejudicial, confusing or irrelevant evidence. United States v. Romano, 849 F.2d 812, 815 (3d Cir. 1988). Courts may also do so in order to “narrow the evidentiary issues for trial and to eliminate unnecessary trial interruptions.” Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 913 F.2d 1064, 1069 (3d Cir. 1990) (citation omitted).

         However, courts exercise great caution before indulging in pre-trial rulings excluding evidence. Parties frequently invite courts to make pre-trial rulings on issues of prejudice, relevance and admissibility through motions in limine. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has cautioned us, however, that “pretrial [rulings regarding evidentiary] exclusions should rarely be granted. . . . Excluding evidence as being more prejudicial than probative at the pretrial stage is an extreme measure that is rarely necessary, because no harm is done by admitting it at that stage.” In re Paoli R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829, 859 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 453 (3d Cir. 1994) (noting that the Third Circuit's “cautious approach to Rule 403 exclusions at the pretrial stage . . . .”). Moreover, the Third Circuit has characterized Rule 403, the rule permitting exclusion of evidence, as a “trial-oriented rule” and has warned that “[p]recipitous Rule 403 determinations, before the challenging party has had an opportunity to develop the record, are . . . unfair and improper.” In re Paoli R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d at 859. However, it is also well-settled that “[a] trial court is afforded substantial discretion when striking a . . . balance with respect to proffered evidence, and a trial judge's decision to admit or exclude evidence . . . may not be reversed unless it is arbitrary and irrational.” McKenna v. City of Philadelphia, 582 F.3d 447, 461 (3d Cir. 2009).

         Legally, there are several different bases for motions in limine. First, such motions are filed when it is alleged that evidence is going to be offered which is improper under the Federal Rules of Evidence. In considering motions in limine which call upon the Court to engage in preliminary evidentiary rulings under Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, we begin by recognizing that these “evidentiary rulings [on motions in limine] are subject to the trial judge's discretion and are, therefore, reviewed only for abuse of discretion ... Additionally, application of the balancing test under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 will not be disturbed unless it is ‘arbitrary and irrational.' ” Abrams v. Lightolier Inc. 50 F.3d 1204, 1213 (3d Cir.1995) (citations omitted); see Bernardsville Bd. of Educ. v. J.H., 42 F.3d 149, 161 (3d Cir.1994) (reviewing in limine rulings for abuse of discretion). Yet, while these decisions regarding the exclusion of evidence rest in the sound discretion of the district court, and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of that discretion, the exercise of that discretion is guided by certain basic principles.

         One of these key guiding principles is reflected in the philosophy which shapes the rules of evidence. The Federal Rules of Evidence can aptly be characterized as evidentiary rules of inclusion, which are designed to broadly permit fact-finders to consider pertinent factual information while searching for the truth. The inclusionary quality of the rules is embodied in three cardinal concepts. The first of these concepts ...

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