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Keiser v. The Borough of Carlisle

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 14, 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 that the Borough has filed to exclude what it describes as “irrelevant and speculative testimony about other employees.” (Doc. 83.) In this motion, the Borough requests that the Court enter an Order that would preclude the plaintiff from soliciting testimony from a number of witnesses that amounts to little more than their own, or others', subjective anxiety about their job security as they became older or were beset with deteriorating health. (Doc. 77.) The defendant also seeks to preclude a former Borough Council member, Linda Ciccolello, from offering her own speculation as to the reasons that a number of employees left the Borough. The defendant argues that the evidence is in some respects based upon rumors and other hearsay regarding Candland's alleged bias against older workers, and thus should be deemed inadmissible for the similar reasons to those set forth in a separate motion in limine that the Court has since granted. (Doc. 73.) The defendant also argues that the evidence is irrelevant to the issues in this case, and even if arguably relevant would be needlessly confusing to the jury and highly prejudicial to the defense.

         For his part, the plaintiff concedes that the speculation testimony that is contained in deposition testimony of Linda Ciccolello is not properly admissible, and he concedes the motion with respect to this potential evidence. He similarly concedes that testimony from Don Reisinger about a former employee, Rodney Garner's fears regarding his job security because of Matt Candland's alleged preference for younger workers is both unduly speculative and inadmissible as hearsay. However, he argues that he should be able to elicit testimony from Theodore Weber and Brian Richardson, arguing that this testimony is relevant and admissible, although he provides relatively little in the way of argument on either score. It appears that he wishes to present this evidence in order to provide support for the narrative that Candland had fomented a culture of fear and anxiety within the Public Works Department that caused older employees to become fearful that their continued employment was in jeopardy.

         Based on the scant testimony that actually appears to be remaining in issue and subject to the defendant's motion in limine, and finding that the testimony is of questionable relevance, confusing as to the issues actually being tried, risks the potential for significant prejudice, and in some cases lacks an apparent foundation, the motion as to the specific testimony identified will be granted. The Court recognizes that in some instances witnesses should be granted leeway to explain their state of mind, but in the case of the testimony that remains subject to this motion, it appears to rely on a foundation of rumor-based evidence and concerns that the Court has already found constitute impermissible hearsay. The evidence is also of dubious relevance, since it is little more than individual employees' expressing their own subjective worries about not only the effect of age on their future employment, but also their individual medical issues and other concerns, matters that seem unrelated to the issues being tried regarding Keiser's termination and retaliation claims.

         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).

         The issues raised by these three motions in limine aptly illustrate why courts should often refrain from ruling on these questions of relevance and prejudice in the abstract. At the outset, the legal principles which guide our analysis of these questions are broadly framed and are often fact-specific, requiring us to assess factual matters as they arise at trial. On this score, 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 is Rule 401's definition of relevant evidence. Rule 401 defines what is relevant in an expansive fashion, stating:

“Relevant evidence” means evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Fed. R. Evid. 401.

         Adopting this view of relevance it has been held that: “Under [Rule] 401, evidence is relevant if it has ‘any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.' [Therefore] ‘It follows that evidence is irrelevant only when it has no tendency to prove the fact. Thus the rule, while giving judges great freedom to admit evidence, diminishes substantially their authority to exclude evidence as irrelevant.' ...

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