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Branning v. Wayne County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 1, 2018

WAYNE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


          Robert D. Marini United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         This is a § 1983 employment action involving First Amendment retaliation claims against Wayne County and numerous individual Defendants, as well as a claim for assault and battery against Defendant Botjer. Doc. 11. Presently before the Court are three motions in limine by Defendants to preclude (1) testimony related to Botjer's family members' employment (Doc. 40); (2) evidence of lost future earnings (Doc. 42); and (3) evidence related to other employees of Wayne County (Doc. 44). Also before the Court are three motions in limine by Plaintiff to preclude (1) evidence related to plaintiffs work performance from 2011-2013 (Doc. 46); (2) evidence relating to a summary offense result (Doc. 48); and (3) evidence related to plaintiff's alcohol rehabilitation (Doc. 50).

         II. Standard of Review

         "The purpose of a motion in limine is to allow the trial court to rule in advance of trial on the admissibility and relevance of certain forecasted evidence." United States v. Tartaglione, 228 F.Supp.3d 402, 406 (E.D. Pa. 2017). A court may exercise its discretion to rule in limine on evidentiary issues "in appropriate cases." 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, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Nevertheless, a "trial court should exclude evidence on a motion in limine only when the evidence is clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds." Tartaglione, 228 F.Supp.3d at 406. "[I]n limine rulings are not binding on the trial judge, and the judge may always change his mind during the course of a trial." Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n.3, 120 S.Ct. 1851, 146 L.Ed.2d 826 (2000).

         Further, while motions in limine may serve as a useful pretrial tool that enables more in-depth briefing than would be available at trial, a court may defer ruling on such motions "if the context of trial would provide clarity." Frintner v. TruePosition, 892 F.Supp.2d 699, 707 (E.D. Pa. 2012). Indeed, "motions in limine often present issues for which final decision is best reserved for a specific trial situation." Walden v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 126 F.3d 506, 518 n.10 (3d Cir. 1997). Thus, certain motions, "especially ones that encompass broad classes of evidence, should generally be deferred until trial to allow for the resolution of questions of foundation, relevancy, and potential prejudice in proper context." Leonard v. Stemtech Health Scis., Inc., 981 F.Supp.2d 273, 276 (D. Del. 2013). Moreover, "pretrial Rule 403 exclusions should rarely be granted... [A] court cannot fairly ascertain the potential relevance of evidence for Rule 403 purposes until it has a full record relevant to the putatively objectionable evidence." In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 916 F.2d 829, 859 (3d Cir. 1990) (emphasis in original).

         III. Discussion

         1. Defendants' Motion in Limine to Preclude Evidence of Defendant Botjer's Family Members' Employment (Doc. 40)

         Defendants argue that evidence relating to Defendant Vicky Botjer's daughter and husband, both of whom work for Defendant Wayne County, are irrelevant to Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff counters that such evidence may show possible "nepotism" at Wayne County, which would be relevant to his retaliation claim. Doc. 53 at 3. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that in retaliation for his First Amendment conduct, Defendant Botjer took away Plaintiffs work tasks and re-assigned them to her husband, and that "preferential treatment of [Botjer's] daughter in not being disciplined for engaging in misconduct is again evidence that Plaintiff was singled out" for discipline in retaliation for his actions in filing a report against Botjer. Id. at 4. Plaintiff also points to the fact that Botjer's husband is mentioned in the Amended Complaint. See Doc. 11 ¶ 34 ("Also, Plaintiff has been removed from performing electrical work on the Storebridge project; and in turn, Defendant Botjer's husband has been performing the work."). In a reply brief, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's retaliation claim stems solely from the police report he filed, and have no bearing on employees who "[worked] for the County after Plaintiff was no longer employed." Doc. 62 at 3.

         At this stage, it is unclear to the Court what the evidence relating to Botjer's family members may demonstrate. The Court also declines to adopt Defendants' narrow view of the scope of trial-while it is true that Plaintiffs police report may have initiated the alleged retaliation, the limits of relevant evidence do not end there. The factfinder is entitled to hear evidence of how Defendants may have retaliated in response to the police report would be relevant to Plaintiffs claim. The Court cannot make a final determination as to the relevance of such evidence at this time, especially since it is unclear when Botjer allegedly reassigned Plaintiff's tasks to her husband, whether Botjer was aware of Plaintiffs First Amendment conduct prior to such reassignment, or whether Botjer's daughter was similarly situated as Plaintiff, i.e. working similar tasks as Plaintiff in a comparable department at Wayne County.

         Federal Rule of Evidence 401 provides that "[e]vidence is relevant if: (a) it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and (b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action." Fed.R.Evid. 401. Federal Rule of Evidence 402 provides that "[i]rrelevant evidence is not admissible." Fed.R.Evid. 402. Without the benefit of knowing what the evidence will show at trial, the Court cannot say that Plaintiff will be unable to meet the low bar of relevancy. The Court will decline to make a relevancy determination at this time. See Walden, 126 F.3d at 518 n.10 (observing that a decision on a challenge to the relevancy of evidence is often best reserved for trial).

         Finally, Defendants also mention in passing that Plaintiff Exhibit 14 is "objectionable as offering no probative value, being designed to harass and embarrass, and would result in unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, and mislead the jury." Doc. 62 at 4. However, neither party attached the photo nor explained what the photo purportedly shows in their briefs. The exhibit is simply labeled as "Photo" in Plaintiffs pretrial memorandum. Doc. 64-1 at 1. Thus, the Court cannot make a relevancy determination as to the photo at this time.

         For reasons stated above, the Court will defer ruling on Defendants' motion to preclude evidence relating to Defendant Botjer's family members' employment and Plaintiff's exhibit 14. Defendants may raise this objection at the appropriate time at trial.

         Failure to raise the objection, should the evidence adduced at trial warrant it, will be deemed a waiver of the ...

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