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Rodriguez v. Thomas

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2018

WALTER RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
WARDEN J.E. THOMAS, et al., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          SYLVIA H. RAMBO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently before the court are several motions in limine filed by the parties in the captioned case. (Docs. 276, 280, 284, 286.) For the reasons that follow, these motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Walter Rodriguez, a federal inmate formerly incarcerated at the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (“USP-Lewisburg”), initiated this action against several Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) officials with a Bivens-styled complaint on October 18, 2012, as amended on July 9, 2014, and as supplemented on August 19, 2014 and September 15, 2014. (Docs. 105, 138, 146-1.) In the amended complaint, Plaintiff alleges that his constitutional rights were violated in connection with a physical and verbal assault by Defendant PA Potter and subsequent medical care; that several Defendants subsequently retaliated against him after it was discovered that he wished to pursue legal action against Defendants; and, that he was subjected to unconstitutional conditions of confinement in his restricted confinement cell. Following disposition of several motions for summary judgment, the following claims are proceeding to trial: (1) a claim of excessive use of force by Defendant Potter on August 11, 2012; and (2) a failure to protect / failure to intervene claim against Defendants Eichner and Knapp. (See Docs. 268, 297.) In advance of trial, currently scheduled for September 17, 2018, the parties have filed motions in limine. (See Docs. 276, 280, 284, 286.) The parties wish to exclude various evidence and testimony at trial. The court will discuss the requests in turn.

         II. Plaintiff's Motion in Limine

         A. Request No. 1

         Plaintiff requests that the court “[i]nstruct all parties, counsel and witnesses expected to testify that no person is to refer to, interrogate, or attempt to convey or suggest to the jury, directly or indirectly . . . [i]f there was any injury as a consequence of the striking.” (Doc. 276 at 2.) Defendants object, contending that in order to determine whether excessive force was used, the jury will need to determine, inter alia, the extent of Plaintiff's injuries. Upon careful review, the court will deny this request.

         Prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment when they apply force “maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, ” rather than “in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992). Courts look to several factors in determining whether a prison official used excessive force, including: “(1) the need for the application of force; (2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used; (3) the extent of injury inflicted; (4) the extent of the threat to the safety of staff and inmates, as reasonably perceived by responsible officials on the basis of the facts known to them; and (5) any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response.” Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102, 106 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 321 (1986)).

         “The Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments necessarily excludes from constitutional recognition de minimis uses of physical force, provided that the use of force is not of a sort of repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” Hudson, 503 U.S. at 9-10 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). However, if a plaintiff establishes that a prison official acted with malice, he need not show that “significant injury” resulted from the official's actions. Id. at 9; see also Brooks, 204 F.3d at 108. “[T]he absence of significant resulting injury is not a per se reason for dismissing a claim based on alleged wanton and unnecessary use of force against a prisoner. Although the extent of an injury provides a means of assessing the legitimacy and scope of the force, the focus always remains on the force used (the blows).” Brooks, 204 F.3d at 109. In sum, in assessing the use of force, “the extent of injury suffered by [the] inmate is one factor, ” but a plaintiff can establish an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim even without showing “serious injury.” Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7.

         Under this standard, the court will not exclude at trial evidence and testimony related to the fact of Plaintiff's injuries. See Fed. R. Evid. 402 (“Irrelevant evidence is not admissible.”). Because Plaintiff's alleged injuries and the context in which they were inflicted are central to this case, in order to determine what, if any, damages it should award, the jury must hear if the Plaintiff was physically injured and the extent of such injuries. Importantly, however, the parties are reminded that a use of force can violate the Eighth Amendment even if it does not cause significant injury. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7. Although the extent of any physical injuries to Plaintiff may aid a jury in assessing whether a use of force was legitimate, the jury will be instructed that a malicious and sadistic use of force violates the Eighth Amendment even if it produces no significant physical injury. Thus, Plaintiff's request here is denied.

         B. Request No. 2

         Plaintiff next requests that the court “[i]nstruct all parties, counsel and witnesses expected to testify that no person is to refer to, interrogate, or attempt to convey or suggest to the jury, directly or indirectly . . . [t]he reasons why the Plaintiff was incarcerated for and any matters concerning his sentencing.” (Doc. 276 at 2.) Defendants object, arguing that because Plaintiff's credibility is a significant factor in the case, Plaintiff's felony conviction therefore has significant probative value. Upon careful review, the court agrees with Plaintiff and will grant the request to exclude evidence of his criminal conviction.

         According to Defendants, [1] on February 3, 2012, Plaintiff was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of sixty-six (66) months in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, after having been convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute narcotics. (Doc. 291 at 10.) Plaintiff was serving this sentence at the time he filed the captioned case on October 18, 2012. He was released from custody on February 4, 2015. (Doc. 181; see also https://www.bop.gov/inmateloc/.)

         The Federal Rules of Evidence provide that “[r]elevant evidence is admissible unless any [exceptions apply] . . . . Irrelevant evidence is not admissible.” Fed.R.Evid. 402. Rule 608(b), however, generally prevents the admissibility of specific instances of conduct for the purpose of attacking or supporting a witness's character. Fed.R.Evid. 608. Rule 609 sets forth several exceptions to this general rule, permitting evidence of prior criminal convictions to be admitted for impeachment purposes. Fed.R.Evid. 609. Under Rule 609(a), evidence of a prior criminal conviction may be admitted “to attack[ ] a witness's character for truthfulness” in several circumstances. Fed.R.Evid. 609(a)(1). If the witness was convicted of a crime that “was punishable ...


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