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Peroza-Benitez v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 5, 2019

JOSE ANTONIO PEROZA-BENITEZ Plaintiff
v.
C.I. DARREN C. SMITH, et al. Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NITZA I. QUIÑONES ALEJANDRO, U.S.D.C. J.

         In his amended complaint, Plaintiff Jose Antonio Peroza-Benitez (“Plaintiff”) asserts that Defendants Reading Police Officers Kevin Haser and Daniel White (“Defendants”) employed excessive force on October 8, 2015, while arresting him and, thus, violated his Fourth Amendment rights.[1] [ECF 32].

         Before the Court is Plaintiff's motion to exclude expert testimony or alternatively to compel expert deposition at expense of defendants (hereinafter “Motion to Exclude”). [ECF 53]. Specifically, Plaintiff moves to preclude Joseph Blaettler from testifying as a use-of-force expert on the basis that the expert report is legally deficient and exceeds the bounds of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Defendants oppose the motion. [ECF 54].[2] For the reasons set forth, Plaintiff's motion is granted and the testimony of Joseph Blaettler, the proposed expert, is excluded.[3]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The Federal Rules of Evidence (“Rules”) govern procedures in federal courts. Thus, when a party offers an expert witness, the court functions as a ‘gatekeeper' to ensure that the expert's testimony complies with these rules and commanding case law. In re Paoli R.R. Yard PBC Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 732 (3d Cir. 1994) (hereinafter, “Paoli”). Relevant here, Rule 702 provides that a witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if, “(a) the expert's . . . specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.” Fed.R.Evid. 702.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (“Third Circuit”) has interpreted Rule 702 as requiring three criteria: qualification, reliability, and fit. Paoli, 35 F.3d at 741-43. “Qualification refers to the requirement that the witness possess specialized expertise.” Schneider v. Fried, 320 F.3d 396, 404 (3d Cir. 2003). Reliability requires that the testimony “be based on the ‘methods and procedures of science' rather than on ‘subjective belief or unsupported speculation'; the expert must have ‘good grounds' for his or her belief.” Paoli, 35 F.3d at 742 (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 590 (1993)). Lastly, “fit” refers to the relevancy of the expert's testimony “for the purposes of the case” and its ability to “assist the trier of fact.” Schneider, 320 F.3d at 404.

         There are limitations to the extent of expert testimony, such as, “it is not permissible for a witness to testify as to the governing law.” United States v. Leo, 941 F.2d 181, 196 (3d Cir. 1991). “Such testimony is prohibited because it would usurp the District Court's pivotal role in explaining the law to the jury.” Berckeley Inv. Grp., Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 217 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing First National State Bank v. Reliance Elec. Co., 668 F.2d 725, 731 (3d Cir. 1981)); see also United States v. Monaghan, 648 F.Supp.2d 658, 661 (E.D. Pa. 2009) (“testimony concerning the law itself . . . is inappropriate expert testimony”). Further, an expert may not “state legal conclusions drawn by applying the law to the facts.” Highway Materials, Inc. v. Whitemarsh Twp., 2004 WL 2220974, at *20 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 2004). Notably, the Advisory Committee's notes on Rule 704 reaffirm the notion that Rule 702 prohibits “opinions which would merely tell the jury what result to reach.” Fed.R.Evid. 704 advisory committee's note. However, while an expert witness is precluded from presenting legal conclusions, an expert's “opinion is not objectionable just because it embraces an ultimate issue.” Fed.R.Evid. 704. Ultimately, “the expert's proponent bears the burden of establishing the admissibility of his expert's testimony by a preponderance of the evidence.” Monaghan, 648 F.Supp.2d at 660 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592).

         DISCUSSION

         The issue presented is whether the opinions proffered in Mr. Blaettler's expert report are permissible under the governing case law and the Federal Rules of Evidence. Generally, the expert report provides a summary of depositions taken; recounts facts from the record in a narrative manner; describes different purported legal standards and guidelines for the use of force; and offers opinions regarding the use of force employed in arresting Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff moves to exclude Mr. Blaettler's proffered testimony because the testimony would: (1) invade the province of the jury by opining on the ultimate legal issue in the case; (2) confuse the issues by introducing various law enforcement policies and procedures that are irrelevant to Plaintiff's legal claims; and (3) impermissibly opine on the credibility of witnesses and sufficiency of the evidence. In response, Defendants contend that Mr. Blaettler's proffered testimony will not invade the province of the jury because he will opine that “Defendants['] actions were consistent with recognized police policies and procedures and with case law regarding police officers' use of force”; his testimony regarding Reading Police Department's policies and procedures and national standards as to the use of force continuum is probative of [the jury's] inquiry of whether the Defendants['] conduct was reasonable”; and he does not give conclusions or opinions as to the weight of the evidence or credibility of the witnesses. [ECF 54 at 6-8].

         Defendants are, however, mistaken. A careful review of the report shows that throughout, Mr. Blaettler repeatedly opines that Defendants' conduct was reasonable and/or did not constitute excessive force, i.e., the ultimate issue before the jury. For example, the expert opines that:

• “[A]ll officers' actions in this matter were reasonable and consistent with Reading Police Department Policies and Procedures, nationally recognized police policies and procedures as well as established case law regarding the use of force by police.” (Expert Report at 19).
• “Based on the actions of Jose Peroza-Benitez, Officer Haser's action in striking Jose Peroza-Benitez in the head were justified and reasonable.” (Id. at 20).
• “Based on the actions of Jose Peroza-Benitez, Officer White's action of tasing Jose Peroza-Benitez were ...

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