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R.D. v. Shohola Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 15, 2019

“R.D., ” Plaintiff,
SHOHOLA, INC., Defendant.


          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Factual Background

         The plaintiff, “R.D., ” commenced this action on June 3, 2016, alleging that the defendant, Shohola, Inc., is liable to him for the injuries he incurred when he was sexually assaulted on one of the defendant's overnight camping trips. The parties are currently preparing for trial on the remaining negligence claims in this lawsuit. As trial approaches, the parties have filed some 29 motions in limine, including two motions filed by the plaintiff, (Docs. 301, 347), and 28 motions submitted by the defendant. (Docs. 302-12, 15-29 and 360).

         We now turn to consideration of one of these motions. The plaintiff in this case, R.D., is gay. As a young man, R.D. has also been treated for drug and alcohol addiction. The plaintiff has filed a motion in limine (Doc. 301), which seeks to bar references to his sexual orientation and alleged drug and alcohol use. From R.D.'s perspective, this evidence is both irrelevant and highly prejudicial. Defendant Shohola, in turn, has filed a response in opposition to this motion, arguing the relevance of these issues to some of the proposed psychiatric testimony in this case. (Doc. 331). In particular, Shohola notes that one major issue in this lawsuit relates to R.D.'s claim that he suffers from PTSD as a result of this assault, and R.D.'s assertion that the PTSD caused by this sexual assault is a substantial contributing factor to his other emotional impairments. Shohola notes that its own expert witness is prepared to testify that R.D. does not suffer from PTSD and that his other emotional impairments may be a product of what were unresolved issues of sexual identification. Accordingly, Shohola posits that evidence relating to these matters is directly relevant to these diagnostic issues and contends that any prejudice stemming from the presentation of this evidence can simply be addressed through a cautionary instruction. This motion has been briefed by the parties and is, therefore, ripe for resolution.

         Presented with this binary choice proffered by counsel, for the reasons set forth below, we choose a third path. We will grant the motion in limine in part, and direct that no evidence or argument regarding R.D.'s sexual orientation or drug and alcohol use will be made without a prior offer of proof and authorization by the court. To the extent that testimony or argument is permitted, it will be strictly limited to the offer of proof made by the moving party, and we will fashion appropriate cautionary instructions guiding the jury in its consideration of this evidence.

         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). 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).

         Such motions call upon us to strike an appropriate balance between principles which shape the philosophy behind the rules of evidence. At the outset, the Federal Rules of Evidence can aptly be characterized as evidentiary rules of inclusion, which hold 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.' ” Frank v. County of Hudson, 924 F.Supp. 620, 626 (D.N.J. 1996) (citing Spain v. Gallegos, 26 F.3d 439, 452 (3d Cir. 1994) (quotations omitted)). Further Rule 402 provides that:

         All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the Supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.

Fed. R. Evid. 402.

         Cast against these principles favoring admission of relevant evidence is the concept embraced by Rule 403, which provides that:

Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.

Fed. R. Evid. 403. Furthermore, while the Third Circuit encourages a cautious approach to the pre-trial exclusion of evidence on the grounds of undue prejudice, 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 . . . .”), case law has long recognized that certain areas of inquiry are fraught with potential prejudice.

         Questions of sex, sexuality, and sexual identity are one such area. Despite the progress of the law in this field, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 2588, 192 L.Ed.2d 609 (2015), questions of human sexuality can trigger deep-seated biases and inspire visceral responses which are antithetical to the dispassionate analysis of the evidence that is essential to a fair trial. Likewise, issues of drug use or abuse often cloud judgment with passion in ways which are potentially prejudicial at trial. For these reasons, litigants often seek pretrial rulings relating to the exclusion or use such evidence through motions in limine. See, e.g., Cartagena v. Serv. Source, Inc., No. 1:17-CV-742, 2019 WL 183853, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2019) (granting motion in limine regarding drug use); E.E.O.C. v. Smokin' Joe's Tobacco Shop, Inc., No. CIV.A. 06-01758, 2007 WL 2461745, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 22, 2007) (granting in part and denying in part motions in limine regarding sexual conduct and drug use); United States v. Neufeld, 949 F.Supp. 555, 557 (S.D. Ohio 1996), aff'd, 149 F.3d 1185 (6th Cir. 1998) (discussing consequences which flowed from alleged failure to abide by motion in limine ...

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