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Johnson v. Ball

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 11, 2015

JACQUELINE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGE J. BALL, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

TERRY I. ADELMAN, Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the motions of Defendant Deputy George J. Ball to exclude an expert report and opinion and the motion Plaintiff Jacqueline Johnson for partial summary judgment with respect to Count I of her complaint alleging that Defendant George J. Ball is liable pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for her unlawful arrest on a charge of Arson, Second Degree in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Also before the Court are Defendant's motions for summary judgment on Count I and on Count II, a Missouri common law claim for malicious prosecution. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motions to exclude expert testimony are granted, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied and Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.

I. Motion to Exclude Expert Report

A. Facts and Arguments

In support of her motion for partial summary judgment, Plaintiff offers an expert report prepared by a retired federal district judge who opines that Defendant either omitted facts from his application for the arrest warrant which, if included, would have revealed the absence of probable cause to arrest Plaintiff or that Defendant could not have held an objectively reasonable belief that the facts included in his affidavit supported a finding of probable cause to arrest Plaintiff.

The expert opined that no reasonable judge knowing all of the facts available to Defendant, including the facts Defendant omitted from his probable cause statement would have found that there was probable cause to believe that Ms. Johnson committed a crime. Id. He further opined that Defendant knew of, but omitted, the conclusion of the fire investigator, a law enforcement officer with superior training and knowledge regarding the crime of arson, that there was no probable cause to detain Plaintiff. Id. The expert concluded that if the omitted facts had been included in the probable cause statement, a reasonable judge would not have signed the warrant and Plaintiff would not have been arrested and detained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Id.

The parties do not dispute the qualifications of the expert, but disagree about whether the expert's report and opinion exceeds the permissible scope of expert testimony. Defendant asserts that the report and opinion should be excluded because it amounts to a legal conclusion that Defendant's affidavit failed to provide a basis for a finding of probable cause to charge and detain Plaintiff or in the alternative that Defendant is not entitled to claim the defense of qualified immunity with respect to Count I. In response, Plaintiff contends that the expert opinion addresses an appropriate subject of expert testimony. Plaintiff asserts that it is intended to assist the trier of fact in determining the questions of probable cause and qualified immunity, issues that Plaintiff characterizes as a mixed questions of law and fact.

B. Applicable Law

Federal Rule of Evidence 702, governing the admissibility of expert testimony, provides that:

[i]f scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.
Fed. R. of Evid. 702

In determining whether an expert opinion is admissible, the trial court acts as a "gate-keeper" to ensure that all expert testimony or evidence admitted at trial is relevant, reliable and "will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993).

"Legal conclusions do not qualify as expert opinions.'" Jones v. Slay, No. 4:12-CV-2109 CAS, 2014 WL 2804407, at *11 (E.D. Mo. June 20, 2014). And "[a] determination that a defendant's legal conduct constitutes a constitutional violation is a legal conclusion." Id. (citing Wade v. Haynes, 663 F.2d 778, 784 (8th Cir.1981)); see also Schmidt v. City of Bella Villa, 557 F.3d 564, 570 (8th Cir. 2009) (concluding that expert opinions regarding the reasonableness of evidence collection and strip search procedures were impermissible legal conclusions); Peterson v. City of Plymouth, 60 F.3d 469, 475 (8th Cir. 1995) (holding that expert testimony regarding the reasonableness of police behavior in light of Fourth Amendment standards was not admissible because it stated a legal conclusion).

C. Discussion

In this case the ultimate issues presented by the parties' cross motions for summary judgment on Count I are: 1) whether Defendant violated Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by omitting material facts from the arrest warrant affidavit that would have revealed that there was no probable cause to arrest Plaintiff for arson; and 2) whether Defendant nonetheless could have mistakenly but reasonably believed that the facts in his possession established probable cause for Plaintiff's arrest on the arson charge.

Each of these issues presents a question of law reserved for resolution by the court rather than the trier of fact. See, e.g., Estes v. Moore, 993 F.2d 161, 163 (8th Cir. 1993) (stating that "[w]hile the existence of probable cause is a mixed question of law and fact, the ultimate conclusion is a question of law") (citation omitted); Engle v. Townsley, 49 F.3d 1321, 1323 (8th Cir. 1995) (holding that qualified immunity is a legal determination reserved for resolution by the court).

Consequently, where the material facts are not in dispute, expert testimony offering an opinion with respect to the presence or absence of probable cause or qualified immunity is improper because it invades the province of the court to resolve such issues. See Fisher v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 619 F.3d 811, 816 (8th Cir. 2010) (internal citation omitted); Estes, 993 F.2d at 161(quoting Fed.R.Evid. 702).

For this reason, Plaintiff's expert report and testimony expressing opinions with respect to these issue is not admissible under Fed.R.Evid. 702 and Defendant's motions to exclude this expert testimony will be granted.

II. The Motions for Summary Judgment

Plaintiff asserts that she is entitled to summary judgment on Count I, her claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, because the undisputed facts establish that there was no probable cause to arrest and charge Plaintiff for the crime of arson, second degree.

Defendant asserts that he is entitled to judgment on Count I because the facts set forth in his statement establish probable cause for Plaintiff's arrest. In the alternative, Defendant argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity from liability on Count I because he had an objectively reasonable belief that his statement was sufficient to establish probable cause. In response, Plaintiff contends that Defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity here because he acted in a recklessly or intentionally misleading manner when he omitted facts regarding the fire inspector's findings and conclusions from his probable cause statement.

Finally, Defendant further asserts that he is entitled to summary judgment with respect to Count II, Plaintiff's claim for malicious prosecution, because the undisputed facts fail to establish the elements required under Missouri law to prove such a claim.

A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). The movant "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, " and must identify "those portions of [the record]... which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). In response, the nonmovant "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " and must come forward with "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87, (1986); see also Briscoe v. Cnty. of St. Louis, Mo., 690 F.3d 1004, 1011(8th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Therefore, "if a nonmoving party who has the burden of persuasion at trial does not present sufficient evidence as to any element of the cause of action, then summary judgment is appropriate." Id.

In considering motions for summary judgment courts view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Torgerson, 643 F.3d at 1042 (quotations and internal citations omitted). But that requirement applies "only if there is a genuine dispute as to those facts." "A mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient to defeat summary judgment and if a nonmoving party who has the burden of persuasion at trial does not present sufficient evidence as to any element of the cause of action, then summary judgment is appropriate." Pedersen v. Bio-Medical App. of Minn., No. 14-1284, 2015 WL 64382, at *3 (8th Cir. Jan. 6, 2015) (quoting Brunsting v. Lutsen Mountains Corp., 601 F.3d 813, 820 (8th Cir. 2010)). "Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions" ...


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