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Williams v. Roper

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

March 22, 2018

ERNEST CORNELIUS WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
DON ROPER, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CHARLES A. SHAW UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on defendant Christy Pashia, a/k/a Christy Huffman's motion for new trial or, in the alternative, to amend the judgment. Plaintiff opposes the motion, which is fully briefed and ripe for review. Also before the Court is plaintiff's counsel's motion for compensation of services and reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses. For the following reasons, the Court will deny defendant's motion for new trial, and grant in part, and deny in part defendant's motion to amend the judgment. The Court will grant in part the motion for compensation of services and expenses.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Ernest Cornelius Williams is an offender in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections (“MDOC”), and at all times relevant to this suit, plaintiff was an inmate at Potosi Correctional Center (“PCC”). In his Complaint, plaintiff brought a number of claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Don Roper (Warden); Ian Wallace (Asst. Warden); Kay Kline (Functional Unit Manager); Brian Allen (Acting Functional Unit Manager); Eric Dunn (Caseworker); Christy Pashia[1] (Correctional Officer); Jeremy Huffman[2] (Correctional Officer); Willie Forbes (Correctional Officer); Jason Horn (Correctional Officer); Daniel Blair (Correctional Officer); Kevin Culton (Correctional Officer); Shannon Clubbs (Correctional Officer); Clifton Copeland (Correctional Officer); Charles Conrad (Correctional Officer); Philip Comer (Correctional Officer); and Rick Bailey (Correctional Officer), in their individual and official capacities.

         Following a review under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), the Court dismissed all the claims against defendants Bailey, Dunn, Roper, Wallace, Allen, and Kline. The Court also dismissed claims brought against all defendants in their official capacities. The Court further found that plaintiff had failed to allege claims under the Eighth Amendment, for conspiracy, and for violations of plaintiff's due process rights.

         The Court did find that plaintiff had alleged enough facts in his Complaint to state a claim for relief for First Amendment retaliation against defendants Blair, Horn, Conrad, Clubbs, Comer, Copeland, Forbes, Culton, and Huffman in their individual capacities. In his Complaint plaintiff alleged that he was placed in administrative segregation because he had filed grievances and lawsuits against staff at PCC. While in administrative segregation, plaintiff alleged, among other things, that he was routinely denied a noon meal, forced to sleep on a concrete slab without a mattress or pillow, confined to a cell without heat or proper clothing, and issued false conduct violations as punishment for filing lawsuits and grievances.

         The Court further found that plaintiff had stated claims against defendants Culton and Pashia in their individual capacities for violations of the Fourth Amendment based on his allegations regarding strip searches. Plaintiff alleged that defendant Pashia, a female officer, conducted a strip search and observed him while he was nude. Plaintiff also alleged that defendant Culton engaged in an unlawful strip search of plaintiff in his cell.

         Following discovery, defendants Pashia, Huffman, Forbes, Horn, Blair, Culton, Clubbs, Copeland, Conrad, and Comer moved for summary judgment. The Court denied defendants' motion and set this case for trial. The Court also appointed counsel for plaintiff.

         After a four-day trial against the ten remaining defendants, the jury returned a defense verdict as to nine of the defendants. The jury found in plaintiff's favor against defendant Pashia with regard to his claim of a Fourth Amendment violation based on an unreasonable strip search. The jury awarded plaintiff $500.00 in compensatory damages, and $1, 000.00 in punitive damages.

         Defendant Pashia now moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A). Pashia asserts that she is entitled to a new trial because: (1) she should have been permitted to introduce evidence regarding plaintiff's prior convictions; (2) the Court erred in submitting an adverse inference instruction regarding the maintenance of shift logs; (3) the jury instructions were incorrect regarding what plaintiff needed to prove to establish a claim under the Fourth Amendment; (4) she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because she did not commit any constitutional violation; (5) she is entitled to qualified immunity; and (6) the doctrine of res judicata applies. In the alternative, defendant Pashia argues that plaintiff is not entitled to compensatory damages because he suffered no physical injuries, and he is not entitled to punitive damages under the law. Plaintiff opposes defendant's motion for new trial or, in the alternative, to amend the judgment.

         II. Discussion

         A. Defendant's Motion for New Trial 1. Evidence regarding prior convictions

         Defendant Pashia moves for a new trial based on an evidentiary ruling. Pashia contends that she should have been able to question plaintiff about his prior convictions and the length of his sentence, which she argues were relevant as to his credibility.

         In a pretrial motion in limine, plaintiff moved to exclude reference to his convictions, other than the fact that he is incarcerated due to a felony conviction. Felony convictions are admissible in a civil case for the “purposes of attacking the character for truthfulness of the witness.” Fed.R.Evid. 609. In his motion in limine, plaintiff argued that the jury would know he was a convicted felon, but they need not know the specifics of his conviction and the length of his sentence. He argued that information regarding the nature of his conviction, which was for murder, and the length of his sentence were irrelevant to the facts at issue in this case, and should be excluded as unduly prejudicial under Federal Rule of Evidence 403. After giving the parties an opportunity to be heard at a hearing, the Court granted plaintiff's motion, and the jury was instructed that plaintiff was a convicted felon currently in the custody of the MDOC. Foulk v. Charrier, 262 F.3d 687, 700 (8th Cir. 2001) (the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence, pursuant to Fed.R.Evid. 403, regarding the nature of plaintiff's prior felonies).

         It is almost entirely within the discretion of the trial court whether to grant a new trial. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a); Belk v. City of Eldon, 228 F.3d 872, 878 (8th Cir. 2000). “A new trial is appropriate when the first trial, through a verdict against the weight of the evidence, an excessive damage award, or legal errors at trial, resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” Gray v. Bicknell, 86 F.3d 1472, 1480 (8th Cir. 1996). The key question is whether a new trial is required to avoid a miscarriage of justice. Belk, 228 F.3d at 878.

         For the Court to order a new trial, the requesting party must have suffered prejudice, meaning that the result at trial would have been different, if not for the district court's error. See First Nat'l Bank in Sioux Falls v. First Nat'l Bank S.D., 679 F.3d 763, 769 (8th Cir. 2012) (courts should only grant a new trial or set aside a verdict “where the error prejudicially influences the outcome.”) (quotations omitted); see also Diesel Mach., Inc. v. B.R. Lee Indus., Inc., 418 F.3d 820, 833 (8th Cir. 2005). “Where the motion is based on the exclusion of evidence, ‘[we] will reverse only if the district court's ruling was based on an erroneous view of the law or a clearly erroneous assessment of the evidence and affirmance would result in fundamental unfairness.'” Amplatz v. Country Mut. Ins. Co., 823 F.3d 1167, 1172 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Wegener v. Johnson, 527 F.3d 687, 690 (8th Cir. 2008)).

         In the motion presently before the Court, defendant argues that she should have been allowed to question plaintiff about the nature of his convictions, but adds nothing new to the arguments she made in opposing plaintiff's motion in limine. There is nothing to suggest that the outcome of the trial would have been different had the jury known more about the nature of plaintiff's conviction or the length of his sentence. The Court declines to grant a new trial on this basis, because there was no error in law, and defendant Pashia has not shown that she suffered prejudice on account of the evidentiary ruling.

         2. Adverse inference instruction

         Plaintiff also moves for a new trial based on the submission of an adverse inference. During the pretrial proceedings, plaintiff filed a motion asking that the Court grant plaintiff an adverse inference against defendants for spoiling evidence. The Court granted the motion in part, and an adverse inference was submitted to the jury.

         Plaintiff plainly alleged in his pro se complaint, which was filed on December 2, 2013, that on September 22, 2009 he was stripped search by defendants Culton and Pashia, even though there were numerous male guards on duty that day. Doc. 1 at 15-16. (defendant Pashia participated in the strip search of plaintiff, “[e]ven though numerous male guards were on duty with the same or high rank and better skilled were readily available to witness plaintiff being strip searched.”). On July 1, 2014, the Court conducted a frivolity review pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) and found that plaintiff's allegations of unlawful strip searches by defendants Culton and Pashia in violation of the Fourth Amendment stated a claim upon which relief may be granted. Waivers of service were issued, and defendants were sent copies of the complaint on July 2, 2014. Defendants were on notice from the time they received the Complaint that the staff who were on duty on September 22, 2009, would be an issue in this case. Defense counsel should have known that the staffing logs would be material. What is more, in a number of interrogatories and document requests, plaintiff asked for copies of staffing logs and records relating to who was on duty the day he was strip searched by defendant Pashia.

         It was undisputed that staffing logs once existed. At the time of trial, defendants maintained that they were no longer available and were probably destroyed at some point in time pursuant to a MDOC retention policy. At the pretrial conference, defense counsel was unable to say when the staffing logs were destroyed. Defendants did state in their memorandum in opposition to plaintiff's motion for an adverse inference that MDOC keeps shift logs for approximately five years. Plaintiff argued at the pretrial conference that the destruction of the staffing logs, which he contended was key evidence in the case, severely prejudiced his ability to prepare for trial and present his case.

         According to the Eighth Circuit, the district court has broad discretion in deciding whether to impose sanctions upon a finding that evidence has been destroyed. See Bass v. General Motors, 150 F.3d 842, 851 (8th Cir. 1998). Sanctions for the destruction of evidence are appropriate only upon a showing that the destruction prejudiced the opposing party. See Dillon v. Nissan Motor Co. Inc., 986 F.2d 263, 267 (8th Cir. 1993).

         In this case, the Court found that the defendants were on notice from the time they received the Complaint that the staffing records would be material, and failed to maintain those records. The Court further found that plaintiff was prejudiced by the destruction of the staffing logs. The Court, however, rejected plaintiff's proposed adverse inference instructions, which went too far, and denied his request that default judgment be entered against defendants Pashia and Culton as to his Fourth Amendment claim. Instead, the following adverse inference instruction was given to the jury:

The staffing logs for September 22, 2009 were destroyed by the prison and should have been preserved. You may, but are not required to, assume that the contents of the staffing logs would have shown there were other male guards available to assist in conducting the strip search of Plaintiff that day.

Doc. 184 at 8.

         In her motion for new trial, defendant Pashia argues that the Court should not have given this instruction because there was no evidence of bad faith or intentional destruction of evidence. Defendant's argument is without merit. A finding of bad faith is not required for the imposition of sanctions when documents are destroyed after litigation has commenced. “Sanctioning the ongoing destruction of records during litigation and discovery by imposing an adverse inference instruction is supported by either the court's inherent power or Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, even absent an explicit bad faith finding, and we conclude that the giving of an adverse inference instruction in these circumstances is not an abuse of discretion.” Stevenson v. Union Pacific RR, 354 F.3d 739, 747 (8th Cir. 2003). This is true even if the party destroyed such evidence pursuant to a reasonable document retention policy, if the party knew or should have known that the documents would become material. Stevenson, 354 F.3d at 747-48. Pashia's counsel should have known at the time counsel received the Complaint that staffing logs for September 22, 2009, would be material in this case, and yet she failed to preserve the logs.

         Even if it was not proper for the Court to give the adverse instruction, defendant Pashia is not entitled to a new trial because she has not shown how the outcome of the trial would have been different if the adverse inference instruction had not been given. The instruction did not tell the jury that it must conclude other male guards were available to assist in conducting the strip search. It only instructed the jury that it could assume the logs would have shown that other male guards were available. And what is more, defendant Pashia did not dispute that there were other male guards who were available to conduct the strip search. Defendant has not met her burden to show that she is entitled to a new trial based on the giving of the adverse inference ...


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