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Sears v. Rivero

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Tampa Division

September 20, 2019

EDUARDO RIVERO, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Plaintiff Terry Eugene Sears’s Motion for New Trial (Doc. # 275), filed on August 28, 2019. Defendants David Prince, Felishia Dexter, Vernia Roberts, and Jeffrey Hart responded on September 9, 2019. (Doc. # 282). For the reasons that follow, the Motion is denied.[1]

         I. Background

         In August 2019, this Court conducted a three-day jury trial on Sears’s claims, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, of excessive force and failure to protect against the defendant correctional officers. (Doc. ## 258, 262, 263).

         At trial, Sears testified on his own behalf. According to Sears’s testimony, on March 18, 2010, while incarcerated at Polk Correctional Institution, Sears refused to be handcuffed by a correctional officer because he felt that he had done nothing wrong. At that point, according to Sears, Prince and two other correctional officers used excessive force against him by hitting him, slamming him to the ground, and using unnecessary amounts of pepper spray on his person. Sears also testified that Dexter, Roberts, and Hart stood by and failed to protect him from the force used by the other correctional officers.

         As for the defense, all four Defendants testified to their recollection of the events of that day, and all denied or refuted Sears’s version of events. Defendants testified that Sears was yelling, using profanity, and defied a direct order to “cuff up.” Prince testified that Sears punched him during the altercation. According to Defendants, the officers then placed Sears on the grass, briefly pepper sprayed him, and took him to be decontaminated. They denied that excessive force was used or that there was ever a need for an officer to intervene and protect Sears. On August 15, 2019, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendants. (Doc. # 269).

         On August 28, 2019, Sears filed the instant Motion for New Trial. (Doc. # 275). Defendants have responded (Doc. # 282), and the Motion is ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a), “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues - and to any party - as follows: after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A).

         “A judge should grant a motion for a new trial when the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence or will result in a miscarriage of justice.” Lipphardt v. Durango Steakhouse of Brandon, Inc., 267 F.3d 1183, 1186 (11th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Eleventh Circuit has cautioned that “new trials should not be granted on evidentiary grounds unless, at a minimum, the verdict is against the great – not merely the greater – weight of the evidence.” Id. “[W]hen the trial involves simple issues, highly disputed facts, and there is an absence of ‘pernicious occurrences, ’ trial courts should be considerably less inclined to disturb a jury verdict.” Williams v. Valdosta, 689 F.2d 964, 974 (11th Cir. 1982).

         Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “[u]nless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence – or any other error by the court or a party – is ground for granting a new trial.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 61. Thus, a new trial is warranted only where the error has affected the party’s substantial rights. Id.; Knight through Kerr v. Miami-Dade Cty., 856 F.3d 795, 807 (11th Cir. 2017).

         III. Analysis

         In his Motion, Sears argues that he was not afforded a fair trial for three reasons. First, he claims that the testimony of lay witness Sam Pacchioli included impermissible expert opinions. (Doc. # 275 at 1, 2-3). Second, Sears submits that he was unfairly prejudiced by evidence admitted at trial regarding his prior disciplinary history and criminal convictions. (Id. at 1, 3-4). Finally, Sears claims that he was unfairly prejudiced by having three uniformed law enforcement officers sitting behind him during trial and having his ankles shackled. (Id. at 1-2, 5-6). The Court will address each claim in turn.

         A. Sam Pacchioli’s Testimony

         As part of the pretrial proceedings, Sears moved to strike all of Defendants’ proposed expert witnesses. (Doc. # 210). Concluding that Defendants’ disclosure of these witnesses had come too late, the Court granted that motion. (Doc. # 221). Accordingly, no expert witnesses were allowed to testify at Sears’s trial.

         On the last day of trial, Defendants called Sam Pacchioli as a witness. Pacchioli testified that in March 2010, following many years in corrections and law enforcement, he was employed by the Florida Department of Corrections’ (DOC’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Pacchioli’s duties at OIG included reviewing use-of-force reports submitted to the office.

         By the time Pacchioli testified, the use-of-force report related to the March 18, 2010, incident had already been admitted into evidence. (Doc. # 274-1). It included Prince’s report, the warden’s summary, and the institutional inspector’s review. (Id.). At the bottom of the page, there is a space for the Inspector General’s review, where the inspector can check “approved” or “disapproved.” (Id.). The ...

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