283 F.3d 138 (3rd Cir. 2002), 00-1549, Johnson v Elk Lake School Dist.

Docket Nº:00-1549
Citation:283 F.3d 138
Party Name:BETSY SUE JOHNSON, APPELLANT v. ELK LAKE SCHOOL DISTRICT; WAYNE STEVENS; CHARLOTTE A. SLOCUM; SCHOOL BOARD ELK LAKE SCHOOL DISTRICT
Case Date:March 01, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
 
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Page 138

283 F.3d 138 (3rd Cir. 2002)

BETSY SUE JOHNSON, APPELLANT

v.

ELK LAKE SCHOOL DISTRICT; WAYNE STEVENS; CHARLOTTE A. SLOCUM; SCHOOL BOARD ELK LAKE SCHOOL DISTRICT

No. 00-1549

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

March 1, 2002

Argued: September 6, 2001

On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civ. No. 96-cv-01471) District Judge: Honorable James F. McClure, Jr.

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Peter G. Loftus, Esquire, (argued), The Loftus Law Firm, P.C., P.O. Box V, 1207 Main Street, Waverly, PA 18471, for Appellant.

Jeffrey H. Quinn, Esquire, (argued), Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 150 South Independence Mall, West, 901 Public Ledger Building, Philadelphia, PA 19106, for Appellees Elk Lake School District, Charlotte A. Slocum, School Board Elk Lake School District.

Robert A. Mazzoni, Esquire, Julia K. Munley, Esquire, (argued), Mazzoni & Karam, 321 Spruce Street, Bank Towers, Suite 201, Scranton, PA 18503, for Appellee Wayne Stevens.

Before: Becker, Chief Judge, Alito and Barry, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

Becker, Chief Judge.

This case arises out of plaintiff Betsy Sue Johnson's claim that her guidance counselor Wayne Stevens sexually harassed and abused her while she was a high school student in the Elk Lake School District. Johnson sought damages from Stevens in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, claiming violations of 42 U.S.C. S 1983 and state tort law. Johnson also sought damages from the School District, the Elk Lake School Board, and District Superintendent Charlotte Slocum (to whom we shall collectively refer as "the Administration"), claiming that they too were liable under S 1983 for having failed to prevent Stevens's abuse.

In essence, Johnson asserted that the Administration knew or should have known of Stevens's propensity for sexual abuse, but was deliberately indifferent to this danger. The District Court granted summary judgment for the Administration, and Johnson appeals. Stevens too moved for summary judgment, but his motion was denied, and a four-day trial ensued, after which a jury returned a unanimous verdict in his favor. Johnson moved for a new trial on the basis of alleged trial errors. The District Court denied this motion, which Johnson now also appeals.

We agree with the District Court that Johnson has failed to adduce any credible evidence showing that Stevens's supervisors knew or should have known of any danger of abuse at a time at which they could have acted to prevent Johnson's injuries. Accordingly, we will affirm the District Court's order granting summary judgment for the Administration. The principal question arising out of the District Court's denial of the motion for a new trial is whether the Court abused its discretion in refusing to admit the testimony of Karen Radwanski, a former co-worker of Stevens, regarding a bizarre incident in which Stevens allegedly picked her up off the floor in another teacher's office and, in the course of doing so, touched her in the crotch area. Johnson had sought to present this testimony as evidence of Stevens's propensity for sexual abuse under Federal Rule of Evidence 415, which allows for the introduction of evidence of past sexual assaults in civil cases in which the claim for damages is predicated on the defendant's alleged commission of a sexual assault.

In reviewing the District Court's ruling, we are called upon to consider, for the first time, the standards for admission of prior sexual misconduct evidence under Rule 415. We conclude that in considering evidence of past sexual assaults, the trial court need not make a preliminary finding by a preponderance of the evidence under Page 144

Federal Rule of Evidence 104(a) that the act in question qualifies as a sexual assault and that it was committed by the defendant. Rather, the court may admit the evidence so long as it is satisfied that the evidence is relevant, with relevancy determined by whether a jury could reasonably conclude by a preponderance of the evidence that the past act was a sexual assault and that it was committed by the defendant. See Fed. R. Evid. 104(b).

We also conclude, however, that even when the evidence of a past sexual offense is relevant, the trial court retains discretion to exclude it under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 if the evidence's "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." We think that in cases where the past act is demonstrated with specificity and is substantially similar to the act(s) for which the defendant is being sued, it is Congress's intent that the probative value of the similar act be presumed to outweigh Rule 403's concerns. In a case such as this one, however, in which the evidence of the past act of sexual offense is equivocal and the past act differs from the charged act in important ways, we believe that no presumption in favor of admissibility is in order, and that the trial court retains significant authority to exclude the proffered evidence under Rule 403. We conclude that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in excluding Radwanski's testimony, and, finding that Johnson's other allegations of trial error are without merit, will affirm the District Court's order denying Johnson's motion for a new trial.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Johnson entered the Elk Lake School District high school as a freshman in September 1991. Sometime in November or December of that year Johnson began making regular visits to Stevens's office to discuss family difficulties. Johnson contends that shortly thereafter, in December 1991, Stevens began sexually harassing and abusing her. She alleges that for the next two years Stevens repeatedly sent her letters, roses, cards, and other suggestive correspondence, attempted on numerous occasions to hug and kiss her without her consent, and at one point fondled her breasts and vagina.

Johnson's complaint sought relief from both Stevens and the Administration for the violation of her civil rights under 42 U.S.C. SS 1983, 1985, and 1986, as well as for the commission of the torts of conspiracy, negligence, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The District Court dismissed Johnson's section 1985 and 1986 claims as to all the defendants for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court also dismissed Johnson's state tort claims against the Administration, concluding that such claims were barred by the Pennsylvania Political Subdivisions Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. SS 8541-64. Johnson does not appeal any of these dismissals. The District Court eventually granted summary judgment for the Administration with respect to the remaining S 1983 claim. The District Court denied Johnson's motion for reconsideration, and Johnson now appeals. We have examined the merits of Johnson's claim against the Administration and for the reasons given in the margin, we conclude that summary judgment was appropriate.1

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Stevens also moved for summary judgment on Johnson's S 1983 claim against him, as well as on the state tort claims, but the District Court denied his motion. These claims were eventually tried before a jury, which returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Stevens. Following the verdict, Johnson filed a motion for a new trial in which she alleged three flaws in the way the trial had been conducted. The District Court rejected Johnson's motion for a new trial on all three grounds, two of which we address below and one which we describe in the margin.2 Johnson Page 146

now appeals.

First, Johnson alleges that the District Court erred by not declaring a mistrial when Stevens's counsel mentioned to the jury in his opening statement that his client had never been arrested for any crime relating to the alleged incidents with Johnson. The District Court, however, found that no new trial was warranted because the Court's prompt admonition to the jury to disregard the statement cured any potential prejudice.

Second, as noted above, Johnson contends that the District Court erred in refusing to permit Radwanski to testify as to the touching incident with Stevens under Federal Rule of Evidence 415. Although it did not state so explicitly, it appears to us that the District Court excluded the evidence pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 403's balancing inquiry, concluding that the slim probative value of Radwanski's testimony was outweighed by its potential for unfairly prejudicing Stevens, misleading the jury, confusing the issues, and wasting time.

II. Remarks by Stevens's Counsel in His Opening Statement.

Near the end of his opening statement, Stevens's attorney commented, "Betsy Sue Johnson reported [the allegations regarding Stevens] in July of 1995. She talked to the state police. No arrest." Shortly thereafter, upon the completion of Stevens's attorney's opening statement, Johnson's attorney approached the bench and objected to opposing counsel's mention of "[n]o arrest," asking the trial judge to declare a mistrial. The judge denied Johnson's motion, but indicated that he would instruct the jury to ignore what Stevens's counsel had just said.

Soon thereafter the judge told the jury:

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The one thing I do want to tell you as a result of[the sidebar conference] is that the reference by Mr. Mazzoni [Stevens's counsel] in his opening to what did or did not happen to Mr. Stevens as a result of the complaint being lodged with the police is immaterial in this case. Forget about that. It has nothing to do with your...

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