HAMILTON v. Mo. Dep't of Corr.

Decision Date04 April 2011
Docket NumberNo. 08-3277-CV-S-MJW,08-3277-CV-S-MJW
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Missouri


I. Introduction

Plaintiff Barbara Hamilton is employed by the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) at its Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland, Missouri. Plaintiff was employed as a Corrections Officer I during the time frame which formed the basis for her lawsuit. Plaintiff alleged that she was retaliated against for filing a lawsuit against MDOC and several employees in 2006 when a hidden video surveillance camera was placed in the mail room building where she had been temporarily assigned to work. She also alleged she was retaliated against when she was required to attend a firearms familiarization class during a period when she was on light duty because of an injury. She further alleged she was retaliated against when a defendant from her prior 2006 lawsuit was in the building when she was attempting to give a urine sample for a random drug test.

On January 24, 2011, a jury trial commenced at the United States Courthouse in Springfield, Missouri, and at the conclusion of the five-day trial ,the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant MDOC. Plaintiff alleges the following errors occurred at trial and in the Court's pretrial rulings:

1. The trial court erred in denying admission of the investigative report prepared by defendant concerning plaintiff Hamilton's complaint and the letter of reprimand given Warden Virgil Landsdown ; 2. The trial court erred in refusing plaintiff Hamilton's jury instruction concerning the contributing factor analysis rather than the determining factor analysis and by refusing to give an adverse inference instruction concerning the destruction of the original video footage recorded by the surveillance camera;

3. The trial court erred by entering summary judgment on plaintiff Hamilton's Missouri Human Rights Act retaliation claim;

4. The trial court erred in dismissing the individual defendants prior to trial;

5. The trial court erred in entering summary judgment on plaintiff Hamilton's claim of sexual harassment under the Missouri Human Rights Act; and

6. The verdict reached by the jury is against the weight of the evidence.

II. Legal Standard

The key question in determining whether a new trial is warranted is whether it is necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Haigh v. Gelita USA, Inc., 632 F.3d 464 (8th Cir. 2011). "A new trial should be granted only if the evidence weighs heavily against the verdict." Maxfield v. Cintas Corp., No. 2, 563 F.3d 691, 694 (8th Cir. 2009). Although the Court has discretion to set aside the jury verdict and grant a new trial, it "may not do so merely because it believes that the evidence permitted different inferences or that another result would be more reasonable." Blake v. J.C. Penney Co., 894 F.2d 274, 281 (8th Cir. 1990). Instead, "the [C]ourt must conclude that the jury reached a seriously erroneous result and must state its reasons for this belief." Id.. The burden of demonstrating that error warrants a new trial rests with the moving party. Ricketts v. City of Columbia, Mo., 856 F. Supp. 1337, 1347 (W.D. Mo. 1993).

III. Investigative Report and Letter of Reprimand
A. Investigative Report of Sondra Doyle

Plaintiff first contends that the Court erred when it excluded admission of a lengthy investigative report prepared by MDOC Human Resources Officer Sondra Doyle. The Court believes it properly excluded the investigative report. Ms. Doyle was permitted to testify about how she conducted her investigation, whom she interviewed, the conclusions she reached, and the actions she took upon the completion of her investigation. Ms. Doyle conducted her inquiry in an effort to assist the Director of Adult Institutions and MDOC prepare their responses to plaintiff's employee grievance concerning the mailroom surveillance camera. That inquiry generated two reports (Plaintiff's Exhibit 2). Both before and during the trial, the Court ruled that it intended to exclude the reports because they were replete with hearsay statements of witnesses who were not going to be called to testify at trial. The reports contained multiple layers of inadmissible hearsay and improper opinions. Investigative reports are inadmissible unless each level of hearsay falls within an exception to the hearsay rule. United States v. Taylor, 462 F.3d 1023, 1026 (8th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Ortiz, 125 F.3d 630, 632 (8th Cir. 1997)). The report itself is the first layer of hearsay and does not fall under any exception to the hearsay rule. The reports are not admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(8)(c) because they are not "an investigation made pursuant to authority granted by law." The Human Resources Division of the Missouri Department of Corrections where Ms. Doyle worked does not have authority granted by law to conduct investigations into employee grievances. The reports are filled with a second layer of hearsay in the form of summaries of interviews Ms. Doyle conducted. Admission of the reports containing the hearsay statements would have been unfair to defendant because there would have been no way for defense counsel to cross-examine the individuals who were the subjects of the interviews. Unsworn statements to investigators are inadmissible double hearsay. Sanders v. City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, 474 F.3d 523, 527 (8th Cir. 2007); Walker v. Wayne County, Iowa, 850 F.2d 433, 435 (8th Cir. 1988). Finally, the reports include opinion testimony, which is also inadmissible. Rule 803 prohibits the admission of records that contain opinions or conclusions resulting from investigations. United States v. Harris, 557 F.3d 938, 941 (8th Cir. 2009).

In Miller v. Field, 35 F.3d 1088, 1088-93 (6th Cir. 1994) (citing United States v. Pazsint, 703 F.2d 420,424 (9th Cir. 1983)), an action brought under Title 28, United States Code, Section 1983, stemming from the plaintiff's alleged rape by other inmates, the Court reversed, remanded, and found that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting a police report as a public record because it contained statements made by the plaintiff, alleged assailants and other witnesses that amounted to inadmissible hearsay within hearsay. Also see Parsons v. Honeywell, Inc., 929 F.2d 901, 907-08 (2nd Cir. 1991).

The investigative reports of Sondra Doyle were properly excluded and plaintiff's allegation that the Court erred is without merit.

B. Letter of Reprimand

Plaintiff next contends the Court erred when it excluded a Letter of Reprimand given to Warden Virgil Lansdown. The Court would have permitted the letter into evidence if the Warden had been called to testify at trial and so informed the parties. Plaintiff apparently decided not to call the Warden to testify at trial. Consequently, there was not a proper foundation laid for the admission of the letter. The Letter of Reprimand was properly excluded.

IV. Jury Instructions

Plaintiff next contends the Court committed error in two of its jury instructions. First, plaintiff contends the verdict directing instruction number 16 was improper because the Court utilized 8th Circuit Model Jury Instruction No. 5.61 which uses the term "determining factor," rather than Missouri Approved Instruction language which uses the term "motivating factor" in a retaliation claim. Second, plaintiff contends the Court erred when it refused to give an adverse inference instruction regarding the destruction of the original video surveillance recording when it was returned to the manufacturer because it had malfunctioned. Both points of error are without merit and are denied.

A. The "Determining Factor" Language of Verdict Directing Instruction Number 16

The verdict director (Doc. 114, Instruction No. 16) correctly instructed the jury on the law. The Court instructed the jury that in order to find in plaintiff's favor, it must find that "the plaintiff's filing of a complaint of discrimination was a determining factor in the defendant's actions." Id.. This language was taken directly from 8th Circuit Model Civil Jury Instruction 5.61. "Determining factor," not "motivating factor," is the correct standard for Title VII retaliation claims. See Van Horn v. Best Buy Stores, L.P., 526 F.3d 1144, 1148 (8th Cir. 2008) ("To make out a retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show that the protected conduct was a 'determinative-not merely motivating-factor' in the employer's adverse employment decision."); Carrington v. City of Des Moines, Iowa, 481 F.3d 1046, 1053 (8th Cir. 2007) (determining factor is the standard the jury would use in a Title VII retaliation claim). The Court correctly instructed the jury regarding the standard for causation in plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim.

B. Refusal to Give Adverse Inference Instruction

Plaintiff further contends the Court erred when it failed to give an adverse inference instruction to the jury concerning MDOC employee Ron Carter's failure to preserve the original recordings obtained through placement of the hidden video surveillance camera. Mr. Carter was employed at Ozark Correctional Center as a prison security investigator and was primarily responsible for the installation and operation of the video camera. Mr. Carter admitted he had recorded over the original footage and that the DVR used to record the footage had been returned to the manufacturer because it was malfunctioning and was subsequently destroyed. As a result, plaintiff contends an adverse inference instruction concerning destruction of the device should have been submitted to the jury.

The Court disagrees. Plaintiff was not entitled to the adverse inference instruction because the DVR was returned to the manufacturer before any claim was filed by plaintiff. There is no...

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