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Jackson v. Catanzariti

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division

May 14, 2019

JOSEPH CATANZARITI, et al., Defendants.



         Presently before the Court is Defendants' Joint Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony. (Doc. 242.) Defendants Joseph Catanzariti, Andrew McFarlane, Timothy Simmons, Nathaniel Milton, Sheldon Deloach, Melvin Wells, Jarrod Bennett, Gordon Pittman, Gary Mitchell, Michael Deloach, Caleb Harrison, Sherry Ritchie, Joshua Eason, and Darius Attical (“Defendants”) move to exclude the testimony of Plaintiff's expert, Eugene E. Atherton, pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702. (Id.) Defendants contend that Mr. Atherton's proposed opinions are not based on reliable methodology, would not assist the trier of fact, and exceed the scope of his qualifications in certain instances. (Doc. 242-1.) Plaintiffs Miguel Jackson and Kelvin Stevenson filed a Response in Opposition, (doc. 287), and Defendants filed a Reply, (doc. 297). For the reasons and in the manner set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendants' Joint Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony. (Doc. 242.)

         This case concerns the use of force against two prisoners, and Mr. Atherton is undoubtedly well qualified in this field. As explained more fully below, however, several of Mr. Atherton's opinions would not assist the trier of fact and several go beyond the matters on which he is qualified to speak. Nonetheless, Mr. Atherton will be permitted to provide expert testimony regarding general and permissible use of force standards in the field of corrections and may answer appropriate hypothetical questions regarding the same. Mr. Atherton's expert testimony in this action will be strictly limited to these opinions and matters alone, and the Court excludes the remainder of his opinions. Plaintiffs are prohibited from introducing or otherwise relying upon any other opinions or expert testimony by Mr. Atherton.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs, formerly inmates at Smith State Prison (“Smith State”) in Glennville, Georgia, brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action on December 10, 2012, alleging that Defendants, correctional officers, violated their constitutional right to be free from excessive force while they were incarcerated at Smith State. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint on January 25, 2013, specifically claiming that, during a prison disturbance occurring the night of December 31, 2010, Defendants used excessive force against them, failed to intervene in other officers' use of excessive force against them, or both. (Doc. 24.) Thereafter, the Court stayed the proceedings in this case while criminal actions against Plaintiffs, stemming from the December 31, 2010 incident at Smith State, ran their course. (Doc. 81.)

         Over three years later, following the resolution of criminal proceedings against Plaintiffs, the Court lifted the previously-imposed stay on June 7, 2016. (Doc. 118.) A lengthy, disputed, and heavily litigated discovery period ensued. (See, e.g., Docs. 168, 175, 177, 196, 202, 221, 222, 224-26, 228.) After multiple extensions and several disputes were resolved, discovery in this case finally closed on December 15, 2017, with motions to exclude expert testimony due on February 5, 2018. (Docs. 221, 228.) Pursuant to this deadline, Defendants filed the present Joint Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony on February 5, 2018.[1] (Doc. 242.)

         II. Plaintiffs' Claims

         As noted above, this case arises out of a disturbance that occurred on December 31, 2010, at Smith State Prison. (Doc. 24.) Defendants are officers employed by the Georgia Department of Corrections (“GDC”) who were on duty at Smith State when and where the subject disturbance took place. (Id. at pp. 5-12.) Plaintiffs bring Eighth Amendment excessive force and failure to intervene claims against these officer Defendants. (Id. at pp. 17-20.)

         According to Plaintiffs, on the night in question, Defendants conducted a search, or “shake down, ” of Plaintiffs' dormitory. (Id. at p. 12.) During the search, Plaintiff Jackson and Defendant Catanzariti got into an altercation where it is alleged that Defendant Catanzariti maliciously attacked a handcuffed and non-resistant Plaintiff Jackson with an object, either a hammer or flashlight, while other Defendants looked on without intervening on Jackson's behalf. (Id. at pp. 12-15.) Plaintiffs also allege that Defendants continued to beat Plaintiff Jackson, failed to intervene on his behalf, or both, as he was taken from the dormitory and to the infirmary and also while he waited in the infirmary. (Id.)

         During this same search, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Catanzariti attacked Plaintiff Stevenson with a hammer or other object, even though Stevenson was handcuffed and non-resistant. (Id. at p. 13.) Plaintiffs aver that, as Defendant Catanzariti struck Plaintiff Stevenson with the object, other Defendants failed to take reasonable measures to stop Catanzariti's use of gratuitous force on the non-resisting Stevenson. (Id. at p. 14.) As with Plaintiff Jackson, Plaintiff Stevenson alleges that Defendants continued to attack him while he was handcuffed in the prison infirmary. (Id. at p. 15.) According to Plaintiffs, their medical records demonstrate that they each suffered serious and long-term head injuries resulting from Defendants' conduct on December 31, 2010. (Id. at pp. 15-16.) Further, Plaintiffs contend video evidence of the events in question supports the allegations in their First Amended Complaint. (Id. at pp. 3-4, 13, 17-18.)

         The interpretation of this video evidence by Mr. Atherton, and the extent to which he may offer expert testimony based on his interpretation of the events shown by the video, form the core dispute as to the admissibility of Mr. Atherton's proffered expert opinions.

         III. Mr. Atherton's Expert Report

         During the discovery period, Plaintiffs retained Mr. Atherton, a former Colorado Department of Corrections official with expertise on the use of force in prisons, to provide expert witness services in their action against Defendants. (Doc. 242-2.) On July 13, 2017, Mr. Atherton drafted an “Expert Witness Report” in which he states that, since June 2004, he has been President of Correctional Consulting Services Group, Inc. (Id. at pp. 2-3.) This company “is a criminal justice consulting agency” that provides a broad array of services in the corrections field, including “use of force event assessment and systems development” and “expert witness services.” (Id.) For the past seventeen years, Mr. Atherton has also been a part-time trainer and consultant for the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. (Id. at p. 5.) In this position, Mr. Atherton provides, inter alia, security audits and compliance management training, curriculum development for correctional emergency training, and strategies for managing dangerous and disruptive inmates. (Id.)

         Throughout much of the Report, Mr. Atherton details his extensive experience working in the criminal corrections field, which spans forty years. (Id. at pp. 3-7, 11.) Prior to working as a consultant, Mr. Atherton spent twenty-seven years at the Colorado Department of Corrections where he served in various capacities, including Assistant Director of Prisons for the Western Region of Colorado and Warden at both Colorado State Penitentiary and Buena Vista Correctional Facility. (Id. at pp. 3-4.) Prior to these positions, Mr. Atherton was a Security Specialist for the Colorado Department of Corrections, a position that involved departmental use of force reviews. (Id. at p. 4.) Mr. Atherton has significant “hands-on experience, working directly with inmates and with staff who have daily contact with inmates and with medical and mental health service providers.” (Id.) In addition, he has authored or edited numerous publications related to the corrections filed, including, as relevant here, guides on the use of force and prison disturbance management. (Id. at pp. 5-6.) Mr. Atherton holds a B.A. in Social Science with an emphasis in Personnel Management and Industrial/Labor Relations and has been recognized for his contributions to the Colorado Department of Corrections. (Id. at p. 7.) Based on his credentials and background, Mr. Atherton states that “[h]e is fully experienced in the evolution of policy, training, administrative practices, and organizational development related to . . . use of force, unprofessional staff conduct, security systems, and emergency management.” (Id. at pp. 6-7.)

         Over the past four years, Mr. Atherton has provided expert testimony in six cases dealing with use of force or failure to protect. (Id. at pp. 7-8.) In preparing his Expert Report for this case, Mr. Atherton reviewed handheld video of the prison disturbance, inmate Clinton Michael Briscoe's deposition transcript, and fifty-four pages of inmate interviews.[2] (Id. at p. 8.) Mr. Atherton begins by setting forth an overview of the events in question: “On December 31, 2010, . . . officers were searching for contraband [in Plaintiffs Jackson and Stevenson's dormitory] and inmates and officers began to fight. Other officers responded to the living unit and the disturbance was brought under control with several inmates placed in restraints.” (Id. at pp. 8-9.)

         As to Plaintiff Stevenson, Mr. Atherton states:

Evidence indicates that at least the two [P]lainitffs were in wrist restraints and placed on the floor or against a wall by officers. Further, it appears that both [P]laintiffs were repeatedly struck with blows to the body and head using a hammer and flashlight after restraint had been achieved. Sergeant Catanzariti was at the head of the collection of staff pinning inmate Kelvin Stevenson to the floor of the second tier of the living unit. In that position [Catanzariti] was pumping his right arm in a rapid up and down motion.

(Id. at p. 9.) Mr. Atherton posits three opinions from his review of the evidence: (1) Defendant Catanzariti's “movements were blows to the head of [Plaintiff] Stevenson during the time in which he was fully restrained with handcuffs and body pressure from surrounding staff”;[3] (2) in prisons, combative conditions among staff and inmates “are exceptional and generate[] a great amount of passion when [they] happen[]”; and (3) inmates have the right to be free from unwarranted attack by correctional staff and “the use of force by [Defendant] Catanzariti[] was an unwarranted attack with the sole intent of causing harm.” (Id.) Furthermore, because Plaintiff Stevenson “was restrained and no longer represented an ability to attack, ” Mr. Atherton opines “that there was no justification for blows to the head that continued beyond restraint.” (Id. at p. 11.) Defendant Catanzariti's blows to Plaintiff Stevenson's head, Mr. Atherton posits, “represent a particularly vicious and dangerous punishment.” (Id.)

         As to Plaintiff Jackson, Mr. Atherton states that, per Jackson's testimony, “he was st[r]uck in the head with an object while handcuffed on the second floor of the dormitory shortly after the incident between guard[s] and inmates was under control.” (Id. at p. 10.) Video evidence shows Defendant Catanzariti “standing near Jackson while he is handcuffed and this video reflects when Jackson claims Catanzariti struck him.” (Id.) If Plaintiff Jackson's testimony is believed by a jury, Mr. Atherton opines “that [Defendant] Catanzariti's use of force was an unwarranted attack with the sole intent of causing harm, ” in violation of Plaintiff Jackson's constitutional right to freedom from unwarranted attack. (Id.) Furthermore, Mr. Atherton opines that, if a jury believes Plaintiffs' testimony about continued attacks from correctional staff while they were being escorted and outside the dormitory, then “this type of use of force [on handcuffed inmates] was an unwarranted attack with the sole intent of causing harm.” (Id.)

         Mr. Atherton also opines on general standards for use of force incidents. With respect to head injuries and the use of force, Mr. Atherton states, “In years of exposure to use of force training, it is the expert's opinion that unless conditions represent a serious risk of immediate danger to staff, a blow to the head of a resisting inmate is dangerous and without justification.” (Id. at pp. 10-11.) He continues, explaining that “except under the most extreme circumstances, techniques for the use of all non-lethal weapons force options, blows to the head are forbidden.” (Id. at p. 11.) Based on his correctional experience and published standards on the use of force, Mr. Atherton states: “When the inmate ceases to resist and a reasonable amount of control has been achieved, staff are obligated to de-escalate the amount of force being applied and to follow protocol for after action reporting and medical assessment.” (Id.)

         In this case, Mr. Atherton concludes “that at the time during the use of force incident against [Plaintiffs] Miguel Jackson and Kelvin Stevens[o]n at the Smith State Prison [in] Georgia, their constitutional rights were violated in that standard practices were not employed [which] could be expected to protect them from harm. Instead they were exposed to brutal, harmful treatment” that vio lated their rights. (Id. at p. 12.)

         IV. Defendants' Joint Motion to Exclude Mr. Atherton's Expert Testimony

         Defendants seek to exclude four of Mr. Atherton's expert opinions, each of which specifically relates to this case.[4] (Doc. 242-1, p. 3.) For Plaintiff Stevenson, Defendants argue Mr. Atherton should be precluded from opining that Defendant Catanzariti engaged in an unwarranted attack, with the intent to cause harm, by striking a handcuffed, restrained Stevenson in the head with a hammer; and from opining that Plaintiff Stevenson's wounds from the incident are entirely consistent with the afore-described blows to the face by Defendant Catanzariti. (Id.) For Plaintiff Jackson, Defendants argue Mr. Atherton should be precluded from opining that, if the jury believes Jackson's testimony, Defendant Catanzariti's use of force was an unwarranted attack with the sole intent of causing harm. (Id.) Lastly, Defendants argue he should be precluded from testifying, as he did during his deposition, that restrained Smith State inmates were subjected to excessive force as punishment, by unnamed officers, while they were being escorted to the medical unit. (Id. (citing doc. 242-3, p. 27).)

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the expert witness standard established in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), Defendants assert that Mr. Atherton's proposed expert opinions should be excluded for three reasons: “(1) He did not reliably apply his own methods, (2) his testimony will not assist the trier of fact, and (3) his testimony as to the causation of [Plaintiff] Stevenson's facial injuries is not reliable because Mr. Atherton lacks relevant medical expertise.” (Id. at p. 4 (numbers added).)

         First, in their attack on Mr. Atherton's methodology, Defendants aver that he ignored critical evidence and, in doing so, failed to reliably apply his professed methods for reviewing and evaluating use of force incidents. (Id. at pp. 4-5.) Mr. Atherton testified that proper evaluation of use of force incidents requires consideration of all relevant documentation, including incident reports, medical assessments, and witness statements from both inmates and staff. (Id. at p. 5.) Here, Defendants claim, ...

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