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Griffith v. Brannick

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

April 15, 2019

JAMES F. GRIFFITH, Plaintiff,
v.
F. BRANNICK, D. HASKINS, YARBAR, DEVINE, E. DRADA, N. LYDAY, PHILLIPS, Defendants.

          ORDER ON MOTION TO SANCTION DEFENDANTS FOR SPOLIATION OF EVIDENCE [1]

          Mark J. Dinsmore United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Sanction Defendants for Spoliation of Evidence. [Dkt. 99.] Plaintiff filed his motion on December 6, 2018. [Dkt. 99.] Defendants filed their Response to Motion for Sanctions, Docket No. 99 on December 11, 2018. [Dkt. 101.] Plaintiff then filed his Reply on January 2, 2019. [Dkt. 102.] On March 18, 2019, the Court held an in-person hearing on Plaintiff's motion at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (“WVCF”); the Plaintiff appeared in person and Defendants appeared by counsel. After the Court's review of the parties' briefing and the on-location hearing, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's motion.

         I. Background

         In this action, Plaintiff, a prisoner now incarcerated at New Castle Correctional Facility, brings excessive use of force claims against correctional officer Defendants that he asserts occurred while he was housed at WVCF. [Dkt. 5 at 1.] Plaintiff alleges that on June 2, 2016, Defendants dragged him handcuffed from D cell house to F cell house. [Dkt. 5 at 2.] While Plaintiff was handcuffed, he contends Defendants body slammed, jumped on, and began beating him. [Dkt. 5 at 2.] On June 3, 2016, the Plaintiff was interviewed by Lieutenant Christopher Nicholson during a screening on a Conduct Report regarding the housing reassignment incident. [Dkt. 99-1 at 1.] Plaintiff communicated to Nicholson that Plaintiff had been assaulted by WVCF officers who carried out the bed move. [Dkt. 99-1 at 1.] On June 15 and 16, 2016, Investigator Fernell McDonald interviewed the Plaintiff to discuss the incident and recorded that Mr. Griffith “[didn't] want anything done about it anyway.” [Dkt. 99-1 at 3.] Further, McDonald interviewed Officer Brannick and Sergeant Lyday. [Dkt. 99-1 at 3-4.] Defendants contended that the Plaintiff attempted to trip the officers during the escort causing the Plaintiff to fall onto the sidewalk and the officers to fall on top of him. [Dkt. 99-1 at 3.]

         On June 21, 2016, the Plaintiff argued he “made it abundantly clear to top level administrative and investigative staff that litigation was imminent, and requested that video and photographic evidence be preserved.” [Dkt. 99 at 2.] Plaintiff's motion included Exhibits D, E, F, and G, which are Indiana Department of Correction Request(s) for Interview that Plaintiff submitted to Superintendent Brown, Lieutenant Nicholson, and Internal Affairs personnel Rob Marshal and Fernell McDonald. [Dkt. 99-1.] Exhibits D through G were submitted by the Plaintiff to each respective party on June 21, 2016, just nineteen days after the incident. [Dkt. 99-1.] In each request the Plaintiff stated the following:

After giving it some thought I have changed my mind. Accordingly I ask that you please save all video evidence of the staff escort from D-602 to FHU320 on June 2, 2016 and any use of force used on me at that time. That includes when I was slammed to the ground and beaten.

[Dkt. 99-1.] (emphasis added). On July 14, 2016, the Plaintiff sent additional Request(s) for Interview, as evidenced by Exhibits H, I, J, and K, to Superintendent Brown, Lieutenant Nicholson, ASR-Gilmore, and the Office of Investigations and Intelligence. [Dkt. 99-1.] In these supplemental requests the Plaintiff stated:

I am writing to notify and request that the video surveil[l]ance videos from D dorm-Center on 6-2-16 from approximately 1:00 p.m. up to 3:00 p.m. be kept/preserved so that they may be used in future court proceedings. I need this length/duration so that it covers the complete incident and all the actions that led up to the incident and also to support and/or rebut statements that were made pertaining to the incident.

[Dkt. 99-1.] (emphasis added). Additionally, the Plaintiff issued five separate Request(s) for Interview, Exhibits L, M, N, O, and P to preserve all photographs taken on June 3, 2016, of Plaintiff's injuries and any reports that were produced during the investigation of the incident. [Dkt. 99-1.] On July 26, 2016, the Plaintiff received official correspondence from the Office of Investigations and Intelligence, R. Marshall, to notify the Plaintiff that his requests had been reviewed on July 25, 2016, that all documents “were considered confidential[, ]” and that while Plaintiff's request was denied, “all documents will be retained in the Investigations Dept.” [Dkt. 99-1, Exh. Q.] This memorandum of correspondence appears to only be related to Plaintiff's request for “photos and written reports” and does not acknowledge any video footage requests.[2] [Dkt. 99-1.]

         During discovery the Plaintiff submitted requests for production on January 31, 2018, which included Request No. 11:

Copy of all video surveillance which would have observed cell D-602, the dayroom of the dorm, and the route to F dorm during the time of this incident[.]

[Dkt. 99-1.] On September 4, 2018, Defense counsel showed Plaintiff video footage which Plaintiff contended XXXXX [Dkt. 99 at 3.] Plaintiff argued this video XXXXX . . . [and] is thus, incomplete.”[3] [Dkt. 99 at 3.] Plaintiff's Motion to Sanction Defendants for Spoliation of Evidence asserted that additional video footage “outside of D cellhouse, and showing the route to F cellhouse had to have existed, because Plaintiff had previously seen several cameras outside of the cellhouses, and aiming up and down the sidewalks, which connected all the cellhouses.” [Dkt. 99 at 3.] The Plaintiff argued that through his own daily observations in his two years at WVCF he noticed these cameras and that “if there is nothing further to produce, the video had to have been destroyed.” [Dkt. 99 at 4.] Defendants' Response argued Plaintiff's premise for spoliation was based on “a mistake or misstatement . . . .[t]here was no video to retain.” [Dkt. 101 at 1.] Defendants further stated that discussion of what video surveillance does or does not actively exist in the maximum-security prison is information best not disclosed to an offender and poses security risks. [Dkt. 101 at 2.]

         On March 18, 2019, the Magistrate Judge conducted an in-person hearing at WVCF with the Plaintiff, Defense counsel, and the Warden of the facility. During this hearing, the undersigned walked the outdoor path from D cellhouse to F cellhouse with the parties to observe the location of specific cameras Plaintiff believed to have been able to capture video footage of the incident. During the hearing, Plaintiff acknowledged XXXXX . However, counsel for Defendants acknowledged that XXXXX and had not been preserved. The Court, in turn, weighs the parties briefing and the in-person hearing held on site at WVCF in its analysis of the Plaintiff's spoliation claim.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Plaintiff points to a court's authority to sanction a party for spoliation of evidence pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 and its inherent authority “to fashion an appropriate sanction for conduct which abuses the judicial process.” [Dkt. 99 at 4.] See Chambers v. Nasco, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 50-51 (1991) (sanctions utilized when bad faith conduct exists in litigation). A court's authority under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 applies in those instances where a party has failed to comply with a court order, though this order need not be “a formal order”; rather, “[a]n agreement or promise between the parties to conduct discovery in particular fashion may constitute an order.” Blasius v. Angel Auto., No. 3:13-CV-46-JVB-CAN, 2014 WL 12783287, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Apr. 3, 2014). Though the Court notes that the Plaintiff has raised numerous discovery dispute issues in his multiple motions to compel information from Defendants, it does not find that the Plaintiff has argued Defendants have violated a court order. Furthermore, the Court finds no evidence the parties explicitly agreed or promised to preserve video evidence; the only documentation provided in context with ...


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