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Coburn v. Potter

March 7, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert M. Dow, Jr. United States District Judge

Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.


This case is set for a bench trial on March 25, 2008. Defendant has filed a motion in limine (DE 49) to exclude certain witnesses from testifying at trial on the grounds that their testimony would be irrelevant, cumulative, or both. In addition to the briefing on the motion, the parties submitted a stipulation of uncontested facts (DE 59) following the final pre-trial conference held on March 4, 2008. Having carefully reviewed the arguments of the parties in light of the joint stipulation, the Court denies in part and grants in part Defendant's motion.

I. Background*fn1

Pro se Plaintiff Darrell Coburn is a letter carrier at the Forest Park, Illinois post office. On September 14, 2005, Plaintiff filed an EEO discrimination complaint, and on November 18, 2005, Plaintiff filed a civil lawsuit against Defendant. On behalf of Plaintiff, Cecil W. Watson, a post office manager, served a copy of the summons from Plaintiff's 2005 lawsuit on Defendant.

In early 2006, the Postal Service commenced an investigation of Watson's conduct for possible violation of Postal Service rules that prohibit management employees from "representing" craft employees in administrative proceedings before the agency. On or about April 1, 2006, Plaintiff was informed that his EEO records were released without his prior knowledge or authorization to other Post Office officials, including Jeffrey Moore, a Labor Relations Specialist, and Kenneth Michalowski, Watson's supervisor, in connection with their investigation of Watson's conduct. On or about April 3, 2006, Plaintiff filed an EEO complaint, alleging that the release of his Restricted EEO records violated the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), 5 U.S.C. § 552. On October 4, 2006, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit alleging that Defendant violated his rights to privacy under the Privacy Act and the FOIA.

Currently before the Court is Defendant's motion in limine (DE 49) seeking to exclude certain witnesses that Plaintiff designated in the draft "final pre-trial order summary" tendered to Judge Coar prior to the transfer of this case to this Court's docket. There is no dispute that the testimony of three witnesses -- Coburn, Moore, and Michalowski -- is necessary at trial to aid the Court in resolving the issues in dispute. However, Defendant contends in his motion in limine that the testimony of all of the other proposed witnesses should be excluded as cumulative, irrelevant, or both. In his response (DE 51) to Defendant's motion in limine, Plaintiff agreed to withdraw one proposed witness (Ray Vaicaitis) and presented argument as to why he believes that the testimony of the remaining challenged witnesses should be permitted.

II. Analysis

A. Legal Standards

The Seventh Circuit has endorsed the proposition that "the district court has broad powers to determine the proper method of preparing a case for trial." Mizwicki v. Helwig, D.C., P.C., 196 F.3d 828, 833 (7th Cir. 1999). District courts have "broad discretion over the evidence they chose to admit in a trial" (Jansen v. Aaron Process Equip. Co., 149 F.3d 603, 609 (7th Cir. 1998)), and may "place reasonable limits on the presentation of evidence to prevent undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence," subject to reversal only upon "a clear showing of abuse." M.T. Bonk Co. v. Milton Bradley Co., 945 F.2d 1404, 1408 (7th Cir. 1991); see also Fed. R. Evid. 403, 611.

In other words, the court's "duty to manage the trial includes an obligation to ensure [that] only persons testify who will present relevant, non-cumulative testimony regarding the issues." Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Dirs., 2006 WL 829161, at *2 (E.D. Wis. Mar. 28, 2006) (citing M.T. Bonk Co.). Evidence is "cumulative" when it "adds very little to the probative force of the other evidence in the case, so that if it were admitted its contribution to the determination of truth would be outweighed by its contribution to the length of the trial, with all the potential for confusion, as well as prejudice to other litigants, who must wait longer for their trial, that a long trial creates." Goodwin v. MTD Prods., Inc., 232 F.3d 600, 609-610 (7th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). In view of these obligations, it is beyond dispute that a district court "has the power to limit the number of witnesses" who may testify at trial. In the Matter of Rhone-Poulenc Rorer Pharm., Inc., 138 F.3d 695, 697 (7th Cir. 1998).

Any determination as to whether the testimony of Plaintiff's proposed witnesses will be relevant and not cumulative requires consideration of the elements of the cause of action that Plaintiff must prove at trial. The provision of the Privacy Act governing "conditions of disclosure" of the records at issue in this case states in general that "[n]o agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains." 5 U.S.C. § 552a(b). The Act contains an exception for disclosure "to those officers and employees of the agency which maintains the record who have a need for the record in the performance of their duties." 5 U.S.C. § 552a(b)(1). The "civil remedies" provision of the Act permits an action in federal district court where the agency "fails to comply" with the provisions of the Act "in such a way as to have an adverse effect on an individual. 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(1). The Act also permits recovery of "actual damages sustained by the individual as a result of the refusal or failure" to comply with the Act and implementing rules, with a minimum recovery of $1,000, if "the court determines that the agency acted in a manner which was intentional or willful." 5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)(4)(A).

In sum, "the key elements of a cause of action under the Privacy Act for damages for disclosure are: (1) agency disclosure (by any means of communication); (2) to an individual or another agency; (3) of a 'record' contained in a 'system of records'; (4) which is unauthorized by the individual; (5) which is not within an exception; (6) an adverse effect on the individual, which contains two components (i) an adverse standing component and (ii) a causal nexus between the disclosure and the adverse effect; and (7) that the agency action be in a manner which was 'intentional' or ...

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