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Layton v. Eagle Rock Timber, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

April 9, 2019

HEATH LAYTON, Plaintiff,
v.
EAGLE ROCK TIMBER, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          DAVID C. NYE CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court are Plaintiff Heath Layton's Motions in Limine (Dkt. 24) and Defendant Eagle Rock Timber, Inc.'s (“ERT”) Motions in Limine (Dkt. 34).

         Having reviewed the record and briefs, the Court finds that the facts and legal arguments are adequately presented. Accordingly, in the interest of avoiding further delay, and because the Court finds that the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument, the Court will decide the Motions without oral argument. Dist. Idaho Loc. Civ. R. 7.1(d)(2)(ii). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will GRANT in PART and DENY in PART each Motion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         ERT is a construction company located in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Layton is a former employee of ERT who worked primarily as a project manager. Layton contends that he became disabled when he injured his ankle off the job in March 2018. Layton alleges that ERT terminated him because of his disability even though he could still perform the essential functions of his job. ERT, on the other hand, claims that Layton resigned his employment even though the company wanted him to stay.

         Upon his termination, Layton filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Idaho Human Rights Commission, alleging that ERT terminated him because of his disability. After an investigation, the EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue.

         On June 14, 2017, Layton filed suit against ERT alleging a single cause of action: disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Neither party filed any discovery motions, nor were dispositive motions filed at any time.

         In anticipation of the upcoming trial, and pursuant to the Court's trial order (Dkt. 22), both parties filed motions in limine seeking to preclude certain evidence and testimony at trial. The Court will address each motion in turn.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         “Motions in limine are well-established devices that streamline trials and settle evidentiary disputes in advance, so that trials are not interrupted mid-course for the consideration of lengthy and complex evidentiary issues.” Miller v. Lemhi Cty., No. 4:15-CV-00156-DCN, 2018 WL 1144970, at *1 (D. Idaho Mar. 2, 2018) (citing United States v. Tokash, 282 F.3d 962, 968 (7th Cir. 2002)). “The term ‘in limine' means ‘at the outset.' A motion in limine is a procedural mechanism to limit in advance testimony or evidence in a particular area.” United States v. Heller, 551 F.3d 1108, 1111 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 803 (8th ed. 2004)).

         Because “[a]n in limine order precluding the admission of evidence or testimony is an evidentiary ruling, ” United States v. Komisaruk, 885 F.2d 490, 493 (9th Cir. 1989) (citation omitted) “a district court has discretion in ruling on a motion in limine.” United States v. Ravel, 930 F.2d 721, 726 (9th Cir. 1991). Further, in limine rulings are preliminary and, therefore, “are not binding on the trial judge [who] may always change his mind during the course of a trial.” Ohler v. United States, 529 U.S. 753, 758 n.3 (2000).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Plaintiff's Motions in Limine[1]

         1. Layton's DUI

         GRANTED in PART, DENIED in PART.

         In his first Motion in Limine, Layton asks the Court for an order prohibiting any mention of-or evidence related to-his arrest for driving under the influence (“DUI”) in September 2015. Layton asserts that this episode is irrelevant to the claims at issue and would be highly prejudicial if presented to a jury. In contrast, ERT believes that this event is relevant and that it will actually benefit Layton if addressed.

         By way of explanation, this incident occurred while Layton was working for ERT on various projects in North Dakota. At some point during his tenure there, Layton was arrested for driving under the influence while operating a company vehicle. Eventually, Layton entered into a plea agreement for reckless driving. His commercial driver's license (“CDL”) was subsequently suspended.[2]

         Under Federal Rule of Evidence 403, the Court must weigh the competing interest of (1) the probative value of any evidence, and (2) whether prejudice, confusion, delay, or other dangers will result if it is introduced. “Applying Rule 403 to determine if evidence is prejudicial . . . requires a fact-intensive, context-specific inquiry.” Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379, 386 (2008). A Court has broad discretion in this inquiry. See Ruvalcaba v. City of Los Angeles, 64 F.3d 1323, 1328 (9th Cir. 1995).

         First, ERT asserts that it does not seek to impugn Layton's character with this evidence, but to bolster its argument that even with a DUI charge and CDL suspension, it wanted to keep Layton as an employee because of his work on various projects. Under Rule 403, the Court finds that this information-while probative-would be highly prejudicial. Layton's DUI charge has little to do with the case at bar. This situation does not corroborate or disprove whether Layton had a disability, whether ERT accommodated his disability, nor illustrate how his employment with ERT ended. Additionally, ERT's behavior relative to Layton's DUI charge and CDL suspension is not necessarily indicative of its behavior during the time of their separation.[3] That said, if, during its case, ERT wishes to provide testimony that Layton was a valuable employee, they could simply state that even when he lost his CDL at one point, they kept him on; however, no details of why he lost his CDL need be given.

         Second, ERT contends that Layton needs this evidence to support one of his claims. After Layton and ERT parted ways, he obtained a job with a company called Fisher Construction. Layton claims that he lost that job, in part, because the company found out about his past DUI charge and that this information could have only come from ERT. Eventually, Layton obtained a new job at the Idaho National Laboratory (“INL”).

         As part of the current action, Layton is claiming lost wages from the time he lost his job with Fischer until he started at the INL. Layton claims-not as an official cause of action, but in support of his other claims-that ERT retaliated against him, tampered with his personnel file, and tipped off Fisher Construction to his prior DUI charge.[4]

         This claim does appear speculative-after all Fisher Construction could have received the same information from a simple background check-but Layton is free to present his testimony and ERT is free to refute that testimony.

         Regardless, the Court will not allow Layton to open the door to an interference/retaliation argument without some detail. Therefore, Layton must understand that if he presents testimony concerning lost wages from his time at Fisher Construction or claims ERT somehow was involved in retaliatory, or tampering, conduct, the DUI charge will likely come in as ERT must be allowed a fair opportunity to defend itself.

         In short, this Motion is GRANTED in PART and DENIED in PART. The Court will not allow into evidence any testimony concerning the DUI charge. If ERT desires to say that Layton was a good employee who they supported, they can simply say that even when he lost his CDL, they kept him on. Second, if Layton wishes to pursue his position that ERT tampered with his file, retaliated against him in tipping off Fisher Construction to his DUI, or that ERT is responsible for lost wages because of his being let go from Fisher Construction, that is his prerogative. The ramifications of that, however, are that the DUI situation will most likely come in, as ERT will have to defend itself against such claims.

         2. ERT's Affirmative Defenses

         DENIED.

         In this Motion, Layton seeks an order prohibiting ERT from presenting evidence or facts in support of six of the eight affirmative defenses it raised in its Answer. Dkt. 3. Layton's purported reason for such a request is that, in his estimation, these defenses “have no facts supporting them or are completely irrelevant.” Dkt. 24, at 3. This request is somewhat difficult to address.

         First, to date, the Court's involvement has been extremely limited in this case, as neither party filed any discovery motions or dispositive motions. The sole motion filed in this case related to reimbursement of certain costs and fees associated with a failed mediation. In short, the Court has made no formal rulings that affect either the law or the facts of this case and is simply not in a position to rule on the legality, or factual support, of ERT's defenses as Layton requests.

         Second, this particular motion appears akin to a motion for summary judgment in that Layton is asking the Court to find, as a matter of law, that ERT's defenses are invalid. As just noted, while the Court does not have the background to make such a determination, a motion in limine is also not the appropriate forum for such a request. If Layton wanted a firm ruling on ERT's affirmative defenses (or even simply to strike them), he should have petitioned the Court via an appropriate motion.[5]

         Now, to be sure, some of ERT's affirmative defenses are purely legal in nature (such as ERT's first affirmative defense: failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12). A defense such as this would have been dealt with in legal motions before the Court and not at trial before a jury-but, again, that was not done ...


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