Argued October 18, 2013
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (District Court No.: 5-09-cv-02501) District Judge: Honorable Robert F. Kelly
Stephen D. Brown, Esquire Donald C. Le Gower, Esquire (Argued) Dechert, LLP Counsel for Appellant
David J. MacMain, Esquire (Argued) Brian H. Leinhauser, Esquire The MacMain Law Group Counsel for Appellees
Before: RENDELL, JORDAN and LIPEZ [*] , Circuit Judges
RENDELL, Circuit Judge
Plaintiff, Iman Sharif, appeals from a jury verdict in favor of Defendants - several Northampton County Prison officers - on Sharif's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 excessive force claim. On appeal, Sharif argues that the District Court erred in admitting evidence of Sharif's prior plea of nolo contendere and resulting conviction for assault in connection with the incident that is at the heart of his § 1983 claim. He notes that Federal Rule of Evidence 410 prohibits the admission of his nolo plea. He also urges that the Court abused its discretion under Federal Rule of Evidence 609 in admitting evidence of the conviction as relevant to his credibility.
A. Factual Background
On March 11, 2009, Iman Sharif was an inmate at the Northampton County Prison. He was housed in the Restrictive Housing Unit ("RHU") where Defendant-Appellees Corrections Officers Nathan Picone ("C.O. Picone"), Thomas Pinto ("C.O. Pinto"), and Brian Potance ("C.O. Potance") were all on duty. While C.O. Picone was collecting dinner trays, he claims that Sharif "sucker punched" him. (J.A. 369.) In contrast, Sharif claims that C.O. Picone initiated the altercation by punching Sharif first.
C.O. Picone testified that once he was struck, he attempted to protect himself from additional punches and kicks. He further testified that C.O. Potance, who was assigned to help C.O. Picone retrieve dinner trays, entered Sharif's cell and attempted to restrain Sharif. At this point, C.O. Picone hit Sharif in the head with an open hand in an effort to "get him to the ground." (J.A. 371.) Conversely, Sharif asserted that once C.O. Picone began to hit him, C.O. Potance and C.O. Pinto entered his cell and joined in the attack by choking him.
Following the altercation, Sharif was handcuffed and moved to a "suicide cell." (J.A. 446.) According to Appellees, this was for his own safety; however, he continued to cause commotion so he was moved to a restraint chair. Sharif contends that while he was in the restraint chair, he was punched repeatedly by unnamed corrections officers, all of which was observed and permitted by Appellee-Defendant Lieutenant Joseph Kospiah ("Lt. Kospiah").
Sharif was charged with aggravated assault pursuant to 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 2702(a)(3) (2012) as a result of the altercation with C.O. Picone, C.O. Potance and C.O. Pinto. Sharif entered a plea of nolo contendere and was convicted under the statute as charged. Sharif's excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is based on this incident.
B. Procedural History
Sharif brought this § 1983 action alleging that C.O. Picone, C.O. Potance and C.O. Pinto are liable for attacking him in his cell in violation of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Further, he contends that Lt. Kospiah is liable for allowing the physical abuse to proceed while Sharif was restrained. Sharif sought relief of "nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages" for Appellees' actions against him. (J.A. 20.)
Pre-trial, Sharif filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence of his nolo contendere plea under Rule 410. The Court noted that Sharif planned to take the stand and deny any wrongdoing in connection with the altercation. The Court stated that if that were to happen, then evidence of his plea "may end up being relevant" and would thus be admitted. (J.A. 123-24.) During a hearing on the motion, the Court accepted Appellees' counsel's argument that "it would be inconsistent to allow [Sharif] to have taken the position in a prior court proceeding that he wasn't going to contest the charges." (J.A. 123.) In other words, the plea would be admitted as inconsistent with his assertion at trial that he had done nothing wrong and, therefore, as relevant to the issue of his credibility.
Pursuant to the Court's ruling, during cross-examination of Sharif, Appellees' counsel twice referred to Sharif's plea of nolo contendere to suggest that the plea was inconsistent with his statement at trial that he had done nothing wrong. We quote directly from the trial transcript:
Q: You stand before this jury and you have testified that you did absolutely nothing wrong, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: The officers just came in and struck you for no reason?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: Yet, in another court at another time you had an opportunity to say the same thing, correct?
A: No, sir.
Q: You were criminally charged with assaulting Officer Picone, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And you didn't contest those charges?
A: No, sir.
Q: You pled no ...