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Williams v. Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam

February 8, 2006

ANITA WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MUHAMMAD'S HOLY TEMPLE OF ISLAM, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Levy, United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This case is before me on consent of the parties, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. A jury trial is scheduled to commence on March 20, 2006. Presently before the court are the parties' motions in limine.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Anita Williams, a former member and volunteer recording secretary of the Staten Island chapter of Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, brought this case in March 2000, alleging that she was "stalked, sexually assaulted, battered, molested, threatened, intimidated and sexually harassed" by defendant Benjamin Chavis,*fn1 the East Coast Regional Minister of Mohammad's Mosque # 7, the regional headquarters of Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, Inc., a not-for-profit religious corporation. (First Amended Complaint, filed July 26, 2000 ("First Amended Compl."), ¶¶ 3, 5, 13, 15, 19.) According to the complaint, defendant Chavis's "inappropriate and unlawful conduct was condoned rather than condemned" by defendants Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, Inc. and Abdul Sharrieff Mohammad, a "Supreme Captain, director, manager, officer, investigator and/or employee" of Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 19.) Plaintiff brings claims for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, supervision and retention. (Id. at 14-19.)*fn2

Plaintiff moves in limine to exclude evidence concerning (1) the psychiatric history of her family members; (2) plaintiff's relationship with her estranged husband; (3) plaintiff's verbal and e-mail communications with Minister Robert Muhammad concerning their relationship; (4) plaintiff's "purportedly intimate relationships with other men"; (5) plaintiff's "purportedly violent propensities"; and (6) references to plaintiff's telephone records. In addition, defendants Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, Inc. and Abdul Sharrief Muhammad ("defendants") move in limine to exclude evidence of (1) plaintiff's letters of complaint to Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, Inc.; (2) Monique Swift's letter of complaint to Muhammad's Holy Temple of Islam, Inc.; and (3) plaintiff's conversations with defendant Chavis and other persons. Each issue will be addressed in turn.

DISCUSSION

The purpose of a motion in limine is to enable the court to rule in advance of trial on the admissibility and relevance of certain forecasted evidence. See Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41 n. 4 (1984); Palmieri v. Defaria, 88 F.3d 136, 141 (2d Cir. 1996); TVT Records v. Island Def Jams Music Group, 250 F. Supp. 2d 341, 344 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). However, it is common for courts to reserve judgment on a motion in limine until trial so that the motion can be placed in the appropriate factual context. United States v. Chan, 184 F. Supp. 2d 337, 340 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (citations omitted). Indeed, many courts have found that it is the better practice to deal with questions of admissibility as they arise. See TVT Records, 250 F. Supp. 2d at 344 (noting with dismay that the "parties seek to employ their in limine motions as preemptive weapons with which they endeavor to strike in shotgun fashion at whole topics and sources of prospective evidence" that may or may not ever be introduced as evidence at trial). Moreover, any ruling on a motion in limine is "subject to change when the case unfolds." Luce, 469 U.S. at 41. This Memorandum and Order is therefore only a preliminary ruling on whether the evidence challenged may be presented at trial.

1. Psychiatric History of Plaintiff's Family Members

During discovery, defendants' counsel elicited deposition testimony, over objection, from plaintiff and from non-party witness Lovette Harvey-Love concerning the psychiatric history of plaintiff's mother, sister, and maternal aunt. Ms. Harvey-Love also apparently testified to her belief that plaintiff is "crazy."*fn3 Plaintiff seeks to exclude this evidence, pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 403, as prejudicial and irrelevant to her claims. (Plaintiff's Motion in Limine, dated Nov. 28, 2005 ("Pl.'s Mem."), at 1.) Defendants object to the motion, arguing that this evidence "has direct bearing on Plaintiff's state of mind, motive and behavior based upon the factual allegations in her Complaint." (Defendants' Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion in Limine, dated Dec. 12, 2005 ("Defs.' Opp."), at 1.) Defendants also contend that Ms. Harvey-Love's "opinion as to Plaintiff's mental state is permissible as opinion testimony by a lay witness under Federal Rule of Evidence 701" and is "based upon first hand perception as a result of her longstanding friendship with plaintiff. . . ." (Id. at 2.)

As an initial matter, the court is hard-pressed to understand how the psychiatric history of plaintiff's relatives bears on the facts of this case or on plaintiff's state of mind, motive, or behavior. Neither party has stated an intent to call plaintiff's mother, sister or aunt as a witness. Nor, absent expert testimony to support it, would this court permit even a vague suggestion that plaintiff suffered from a psychiatric condition, hereditary or otherwise. Moreover, a proponent of lay opinion testimony bears a "heavy burden." Abdus-Sabur v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, No. 00 CIV. 5496, 2001 WL 1111984, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 20, 2003). Fed. R. Evid. 701 provides:

If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness'[s] testimony in the form of opinions or inferences is limited to those opinions or inferences which are (a) rationally based on the perception of the witness, (b) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness'[s] testimony or the determination of a fact in issue, and (c) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702.

A lay witness's opinion that another person is "crazy" does not meet these criteria. The witness may describe what she observed, but may not provide an opinion regarding the plaintiff's mental state, or the mental state of plaintiff's mother, sister or aunt. Plaintiff's motion is granted on this point.

2. Plaintiff's Relationship with Her Estranged Husband

In her deposition, Ms. Harvey-Love testified about events that occurred before and during plaintiff's marriage to Kenya Muhammad, from whom plaintiff is separated. (See Pl.'s Mem. at 2.) According to Ms. Harvey-Love's testimony, plaintiff was pregnant when she married Mr. Muhammad, and shortly after marrying him began complaining about her husband's "immaturity." (Id. (citing Deposition of Lovette Harvey-Love at 8).) Ms. Harvey-Love also testified that plaintiff's husband was unfaithful, and that he beat plaintiff when she confronted him about his adultery. (Id. (citing Deposition of Lovette Harvey-Love at 10-11.))*fn4 ...


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