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Elliot Zomber v. Village of Garden City

October 6, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: E. Thomas Boyle United States Magistrate Judge



Plaintiff Elliot Zomber seeks to preclude at trial the testimony of two attorneys--Nassau County Assistant District Attorney ("ADA") Brendan Ahern and former Nassau County ADA Brian Murphy. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS plaintiff's oral motion and precludes the testimony of Ahern and Murphy.

This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging malicious prosecution and denial of the right to a fair trial. More specifically, plaintiff asserts that, after he was involved in a car accident with defendant, defendant falsified evidence falsely stating the nature and extent of his injuries in the accident and forwarded that information to the district attorney's office, and later testified falsely to the grand jury regarding the extent of his injuries. This conduct allegedly led to plaintiff's indictment for assault in the second degree--specifically, recklessly causing serious physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument--pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 120.05(4). Plaintiff was cleared of this charge at trial in December 2008.

On the eve of trial in this Court, which began on October 3, 2011, defendant filed a document listing his potential witnesses, which included for the first time "Brian Murphy, former Nassau County ADA" and "Brendan Ahern, Nassau County ADA." It is undisputed that these names were not disclosed to plaintiff as potential witnesses until the eve of trial. Defendant asserts that Ahern "was the Nassau County Assistant District Attorney who was preparing the [misdemeanor criminal] case [against plaintiff] for trial in the district court in the spring of 2008 when the decision was made by the Nassau County District Attorney's office to seek an indictment on Assault in the Second Degree." (Defendant's Pre-Trial Filings at 3 (Sept. 29, 2011), ECF No. 79). Defendant asserts that Murphy "was the Nassau County Assistant District Attorney who tried [plaintiff's criminal] case in Nassau County Court." (Id.).

More specifically, defendant expects Ahern "to testify as to information to which the District Attorney had access . . . when it made the decision to indict for Assault in the Second" (Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Opposition [to] Plaintiff's Motion to Preclude Witnesses Ahern and Murphy ("Defendant's Opp.") at 2 (Oct. 5, 2011), ECF No. 82); while Brian Murphy, "who represented the People in the pre-trial Huntley hearing*fn1 . . . and in the three week [felony] trial in December 2008 . . . can testify to his review of the Grand Jury records in preparation for the trial, his desire to go back into the Grand Jury prior to trial and seek an indictment on Vehicular Assault . . . , the length of the trial . . . , the disposition by the Judge of the Assault in the Second Degree, and the jury's verdict" (id. at 2-3).

"In order to state a claim for the tort of malicious prosecution . . . , a plaintiff must prove

(1) the initiation or continuation of a criminal proceeding against plaintiff; (2) termination of the proceeding in plaintiff's favor; (3) lack of probable cause for commencing the proceeding; and (4) actual malice as a motivation for defendant's actions." Murphy v. Lynn, 118 F.3d 938, 947 (2d Cir. 1997). In Cameron v. City of New York, 598 F.3d 50 (2d Cir. 2010), the Second Circuit held that courts must be wary of admitting the testimony of prosecutors in malicious prosecution actions because the question of probable cause to indict or prosecute is one of the ultimate issues. See id. at 65. The Court stated that testimony regarding "a prosecutor's decision to pursue a prosecution has no more relevance to the complaining officer's credibility than the implicit relevance shared by all decisions to prosecute." Id. Moreover, allowing such testimony

would place inappropriate pressures on both prosecutors and plaintiffs. If all cases of malicious prosecution were taken to trial, and prosecutors were called to testify about why they had originally pursued certain charges, then prosecutors might be subjected to great, though perhaps tacit, pressure from cities and police officers to maintain even a weak prosecution in order to undercut any subsequent malicious prosecution claim. Similarly, plaintiffs who have legitimate claims of both malicious prosecution and other torts, such as false arrest (which almost always travels in malicious prosecution's sidecar), effectively would be forced to forgo their malicious prosecution claims. Otherwise, such plaintiffs would risk exposing all of their claims to highly prejudicial testimony from seemingly reputable sources-testimony a district judge would not consider admitting in the absence of the malicious prosecution claim.

Id. Thus, the court held that "prosecutors' opinions as to probable cause and complaining officers' credibility are irrelevant in virtually all cases involving claims of malicious prosecution." Id. The court further asserted that decisions on whether to admit or preclude testimony from prosecutors that does not directly express an opinion on credibility or the issue of probable cause "likely fall within the District Court's discretion." Id. at 67.

It is unquestionably within the discretion of the trial court to exclude evidence "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." Fed. R. Evid. 403; see also Rubens v. Mason, 387 F.3d 183, 188 (2d Cir. 2004) ("We review rulings on admissibility under Federal Rule of Evidence 403 for abuse of discretion.").

First, to the extent that defendants seek to introduce testimony regarding "the decision . . . made by the Nassau County District Attorney's office to seek an indictment on Assault in the Second Degree" (Defendant's Pre-Trial Filings at 3; see also Defendant's Opp. at 2), that testimony is foreclosed by Cameron as improper and "highly prejudicial."*fn2 See Cameron, 598 F.3d at 62, 65.

In addition, according to defendant, Ahern and Murphy were involved only in plaintiff's cases at the trial level--Ahern was preparing the misdemeanor case in the Nassau County District Court and Murphy tried the case involving all charges in the Nassau County Supreme Court. However, the theory of plaintiff's case has nothing to do with falsified evidence or testimony at the criminal trial; instead, plaintiff alleges that defendant Stolz provided falsified evidence to the district attorney prior to the presentation of the potential assault charges to the grand jury and that defendant thereafter falsely testified in front of the grand jury. There is no allegation that either of these prosecutors was involved in the preparation for or presentation of the potential assault charge to the grand jury. Thus, the expected testimony from these two potential witnesses is too remote to be probative of the primary issues in this case.*fn3

Moreover, allowing the testimony of the two attorneys would confuse the issues in this case. As noted above, this action concerns conduct that occurred prior to and during the presentation of Zomber's assault charge to the grand jury. Evidence from attorneys who were uninvolved in that phase of the proceedings but were instrumental in the later criminal trial (which is largely irrelevant here) could confuse the jury as to what conduct and which proceedings are relevant in this case. Also, many of the potential subjects that defendant identifies for Murphy's testimony are cumulative of evidence ...

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