Law School Case Brief
Johnson v. Elk Lake Sch. Dist. - 283 F.3d 138 (3d Cir. 2002)
Where the past act is not substantially similar to the act for which the defendant is being tried, and/or where the past act cannot be demonstrated with sufficient specificity, the propensity inference provided by the past act is weaker, and no presumption in favor of admissibility is warranted. Where a past act cannot be shown with reasonable certainty, its probative value is reduced and it may prejudice the defendant unfairly, confuse the issues, mislead the jury, and result in undue delay and wasted time--all reasons for excluding evidence under Fed. R. Evid. 403. The same can be said of evidence of past acts that are dissimilar to the act for which the defendant is being tried; in particular, the introduction of dissimilar past acts runs the risk of confusing the issues in the trial and wasting valuable time. Also relevant to the Rule 403 balancing analysis are these additional factors: the closeness in time of the prior acts to the charged acts, the frequency of the prior acts, the presence or lack of intervening events, and the need for evidence beyond the testimony of the defendant and alleged victim.
Betsy Sue Johnson claimed that her guidance counselor Wayne Stevens sexually harassed and abused her while she was a high school student in the Elk Lake School District. Johnson sought damages from Stevens in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, claiming violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state tort law. Johnson also sought damages from the School District, the Elk Lake School Board, and District Superintendent Charlotte Slocum (Administration), claiming that they too were liable under § 1983 for having failed to prevent Stevens's abuse. In essence, Johnson asserted that the Administration knew or should have known of Stevens's propensity for sexual abuse, but was deliberately indifferent to this danger. The District Court granted summary judgment for the Administration, and Johnson appeals. Stevens too moved for summary judgment, but his motion was denied, and a four-day trial ensued, after which a jury returned a unanimous verdict in his favor. Johnson moved for a new trial on the basis of alleged trial errors. The District Court denied this motion, which Johnson now also appeals.
Did the district court abuse its discretion in refusing to admit the testimony of a former co-worker of the counselor regarding a bizarre incident?
The appellate court concluded there was no abuse its discretion in excluding the testimony where the evidence of the past act was equivocal and it differed from the charged act in important ways.
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