Leonard v. United States of America
OPINION AND ORDER denying 43 Motion in Limine. Signed by Judge Algenon L. Marbley on 12/4/2017. (cw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
MICHAEL A. LEONARD,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
Case No. 2:15-cv-2903
JUDGE ALGENON L. MARBLEY
OPINION & ORDER
This matter comes before the Court on Defendant United States of America’s Motion in
Limine to Preclude Evidence or Testimony of Adjudication and Award of VA Disability Benefits
to Plaintiff. The Court issued an oral decision on the motion at the Friday, December 1, 2017
final pretrial conference, but sets forth its reasoning more fully here. For the reasons that follow,
the Court DENIES the motion in limine.
Prior to filing this lawsuit, Plaintiff submitted a claim for disability benefits under 31
U.S.C. § 1151 related to the amputation of his right leg. During the process of determining if
Plaintiff qualified for benefits, the VA arranged for a medical opinion. (ECF No. 43 at 4). The
opinion concluded that the amputation was caused by or as a result of negligence on the part of
the VA medical center in Chillicothe where Plaintiff had been a patient. (ECF No. 43 at 4). The
VA issued a Rating Decision granting Plaintiff’s claim and awarding benefits. (ECF No. 43 at 45).
On November 6, 2017, the Government filed a motion in limine in the instant proceeding
to exclude from evidence any documents or testimony relating to the adjudication and award of
VA disability benefits to Plaintiff. (ECF No. 43).
A. Motions in Limine
“A court should exclude evidence on a motion in limine only when that evidence is
determined to be clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds.” Delay v. Rosenthal Collins Grp.,
LLC, No. 2:07-CV-568, 2012 WL 5878873, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Nov. 21, 2012). “When a court is
unable to determine whether or not certain evidence is clearly inadmissible, evidentiary rulings
should be deferred until trial so that questions of foundation, relevancy and potential prejudice
can be resolved in the proper context.” Id. “Orders in limine which exclude broad categories of
evidence should rarely be employed. A better practice is to deal with questions of admissibility
of evidence as they arise.” Sperberg v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 519 F.2d 708, 712 (6th
Cir. 1975); see also Morrison v. Stephenson, No. 2:06-CV-283, 2008 WL 343176, at *1 (S.D.
Ohio Feb. 5, 2008) (“Courts . . . are generally reluctant to grant broad exclusions of evidence in
limine, because “a court is almost always better situated during the actual trial to assess the value
and utility of evidence.”). “Whether or not to grant a motion in limine falls within the sound
discretion of the trial court.” Delay, 2012 WL 5878873, at *2.
B. Federal Rules of Evidence 401, 402, and 403
Evidence that is not relevant is not admissible. Fed. R. Evid. 402. Evidence is relevant,
and therefore generally admissible, so long as it “has any tendency to make a fact more or less
probable,” and so long as “the fact is of consequence in determining the action.” Fed. R. Evid.
401. “The standard for relevancy is ‘extremely liberal’ under the Federal Rules of Evidence.”
Dortch v. Fowler, 588 F.3d 396, 400 (6th Cir. 2009) (internal citation omitted). “[A] piece of
evidence does not need to carry a party’s evidentiary burden in order to be relevant.” Id. at 401.
Additionally, evidence can be relevant even if it does not relate to a fact in dispute, provided the
evidence supplies background information about a party or issue. See Advisory Committee
Notes to 1972 Proposed Rules (“Evidence which is essentially background in nature can scarcely
be said to involve disputed matter, yet it is universally offered and admitted as an aid to
Assuming evidence is relevant, Rule 403 nonetheless grants trial courts discretion to
exclude that evidence “if its probative value is substantially outweighed” by the risk of “unfair
prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly
presenting cumulative evidence.” Fed. R. Evid. 403. “Rule 403 has no application where the
court sits as both trier of fact and law.” See Miller v. City of Cincinnati, 709 F. Supp. 2d 605,
620 (S.D. Ohio 2008), aff'd, 622 F.3d 524 (6th Cir. 2010) (internal citations omitted). “In the
context of a bench trial, the application of the unfair prejudice portion of Rule 403 has been seen
as an unnecessary and useless procedure.” Id. (internal citations omitted).
A. Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 402
The Government contends that any evidence related to the VA disability determination is
not relevant because of the different liability standards and procedures under 31 U.S.C § 1151
and the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”). The Government argues that the VA disability
process is non-adversarial and claimant-friendly and gives no opportunity to cross-examine
doctors. (ECF No. 43 at 6-7). The Government additionally notes that the medical opinion used
in the VA disability determination is based on inaccurate medical history. (ECF No. 43 at 8).
These arguments, however, all go to the weight of the evidence, not the admissibility. Given the
extremely liberal standard for relevance, it is hard to say that there is no possibility that any
evidence relating to the VA disability determination will move the ball forward even slightly.
Rather than exclude the entire category of evidence relating to the VA disability determination,
the Court will make specific admissibility determinations at trial. See Sperberg v. Goodyear Tire
& Rubber Co., 519 F.2d 708, 712 (6th Cir. 1975). If Plaintiff attempts to introduce specific
evidence or testimony related to the adjudication of VA benefits that the Court finds to be
irrelevant, the Court will so rule during trial.
The two cases that the Government relies on to argue that the VA evidence is not
relevant are Butler v. United States, 702 F.3d 749 (4th Cir. 2012) and Littlejohn v. United States,
321 F.3d 915 (9th Cir. 2003). These cases hold only that prior award of disability benefits by the
VA administration do not bar litigation of liability issues under the doctrines of claim preclusion
or issue preclusion. In Butler, for example, the plaintiff-veteran moved for judgment on the
pleadings contending that the VA’s Rating Decision granting her benefits was binding on the
district court and conclusively established negligence on behalf of the Government. 702 F.3d at
752. The Fourth Circuit rejected her argument noting the different purposes, procedures, and
burdens under 31 U.S.C. § 1151 and held that VA Rating Decisions do not have preclusive
effect. Id. at 754-55. Nowhere in the Butler opinion is there any discussion of whether the
Rating Decision is relevant in the first place. Thus, these cases do not change the Court’s view
that evidence related to the VA benefits determination can be relevant.
B. Federal Rule of Evidence 403
To the extent the Government is arguing that the evidence related to the VA disability
determination fails Rule 403’s balancing test, any concerns of unfair prejudice or confusion of
the issues is mitigated here because this is a bench trial. See Miller v. City of Cincinnati, 709 F.
Supp. 2d 605, 620 (S.D. Ohio 2008), aff'd, 622 F.3d 524 (6th Cir. 2010) (internal citations
omitted). The Court acknowledges the line of cases holding that agency findings should not be
admitted into evidence for fear that they would confuse or mislead the jury. See, e.g., Chavez v.
Waterford Sch. Dist., No. 09-12336, 2011 WL 887784, at *3 (E.D. Mich. Mar. 14, 2011)
(granting defendant’s motion to exclude plaintiff’s SSA disability benefits determinations in
ADA case because “the issue for the jury to determine is whether Plaintiff is a qualified
individual with a disability” and “this issue is so pivotal to the outcome of trial, any other
determination stating that Plaintiff is, or is not ‘disabled,’ based on a different standard, would
only serve to confuse and mislead the jury”); Orber v. Jain, No. 10-1674, 2012 WL 1565299, at
*3 (D.N.J. May 2, 2012) (holding SSA’s disability determination was not admissible because its
introduction “could cause the jury, despite the questionable utility of the Disability
Determination with respect to causation, to inappropriately give weight, based on the fact that the
SSA is a government agency, to its conclusions that the knee replacement was a ‘failure’ and that
[Plaintiff’s] disability was, at least in part, the result of the surgery[,]. . . [an issue that is] hotly
contested in this litigation”); Lang v. Kohl's Food Stores, Inc., 217 F.3d 919, 927 (7th Cir. 2000)
(Noting in a discrimination case that “[d]oubtless there was a risk that the jury would
overestimate the significance of the EEOC’s ruling; this is why such conclusions generally are
not admitted (on behalf of either side) in jury trials.”).
The concern about confusing the jury or the fear that a jury may give agency findings
inappropriate weight are not present in the instant proceeding, given that it is a bench trial. The
Court understands the difference between the standards applied in VA benefit hearings and the
standards applied in adversarial FTCA cases and will not give undue weight to evidence
regarding the VA benefit hearings. The Court will hear all of the evidence and weigh it
For these reasons, the Court DENIES Defendant’s Motion in Limine to Preclude
Evidence or Testimony of Adjudication and Award of VA Disability Benefits to Plaintiff.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/ Algenon L. Marbley
ALGENON L. MARBLEY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
DATED: December 4, 2017
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