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Naff v. State Farm General Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 2, 2016

HALONDA NAFF, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
STATE FARM GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant. AND RELATED CROSS-CLAIMS

          ORDER ON THE MOTIONS IN LIMINE (DOCS. 41, 42)

          Jennifer L. Thurston UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Halonda and Jarvis Naff contend Defendant State Farm General Insurance Company wrongfully cancelled their insurance policy and denied their claim following a house fire that caused the loss of personal property. State Farm argues its actions were proper and seeks a declaration of rights in its counterclaim.

         II. Legal Standards Governing Motions in Limine

         “Although the Federal Rules of Evidence do not explicitly authorize in limine rulings, the practice has developed pursuant to the district court’s inherent authority to manage the course of trials.” Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 40 n. 2 (1984). The Ninth Circuit explained motions in limine “allow parties to resolve evidentiary disputes ahead of trial, without first having to present potentially prejudicial evidence in front of a jury.” Brodit v. Cabra, 350 F.3d 985, 1004-05 (9th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

         Importantly, motions in limine seeking the exclusion of broad categories of evidence are disfavored. See Sperberg v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., 519 F.2d 708, 712 (6th Cir. 1975). The Court “is almost always better situated during the actual trial to assess the value and utility of evidence.” Wilkins v. Kmart Corp., 487 F.Supp.2d 1216, 1218 (D. Kan. 2007). The Sixth Circuit explained, “[A] better practice is to deal with questions of admissibility of evidence as they arise [in trial]” as opposed to ruling on a motion in limine. Sperberg, 519 F.2d at 712. Nevertheless, motions in limine are “an important tool available to the trial judge to ensure the expeditious and evenhanded management of the trial proceedings.” Jonasson v. Lutheran Child & Family Services, 115 F.3d 436, 440 (7th Cir. 1997).

         “[A] motion in limine should not be used to resolve factual disputes or weigh evidence, ” C & E Services, Inc. v. Ashland Inc., 539 F.Supp.2d 316, 323 (D. D.C. 2008), because that is the province of the jury. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         Moreover, the rulings on the motions in limine made here does not preclude either party from raising the admissibility of the evidence discussed here, if the evidence adduced at trial demonstrates a change of circumstances that would make the evidence admissible. In this event, the proponent of the evidence SHALL raise the issue outside the presence of the jury. Finally, the rulings made here are binding on all parties and not merely on the moving party.

         II. Plaintiff’s Motions in Limine

         A. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #1 to exclude evidence and argument that their claim was denied on any basis other than the three set forth in the December 5, 2014 denial letter

         The plaintiffs argue that in its letter, dated December 5, 2014, State Farm reported that it was denying the Naffs’ insurance claim for three reasons: “(1) the alleged claim for the patio cover; (2) the discrepancies in the inventories; and (3) the failure to provide requested documentation.” (Doc. 41 at 13) The only specific evidence raised in the motion relate to the fact that the defendant did not mention their prior bankruptcy action. Id. The plaintiffs rely on 10 CCR § 2695.7(b)(1) which reads, “Where an insurer denies or rejects a first party claim, in whole or in part, it shall do so in writing and shall provide to the claimant a statement listing all bases for such rejection or denial and the factual and legal bases for each reason given for such rejection or denial which is then within the insurer's knowledge.” On this basis, the plaintiffs argue that State Farm should not be permitted to introduce evidence that would support other reasons. Id.

         The defendant opposes the motion and notes that it did not intentionally waive any right to raise other examples of misrepresentation made by the plaintiffs merely because the denial letter failed to list every factual basis to support the exclusions upon which it relied in cancelling the policy and denying the claim. (Doc. 44 at 9-14) The defendant notes the Court decided this issue recently when addressing objections made to its evidence in support to the motion for summary judgment. Id. The Court agrees and sees no basis to retreat from this ruling. (Doc. 38 at 9-11) Thus, the motion is DENIED.

         B. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #2 to exclude evidence related to their 1999 bankruptcy action

         The plaintiffs argue that evidence related to their 1999 bankruptcy action-filed more than a decade before the fire at issue-should be excluded. (Doc. 41 at 14-15) The defendant seems to assert that the only use it would have for the 1999 bankruptcy petition is to counter any claim on the plaintiffs’ that errors made in the 2010 bankruptcy petition were made as a result of confusion. (Doc. 44 at 15) Because they had been through the process before, the defendants assert that these documents would demonstrate an absence of mistake. Fed. R. Civ.P. 404(b). The plaintiffs counter that they have never claimed that the entries in the 2010 bankruptcy petition were made as a result of a mistake.

         However, because the information contained in the petition may be impeaching, the motion is DENIED. However, absent a change in circumstances, the petition itself will not be admitted.

         C. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #3 to exclude evidence related to their 2010 bankruptcy action

         The plaintiffs argue that evidence related to their 2010 bankruptcy filing should not be permitted to be introduced. (Doc. 41 at 15-16) The plaintiffs assert that the inventory completed by Sharon Endsley makes clear that the items she listed on the inventory were in the house at the time of the fire. Id. at 16. They argue also reiterate the arguments raised in their motion in limine number 1. Id.

         The defendants oppose the motion and assert-much like they did in their motion for summary judgment-that this evidence demonstrates a material misrepresentation which was the basis for voiding the policy. (Doc. 44 at 15) Thus, for the reasons set forth above-which includes the Court’s analysis in its order on the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 38 at 9-11)--the motion is DENIED.

         To be explicitly clear, the Court finds that the specifics as to how the plaintiffs’ were able to furnish their home with the items observed by Ms. Endsley is only marginally relevant, the defendant is permitted a few questions only as to the sources of income for the Naffs at the time of the bankruptcy and after for the purpose of laying a foundation for argument at the close of the case. The Court will judge any questions beyond a few to be collateral to the central questions presented by this litigation.

         D. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #4 to exclude evidence related to their being the victims of a drive-by shooting

         On October 8, 2014, about nine months after their home burned, Mr. and Mrs. Naff were the victims of a drive-by shooting. (Doc. 41 at 17.) The plaintiffs argue that the defendant would offer this evidence in an attempt to make them appear as if they are “gang members or thugs” to support the position that they would, therefore, made a false claim. Id. The plaintiffs assert that this evidence would inflame the jurors and would paint the plaintiff’s in an unflattering light. Id. at 17.

         The defendant opposes this motion and notes that the fact that the Naffs were the victims of a violent crime “casts no aspersions” on them. (Doc. 44 at 24-25) Rather, the defendant notes that the evidence of the shooting provides an alternate explanation for the emotional distress which the plaintiffs’ claim they suffered as a result of the denial of their claim. Id.

         Notably, the complaint indicates that,

Since the claim was filed, Defendants have engaged in an egregious course of repeated delay tactics, harassment, defamatory accusations, and negligent and intentional acts in the handling of the claims which has caused and continues to cause Plaintiffs significant harm and damages. As a result, the Plaintiffs have experienced a host of problems, including, without limitation, the loss of virtually all of their personal property, incurring significant expense in having to replace items that are necessary and ordinary for day to day living, the inability to replace all of the items they lost, and significant physical and emotional problems.

(Doc. 1-2 at 7) The complaint also lists a number of wrongful acts the plaintiffs contend the defendant did that caused them harm. Id. at 7, 8-9. They assert that these acts caused them emotional harm, among other damage. Id. at 9, 11, 12. Based upon these allegations, it appears that the plaintiffs claim that the emotional distress they suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct began at the time they filed the claim, rather than from the time that the claim was denied in December 2014.

         The defendant argues that the plaintiffs’ case in chief requires them to show that the emotional distress suffered by the Naffs was caused by the defendant’s action. (Doc. 44 at 17-18) Likewise, the defendants argue they are entitled to demonstrate that whatever emotional distress the Naffs suffered was due to events unrelated to its actions. Id. The defendant cites to Blake v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 99 Cal.App.3d 901, 925 (1979). In Blake, the Court held, “In the customary “bad faith” case, the essence of the plaintiff's emotional distress is the anxiety arising from the financial deprivation traceable directly to nonpayment of the claim.” Id. at 924-925; Othman v. Globe Indem. Co., 759 F.2d 1458, 1468 (9th Cir. 1985) overruled on other grounds by Bryant v. Ford Motor Co., 832 F.2d 1080 (9th Cir. 1987) overruled by Bryant v. Ford Motor Co., 844 F.2d 602 (9th Cir. 1987).

         The Court agrees that the fact that the plaintiffs were shot in October 2014 may be an alternative cause for the plaintiffs' emotional distress. Thus, the motion is DENIED.

         E. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #5 to exclude evidence related to an incident of domestic violence

         On January 25, 2013, a month after the fire, the plaintiffs were living in a hotel. (Doc. 44 at 27) While there, the Naffs engaged in an incident of domestic violence, which caused Mrs. Naff to summon police. Id. Though charges were filed against Mr. Naff, they were ultimately dismissed. (Doc. 41 at 17)

         The plaintiffs argue this evidence should not be admitted because it is irrelevant but, even if there is any probative value, it is outweighed by its prejudicial effect. (Doc. 41 at 17) The defendant argues this evidence is directly relevant to the plaintiffs’ claim that the defendant’s conduct caused them to suffer marital strife. (Doc. 44 at 27) In addition, the defendant asserts that the evidence should be allowed because it reveals alternate bases for the marital strife. Id.

         It appears that the Naffs have claimed that the distress they suffered as a result of the conduct of the defendant caused them to suffer marital discord. Though the Naffs clarified at the hearing that they do not claim the January 25, 2013 incident resulted from this stress, the defendant is entitled to present this evidence, which could demonstrate that whatever marital problems the couple suffered were unrelated to the fire and, hence, negating a portion of the emotional distress damage claim. Thus, the motion is DENIED.

         F. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #6 to exclude evidence related to criminal charges against any party or witness

         The plaintiffs seek to exclude evidence related to criminal charges brought in the past or are pending against any party or witness. (Doc. 41 at 17-18) They argue that in 1989 and 2004, Mr. Naff was charged with crimes, though both charges were dismissed. Id. The rely upon Fed.R.Evid. 404.

         The defendants argue that evidence of charges raised after the fire, even if the criminal complaints were later dismissed, are relevant to show alternate causes of the emotional distress. (Doc. 44 at 28-29) They do not claim that charges brought before the fire as to the plaintiffs or charges brought against witnesses at any time are admissible. The Court agrees and, to this extent, the motion is GRANTED.

         On the other hand, as discussed above evidence about what occurred on January 25, 2013 may be admissible depending upon the showing made. Thus, to this extent, the motion is DENIED.

         G. Plaintiffs’ Motion in Limine #7 to exclude evidence related to criminal convictions against any party or witness

         The plaintiffs seek to exclude evidence related to evidence convictions suffered by Mr. Naff and the ...


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