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Johnson v. Elk Lake School District

Citation. Johnson v. Elk Lake Sch. Dist., 283 F.3d 138, 2002)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The plaintiff, Betsy Sue Johnson (the “plaintiff”), sued her high school counselor and the school’s Administration, alleging the counselor sexually abused and harassed her over a two year period. She claims the counselor sent her suggestive notes and letters, attempted to hug and kiss her, and fondled her.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Federal Rules of Evidence (“F.R.E.”) Rule 415 allows evidence of past sexual assaults to be introduced in civil cases when the claim for damages is based on the alleged sexual assault.


The plaintiff sued her high school counselor, Wayne Stevens (“Mr. Stevens”), claiming he sexually harassed and abused her. She alleges that over a two year period he sent her letters, roses, cards, suggestive correspondence, attempted to hug and kiss her, and fondled her. The plaintiff sued the defendants, Mr. Stevens and the Administration (the “defendants”), for violation of her civil rights and for conspiracy, negligence, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Mr. Stevens moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s Section: 1983 claim and the state tort claims. The District Court denied his motion and the claims were tried before a jury. The jury returned a unanimous verdict in Mr. Stevens’ favor.

The plaintiff alleges that the District Court erred by not declaring a mistrial when Mr. Steven’s counsel mentioned to the jury during opening statement that his client had never been arrested for any crime relating to the alleged incidents with the plaintiff. The District Court found no new trial was warranted because the District Court promptly instructed the jury to disregard the statement.

During the course of the trial, the plaintiff attempted to introduce the testimony of Karen Radwanski (“Ms. Radwanski”), a teacher’s associate in the high school’s restaurant training program and a friend of the plaintiff’s. Mr. Stevens allegedly assaulted Ms. Radwanski in the office of another teacher. The plaintiff sought to introduce the testimony as evidence of the defendant’s propensity for sexual abuse. The District Court did not allow the testimony concluding that the touching incident did not qualify as an offense of sexual assault under the definition provided in F.R.E. Rule 413(d).


What is the standard for admitting evidence of prior sexual conduct?
Even if the evidence is relevant, may the trial court exclude it?

Was it an abuse of discretion for the trial court not grant a mistrial in response to the remarks of the Defendant’s attorney in closing argument?


Chief Judge Becker issued the ruling of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (“Third Circuit”) in holding that a trial court may admit evidence of prior sexual assaults if the evidence is relevant in that a jury could reasonably conclude that the act was a sexual assault and was committed by the defendant.
The trial court retains discretion to exclude evidence of a past sexual assault even if the evidence is relevant.

The District Court did not abuse its discretion in declining to grant a mistrial in response to the remarks of the defendant’s attorney.


The Third Circuit concluded that the trial court actually engaged in a balancing exercise under F.R.E. Rule 403, wherein the evidence offered by Ms. Radwanski was excluded because its slight probative value was outweighed by other factors such as the danger of unfair prejudice, confusions of the issues, and waste of time. The trial court continues to maintain the discretion to exclude this type of evidence even if it is relevant.
This trial court gave clear instructions promptly upon the plaintiff’s objection to the remark by the defendant’s counsel. Juries are presumed to have the ability to follow instructions.

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