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O'HAGAN v. SOTO

May 3, 1983

BRIAN O'HAGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
HECTOR L. SOTO, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MOTLEY

MOTLEY, C.J.

 The simple episode underlying this case, a police interrogation in the absence of counsel, has given rise to somewhat complicated and unusual proceedings over a three year period, including two trials and a remand by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. At the first trial before this court, the plaintiff, Brian O'Hagan, sought damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Supp. IV 1980) for violations of his sixth amendment right to counsel allegedly caused by the defendant, Hector Soto, a member of the Haverstraw, New York police department, during custodial interrogation in connection with a local burglary. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and awarded him a total of $50,000 in damages. This court entered the judgment for plaintiff but later set aside the award of damages as excessive and referred the case to Judge Palmieri for a retrial on the issue of damages only. The retrial before Judge Palmieri resulted in an unusual form of judgment. Although Judge Palmieri instructed the jury on its option to award nominal damages, the jury chose to award no damages at all. Judge Palmieri thereafter discharged the jury and entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff but without damages. On appeal, the Second Circuit remanded the case for clarification of the judgment. Noting that a judgment in favor of plaintiff without damages may be a judgment in no operative sense at all, the Second Circuit directed this court to clarify the ambiguities inherent in a judgment in favor of a party which entitles him to no relief whatsoever.

 Defendant's counsel has now submitted a motion for judgment in favor of the defendant as well as a motion for attorneys' fees. Plaintiff appeared at the argument on defendant's motions but has submitted no opposition papers or cross-motions. As explained below, the court denies defendant's motions and orders a second retrial on the issue of damages.

 Background

 In February, 1980, plaintiff brought a civil rights suit in this court against defendant Soto alleging violations of various constitutional rights which occurred when Soto arrested and interrogated O'Hagan on the charge of criminal possession of stolen property in violation of N.Y. Penal Law § 165.40 (McKinney 1975). The criminal charge against O'Hagan was subsequently dismissed. Defendant moved for summary judgment and this court granted that motion with respect to all claims except plaintiff's claim that he had been denied his sixth amendment right to counsel during the custodial interrogation. O'Hagan v. Soto, 523 F. Supp. 625 (S.D.N.Y. 1981). The surviving claim was subsequently tried to a jury.

 At the first trial, O'Hagan testified that on the evening of January 5, 1979, a detective from the Haverstraw police department told him to report to the police station the next day. O'Hagan complied with this request and presented himself the next day at the police station. There he was met by Officer Soto, who informed O'Hagan that he was under arrest for possession of stolen property. O'Hagan claimed that Soto thereafter informed him that all charges would be dropped if he signed a statement implicating three other youths in the alleged crime. O'Hagan refused to sign and was thereafter interrogated by Soto for a period which O'Hagan estimated to be approximately one to one and one-half hours. On three or four occasions during the questioning, O'Hagan requested and was denied permission to call his father or an attorney. Finally, O'Hagan was allowed to call his father, who arrived at the station approximately fifteen minutes later. Some fifteen minutes later O'Hagan was arraigned before Judge Walsh and was released on a $1,000 bond. Soto did not attend the first trial.

 The jury found that plaintiff's sixth amendment right to counsel had been violated, returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, and awarded him $25,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages. Defendant moved pursuant to Rules 50(b) and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for, inter alia, a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a reduction by remittitur of the damages award. This court denied defendant's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the ground that defendant's arguments were directed to the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's claims and had been considered and rejected by this court in its opinion denying defendant summary judgment. See O'Hagan v. Soto, No. 80 Civ. 1192, slip op. at 5 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 22, 1982). This court then stated that it would "once again address the legal questions raised . . . in the interest of clarifying its position and making a final and fair disposition of this matter," id. at 5. The court once again concluded that "plaintiff made out a colorable claim for Sixth Amendment violations and that it was properly entertained," id. at 8. This court did conclude, however, that the two awards of damages were far in excess of any evidence adduced at trial. This court also concluded that apparently, the jury intended the awards as "penalties which the jury assessed, resulting from a conclusion on its part that defendant's failure to appear demonstrated . . . an acknowledgment of the unjustness of his cause," id. at 12. The court offered plaintiff the option to remit all but $1,500 of the damages awarded or to submit to a new trial on the issue of damages only. Plaintiff refused the remittitur.

 Apparently unconvinced by this court's rejection of his arguments made in connection with the motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, defendant filed an objection to the limitation of the retrial to the issue of damages only. This court rejected those arguments again and filed an order on March 3, 1982 explicitly limiting the retrial to the issue of damages. A jury trial was conducted on April 1, 1982, before Judge Palmieri.

 At the retrial, O'Hagan recounted the testimony already summarized above. For the first time, Soto appeared and testified. According to Soto, the interrogation lasted only sixteen minutes. Soto produced the police department blotter which indicated that O'Hagan arrived at 4:55 p.m. and that O'Hagan's father arrived only sixteen minutes later at 5:11 p.m. Soto also testified that he promptly granted O'Hagan's request to telephone his father.

 At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Palmieri invited the parties to make their motions. Defendant then "renewed his objection to sending only damages to the jury" (Transcript of Trial held on April 1, 1982 ("Tr.") at 88). Judge Palmieri denied that motion on the ground that he was "bound by the order of remittitur . . . to submit to the jury the issue of damages" (Tr. at 89). Apparently undaunted, counsel moved to dismiss plaintiff's case on the ground that it was legally insufficient and to enter a judgment in favor of the defendant (Tr. at 90). Plaintiff responded by noting that this argument had failed on at least two prior occasions before this court (id.), and Judge Palmieri responded to defendant's argument by ignoring it.

 Consistent with this court's order dated March 3, 1982, Judge Palmieri submitted only the issue of damages to the jury and instructed the jurors on their option to return only nominal damages. However, the jury returned no damages at all. Defendant immediately seized this opportunity to once again move for judgment in favor of the defendant and this time also moved for attorneys' fees on the ground that he was now the prevailing party. *fn1" Judge Palmieri denied the motion for judgment and instructed the parties to file their application for attorneys' fees before this court. *fn2" With respect to the judgment, Judge Palmieri stated, "Since the plaintiff won on the issue of liability before Judge Motley, got a retrial on the damage issue after the order of remittitur, and since the plaintiff has recovered no damages whatsoever in the retrial of the damage issue before me, I think the fair way to dispose of the case is to direct a judgment for the plaintiff without costs . . . ." *fn3"

 On appeal, the Second Circuit concluded that the ambiguities inherent in this form of judgment warranted a remand for clarification. The Court of Appeals noted that a judgment in favor of the plaintiff but without the award of even nominal damages, which normally accompanies an adjudication of a denial of a constitutional right in the absence of compensatory damages, may mean that the judgment in favor of the plaintiff entered by Judge Palmieri may be a judgment in no operative sense at all. The Second Circuit thereafter vacated the judgment entered by Judge Palmieri and remanded the case to this court.

 Discussion

 At the outset, the court notes that there are actually two judgments in this case. On July 6, 1981, this court entered a judgment in favor of O'Hagan awarding him $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. By opinion dated January 22, 1982, the court offered the plaintiff the option to remit all but $1,500 or to submit to a new trial on the issue of damages only. By refusing the remittitur, plaintiff did not reopen the judgment in its entirety. The combination of these events left intact the July 6, 1981 judgment on the issue of liability. This court's order dated March 8, 1982 limited the retrial to damages only. On appeal, the Second Circuit did not decide the merits of the sixth amendment issue. It vacated ...


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