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RUHLMANN v. SMITH

June 28, 2004.

ROBERT R. RUHLMANN, Plaintiff,
v.
DR. KEVIN SMITH and DR. DIANA PUGLISI, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DAVID HURD, District Judge

AMENDED MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

  On October 27, 1999, plaintiff Robert Ruhlmann ("plaintiff") filed an amended complaint against Ulster County Department of Social Services ("DSS"), Ulster County Department of Mental Health ("DMH"), Marshall Beckman ("Beckman"), Ernest Townsend ("Townsend"), Benedictine Hospital, Ruth McGregor ("McGregor"), Dr. Joel Ginsberg ("Ginsberg"), Dr. David Steres ("Steres"), Dr. Kevin Smith ("Smith"), and Dr. Diana Puglisi ("Puglisi"), alleging: (1) as against all defendants, constitutional claims of false arrest and false imprisonment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) as against DSS, disability discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the New York Executive Law, (3) as against Benedictine Hospital, McGregor, Steres, Ginsberg, Smith and Puglisi, medical malpractice in violation of state common law, and (4) improper denial of access to and disclosure of clinical records, in violation of Mental Hygiene Law §§ 33.13, 33.16. (Docket No. 29.) With the exception of the disability discrimination claims, all the claims arose out of the involuntary pick-up — purportedly pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law § 9.45 and subsequent confinement — purportedly pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law § 9.39 — of plaintiff in the mental health unit of Benedictine Hospital.

  Pursuant to a Memorandum-Decision and Order dated November 26, 2002, plaintiff's disability discrimination claim under the ADA was dismissed with prejudice, but all other claims survived summary judgment. Ruhlmann v. Ulster County Dep't of Soc. Servs., 234 F. Supp.2d 140 (N.D.N.Y. 2002) ("Ruhlmann I"). Familiarity with that decision, which extensively outlines the factual contentions of this case, id. at 144-57, will be assumed.

  In April 2003, plaintiff entered into stipulations of settlement and proposed dismissals with two sets of defendants. The first set was comprised of defendants DSS, DMH, Beckman, and Townsend ("the County defendants"), and the second set was comprised of defendants Benedictine Hospital, McGregor, Ginsberg, and Steres ("the Hospital defendants"). The agreements provided that the County defendants and the Hospital defendants would each pay plaintiff the sum of $100,000 in exchange for the dismissal of all claims against them. No similar agreement was entered into between plaintiff and defendants Smith and Puglisi.

  By Order dated May 12, 2003, the parties were given until May 23, 2003, to submit any objections to the proposed dismissal of plaintiff's claims against the County defendants and/or the Hospital defendants. (Docket No. 131.) No such objections — neither by defendants Smith and Puglisi, nor by any other party — were received by the specified date. Accordingly, on May 30, 2003, the stipulations of settlement and proposed dismissals of plaintiff's claims against the County defendants and the Hospital defendants were accepted. (Docket No. 158.)

  Jury selection commenced on March 23, 2004, for plaintiff's remaining claims unconstitutional false arrest and false imprisonment asserted under § 1983, common law medical malpractice, and failure to give access to and improper disclosure of medical records — against Smith and Puglisi. An eight-day jury trial followed. After the close of the evidence and prior to the jury being given its deliberation instructions, however, the temporal distinction between the false arrest claim — which involved events prior to and including the involuntary pick-up — and the false imprisonment claim — which involved the involuntary admission to and confinement in Benedictine Hospital — compelled the dismissal of the former against both Smith and Puglisi, since neither participated to any significant degree in the decision to issue the involuntary pick-up order.*fn2 The remaining claims of false imprisonment and medical malpractice were submitted to the jury. On April 2, 2004, the jury was given instructions and a verdict form. On the verdict form were sixteen questions. The first eight questions related to the federal constitutional false imprisonment claims, and asked, inter alia, whether the jury unanimously agreed that Smith and Puglisi acted under color of state law. The next four questions related to the state medical malpractice claim, and asked, in sum, whether both Smith and Puglisi failed to act in conformity with the generally accepted standards in the medical community in admitting and confining plaintiff in Benedictine pursuant to Mental Hygiene Law § 9.39. The remaining questions, including a "Yes" or "No" question for each defendant as to whether plaintiff was entitled to punitive damages, concerned damages.

  On April 5, 2004, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff on all claims against both Smith and Puglisi. It awarded plaintiff $1 million in compensatory damages, and answered in the affirmative that he was entitled to punitive damages against Smith, but in the negative as to the same against Puglisi. On April 27, 2004, after a one-day trial, the jury awarded plaintiff $75,000 in punitive damages against Smith.

  On May 12, 2004, Smith and Puglisi moved, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), 50(c), and 59(a), for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial or a remittitur with respect to compensatory damages, and also asked that the $1 million compensatory damages award be offset by the $200,000 plaintiff received as a result of the settlements with the County defendants and the Hospital defendants. (Docket Nos. 204-06, 211.) Plaintiff opposed. (Docket Nos. 207-10.)

  Oral argument was heard on June 11, 2004, in Utica, New York. Decision was reserved. II. DISCUSSION

  While the primary points of contention between the parties concern the amount of compensatory damages awarded by the jury, a brief mention of the jury's findings with respect to liability is appropriate, as defendants have raised the same.

  A. Liability

  In motions made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, "the question is always whether, after drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party and making all credibility assessments in his favor, there is sufficient evidence to permit a rational juror to find in his favor." Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 134 (2d Cir. 2003). In other words, the motion will meet success "only if there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict [such] that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or [there is] such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded men could not arrive at a verdict against the moving party." Yurman Design, Inc. v. PAJ, Inc., 262 F.3d 101, 108 (2d Cir. 2001) (internal quotations and citation omitted).

  Unlike a motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50, a motion for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 may be granted even if the court, which does not have to view the evidence in the light most favorably to the non-moving party, determines that substantial evidence supports the verdict. DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 134 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Gonzalez v. Bratton, 147 F. Supp.2d 180, 189 (S.D.N.Y. 2001) ("The standard governing a motion for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59 involves more judicial discretion than does a motion for judgment as a matter of law"). However, because a Rule 59 motion may only be granted where the jury's verdict is "egregious," "a court should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility." DLC Mgmt. Corp., 163 F.3d at 134. Under both of these standards, the jury's findings with respect to Smith's and Puglisi's liability cannot be overturned.

  There can be little question that it was not unreasonable for the jury to find that both defendants falsely imprisoned plaintiff, and engaged in conduct that fell below the standard of care in admitting and confining plaintiff pursuant to the mandates of Mental Hygiene Law § 9.39. With respect to the false imprisonment claims asserted under § 1983, the jury was instructed — and both parties agreed — that the only substantive element at issue was whether plaintiff's involuntary confinement in Benedictine Hospital was privileged. Whether the confinement here was privileged depended upon whether the mandates of Mental Hygiene Law § 9.39 had been fulfilled. As noted in Ruhlmann I, at the summary judgment stage several questions of fact had been raised as to defendants' compliance with that statutory section, including but not limited to whether proper mental and physical examinations of plaintiff had been conducted, whether he exhibited any symptoms or gave any indications of dangerousness, and whether such dangerousness was of such a substantial degree that he could not be released under the law. Testimony and other evidence were presented by both sides on these questions, and the jury was fully entitled to resolve them in favor of plaintiff. Its conclusions in that regard cannot and will not be disturbed.

  For example, the testimony at trial could have reasonably supported a finding that Puglisi, upon examining plaintiff, initially believed that he could be released, but changed her mind upon speaking with Smith, who had not examined plaintiff*fn3 but who had been in contact with Townsend, who it could have been found from the evidence exerted pressure upon Smith to keep plaintiff confined. The evidence adduced at trial could have reasonably supported a finding that defendants did not engage in reasonable efforts to corroborate the alleged threat made by plaintiff, which came to defendants' attention, it should be noted, through multiple levels of hearsay.

  The evidence also reasonably supported the finding that defendants' conduct was intentional or reckless, which requirement of culpability was made explicit to the jury on the verdict form. The jury was entitled to believe that defendants' conduct went beyond the merely unreasonable, and was instead taken intentionally or recklessly in disregard of the known consequences of admitting plaintiff despite the circumstances not indicating that Section 9.39 was fulfilled.*fn4

  Likewise, with respect to the medical malpractice claim, the testimony and evidence presented at trial could reasonably have supported the jury's finding on liability. Section 9.39 also provided guidance on this claim. Particularly, the jury was charged with determining the generally accepted medical standards for confining an individual pursuant to Section 9.39, and then whether Smith and Puglisi fell below that standard. In other words, while the jury had to determine whether their conduct under the false imprisonment claim was reckless and intentional, it needed to determine only whether it was negligent under the medical malpractice claim. As noted, factual questions were aplenty, and the resolution of the same either way was not so unreasonable as to sustain defendants' burden under Rule 50 or Rule 59.

  Defendants also claim that the jury's finding that they acted under color of state law is not reasonably supported by the evidence. Particularly, the jury was asked, in separate questions, whether Smith and Puglisi were "coerced, or significantly encouraged or compelled, by county or city officials or other persons acting under color of state law." (Court's Ex. 1, Questions 1, 5.) For example, the evidence adduced at trial reasonably supported a finding that Smith acted under the influence or coercion of county officials, with whom he was in telephonic contact on more than one occasion. The jury could have found, from the evidence presented, that he, under this influence or ...


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