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Wilson v. Aquino

February 24, 2006

DERRICK WILSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NELSON AQUINO, SAME BEING A POLICE OFFICER IN THE EMPLOY OF THE CITY OF SYRACUSE POLICE DEPARTMENT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; RALPH BOWERING, SAME BEING A POLICE OFFICER IN THE EMPLOY OF THE CITY OF SYRACUSE POLICE DEPARTMENT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; MICHAEL EMOND, SAME BEING A POLICE OFFICER IN THE EMPLOY OF THE CITY OF SYRACUSE POLICE DEPARTMENT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; AND BRIAN LENDY, SAME BEING A POLICE OFFICER IN THE EMPLOY OF THE CITY OF SYRACUSE POLICE DEPARTMENT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Currently before the Court are Defendants' motion (1) for judgment as a matter of law on the issue of punitive damages or, alternatively, a new trial on that issue, pursuant to Rule 50 and Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, respectively; (2) to alter or amend the Court's ruling granting Plaintiff judgment as a matter of law with respect to Defendants' strip search of him in the Kennedy Square Apartments, pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; (3) for a mistrial, pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; and (4) to stay the execution of the jury's damages award and the Court's order granting attorney's fees and costs, pursuant to Rule 62 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Also before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

The following constitutes the Court's written determination of Defendants' and Plaintiff's motions.

II. BACKGROUND

On September 12, 2005, a five-day jury trial commenced on Plaintiff's claims for false arrest, excessive force, and unreasonable search, arising out of an encounter between Plaintiff and Defendants. The Court granted judgment as a matter of law to Plaintiff on his claim that Defendants' strip search of him was illegal. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Defendants on Plaintiff's claims that they falsely arrested him and used excessive force against him. The jury awarded Plaintiff nominal damages in the amount of $4 ($1 against each Defendant) and punitive damages in the amount of $25,000,*fn1 as a result of Defendants' unlawful strip search of him.

The parties are familiar with the facts of this case. To place Defendants' and Plaintiff's motions in appropriate context, however, a brief account of the events leading up to this litigation is in order. On October 28, 1998, Plaintiff was a passenger in Jackim Grimes' car when Defendants pulled the car over, ordered Plaintiff out, patted him down, searched him more thoroughly, had a police dog search him, and finally strip searched him in the Kennedy Square Apartments. Following the strip search, Defendants allowed Plaintiff to leave. Defendants never formally arrested Plaintiff. As a result of this encounter, Plaintiff filed this law suit on October 19, 2001.

On September 8, 2005, the Court convened a final pre-trial conference. At the conference, Defendants moved to exclude Defendant Lendy's suspension record in connection with the strip search of Plaintiff. The Court granted their motion and directed that Plaintiff may not use the suspension as affirmative evidence; however, the Court allowed for the possibility of such evidence being used for impeachment purposes, depending on the circumstances.

During the trial, while Defendant Lendy was testifying, Plaintiff asked him whether he believed that he followed the Syracuse Police Department's rules and regulations in connection with the events at issue, to which he responded that he did. Plaintiff then questioned Defendant Lendy about his suspension for failure to follow the Syracuse Police Department's rules and regulations, prompting Defendants to move for a mistrial. The Court denied the motion.

Defendants argue that, because of these facts and others relied upon below, they are entitled to judgment as a mater of law, or a new trial, on the punitive damages question; an amended ruling regarding the Court's holding that Defendants unreasonably strip-searched Plaintiff; a mistrial; and a stay of the jury's damages award and the Court's granting of attorney's fees and costs.

III. DISCUSSION

1. Defendants' Rule 50(b) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or, alternatively, Rule 59 Motion for a New Trial on the Question of Punitive Damages Defendants argue that the Court should grant their motion for judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, grant their motion for a new trial on the punitive damages question because no evidence was put forward at trial to support a punitive damages award. Specifically, Defendants claim that the evidence adduced at trial did not establish that they acted with evil motive or intent in strip searching Plaintiff.

Standards of Review

Under Rule 50(b), a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). However, the court may grant such a motion only when, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party without considering credibility or weight, "there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable men could have reached." Sabir v. Jowett, 214 F. Supp. 2d 226, 236 (D. Conn. 2002) (quoting Merrill Lynch Interfunding, Inc., 155 F.3d at 120 (other citation omitted)). Specifically, the Second Circuit held that a court should grant a judgment as a matter of law only when

(1) there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or

(2) there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded persons could not arrive at a verdict against [it].

Id. at 237 (quoting Galdieri-Ambrosini v. National Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 289 (2d Cir. 1998)).

Under Rule 59, a court has discretion to order a new trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. A court should grant a motion for a new trial when it is "'convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.'" Zellner v. Summerlin, No. 02 CV 95, 2005 WL 2859993, *7 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 6, 2005) (quoting Smith, 861 F.2d at 370). Although the court's discretion under Rule 59 is much greater than under Rule 50(b), it should only order a new trial "if the jury's verdict is egregious." Pappas v. New Haven Police Dep't, 278 F. Supp. 2d 296, 301 (D. Conn. 2003) (citing DLC Management Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133-34 (2d Cir. 1998)).

Punitive Damages

In a § 1983 case, the jury may award punitive damages "'when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.'" Niemann v. Whalen, 928 F. Supp. 296, 299 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (quoting Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56, 103 S.Ct. 1625, 1640, 75 L.Ed. 2d 632 (1983)). A court will not disturb a jury's award of punitive damages unless it is "'so high as to shock the judicial conscience and constitute a denial of justice.'" Lee v. Edwards, 101 F.3d 805, 808 (2d Cir. 1996) (quotation omitted).

A. Defendants' Motion to Set Aside Judgment as a Matter of Law

Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, without considering credibility or weight, the evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that, what the jury may have considered from Defendants' testimony alone, to say nothing of Plaintiff's detailed account of the events of that day, provides sufficient evidence to support a punitive damages award.*fn2 Defendants' own testimony established that they held Plaintiff for at least fifteen minutes. Within these fifteen minutes, Defendants patted Plaintiff down, searched him more throughly, had a police dog search him, and finally took him to the Kennedy Square Apartments where they forced him to the ground and strip-searched him. Plaintiff did not consent to any of these searches. Defendants found no contraband on Plaintiff's person as a result of these searches.

However, the jury may have also considered Plaintiff's testimony, which detailed a vivid account of lawless conduct. Plaintiff testified that, when Defendants brought him to the Kennedy Square Apartments in handcuffs to strip search him, they "formed a semi circle around [him]." See Wilson Trial Transcript (" Wilson Trial Tr."), at 48. Thereafter, Defendant Aquino "slapped [Plaintiff] in the back of the head with one hand and then with his other hand punched [him] and [he] fell to the ground." Id. After Plaintiff hit the ground, Defendants "weren't doing anything but kicking [him] and throwing [him] around the room. There wasn't no search or anything like that, they were beating [him] up, kicking [him] and throwing [him] around the room." Id. at 49. According to Plaintiff, this "beating" took place for "about three or four minutes." Id. Plaintiff further testified that, while he was still on the floor, "[Defendant] Lendy [had] his knees in [Plaintiff's] back dripping (sic) [his] thumb and he is twisting [his] thumb, he just kept twisting [Plaintiff's] thumb with his knee in [his] back . . . ." Id. at 49-50. He also testified that one of the Defendants pulled his pants down, and Defendant Aquino slapped him on his buttocks and said "you like this position, don't you, Derrick Wilson, you like this position, and [Plaintiff] was just crying . . . ." Id. at 51. "[Aquino] "inserted his finger in [Plaintiff's] anus and he was like, he doesn't have anything in there." Id. Upon finding nothing in his anus, "they just commenced, beating [him] up, punching [him], kicking [him], throwing [him] around the room, just, they just beat [him] up." Id. He testified that the entire ordeal at the Kennedy Square Apartments lasted "about 15 minutes." Id.

In light of this testimony, the Court cannot conclude that there was such a lack of evidence supporting the jury's award of punitive damages that its determination "could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture." Sabir, 214 F. Supp. 2d at 237 (quotation omitted). For the same reasons, the Court finds that the jury did not reach a seriously erroneous result, nor was the verdict a miscarriage of justice.

Accordingly, the Court denies Defendants' motion for a judgment as a matter of law or, alternately, for a new trial on the issue of punitive damages. Conceding that Defendants may have been prompted by good intentions, i.e., to stem the tide of drug trafficking in the Syracuse area by confronting a known drug dealer who, they believed, had just engaged in a drug sale, the Court cannot condone the course of action that they undertook which was inappropriate and unlawful.*fn3 Our society -- and the law -- expects more from its police officers, notwithstanding the criminal character of the suspect.

B. Defendants' Motion for a New Trial Based on the Court's Erroneous Jury Instructions Regarding Punitive Damages

Defendants argue that the Court's jury charge regarding punitive damages was erroneous because the Court did not use the precise language articulated in Smith v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court held that punitive damages are available in a § 1983 action when the "defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others." 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983). Defendants contend that, by using the language of "ill will or spite," as opposed to "motivated by evil motive or intent," the Court suggested a lesser punitive damages standard. Defendants then boot-strap that argument to contend that the jury charge was erroneous because the instruction informed the jurors that they "may" assess punitive damages and never informed the jurors that they "should not" award such damages unless they found that Defendants' conduct was motivated by evil motive or intent or callous disregard for the federally protected rights of others.

Standard of Review

A jury charge will be deemed erroneous "if the instruction misleads the jury as to the proper legal standard, or it does not adequately inform the jury of the law." Luciano v. Olsten Corp., 110 F.3d 210, 218 (2d Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). The court should not grant a new trial based on an erroneous jury charge unless, "taken as a whole, the jury instructions gave a misleading impression or inadequate understanding of the law." Id. (quotation omitted). Thus, if the charge that the court actually gave was correct and sufficiently covered the essential issues, then the court should not disturb the jury verdict because of an error in the charge. See id. (citation omitted).

The Charge of the Court

The Court's jury charge stated, in pertinent part, that "[p]unitive damages are awarded, in the jury's discretion, to punish a defendant for extreme or outrageous conduct, or to deter or prevent a defendant and others like him from committing similar acts in the future." See Jury Instruction ("Jury Ins."), at 18. The Court further instructed the jury that

[y]ou may conclude that Mr. Wilson is entitled to an award of punitive damages against the Defendant whom you are considering if you find that this Defendant acted maliciously or wantonly. A defendant acts maliciously if his conduct is prompted by ill will or spite toward the plaintiff. A defendant acts wantonly if he acts in a reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights of the plaintiff. In order to justify an award of punitive damages, Mr. Wilson has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Defendant whom you are considering acted maliciously or wantonly with regard to Mr. Wilson's rights.

See id.

Although it is true that in Smith the Supreme Court stated that punitive damages are available "when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others," 461 U.S. at 56, Defendants' assertion that, because "the Court did not use the language of the U.S. Supreme Court," see Defendants' Memorandum of Law at 5, the jury instruction was erroneous contravenes well-established law.*fn4 "Taken as a whole," the jury instruction must adequately inform the jury of the law regarding punitive damages. Luciano, 110 F.3d at 218. Here, the Court instructed the jury that it may award punitive damages if the Defendant whom it was considering "acted maliciously or wantonly." See Jury Ins. at 18. The Court further ...


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