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Martinez v. Thompson

December 8, 2008

ANGEL L. MARTINEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SCOTT THOMPSON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David E. Peebles, U.S. Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Angel Martinez, a former New York State prison inmate, commenced this action against several employees of the New York State Department of Correctional Services (the "DOCS") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging deprivation of his civil rights. Included among the claims asserted by Martinez were causes of action alleging 1) the use of excessive force and the failure to protect him from harm, based upon two separate incidents occurring on February 25, 2003 and March 5, 2003; 2) unlawful retaliation, arising both from the use of force on March 5, 2003 and the issuance of a misbehavior report charging him with violating prison policies, both occurring after he threatened to complain regarding the February 25, 2003 incident; 3) deprivation of procedural due process, based upon a disciplinary hearing conducted to address the charges set forth in the misbehavior report; and 4) malicious prosecution, stemming from the pursuit of criminal charges against him arising out of the February 25, 2003 incident. Plaintiff's complaint, as later amended, sought various relief, including awards of compensatory and punitive damages.

A jury trial was held in the matter, beginning on September 8, 2008. After the close of evidence plaintiff's claims for excessive force, failure to protect, unlawful retaliation, and malicious prosecution were submitted to the jury for determination, the court having dismissed plaintiff's procedural due process cause of action as a matter of law during the course of the trial. Following its deliberations the jury, utilizing a form prepared for its use, returned a verdict finding in the plaintiff's favor on each of the four claims against some, though not all, of the defendants under consideration with respect to each of those causes of action. While only nominal damages were conferred in connection with plaintiff's retaliation and malicious prosecution claims, in light of the court's instructions limiting damages on those claims based upon the fact that plaintiff suffered no physical injury as a result of the occurrences, the jury awarded significant amounts of compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants found accountable for the use of excessive force and the failure to protect him from harm, resulting in the entry of judgment in plaintiff's favor in a total cumulative amount of $1,400,006.

Currently pending before the court are cross-motions filed by the parties. In their motion, defendants seek an order granting them judgment as a matter of law, notwithstanding the jury's verdict or, alternatively, a new trial. Plaintiff has countered with a request for an award of costs and attorneys' fees, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Because the jury's finding of liability and compensatory damage awards are well supported by the evidence adduced during the trial, and the plaintiff, as a prevailing party, is entitled to an award of costs and attorneys' fees, I will grant plaintiff's motion and deny defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law. Based upon my finding that the jury's punitive damage awards are shockingly excessive, however, I will grant defendants' motion for a new trial unless the plaintiff agrees to remit a portion of the punitive damages awarded by the jury, as described below.

I. BACKGROUND

At the times relevant to his claims Martinez, a self-described former heroin addict, was a prison inmate entrusted to the care and custody of the DOCS, and was designated by that agency to the Oneida Correctional Facility ("Oneida"), located in Rome, New York. On February 25, 2003, after returning to his assigned dormitory at Oneida from an outside medical appointment, plaintiff became embroiled in a physical altercation, initially only with defendant Scott Thompson, a corrections officer at the facility, but subsequently involving other corrections workers who appeared at the scene to offer assistance, including defendants Larry Sisco, Scott Myers, Thomas Novak, and Donna Temple. Plaintiff was ultimately placed in mechanical restraints and taken to the facility's medical unit, where photographs were taken and he received some treatment for injuries suffered during the course of the incident. Following treatment, plaintiff was escorted to the facility's special housing unit ("SHU").

Corrections Officer Thompson issued an inmate misbehavior report to the plaintiff on the day after the incident, charging him with refusal to obey a direct order, assault on staff, engaging in violent conduct, and creating a disturbance, in violation of established prison rules. A disciplinary hearing was conducted to address the charges, beginning on February 28, 2003 and continuing on March 14, 2003, with defendant Lane, a corrections captain, presiding as the hearing officer. At the conclusion of the hearing, Captain Lane found the plaintiff guilty of all violations alleged and imposed a penalty principally consisting of twenty-four months of disciplinary SHU confinement, with a corresponding loss of various other privileges.*fn1

A second altercation involving the plaintiff and corrections workers occurred on March 5, 2003 in the Oneida SHU. On that occasion, plaintiff was assaulted without provocation by defendants Michael Duvall and Roland LaBrague, two corrections officers, while being returned to his cell after being permitted to inspect his personal property at a nearby location. According to Martinez, Raymond Sipley arrived on the scene shortly after the onset of the incident and either participated in the assault or failed to protect him from the actions of his co-workers.

On April 24, 2003, plaintiff was criminally charged in Oneida County with three counts of assault in the second degree, based upon the February 25, 2003 incident. Cooperating in the investigation which led to that prosecution were defendants Scott Thompson, Larry Sisco, Scott Myers, and Thomas Novak, each of whom provided a supporting deposition regarding the incident for use by law enforcement officers. In their statements defendants Thomson, Sisco, and Myers indicated a desire to have plaintiff criminally prosecuted for his conduct; the supporting deposition of defendant Novak, which was prepared on a different form than the others, did not contain such a statement. Upon presentment of the matter to an Oneida County grand jury a "no bill" was returned, and all criminal charges against the plaintiff arising out of the incident were ultimately dismissed.

On December 1, 2006, plaintiff was released from prison. Martinez is now married, and resides in Brooklyn, New York. While a broken rib suffered as a result of the relevant events has healed, Martinez has suffered from lingering pain as a result of the lumbar back condition which he attributes to the two beatings. In addition, plaintiff has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") and has experienced ongoing symptomology which has included repeated thoughts of suicide, recurrent nightmares and flashbacks of the assaults, fear of the presence of law enforcement officials, and other signs of anxiety. The severity of these symptoms has required the plaintiff to obtain ongoing treatment, including from Christine Janick, a licensed clinical social worker employed at the Bellevue Hospital, located in New York City, who specializes in the treatment of victims of crimes and domestic violence. At trial Janick, who has treated Martinez virtually on a weekly basis since August of 2007, convincingly testified that despite the passage of five and one-half years since the relevant events, plaintiff experiences significant ongoing effects including sleeplessness, recurring nightmares, panic attacks, trauma, fear of being on the street, and depression, and that he has been tearful throughout the entire therapeutic process.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff commenced this action on April 19, 2004, naming as defendants ten DOCS employees by name, and several others identified only as "Doe" defendants. Dkt. No. 1. Following the joinder of issue, pretrial discovery, the granting of a motion filed by the defendants seeking partial summary judgment, and the filing of an amended complaint, with court leave, to add a claim for punitive damages, the matter was the subject of a jury trial over which I presided, commencing on September 8, 2008.*fn2

On September 12, 2008, the jury returned a verdict on the remaining claims in the action.*fn3 In its verdict, the jury found 1) defendants Thompson and Sisco liable with respect to the February 25, 2003 incident, exonerating defendant Myers, Novak, and Temple in connection with plaintiff's excessive force and failure to protect claim arising from that occurrence; 2) defendants Duvall and LaBrague liable with respect to the March 5, 2003 incident, clearing defendant Sipley in connection with plaintiff's claim against him stemming from that event; 3) in plaintiff's favor and against defendants Thompson, Duvall, and LaBrague, but not defendants Temple and Sipley, with regard to plaintiff's retaliation cause of action; and 4) against defendants Thompson, Sisco, and Myers, but not defendant Novak, in connection with plaintiff's malicious prosecution count. In its verdict the jury also declined to find that any of the defendants found liable on plaintiff's various substantive claims should nonetheless be entitled to qualified immunity from suit, a finding in which the court joins.*fn4

The portion of the jury's verdict concerning damages was diverse. Following the court's instructions regarding the unavailability of compensatory damages for mental anguish and emotional distress in connection with plaintiff's retaliation and malicious prosecution claims, based upon 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e), the jury awarded Martinez only nominal damages on those claims. With respect to plaintiff's excessive force and failure to protect causes of action, however, the jury awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $200,000 against defendant Thompson, $150,000 against defendant Sisco, $100,000 against defendant Duvall, and $50,000 against defendant LaBrague. In addition, the jury determined that awards of punitive damages in connection with plaintiff's excessive force and failure to protect claims were appropriate, granting plaintiff an additional $500,000 against defendant Thompson, $200,000 against defendant Duvall, $150,000 against defendant Sisco, and $50,000 against defendant LaBrague. Judgment was entered based upon the jury's verdict on September 12, 2008. Dkt. No. 172.

On September 26, 2008, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law dismissing plaintiff's claims or, in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, respectively. Dkt. No. 173. Plaintiff has since countered, opposing defendants' motion and requesting an award of costs and attorneys' fees. Dkt. No. 180. With the receipt of papers on behalf of the defendants in opposition to plaintiff's motion for attorneys' fees on October 27, 2008, Dkt. No. 183, and the filing of a reply declaration and memorandum of law on behalf of plaintiff in further support of his motion on October 29, 2008, Dkt. Nos. 184, 185, briefing is complete, and the parties' post-trial motions are now ripe for determination.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Defendants' Post-Trial Motions

1. Governing Standards of Review

The standards which govern motions for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL") and for a new trial, while not entirely dissimilar, are distinctly different. Despite their differences, however, both are tempered by Rule 61 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that

[u]nless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence -- or any other error by the court or a party -- is ground for granting a new trial, for setting aside a verdict, or for vacating, modifying, or otherwise disturbing a judgment or order. At every stage of the proceeding, the court must disregard all errors and defects that do not affect any party's substantial rights.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 61; McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 553-54, 104 S.Ct. 845, 848-49 (1984); 11 Charles Alan Wright, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2882 (2d ed. 1995).

a) JMOL

Motions seeking JMOL, following a jury trial, are governed by Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. That rule provides, in relevant part, that

[i]f the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. No later than 10 days after the entry of judgment -- or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 10 days after the jury was discharged -- the movant may file a renewed motion or judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). The rule goes on to provide that in ruling upon such a motion following the return of a jury verdict, a court may allow the judgment to stand, order a new trial, or direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law notwithstanding that a verdict was returned against the moving party. Id.; 9B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2538 (2d ed. 1995).

The burden which a litigant faces when seeking JMOL in the face of an adverse jury verdict, while not insurmountable, is substantial. JMOL notwithstanding a contrary jury verdict is appropriately entered only when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, is susceptible of supporting only one possible verdict, in favor of the moving party. Jund v. Town of Hempstead, 941 F.2d 1271, 1290 (2d Cir. 1991) (citations omitted); Chang v. City of Albany,150 F.R.D. 456, 459 (N.D.N.Y. 1993) (McAvoy, C.J.) (citing, inter alia, Jund). The granting of such relief is warranted 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 men could not arrive at a verdict against him.

Jund, 941 F.2d at 1290 (quoting, inter alia, Mattivi v. South African Marine Corp.,618 F.2d 163, 168 (2d Cir. 1980)); see also Nimely v. City of New York, 414 F.3d 381, 390 (2d Cir. 2005). In deciding a motion for JMOL, the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party and may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, as those functions properly fall within the jury's province. Mickle v. Morin, 297 F.3d 114, 120 (2d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted); 9B Wright & Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2527; see also Jund, 941 F.2d at 1290.

b) New Trial

Post-trial motions seeking a new trial are governed by Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. That rule provides, in pertinent part, that

[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues -- and to any party -- . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court[.]

Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A). Applying this standard, the Second Circuit has cautioned that ordering a new trial is justified only when the court is convinced that the jury has reached a "seriously erroneous result" or that the verdict represents a "miscarriage of justice." Nimely, 414 F.3d at 392 (quotations and citations omitted); see also Kosmynka v. Polaris Indus., Inc., 462 F.3d 74, 82 (2d Cir. 2006); Sorlucco v. New York City Police Dept.,971 F.2d 864, 875 (2d Cir. 1992); see also DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park,163 F.3d 124, 133 (2d Cir. 1998); Atkins v. New York City,143 F.3d 100, 102 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted); 11 Wright, et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2805.

Unlike a motion for JMOL under Rule 50(b), when addressing a new trial motion a court is permitted to weigh the evidence presented at trial, and is not necessarily bound to view it in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. DLC Mgmt. Corp.,163 F.3d at 133-34 (citation omitted). A jury's credibility determinations, however, are entitled to great deference, and mere disagreement by the court with a jury's verdict, without more, does not entitle a party to relief under Rule 59. Meiselman v. Byrom, 207 F. Supp. 2d 40, 42 (E.D.N.Y. 2002) (citing, inter alia, United States v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 105 (2d Cir. 1998)). A court should generally be indisposed to disturb a jury's verdict on a Rule 59 motion unless the verdict is considered to have been "'egregious.'" Id. (quoting, inter alia, DLC Mgmt. Corp., 163 F.3d at 134).

2. Defendants' Motion

In their motion, defendants set forth four separate grounds for the entry of JMOL or, ...


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