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Caceres v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

June 19, 2009

JOSEPH CACERES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PORT AUTHORITY OF NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John G. Koeltl, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

This is a case of an arrest based on mistaken identity.

On August 4, 2004, the plaintiff, Joseph Caceres, reported to the Port Authority Police Building at the George Washington Bridge (the "Station") in order to retrieve his car, which had been towed earlier that day because it was parked illegally. At the Station, located on the New Jersey side of the Bridge, the plaintiff was mistaken by police officers employed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the "Port Authority") for the subject of an outstanding felony narcotics warrant issuing out of Bronx County, New York. The plaintiff was arrested as a fugitive from justice. The officers made the arrest after being informed by the Port Authority Central Police Desk (the "CPD") of a match in the database of criminal history records maintained by the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services (the "DCJS") between the plaintiff's name and date of birth and the warrant, which was for an unidentified subject, "John Doe." The plaintiff was arrested despite protesting that he was not the subject of the warrant and despite several inconsistencies between the plaintiff's physical characteristics and those of the subject described in the warrant, including a discrepancy between the plaintiff's race and the race of the subject described in the warrant.

After the plaintiff was arrested and placed in a holding cell at the Station, the officers involved in the arrest continued to investigate whether the plaintiff was in fact the subject of the warrant. The plaintiff remained in custody, first at the station and, following a judicial proceeding, at the Bergen County Correctional Facility, until August 6, 2004. On that date, due to information obtained by certain of the officers after being prodded into further investigation by the plaintiff's father, it became clear that the plaintiff was not the subject of the warrant on which he was being held, and the plaintiff was released from custody.

The plaintiff subsequently brought suit against the Port Authority and three police officers employed by the Port Authority who participated in his arrest and the related investigation: Lieutenant Roenzo Sangiorgi, Sergeant Michael Barry, and Officer Michael Lydon (the "investigating officers").*fn1

The plaintiff alleged claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New Jersey State law against the Port Authority and the investigating officers, including false arrest claims under federal and state law against the investigating officers, a failure to intervene claim under federal law against the investigating officers, a failure to train claim under federal law against the Port Authority, and false arrest, illegal strip search, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims under state law against the Port Authority based on a theory of vicarious liability.*fn2 After a trial lasting approximately two weeks, the jury returned a special verdict form finding Lieutenant Sangiorgi liable for false arrest under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New Jersey state law, and the Port Authority vicariously liable for false arrest under New Jersey state law. The jury awarded the plaintiff $10,000 in compensatory damages. The jury found that Lieutenant Sangiorgii was not liable for punitive damages. The jury did not find the other investigating officers liable on any claim, and did not find Lieutenant Sangiorgi or the Port Authority liable on any claim other than false arrest. Following the return of the special verdict form, the Court distributed to the jury a series of special interrogatories to assist the Court in its determination as a matter of law whether Lieutenant Sangiorgi was entitled to qualified immunity on the false arrest claims.

At the close of the trial, after the jury had returned its verdict and answered the special interrogatories, Lieutenant Sangiorgi and the Port Authority (the "defendants") jointly moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) to set aside the jury verdict against them.*fn3 Lieutenant Sangiorgi also moved separately for judgment as a matter of law on the basis of qualified immunity. The Court reserved decision on the motions and the parties proceeded to brief them. The defendants now renew their respective motions and also move in the alternative for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59.*fn4

For the reasons explained below, the defendants' joint motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 or a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 is denied. However, Lieutenant Sangiorgi's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the basis of qualified immunity is granted.

I.

It is well-established that a district court should deny a Rule 50 motion unless "viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, 'the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [persons] could have reached.'" Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of the Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154-55 (2d Cir. 1994) (quoting Simblest v. Maynard, 427 F.2d 1, 4 (2d Cir. 1970)) (alteration in original); see also SEC v. Zwick, No. 03 Civ. 2742, 2007 WL 831812, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 12, 2007); Fowler v. N.Y. Transit Auth., No. 96 Civ. 6796, 2001 WL 83228, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 31, 2001); Dailey v. Société Générale, 915 F. Supp. 1315, 1321 (S.D.N.Y. 1996), aff'd in relevant part, 108 F.3d 451, 457-58 (2d Cir. 1997).

A trial court considering a motion under Rule 50(b) "must view the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movant and grant that party every reasonable inference that the jury might have drawn in its favor." Samuels v. Air Transp. Local 504, 992 F.2d 12, 16 (2d Cir. 1993). A jury verdict should be set aside only when "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 [where 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 [the movant]." Logan v. Bennington Coll. Corp., 72 F.3d 1017, 1022 (2d Cir. 1996) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Zwick, 2007 WL 831812, at *2.

In the alternative, the defendants move for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). In determining whether a new trial is appropriate under Rule 59(a), a court applies a less stringent standard than on a motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Manley v. Ambase Corp., 337 F.3d 237, 244-45 (2d Cir. 2003); Katara v. D.E. Jones Commodities, Inc., 835 F.2d 966, 970 (2d Cir. 1987). "[F]or a district court to order a new trial under Rule 59(a), it must conclude that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or... the verdict is a miscarriage of justice, i.e., it must view the jury's verdict as against the weight of the evidence." Manley, 337 F.3d at 245 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

II.

There was sufficient evidence introduced at trial from which the jury could reasonably have found as follows.

On August 4, 2004, the plaintiff, who worked as a seasonal bridge painter at the George Washington Bridge (the "Bridge"), arrived late to work and parked his car illegally. (Tr. 69-70, 77-78.) The Port Authority towed the plaintiff's car to the Station on the New Jersey side of the Bridge. (Tr. 80.) At approximately 4:30 p.m., the plaintiff reported to the station to retrieve his car. (Tr. 81, 249.) He presented his driver's license and employee photo identification card to Officer Lydon. (Tr. 83.) The card reflected that the plaintiff was a Port Authority contract employee. (Tr. 83, 250.) The plaintiff explained to Officer Lydon that he worked as a painter at the Bridge and that his car had been towed. (Tr. 83.) The plaintiff was cooperative and polite and did not seem nervous. (Tr. 249-50.) Officer Lydon told the plaintiff that the plaintiff's car would be retrieved "right away." (Tr. 83.)

In the course of arranging for the release of the plaintiff's car, Officer Lydon communicated the plaintiff's name and date of birth over the phone to CPD, the communications hub and headquarters of the Port Authority Police Department (Tr. 240-41), in order to determine whether the plaintiff's driver's license was valid. (Tr. 251-52, 314.) CPD informed Officer Lydon over the phone that the plaintiff's license was valid but there was an outstanding warrant for the plaintiff's arrest. (Tr. 261.) Officer Lydon immediately informed Lieutenant Sangiorgi, who was functioning as Officer Lydon's direct supervisor at the time (Tr. 600), that the plaintiff was possibly the subject of an outstanding warrant. (Tr. 262.) Lieutenant Sangiorgi assigned Sergeant Barry to assist Officer Lydon in arresting the plaintiff because Officer Lydon was inexperienced in processing arrests on the New Jersey side of the Bridge. (Tr. 644, 890.)

Approximately two hours elapsed between the plaintiff's initial exchange with Officer Lydon upon entering the Station and the detention of the plaintiff in a holding cell at the Station. (Tr. 83, 270.) The plaintiff waited patiently for those two hours for the retrieval of his car. (Tr. 83.) During that time, CPD faxed to Officer Lydon a document confirming the information that CPD had conveyed over the phone regarding the "warrant hit." (Tr. 272, 359-60.) The document was a printout of the warrant (the "warrant printout") that resulted or "popped" from a computer search by CPD, using the plaintiff's name and date of birth, of a database of criminal history records maintained by DCJS. (Tr. 272; Pl.'s Ex. 1.)*fn5 The warrant printout reflected a bench warrant for "John Doe" for a felony narcotics offense (Pl.'s Ex. 1), meaning that the identity of the subject of the warrant was uncertain and the subject of the warrant had not appeared for a scheduled court appearance in connection with that offense. (Tr. 472.) The warrant printout indicated that the bench warrant popped during the computer search because of a match in the criminal history records maintained by the DCJS between the plaintiff's name and date of birth and the bench warrant. (Pl.'s Ex. 1.)*fn6

The warrant printout indicated that the subject of the John Doe bench warrant was a black male, height five feet eight inches, weight 160 pounds, with black hair and dark skin. The warrant printout gave John Doe's date of birth as September 25, 1981. (Pl.'s Ex. 1.) Officer Lydon understood from the warrant printout and the information conveyed verbally by CPD that the bench warrant was issued out of the Bronx for a felony narcotics offense. (Pl.'s Ex. 1; Tr. 286-87.) The warrant printout contained a docket number for the Bronx arrest that resulted in the issuance of the bench warrant. (Pl.'s Ex. 1.) The warrant printout also contained a New York State Identification number (a "NYSID" number) for John Doe. (Pl.'s Ex. 1.) The warrant printout instructed the recipient to "contact the originating agency to determine if the individual named [in the warrant printout] is the same as the individual about whom you inquired." (Pl.'s Ex. 1.) The originating agency was the New York City Police Department (the "NYPD"). (Tr. 273; Pl.'s Ex. 1.) The warrant printout stated that "the wanting agency has indicated it will extradite throughout New York State and outside the state." (Pl.'s Ex. 1.)

The plaintiff did not match the description of John Doe provided in the warrant printout in several respects. The plaintiff is a light-skinned Hispanic, not black. (Tr. 68.) He has never held himself out to be black and none of the investigating officers concluded from his physical appearance that he was black. (Tr. 68-69, 274, 645-46.) The investigating officers also did not regard him as having dark skin. (Tr. 646.) The plaintiff was born on September 11, 1976 -- a fact reflected on his driver's license which he had already given to Officer Lydon - not September 25, 1981. (Tr. 68.) The plaintiff's height is five feet six inches, not five feet eight inches. (Pl.'s Ex. 3.)

Lieutenant Sangiorgi and Officer Lydon spoke to the plaintiff before he was placed in a holding cell at the Station. (Tr. 269, 672.) In the course of those conversations, the plaintiff told Lieutenant Sangiorgi that he was not the subject of the John Doe bench warrant and that he had never been arrested in the Bronx. (Tr. 672.) The plaintiff also told Officer Lydon that he was not the subject of the bench warrant (Tr. 269), that he had never been arrested in the Bronx (Tr. 286-87), and that he had been confused with the subject of the same bench warrant before and the warrant was actually for a black male. (Tr. 1478-79.) The plaintiff did not tell the investigating officers that the warrant was for someone named Lacey Johnson. (Tr. 1478-79.) The investigating officers did not contact the NYPD to confirm that the plaintiff was the subject of the warrant.

The plaintiff was placed in a holding cell in the "arrest processing area" of the Station at 6:25 p.m. on August 4, 2006, after nearly two hours of waiting voluntarily and politely at the Station for the retrieval of his car. (Tr. 269-70.) In the holding cell the plaintiff was behind bars and he was not free to leave. (Tr. 203-04.) The decision to place the plaintiff in the holding cell was made by Lieutenant Sangiorgi. (Tr. 644-45.)

The plaintiff was not in fact the subject of the John Doe bench warrant. The reason the warrant popped during the computer search by CPD using the plaintiff's name and date of birth was that DCJS mistakenly assigned the plaintiff the same NYSID number as Lacey Johnson, an entirely separate individual who was the real subject of the bench warrant. A NYSID number is a unique number that is assigned to an individual when he is fingerprinted and his fingerprints are sent to DCJS, which is the state repository for fingerprints in New York State. Each NYSID number, like each person's fingerprints, is intended to be unique to that person. In this case, due to a clerical error, two separate individuals -- the plaintiff and Lacey Johnson -- were assigned the same NYSID number. (Tr. 877-85.) New York State maintains a computerized database organized by NYSID number to track criminal suspects and arrestees. (Tr. 487.) An error in the NYSID database would also be reflected in the databases of criminal records maintained by DCJS and NCIC. (Tr. 488-89.) No witness at trial had any personal knowledge of any instance in which two separate individuals had ever before been assigned the same NYSID number.

As of August 4, 2004, the plaintiff had been confused with the subject of the same bench warrant and detained pursuant to that warrant by NYPD police officers on three prior occasions. (Tr. 157-72.) On each prior occasion, the plaintiff protested that he was not the subject of the bench warrant, that he was not Lacey Johnson, and that he had never been to the Bronx, but the NYPD officers did not release him on the strength of those protests and held him for a number of days. (Tr. 171-72.)

Shortly after the plaintiff was placed behind bars in a holding cell in the designated arrest area at the Station at 6:25 p.m., the investigating officers undertook various measures to confirm that the plaintiff was the subject of the John Doe bench warrant.*fn7 (Tr. 908-12.) First, the investigating officers compared the warrant printout to a rap sheet for "Joseph Caceres" that was faxed to the station by CPD at 6:35 p.m. (Pl.'s Ex. 3.) The rap sheet was for "Joseph Caceres" and identified Joseph Caceres' NYSID number as 8419918K, which was the same NYSID number that was on the bench warrant reflected in the warrant printout. (Pl.'s Exs. 1, 3.) The rap sheet indicated that Joseph Caceres used the alias "Lacey Johnson." (Pl.'s Ex. 3.) The criminal history provided by the rap sheet included an arrest in the Bronx on a felony narcotics charge. (Pl.'s Ex. 3.) The docket number listed on the rap sheet for that Bronx arrest was 98X028370, the same docket number that was on the bench warrant reflected in the warrant printout. (Pl.'s Exs. 1, 3.) The rap sheet indicated that a bench warrant had been issued in connection with that arrest on June 16, 1998 and again on April 10, 2000, returned on April 10, 2000, and reissued on ...


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