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Hartline v. Gallo

August 4, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hurley, Senior District Judge


Plaintiff Stacey Hartline ("Plaintiff") filed suit against Defendants Anthony Gallo ("Gallo"), Darren Gagnon ("Gagnon"), Marla Donovan ("Donovan"), Jim Sherry ("Sherry") and the Incorporated Village of Southampton ("Southampton") asserting various claims stemming from an alleged unlawful strip search by Southampton Village Police on January 6, 2003. The case was tried before a jury over a period of nine days. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Defendants. More specifically, the jury found that Plaintiff did not establish that Gallo, Gagnon, Donovan or Sherry violated her federal civil rights by either subjecting her to a strip search without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment or denying her equal protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn1 Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law on her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims*fn2 or, in the alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. For the reasons set forth below, the motion for judgment as a matter of law is denied. With respect to the motion for a new trial, the Court orders additional briefing.


I. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

A. Standard for a Rule 50 Motion

"The standard governing motions for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL") pursuant to Rule 50 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], formerly denominated motions for directed verdict or motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, is well established." GaldieriAmbrosini v. Nat'l Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 289 (2d Cir. 1998). A Rule 50 motion "'may only be granted if there exists 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 the evidence in favor of the movant is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair-minded [persons] could not have arrived at a verdict against [it].'" Kinneary v. City of New York, 601 F.3d 151, 155 (2d Cir. 2010) (brackets in original) (quoting Brady v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 531 F.3d 127, 133 (2d Cir. 2008)). In considering the motion, "[a] court 'must give deference to all credibility determinations and reasonable inferences of the jury,' and may not weigh the credibility of witnesses or otherwise consider the weight of the evidence." Caruolo v. John Crane Inc., 226 F.3d 46, 51 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting Galdieri-Ambrosini, 136 F.3d at 289). See also This is Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir. 1998) (The issue on a Rule 50 motion is whether "'the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [people] could have reached.'" ) (quoting Cruz v. Local Union No. 3, Int'l Bd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154-55 (2d Cir. 1994)).

B. There was Sufficient Evidence for the Jury to Find Reasonable Suspicion

Because it is central to the Plaintiff's argument, the Court begins with a discussion of the Second Circuit's decision in this case. In that decision, the Circuit Court held, inter alia, that this Court had erroneously concluded that Defendants were entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim that the strip search was conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment. When viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as non-movant, the Second Circuit concluded that the evidence on the motion demonstrated a violation because of the absence of individualized suspicion that she was secreting contraband on her person. That evidence was summarized by the Second Circuit as follows:

Hartline, a twenty-one-year-old woman, was driving her pick-up truck on the morning of January 6, 2003 in the Village of Southampton, New York. She was running errands for her employer, Best Modular Homes, including a stop at her employer's bank to pick up funds. She was wearing a coat, t-shirt, jeans, long johns, socks, boots, and underwear. At approximately 9:30 a.m., she was stopped by Officer Anthony Gallo of the Southampton Village Police because her truck was missing a rear license plate. Because the driver's side window on the pick-up truck was broken, Hartline needed to open her door to speak to Gallo. Through the open door, Gallo saw a stem of a marijuana plant on the floor of Hartline's truck. He picked it up and told Hartline that if she showed him all the marijuana in the truck she would not be arrested. Hartline answered that there might be some other unusable bits of marijuana in the truck. Gallo then handcuffed Hartline behind the truck and searched it. Gallo found some unusable bits of marijuana, including a butt of a marijuana cigarette, a container with a few seeds, and a pipe. Gallo never asked Hartline if she was carrying any marijuana (or other contraband) on her person.

Gallo took Hartline to the police station. At the police station, Hartline was greeted by Sergeant Darren Gagnon, who told her she would have to wait until a female officer arrived to strip search her. Marla Donovan, a female officer, was then summoned. Donovan took Hartline's handcuffs off and strip searched her in the cell designated for females. Donovan required Hartline first to remove all of her lower garments and bend over while Donovan made a visual inspection of her orifices, and then to remove her upper garments and lift her bra. Hartline was "crying hysterically" during this process.

According to Hartline's evidence, her strip search was conducted pursuant to the Southampton Police Department's policy of strip searching all arrested females, regardless of whether there was individualized suspicion sufficient to justify the search. This evidence included an official report of the incident submitted by Officer Donovan in which she described the strip search of Hartline as done "in the same manner that the undersigned conduct[s] searches of all defendants that are female," and an affidavit of Hartline's stepfather Stephen Wilson, who was a detective in a neighboring town attesting that when Wilson spoke soon after the incident to Southampton's Chief of Police, Jim Sherry, Sherry acknowledged that all female prisoners are strip searched. In response to Wilson's astonishment, Sherry added, "Steve, you are a cop, you should know.... [Y]ou know the guys do it."

After the strip search, Hartline was booked, photographed, and fingerprinted. At that time, her handbag was searched, revealing $1300 in cash, which she had withdrawn from the bank that morning for her employer. She was then returned to the female cell, where she remained for some time. She then noticed a video camera trained on the area in the cell in which she had been strip searched. The camera appeared to her to be turned on. She was eventually released, and given an appearance ticket for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. As she passed Gallo on her way out, she saw a television monitor near him, showing a cell. She asked him whether the cell shown on the monitor was the one she had been in. He answered that it was.

Ultimately, the misdemeanor marijuana charges against Hartline were dismissed.

Hartline, 546 F.3d at 97-98 (footnotes omitted).

Based on the above evidence, again viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as required in the then summary judgment context, the Court of Appeals concluded:

Officer Gallo had no reason to believe that Hartline was under the influence of narcotics at the time of her arrest. Officer Gallo found no useable narcotics in Hartline's vehicle, nor did he see Hartline take any suspicious actions which might have suggested she was hiding something as he approached her vehicle. Officer Gallo did not notice anything about Hartline's physical appearance that suggested she was secreting drugs on her person, nor did he engage in a less invasive pat down search that suggested the presence of contraband. Hartline answered every question that Officer Gallo asked her about drugs truthfully, yet Gallo did not even ask Hartline if she had any drugs on her person. Furthermore, Hartline had been arrested for nothing more serious than a B-misdemeanor. FN4 See Foote v. Spiegel, 118 F.3d 1416, 1425 (10th ...

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