UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
May 12, 2011
ALAN NEWTON, PLAINTIFF,
THE CITY OF NEW YORK; SERGEANT PATRIC J. MCGUIRE, POLICE OFFICER STACY HSKINS, GERALDINE KIELY, AND CHIEF JACK J. TRABITZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES AS EMPLOYEES OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shira A. Scheindlin, U.S.D.J.
OPINION AND ORDER
The story of Alan Newton's wrongful incarceration for rape and assault is a familiar and troubling one for this Court. Newton was convicted in 1985, primarily on the basis of eyewitness testimony. No DNA evidence was offered at trial, as such testing was not available or trustworthy at that time. In August, 1994, New York passed a new law - subdivision 1-a to section 440.30 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law ("Section 440.30(1-a)"), which provides, in substance, that a post-conviction defendant may obtain DNA testing on specified evidence if the court determines that had such testing been done, and had the results been received at trial, there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant. Eight years later, in 2004, New York passed a new subdivision to the same statute -- subsection 440.30(1-a)(b) -- which provides, in substance, that upon a post-conviction defendant's request for DNA testing on specified evidence, the court may direct that the defendant be provided with information concerning the current or last known location of the evidence that defendant seeks to be tested. But if the evidence no longer exists or its whereabouts are unknown, no adverse inference may be drawn against the prosecution.
Between 1994 and 2002, pursuant to section 440.30(1-a), Newton thrice sought and was granted permission by a New York court to conduct DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. In each instance, the City of New York (the "City") was unable to locate the rape kit containing the biological evidence critical to his freedom. When the rape kit was finally found in 2005, DNA tests excluded Newton as the source of the sperm collected from the victim. Newton's conviction was vacated by the New York Supreme Court and he was released from prison in 2006.
Newton brought an action against the City and several individual City employees, alleging a federal civil rights claim and pendent state law claims for the City's failure to produce the rape kit when requested. The case proceeded to trial on the following claims: (1) a Monell claim under section 1983, asserting violations of Newton's Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and First Amendment right of access to the courts; (2) a general negligence claim based on the City's alleged breach of its voluntarily assumed duty to provide Newton with the rape kit; and (3) an intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") claim against four City employees for their alleged roles in the search for the rape kit.
Pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, at the close of the liability phase of trial, the City moved for judgment as a matter of law on all of Newton's claims.*fn2 Plaintiff cross-moved for a judgment of liability on the negligence claim. I denied the cross-motions, with the exception of granting defendants' motion to dismiss the negligence claim.*fn3
Newton's section 1983 and IIED claims were submitted to the jury, which found that the City had denied Newton his constitutional rights to due process and access to the courts, and held the City liable for eighteen million dollars in damages. The jury also found that two of the four individual defendants, Sergeant Patrick J. McGuire and Chief Jack Trabitz, were liable to Newton on his IIED claim for ninety-two thousand dollars and five hundred thousand dollars, respectively.*fn4
Defendants now renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law on Newton's section 1983 and IIED claims.*fn5 For the reasons discussed below, defendants' motion to set aside the verdict pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) is granted in its entirety.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A. Judgment As a Matter of Law
Rule 50 permits a court to override a jury's verdict and enter
judgment as a matter of law when "a party has been fully heard on an
issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury
would not have a legally sufficient
evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue."*fn6
A jury verdict cannot be set aside lightly. A court may not
grant judgment as a matter of law unless (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]."*fn7
Moreover, the scope of a post-verdict renewal of a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) cannot exceed the pre-verdict motion made under Rule 50(a).*fn8
The standard for granting judgment as a matter of law "mirrors" the standard for granting summary judgment.*fn9 Accordingly, "[a] court considering a request for judgment as a matter of law must 'consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made and . . . give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence.'"*fn10 "'The court cannot assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury.'"*fn11
A. Section 1983
The jury concluded that the City had violated Newton's procedural
right to due process by failing to provide him with access to "DNA
evidence to which he was entitled."*fn12 This
underlying constitutional violation gives rise to both Newton's Monell
claim and his right of access claim,*fn13 but the City
asserts that "under recent, controlling authority, Newton has no due process
rights that can be vindicated in this . . . lawsuit."*fn14
Specifically, the City argues that Newton's constitutional
claims are "foreclosed as a matter of law" by McKithen v.
Second Circuit decision issued after the close of Newton's
trial.*fn16 Additionally, the City argues that no
rational juror could have concluded that any individual defendant
acted with the requisite state of mind to implicate the due process
Before evaluating the parties' competing contentions, I emphasize that Newton's claim is based on an alleged constitutional violation under section 1983. A constitutional due process claim cannot be based on mere negligence, but rather must arise out of deliberate acts.*fn18 It is not enough for Newton to have shown that the City's post-trial evidence management system is disorganized, or even that the City has lost post-trial evidence upon occasion. Where, as here, there is only a limited liberty interest at stake, a disorganized or even dysfunctional system for realizing that interest does not give rise to a constitutional violation. As disturbing as such negligence may be, in the end, that is what it is: mere negligence.*fn19 To the extent that I have held otherwise in earlier opinions in this case, I am now required to shift my conclusions based upon the controlling authority of McKithen. As the Second Circuit based its reasoning on the Supreme Court's decision in District Attorney's Office for the Third Judicial District v. Osborne,*fn20 I begin with a discussion of that case.
1. Section 440.30
In Osborne, the Supreme Court held that a post-conviction defendant
has no constitutional substantive due process right, and only a
limited procedural due process right, to obtain DNA evidence for
testing in order to support his claim of actual innocence.*fn21
As the Court construed his argument, Osborne claimed that he
had "an entitlement (what our precedents call a 'liberty interest') to
prove his innocence, even after a fair trial has proved
otherwise."*fn22 The Court began by rejecting
Osborne's claimed entitlement to meaningful access to state clemency
proceedings, based on its earlier holding that "non-capital defendants
do not have a liberty interest in traditional state executive
clemency, to which no particular claimant is entitled as a matter of
However, the Court recognized that a prisoner may retain a "liberty interest in demonstrating his innocence with new evidence under state law."*fn24 The Court held that this due process right is not parallel to a trial right, "but rather must be analyzed in light of the fact that he has already been found guilty at a fair trial, and has only a limited interest in post[-]conviction relief."*fn25 As such, the post-conviction defendant's procedural due process right is a limited one, and "[t]he State accordingly has more flexibility in deciding what procedures are needed in the context of post[-]conviction relief."*fn26
After further discussion, the Court held that Alaska's post-conviction relief statute -- under which a post-conviction defendant could access DNA evidence for testing only if the evidence was newly available, had been diligently pursued, and would establish the defendant's innocence under the clear and convincing standard -- provided a defendant with sufficient due process.*fn27
Applying the deferential Medina standard,*fn28 the Court found that Alaska's procedures were not "fundamentally inadequate" to vindicate a post-conviction defendant's limited liberty interest in post-conviction relief generally, or in access to DNA evidence in particular.*fn29 Thus, in denying Osborne access to DNA evidence for testing under the Alaska statute, the Alaska Court of Appeals did not unconstitutionally deprive Osborne of any liberty interest.
Following the decision in Osborne, the Second Circuit addressed a very similar petition under the relevant New York statute in McKithen v. Brown.*fn30
Finding that Osborne required the reversal of the district court's decision in McKithen, the court stated that prisoners who "seek evidence for their state court post-conviction actions" are only entitled to those due process rights recognized by the state legislature.*fn31
As noted earlier, New York's post-conviction procedures for DNA testing were established in 1994 by section 440.30(1-a), which provides:
Where the defendant's motion requests the performance of a forensic DNA test on specified evidence, and upon the court's determination that any evidence containing deoxyribonucleic acid ("DNA") was secured in connection with the trial resulting in the judgment, the court shall grant the application for forensic DNA testing of such evidence upon its determination that if a DNA test had been conducted on such evidence, and if the results had been admitted in the trial resulting in the judgment, there exists a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant.*fn32
Section 440.30(1-a) was amended in 2004 to require the disclosure of information regarding the physical location or disposition of DNA evidence, if it is known. Subsection 440.30(1-a)(b) provides that "[t]he court may direct the people to provide the defendant with information . . . concerning the current . . .[or] last known physical location of [the] specified evidence." However, no adverse inference may be drawn against the people if "the specified evidence no longer exists or [its] physical location . . . is unknown. . . ."*fn33
Newton asserts that the City's failure to provide him with access to evidence for DNA testing "def[ied] the policy judgment reflected in the state legislation - and effectively nullif[ied] the liberty interest it affirms."*fn34 Newton's
argument must now be rejected. In McKithen, the Second Circuit expressly held that New York's post-conviction DNA statute is not "fundamentally inadequate to vindicate [a prisoner's] residual liberty interest in demonstrating his innocence through a state post-conviction proceeding."*fn35 Applyingthedeferential Medina standard of review as dictated by Osborne, the McKithen court held that subsection 440.30(1-a)(a) satisfies due process, even if read in a way that allows courts the discretion to reject a prisoner's requests for DNA testing.*fn36 In approving of the state court's exercise of discretion not to order production of DNA evidence, McKithen further underscored that the liberty interest the statute confers on a post-conviction defendant is a limited one, contrary to Newton's contention.
The McKithen court declined to reach the issue of whether the statute was constitutional "as-applied" in McKithen's case, after determining that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to do so, under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.*fn37 The McKithen court also did not reach the issue of whether subsection b of the statute is constitutionally adequate. Because the New York courts denied McKithen the right to access DNA evidence, the City's obligation to inform him of the current or last known location of that evidence was not implicated.
In contrast, the New York courts repeatedly granted Newton the right
to test the DNA evidence, but the City was unable to produce the
evidence that Newton requested. As a result, and notwithstanding Newton's contention
that subsection 440.30(1-a)(b) "has nothing to do with"*fn38
his claim, the legislative intent evident in subsection b is
highly relevant to the question of whether the City committed a
constitutional violation by failing to maintain the evidence from
Newton's case in a manner that would have resulted in the production
of that evidence upon Newton's demand. There is no need to decide here
whether subsection b is constitutional, as it was not in effect when
Newton requested the evidence, nor is he challenging its
constitutionality. Nonetheless, its enactment in 2004 helps to clarify
the legislative intent behind the statute and thus the extent of the
liberty interest that the legislature meant to confer.
In McKithen, the Second Circuit held that 440.30(1-a)(a), granting post-conviction defendants a right to test DNA evidence under certain circumstances, is facially constitutional. Subsection b grants post-conviction defendants an additional procedural right and imposes an additional burden on the City -- to inform the defendant of the current or last location of DNA evidence, if it is known. Prior to the enactment of subsection b, there was no authority for the proposition that the City had an obligation even to inform a defendant of the location of the evidence, much less an absolute obligation to provide the evidence.
By enacting subsection b, the New York State legislature clarified that it intended to give post-conviction defendants the right to access DNA evidence, but that the right was a limited one. Notably the statute does not mandate that the City must provide the DNA evidence and if the evidence is missing, the defendant goes free and is automatically entitled to financial compensation. On the contrary, the statute is clear that, upon court order, the City must inform the defendant of the location of the evidence, if it is known, and that no adverse inference can be drawn against the City if it is not known.*fn39
The thrust of Newton's argument is that because the New York legislature created a statutory right to access DNA under certain conditions, and because New York courts found that Newton satisfied those conditions, the City violated his due process right by failing to put in place appropriate procedures to safeguard his access to the DNA evidence.*fn40 As Newton takes pains to remind me, at an earlier point in this case, I was persuaded by that argument. However, I have been forced to reconsider, in light of the Second Circuit's decision in McKithen.
That decision makes clear that the New York statute confers only a limited procedural due process right to access DNA evidence, not a substantive due process right. The fact that it is a limited right signifies that a failure to provide the DNA, as a result of negligence but not of any intentional act, does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.*fn41
Under these circumstances, the jury verdict on Newton's constitutional claim cannot be upheld. Newton argues that due process "requir[es] that DNA evidence that is, in fact, within government custody be produced (and be kept in a manner so that it is capable of being produced) in order that those wrongly convicted may have the factual grounds for establishing their innocence."*fn42 However, the New York statute does not require that DNA evidence actually be produced, only that reasonable efforts be made to locate it and to inform the defendant of its location. To hold that Newton has a right to receive the DNA evidence under the New York statute would be contrary to the plain meaning of the statute and would directly contradict both Osborne and McKithen. Furthermore, adopting Newton's argument would confer a substantive due process right, which the Supreme Court in Osborne expressly held does not exist.*fn43 Under Osborne, and even more clearly under McKithen, Newton has a right to the process under the New York statute, but not to any particular outcome.
In an earlier opinion in this case, I found that, unlike in Osborne,
where Alaska procedures were facially adequate and the defendant had
failed to test them as applied, Newton had tested New York procedures
and showed that they were inadequate.*fn44 I held that
if New York's inadequate evidence retention system prevented a
defendant from accessing DNA evidence to which a court determined he
was entitled, his due process rights had been violated.*fn45
McKithen holds that New York's proceduresfor post-conviction access to DNA evidence are constitutionally adequate, even if the end result is denial of access to such evidence.
Because the New York state courts repeatedly granted Newton's request for DNA testing of evidence, he received the process that he was due under 440.30(1-a)(a). He was due no further process under the statute as it then existed. At most, once subsection b came into effect, Newton would also have had an entitlement to information about the current or last location of the evidence, if known. For many years, the location of the evidence was not known, and Newton was so informed. Thus, Newton also received the process that he was due under subsection b of the statute, or would have been due, had that subsection been in effect when he requested the evidence. Because the City could not locate the evidence until 2005, at no time during that period was Newton entitled to anything more than information about the last known location of the evidence.
The tragic fact that the evidence was not actually located and produced for testing until 2005 does not constitute a violation of Newton's procedural due process rights, since the McKithen court has expressly rejected the notion that a prisoner is "constitutionally entitled to receive evidence for the purpose of post-conviction DNA testing."*fn46 That this delay in producing the DNA evidence resulted from the City's poor or non-existent evidence management system is indicative of negligence, but does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. Therefore, following McKithen, I now conclude that Newton's constitutional rights were not violated by the City's failure to locate or produce the DNA evidence that Newton sought under section 440.30(1-a).
2. Implied Liberty Interest
The City also persuasively argues that Newton cannot demonstrate a liberty interest based on an implicit promise or reasonable expectation that he would be able to access the rape kit for testing. Absent statutory language mandating that post-conviction defendants be provided with evidence for DNA testing, no prisoner can have a settled expectation in any particular outcome. As the Second Circuit has explained,
[T]o claim a protected property interest in a particular administrative benefit or measure, an individual must have 'a legitimate claim of entitlement' in receiving the benefit or measure, not merely 'a unilateral expectation' in a desired administrative outcome. Where the administrative scheme does not require a certain outcome, but merely authorizes particular actions and remedies, the scheme does not create 'entitlements' that receive constitutional protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn47
The New York statute merely requires that the post-conviction defendant be informed of the location of DNA evidence if it is known. Subsection 440.30(1-a)(b) anticipates and allows for variable outcomes when post-conviction defendants request access to DNA testing. For example, sometimes the City will know where the evidence is, and be ordered to produce it. If the City is not sure where the evidence is, it must provide any available information as to its whereabouts. If the evidence has been destroyed, that information too must be shared. Because access to evidence is contingent on the City's ability to locate the evidence, the City's failure to provide the rape kit for testing cannot support an implied due process claim based on the deprivation of a liberty interest, after the Second Circuit's holding in McKithen.
3. The State of Mind Requirement
Even assuming, arguendo, that Newton had an entitlement to the rape kit, his due process claim fails as a matter of law because he did not adduce sufficient evidence to permit the jury to conclude that any City official acted with a culpable state of mind - i.e., something more than mere negligence.*fn48 Because the due process clause is concerned with preventing abusive government conduct, the Supreme Court has explained that its protections are triggered only by "deliberate decisions of government officials to deprive a person of life, liberty or property."*fn49 Accordingly, Newton could not prevail on his due process claim at trial unless he presented adequate evidence to suggest that municipal officials acted with some degree of culpable intent, rather than mere carelessness, in failing to procure the rape kit for testing.
At trial, Newton demonstrated that the City's property clerk division relied on two paper documents to track the movement and disposition of evidence in its possession. As Newton's counsel explained to the jury, "these documents are essential" and necessarily work in tandem - if even one is lost, the evidence will "never" be found within the City's vast network of storage facilities.*fn50 Routine
administrative errors can thus have devastating and irreversible
consequences in terms of the ability to retrieve evidence.*fn51
Notwithstanding grave deficiencies in the City's evidence
management system, however, Newton's due process claim cannot be
sustained absent proof that a City official acted with the requisite
constitutional culpability in withholding evidence.*fn52
In Newton's case, the rape kit could not be located due to "(i) the misfiling of the rape kit invoice in the Bronx 'out to court' files, together with the loss of the 'out of custody' card, and (ii) the failure to keep a copy of the invoice in the Pearson Place warehouse books."*fn53 These errors were committed in 1988 and 1989, before DNA evidence was used in criminal cases and post-conviction defendants had any statutory rights to access evidence for testing. None of the individual employees responsible for handling the paperwork could have reasonably anticipated that their actions might one day implicate Newton's constitutional rights. As such, Newton did not establish that any City actor withheld evidence in deliberate contravention or disregard of his right to due process.*fn54
To the contrary, the trial evidence indicated that City officials often went to great lengths to locate and produce the rape kit for testing. For example, plaintiff's closing argument at trial reminded jurors about the testimony and story of Assistant District Attorney John Carroll, who was so frustrated by an inability to get an answer from the Bronx property clerk's office that they invited him to go back behind the cage and look for it himself . . . And John Carroll, very decent guy, undertook that task . . . [of] looking in the property clerk's office, the size of a football field, looking in books when he didn't know what he was looking for[.]*fn55
Indeed, despite the impracticability of locating the rape kit without the paper record, City officials did not give up their search. As one of Newton's witnesses told the jurors, Assistant District Attorneys "will do what they can" to secure evidence for testing.*fn56
Accordingly, as sympathetic as I am to Newton's claims, no reasonable juror could find that any municipal actor deprived Newton of a federal right based on the evidence proffered at trial. Newton must seek relief for any extant claims in the state courts.*fn57
B. IIED Claims
The City argues that Newton's IIED claims against Chief Trabitz and
former Sergeant McGuire for $500,000 and $92,000, respectively, cannot
be upheld because Newton did not meet the exacting standard for such
claims under state law - i.e., that the "conduct [is] so outrageous in
character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible
bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly
intolerable in a civilized society."*fn58 In response,
Newton argues that "the defendants are merely contesting a reasonable
factual determination reached by a jury" and attempting to upset
"credibility . . . determinations that may not be challenged
now."*fn59 Newton contends that "[a]fter hearing the
evidence and weighing all the facts, the jury found that Trabitz and
McGuire, in fact, acted differently than they had testified and their
reckless behavior made their actions extreme and outrageous."*fn60
The issue, for purposes of this motion, is thus whether
Newton presented a "legally sufficient evidentiary basis" to support a
finding in his favor on the IIED claims.*fn61
After reviewing the evidence presented at trial, I do not believe that a reasonable juror could conclude that either Chief Trabitz or Sergeant McGuire acted atrociously or intolerably in the search for the rape kit. IIED "is a very narrow tort with requirements that 'are rigorous, and difficult to satisfy.'"*fn62 As the Second Circuit has noted, "'[c]courts are reluctant to allow recovery under the banner of intentional infliction of emotional distress absent a deliberate and malicious campaign of harassment or intimidation.'"*fn63 Here, neither Sergeant McGuire nor Chief Trabitz exhibited any malice towards Newton; to the contrary, Newton asserts that "their reckless behavior made their actions extreme and outrageous."*fn64
Moreover, the testimony presented at trial indicated that both Sergeant McGuire and Chief Trabitz attempted to help Newton locate the rape kit.
For example, Sergeant McGuire tasked his personnel at the property clerk division, police officer Stacey Haskins and civilian employee Geraldine Kiely, to assist with the search for the rape kit.*fn65 When their efforts proved futile, he personally "took over [the] investigation and . . . did the exact same things that they did, just double checking, and . . . [incorporating] additional steps that they didn't take" by virtue of his additional supervisory authority.*fn66 Sergeant McGuire's efforts to locate the rape kit were reasonable under the circumstances. That he, like so many others, could not actually produce the rape kit does not transform his conduct into the realm of the indecent or intolerable.*fn67 Moreover, Chief Trabitz's contribution to the search efforts was noted by two of Newton's most important witnesses - the Assistant District Attorney and defense attorney who worked together to overturn his conviction and free him from prison.*fn68 Indeed, the rape kit was ultimately located during an additional evidentiary search that Chief Trabitz "facilitate[d]" and which was undertaken at his direction.*fn69 In light of the evidence presented at trial, there exists no reasonable basis upon which a juror could determine that either Chief Trabitz or Sergeant McGuire acted contrary to all possible bounds of social decency.
For the foregoing reasons, the City's motion to set aside the verdict is granted in its entirety. The Clerk of the Cour is directed to close this motion [Docket No. 207] and this case.