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Newton v. City of New York

May 12, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Shira A. Scheindlin, U.S.D.J.



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.


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. Brown,*fn15 a 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 clause.*fn17

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 ...

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