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Sharon Rivers v. City of Rochester

April 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge



This Section 1983 case arose out of the forcible mental hygiene arrest of plaintiff by Rochester Police Department ("City") officers responding to multiple 9-1-1 calls for assistance by plaintiff at her residence, in the early morning hours of January 29, 2005. Plaintiff's claims against the City included false arrest, false imprisonment, and excessive force.

On January 31, 2012, after an eight-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict of "no cause" on all of plaintiff's claims. (Dkt. #104). Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 59(a), on the grounds that: (1) the jury's "no cause" verdict was against the weight of the evidence; (2) the City mischaracterized the evidence in its summation; (3) the Court failed to properly charge the jury with regard to plaintiff's battery claim; and (4) the government improperly used one of its peremptory challenges to strike African-American and Hispanic potential jurors. (Dkt. #112). For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion is denied.


I. Weight of the Evidence

Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 59(a) provides 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. Proc. 59(a). A trial court may grant such a motion to prevent a "miscarriage of justice" and grant a new trial if, in the court's opinion, the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Mallis v. Bankers Trust Co., 717 F.2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983).In deciding whether a new trial should be granted, the court may weigh the evidence and assess "the verdict in the overall setting of trial."Benevino v. Saydjari, 574 F.2d 676, 684 (2d Cir. 1978). Nonetheless, "it is still improper for the Court to grant a new trial when 'resolution of the issues depend[s] on assessment of the credibility of the witnesses,'" Benson v. Yaeger, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122966 at *10 (W.D.N.Y. 2010), quoting United States v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 105 (2d Cir. 1998), and therefore a jury's credibility findings should be only "rarely disturb[ed]." DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 134 (2d Cir. 1998). See also Sorlucco v. New York City Police Dep't, 971 F.2d 864 (2d Cir. 1992).

Plaintiff argues that the jury's verdict in favor of the City was against the weight of the evidence, because the plaintiff submitted evidence of serious physical injuries to her wrists, and the City produced no "expert evidence" that the injuries were self-inflicted, rather than the cause of some improper conduct by the arresting officers. (Dkt. #112-2 at 2).

In so arguing, plaintiff appears to misapprehend her burden of proof in this case. The City was not required to "rebut" plaintiff's claims by proving that some other party, or some alternate instrument, caused plaintiff's alleged injuries. At all times, the ultimate burden of proof was upon plaintiff, to demonstrate that City police officers subjected her to unlawful force and/or battery, and that she was injured thereby. At trial, plaintiff contended that the handcuffs which were placed on her at the time of her arrest were overly constricting, and/or were not double-locked, which caused them to tighten and injure her wrists as she was jostled thereafter. In contrast, the arresting officers testified that the handcuffs were placed on plaintiff in accordance with all applicable departmental policies, including double-locking and leaving a small, finger-width space between the individual's wrists and the inside of the handcuffs, and that they were not overly constricting. Evidence was also presented that plaintiff was combative and struggled against the handcuffs and other restraints, to the point that medical professionals later deemed it necessary to sedate plaintiff.

As such, there was ample evidence by which the jury could have concluded that the plaintiff's injuries were caused by her struggling against the handcuffs, and not by any improper or negligent handcuffing by the arresting officers. The jury was free to accept or reject the testimony of plaintiff, the arresting officers, and other witnesses as it saw fit, and to draw reasonable inferences therefrom. See Benson, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122966 at *10. Furthermore, contrary to plaintiff's suggestion, the fact that someone might injure her own wrists by struggling against secured metal handcuffs is manifestly a subject within the practical knowledge of jurors, and no expert testimony was necessary to support a jury inference or finding to that effect. See generally Bell v. Ercole, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122314 at *52 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) ("[b]ecause the subject matter is not beyond the ken of a typical juror, a jury of average intelligence could form a proper conclusion without the aid of an expert"), aff'd, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 5957 (2d Cir. 2012).

In light of these factors, the Court cannot conclude that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence, or that it constituted a miscarriage of justice.

II. City Counsel's Summation

Plaintiff also alleges that the City's counsel improperly referred to plaintiff's post-arrest conduct in arguing that her mental hygiene arrest was justified. Specifically, plaintiff suggests that by referring to evidence concerning plaintiff's erratic behavior after her mental hygiene arrest, counsel for the City may have confused the jury, which had previously been instructed that in order for plaintiff's arrest to be lawful, the arresting officers had to have probable cause to arresther, based on their knowledge of her conduct at the time of the arrest.

Upon plaintiff's objection,the Court ruled that counsel for the City's reference to evidence of plaintiff's post-arrest conduct was fair argument. The evidence served to refute plaintiff's contrary account of her demeanor during the time period in question, and supported counsel's suggestion that plaintiff's demeanor after her arrest did not arise spontaneously, but was reflective of a consistent pattern of bizarre and/or combative behavior by plaintiff during the morning in question. Counsel's argument was consistent with the testimony of witnesses who observed plaintiff at or after the time of her arrest, and at no time did counsel make any suggestion to the jury that any of plaintiff's post-arrest conduct could or did furnish probable cause for the prior arrest. As plaintiff concedes, the Court clearly and repeatedly "instructed the jury . . . that probable cause had to exist for the mental hygiene arrest at the time of the arrest," and there is simply no evidence that the jury failed to understand and/or to ...

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