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Henry v. Dinelle

United States District Court, N.D. New York

March 8, 2013

JONATHAN HENRY, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES F. DINELLE, Corr. Officer; RUSSELL E. DUCKETT, Corr. Officer; and ALFRED J. DELUCA, Corr. Officer, Defendants

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For Plaintiff: EDWARD SIVIN, ESQ., GLENN D. MILLER, ESQ., OF COUNSEL, SIVIN & MILLER, LLP, New York, New York.

For Defendants: TIMOTHY P. MULVEY, ESQ., Assistant Attorney General, OF COUNSEL, HON. ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN, Attorney General for the State of New York, Syracuse, New York.

OPINION

Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge.

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DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court, in this prisoner civil rights action filed by Jonathan Henry (" Plaintiff" ) against the three above-captioned employees of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (" Defendants" ), is Plaintiff's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), or for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). (Dkt. No. 72.) For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion is denied.

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I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

Because the parties have, in their memoranda of law, demonstrated an accurate understanding of this case's relevant procedural history, including the trial that occurred in this case, the Court will not recite that history in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for the review of the parties. Rather, the Court will proceed directly to a description of the parties' briefing on Plaintiff's motion.

A. Plaintiff's Motion

Generally, Plaintiff's current motion seeks two alternative forms of relief. ( See generally Dkt. No. 72.) As a threshold matter, Plaintiff seeks a judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), on the ground that the jury's responses to Questions 1 and 3 of the Court's Special Verdict Form were irreconcilably inconsistent. ( Id.) More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the jury's determination (in response to Question 1) that Defendants Dinelle and Duckett used force against him " maliciously and sadistically for the purposes of causing harm to him, and not in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline" is irreconcilably inconsistent with the jury's subsequent determination (in response to Question 3) that a reasonable corrections officer could have believed that those defendants' actions " did not violate the Plaintiff's federal constitutional or statutory rights." ( Id.)

In the alternative, Plaintiff seeks a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a), based on one or both of two related grounds: (1) the same " irreconcilable inconsistency" described above; and/or (2) the fact that Question 3 of the Special Verdict Form misstated the law on qualified immunity by improperly permitting those Defendants Dinelle and Duckett to escape liability where they knew that their actions violated Plaintiff's rights. ( Id.)

B. Defendants' Response

Generally, in response to Plaintiff's request for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, Defendants Dinelle and Duckett argue that Plaintiff is not entitled to such a judgment for two alternative reasons. ( See generally Dkt. No. 74.) First, argue Defendants Dinelle and Duckett, Plaintiff is barred from requesting a judgment notwithstanding the verdict under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), because he failed to move for a judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) at the close of his proof and at the close of Defendants' proof. ( Id.) Second, argue Defendants Dinelle and Duckett, in any event, judgment notwithstanding the verdict cannot be granted because the evidence, when viewed in favor of Defendants Dinelle and Duckett, is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there is only one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable jurors could have reached regarding qualified immunity. ( Id.)

Generally, in response to Plaintiff's alternative request for a new trial, Defendants Dinelle and Duckett argue that Plaintiff is not entitled to a new trial for two alternative reasons. ( Id.) First, argue Defendants Dinelle and Duckett, for a new trial to be granted, the movant must demonstrate that the jury's verdict was seriously erroneous or a miscarriage of justice, which Plaintiff has not done here because (a) the jury's verdict can be reconciled as a referendum on the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's policy on inmate control and not on Defendants Dinelle's and Duckett's conduct of following that policy, and (b) Question 3 of the Special Verdict Form correctly stated the law on qualified immunity by precluding from consideration Defendants Dinelle's and Duckett's subjective states of mind.

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( Id.) Second, argue Defendants Dinelle and Duckett, in any event, because Plaintiff failed to preserve the issue of an erroneous charge as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 51, any review of the jury charge is limited to review for only fundamental error, which does not exist here, because the jury's verdict was not egregious, did not constitute a miscarriage of justice, and is not irreconcilably inconsistent. ( Id.)

C. Plaintiff's Reply

Generally, in reply to Defendants Dinelle's and Duckett's response, Plaintiff argues that he is entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict for two reasons. (Dkt. No. 76.) First, argues Plaintiff, even where no Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) motion was made, the Court may grant judgment as a matter of law where, as here, doing so is necessary to prevent manifest injustice. ( Id.) Second, argues Plaintiff, Defendants misinterpret the nature of Plaintiffs motion as arguing that the evidence was such that the jury properly could have returned a verdict only in his favor; Plaintiff acknowledges that there were sharply contested issues of fact, and that it could not be said that the evidence was such that plaintiff was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law based on the evidence adduced at trial; rather, Plaintiff is arguing manifest injustice because the jury's first finding compelled a judgment in favor of Plaintiff. ( Id.)

In addition, Plaintiff repeats his previously asserted argument that, in the alternative, he is entitled to a new trial due to the " irreconcilable inconsistency" that exists between the jury's responses to Questions 1 and 3 of the Special Verdict Form. ( Id.)

II. GOVERNING LEGAL STANDARDS

Generally, the parties have, in their memoranda of law, demonstrated an accurate understanding of legal standards governing Plaintiff's motion. As a result, the Court will describe only the relevant points of law contained in those legal standards.

A. Legal Standard Governing Motions for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b)

Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides as follows, in pertinent part:

If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion. No later than 28 days after the entry of judgment--or if the motion addresses a jury issue not decided by a verdict, no later than 28 days after the jury was discharged--the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) (emphasis added).

As a result, a prerequisite for a motion for a post-trial motion for a judgment as a matter of law (also known as a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict) is a motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 Advisory Committee Note (1963) (" A motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict will not lie unless it was preceded by a motion for a judgment as a matter of law made at the close of all the evidence." ) (emphasis added); Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 Advisory Committee Note (1991) (" A post-trial motion for judgment can be granted only on grounds advanced in the pre-verdict motion." ); Exxon Shipping

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Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 486, n.5, 128 S.Ct. 2605, 171 L.Ed.2d 570 (2008) (" A motion under Rule 50(b) is not allowed unless the movant sought relief on similar grounds under Rule 50(a) before the case was submitted to the jury." ).

Granted, such a motion may be granted by a district court where doing so is necessary to prevent " manifest injustice." Kirsch v. Fleet Street, Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 164 (2d Cir. 1998) (" As to any issue on which proper Rule 50 motions were not made, [a judgment as a matter of law] may not properly be granted by the district court, or upheld on appeal, or ordered by the appellate court unless that action is required in order to prevent manifest injustice." ); accord, Lore v. City of Syracuse, 670 F.3d 127, 153 (2d Cir. 2012); Cordius Trust v. Kummerfeld, 331 F. App'x 810, 811 (2d Cir. 2009).

However, " manifest justice" exists only when a jury's verdict is " wholly without legal support." Pahuta v. Massey-Ferguson, Inc., 170 F.3d 125, 129 (2d Cir. 1999) (" We may overlook such a default in order to 'prevent a manifest injustice' in cases where a jury's verdict is wholly without legal support." ) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord, U.S. S.E.C. v. Stamoulis, 350 F. App'x 499, 500 (2d Cir. 2009); Clergeau v. Local 1181, Amalgamated Transit Union, AFL-CIO, 162 F. App'x 32, 34 (2d Cir. 2005); Rothstein v. Carriere, 373 F.3d 275, 291 (2nd Cir. 2004).

B. Legal Standard Governing Motions for a New Trial Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)

Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part, 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.P. 59(a)(1)(A).

The Second Circuit has interpreted this standard to permit the granting of new trials when " in the opinion of the district court, the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or the verdict is a miscarriage of justice." DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133 (2d Cir.1998) (internal quotation marks omitted); Lightfoot v. Union Carbide Corp., 110 F.3d 898, 911 (2d Cir. 1997). Examples of such a serious error or a miscarriage of justice include when " the verdict is against the weight of the evidence," or when " for the reasons stated the trial was not fair to the moving party." Mallis v. Bankers Trust Co., 717 F.2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983). However, " the court should only grant a motion for a new trial when the jury's verdict is 'egregious.'" DLC Mgmt. Corp., 163 F.3d at 134 (internal quotation marks omitted); Dunlap-McCuller v. Riese Org., 980 F.2d 153, 158 (2d Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 908, 114 S.Ct. 290, 126 L.Ed.2d 239 (1993).

Moreover, to the extent any such motion for a new trial is premised to an objection to a jury instruction or verdict form, Fed.R.Civ.P. 51 requires the movant to have raised that objection before the jury retires, in order to preserve the objection. See Brenner v. World Boxing Council, 675 F.2d 445, 456 (2d Cir.) (" Brenner asserts that he is entitled to a new trial on the group boycott claim because the trial court erred in instructing the jury that the burden was on him to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that the WBC had not satisfied all of the elements of the Denver Rockets test. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 51, in order to raise a challenge to the jury instructions on appeal, a party must object to those instructions before the jury retires to consider its verdict. Since Brenner failed to object to

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the instructions below, absent plain error, he is precluded from raising this claim on appeal." ), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 835, 103 ...


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