United States District Court, E.D. New York
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For Getro Milfort, Plaintiff: Gregory Vincent Esposito, Law Office of Gregory Esposito PLLC, Brooklyn, NY; Paul Hale, Paul Hale, Attorney at Law, Brooklyn, NY.
For Court Officer Felix Prevete, Officer Christopher Ferrari, Defendants: Roberta Lynne Martin, LEAD ATTORNEY, New York State Office of the Attorney General, Litigation Bureau, New York, NY; Charles Fernando Sanders, N.Y.S. Office of the Attorney General, New York, NY; Michael John Siudzinski, Office of the Attorney General of NY, New York, NY.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
HON. WILLIAM F. KUNTZ, II, United States District Judge.
Plaintiff Getro Milfort (" Plaintiff" ) brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against defendants Felix Prevete (" Prevete" ) and Christopher Ferrari (" Ferrari" ) (collectively " Defendants" ), seeking redress from Plaintiff's arrest for disorderly conduct. Plaintiff sought recovery for false arrest, false imprisonment, excessive force, denial of equal protection, and deprivation of due process. At trial held on June 10-12, 2013, the jury found Defendant Prevete liable for false arrest, and awarded a judgment of $1 in nominal damages and $40,000 in punitive damages. Defendant Prevete now moves for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that 1) the jury verdict on false arrest should be vacated on the grounds of qualified immunity and, in the alternative, that 2) the punitive damages award should be vacated or remitted as a matter of law.
The Court assumes familiarity with the underlying facts and procedural history of this case, and will only briefly recount the relevant facts here. According to Plaintiff Milfort, he was waiting in a security line at the Civil Court for Kings County in Brooklyn, New York, when his cell phone rang. ( See Plaintiff's Opposition, Dkt. 81 (" Opp." ) at 4-5 (citing trial transcript)). Plaintiff answered his phone while still waiting in line, and refused to terminate the call despite Defendant Lieutenant Prevete's request. ( Id. at 5). Defendant proceeded to take the phone from Plaintiff, terminate the call, and shove the phone back in Plaintiff's pocket. ( Id.). Following a heated dispute between the two, Defendant ordered Plaintiff's arrest, during which time Milfort was pushed against a wall, injured, and held for one and a half hours before being released. ( Id. at 6). Prevete's role in the arrest and criminal prosecution included the acts of writing the summons and the Unusual Occurrence Report, falsifying documents, and lying to commence a criminal prosecution against Milfort. ( Id.).
Prior to trial, Defendants moved for summary judgment, which this Court denied in part and granted in part. See Milfort v. Prevete, 922 F.Supp.2d 398 (E.D.N.Y. 2013). The Court agreed that Plaintiff's equal protection and due process claims could not stand, but denied Defendants' motion with respect to the § 1983
claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, and excessive force. Id. at 410-11. The Court also denied Defendants' request for qualified immunity. Id. at 407.
On June 10, 2013, the jury trial commenced. After a three day trial, the jury found no liability against Defendant Ferrari for either false arrest or excessive force, and no liability for excessive force against Defendant Prevete. (Dkt. 69-70). However, the jury found Defendant Prevete liable for false arrest, and on that claim, awarded $0 in compensatory damages, $1 in nominal damages, and $40,000 in punitive damages. (Dkt. 70).
Defendant Prevete has moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. (Dkt. 76-5, " Mot." ). He contends that: 1) with respect to liability and qualified immunity, Plaintiff failed to prove that Prevete acted unreasonably, and 2) with respect to punitive damages, the evidence at trial did not establish that Prevete acted in a malicious or wanton manner. Plaintiff opposes the motion, arguing that the jury rejected Defendants' testimony in declining to find that qualified immunity applied, and that Prevete's serious misconduct justified the $40,000 punitive award. For the reasons outlined below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff that the jury award of liability on false arrest should stand. However, Defendant's excessiveness arguments with regards to the punitive award are well taken, and the Court will remit the award to $5,000.
When evaluating a motion for judgment as a matter of law, a court is required to draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Zellner v. Summerlin, 494 F.3d 344, 370 (2d Cir. 2007). The court " may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence," because those are " jury functions, not those of a judge." Id. Accordingly, a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law " only if it can conclude that, with credibility assessments made against the moving party and all inferences drawn against the moving party, a reasonable juror would have been compelled to accept the view of the moving party." Id. at 370-71 (emphasis in original). This " high bar" may be met when 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 " 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." Advance Pharm., Inc. v. United States, 391 F.3d 377, 390 (2d. Cir. 2004); Lavin-McEleney v. Marist College, 239 F.3d 476, 479-80 (2d. Cir. 2001).
A. False Arrest & Qualified Immunity
Defendant Prevete's sole attack on the jury's finding of liability is that he was entitled to qualified immunity. This Court has already rejected Defendant's request for qualified immunity once, Milfort, 922 F.Supp.2d at 407, and ...