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In re Claim of Estate of Willie Jackson By His Administratix Shanta Jackson

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 31, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE CLAIM OF THE ESTATE OF WILLIE JACKSON BY HIS ADMINISTRATIX SHANTA JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF SUFFOLK, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT, POLICE COMMISSIONER RICHARD DORMER, in his individual and official capacity, POLICE OFFICER RONALD BRUER, in his individual and official capacity, POLICE OFFICER EUGENE CIPRIANO, in his individual and official capacity, JOHN MOORE, in his individual and official capacity, KYLE SIMCOX, in his individual and official capacity, JAMES O'HAGAN, in his individual and official capacity, CHRISTOPHER DONOVAN, in his individual and official capacity, COUNTY OF SUFFOLK OFFICE OF DISTRICT ATTORNEY, SUFFOLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY THOMAS SPOTA, in his individual and official capacity, ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY, ROBERT BIANCA VILLA, in his Individual and official capacity, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

A. KATHLEEN TOMLINSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. PRELIMINARY STATEMENT

This civil rights action brought by the Estate of decedent Willie Jackson ("Plaintiff" or the "Estate") stems from an April 2, 2011 incident between Jackson and officers from the Defendant Suffolk County Police Department ("SCPD") outside the Peacemakers Motorcycle Club in Wyandanch, New York. That incident ultimately led to Jackson's death.

On March 20, 2012, counsel for the Estate filed the original Complaint, naming Suffolk County, certain officials of Suffolk County and a number of "John and Jane Does" as Defendants. See DE 1. The list of Defendants was revised on February 7, 2013 when Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint against Defendants County of Suffolk, SCPD, Police Commissioner Richard Dormer ("Commissioner Dormer"), Police Officer Ronald Breuer, Police Officer Eugene Cipriano, John Moore, Kyle Simcox, James O'Hagan, Christopher Donovan, the Office of the Suffolk County District Attorney, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota ("D.A. Spota"), and Assistant District Attorney Robert Bianca Villa ( sic ) ("ADA Biancavilla") (collectively, the "County Defendants"). Plaintiff has brought claims for: false arrest and use of excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; municipal liability under § 1983; conspiracy to deprive Plaintiff of his civil rights under § 1985; failure to intervene under § 1986; abuse of process under §§ 1983 and 1985; race discrimination under § 1981; wrongful death; negligence; and battery. See Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl.") ¶ 1 [DE 27].

Before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for sanctions, pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 37, against the County Defendants for their alleged spoliation of evidence. See Estate of Willie Jackson by His Administratrix, Shanta Jackson Amended Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Spoliation Sanctions ("Pl.'s Mot.") [DE 54]. Specifically, Plaintiff requests that the County Defendants be sanctioned by this Court for failing to preserve the batons and flashlights which were in the possession of SCPD Officers Ronald Breuer and Eugene Cipriano during the April 2, 2011 incident. Plaintiff's counsel posits that one of these officers struck the decedent with a baton, leading to his head injury and ultimate death on that date. Plaintiff's argument rests principally on the statement of the decedent's widow, Ms. Laura Jackson, that her late husband was hit with a "stick" by one of the SCPD officers. SCPD Detective Ronald Bottari initially transferred the two officers' batons and flashlights to the SCPD Property Section to preserve them as evidence from the crime scene. A little over a year later, on May 24, 2012, Detective Bottari released these items to Officers Breuer and Cipriano upon their request and without notice to Plaintiff's counsel. Counsel for the Estate maintains that the batons and flashlights were the "key pieces of evidence to allow Plaintiff the chance to support their case" and have "been destroyed" due to the County Defendants' actions. As a result, Plaintiff's counsel requests that the Court (1) strike the pleadings of the "captioned defendants, " (2) enter a default judgment, (3) award Plaintiff costs and attorney's fees, and (4) provide any further relief the Court may deem appropriate.

In their opposition, the County Defendants assert that Plaintiff's motion is meritless, as a preliminary matter, since "no such spoliation has occurred." The County Defendants maintain that Plaintiff's characterization of Detective Bottari's release of the batons and flashlights to Officers Breuer and Cipriano as spoliation is inaccurate. Moreover, the County Defendants' attorney argues that not a "scintilla of evidence" has been provided by Plaintiff that these items contained any relevant evidence. Given the absence of spoliation, the County Defendants contend that sanctions are not warranted. Assuming the Court entertains Plaintiff's argument that Detective Bottari's release of these items constituted "spoliation" of evidence, the County Defendants argue that Plaintiff, nevertheless, fails to establish (1) any duty to preserve, (2) a culpable state of mind by the Defendant police personnel, or (3) the relevancy of the batons and flashlights at issue.

For the reasons which follow, Plaintiff's motion for sanctions is DENIED.

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Amended Complaint

On or about April 2, 2011 at approximately 11 p.m., Plaintiff Willie Jackson, an African-American male, was standing in front of a motorcycle club in Wyandanch, New York "acting in a lawful manner." Am. Compl. ¶ 30. Plaintiff claims, upon information and belief, that Defendants SCPD Officers Breuer and Cipriano were "responsible" for his "false arrest, false imprisonment, and unlawful seizure, beating, physical abuse, and restraint, causing him to die, without probable cause, without justification, and without lawful authority." Id. ¶ 31. Further, Plaintiff claims that Defendants Breuer, Cipriano, Moore, Simcox, O'Hagan and Donovan "were aware of the beating and/or torture but failed to intervene, failed to provide prompt adequate medical attention, failed to report it promptly, and failed to protect Mr. Jackson while in custody and/or detained." Id. ¶ 32. Defendant SCPD Officers Breuer and Cipriano, according to the Plaintiff, were "reckless, careless and negligent in their actions in beating the [Plaintiff] with flashlights, batons and, upon information and belief, other weapons; as a result of said beating." Id. ¶ 33. The Estate asserts that the decedent was subjected to these actions even though "at no time" did he "act in a way which required the use of force or deadly force; display any weapon; threaten to harm the police; or, attempt to cause harm to the police, yet the Defendant Police Officers hit [the decedent] multiple times" subjecting him to deadly force. Id. Moreover, despite being aware of the decedent's "severe injury, mental and physical distress, and danger, " the County Defendants on April 2, 2011 "refused and failed to promptly inform appropriate medical personnel" of the decedent's "severe injury, suffering, mental and physical distress and fatal danger." Id. ¶ 34.

The decedent was thereafter transported to the Good Samaritan Hospital Emergency Department for treatment. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 35-36. However, the decedent was pronounced dead at approximately 2 a.m. on April 2, 2011. Id. ¶¶ 35, 38.

On or about April 2, 2011, Maura DeJoseph, D.O. from the Suffolk County Office of the Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy on the decedent. Am. Compl. ¶ 39. According to Plaintiff, "the Autopsy Report illustrates the unnecessary and excessive use of physical and deadly force" upon the decedent. Id. ¶ 40. He "received multiple contusions (bruises) in an around his body." Id. Plaintiff's counsel cites the autopsy report which states that the cause of death was "ACUTE CONCUSSIVE HEAD INJURY DUE TO BLUNT IMPACT." Id. ¶ 42 (emphasis in original). Further, the report states that the manner of death was homicide. Id. ¶ 43. Plaintiff's counsel asserts that Mr. Jackson "died at the hands of the Suffolk County police." Id. ¶ 44.

In addition, Plaintiff states that the County Defendants made "false claims" against the decedent and failed to "properly administrate, investigate and discipline said Defendant Officers, " causing the decedent and his survivors to suffer "extreme physical and emotional harm, loss of support, loss of love, affection, nurturing, guidance and direction." Am. Compl. ¶ 45. Plaintiff further alleges that although the names of the police officers involved in the April 2, 2011 incident were requested, Defendants Suffolk County, the SCPD, and the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office "unreasonably prolonged the release" of the officers' names as well as the Office of Medical Examiner report and "other evidence." Id. ¶ 46. This, Plaintiff claims, was "in an effort to thwart [the] investigation and to distract and remove the Defendant Officers from public scrutiny." Id.

Finally, Plaintiff proffers that the County Defendants "engaged in tactics" which violated the Estate's right "to obtain a full and fair investigation" of the April 2, 2011 incident. Am. Compl. ¶ 47. According to Plaintiff's counsel, these goals were accomplished "by wrongly stalling, delaying, and or neglecting to present the matter to the Grand Jury and by hastily and improperly exonerating the Defendant Officers." Id.

The Plaintiff has asserted ten causes of action in the Amended Complaint. In Count I, Plaintiff charges false arrest in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 48-52. In Count II, Plaintiff claims the County Defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by using excessive force in dealing with the decedent. Id. ¶¶ 53-57. In Count III, Plaintiff alleges municipal liability under Section 1983. Id. ¶¶ 58-68. Count IV puts forward a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 for conspiracy to deprive Plaintiff of his civil rights. Id. ¶¶ 69-78. Count V asserts a claim for failure to intervene under 42 U.S.C. § 1986. Id. ¶¶ 79-83. In Count VI, Plaintiff charges abuse of process under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985. Id. ¶¶ 84-96. Count VII alleges a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Id. ¶¶ 97-106. Count VIII advances a claim of negligence under New York State common law. Id. ¶¶ 107-110. Count IX charges wrongful death under New York State common law. Id . ¶¶ 111-114. Finally, Count X contains a cause of action for battery under New York State common law. Id . ¶¶ 115-121.

B. June 11, 2013 Motion Hearing

Plaintiff's motion for sanctions was first raised with the Court in a letter "Motion to Intervene" filed by counsel on June 6, 2013. DE 39. That letter motion was addressed by the Court at a hearing on June 11, 2013. DE 41. At that hearing, "[t]he Court raised some concerns with the motion filed by plaintiff's counsel and spent time discussing those issues with both sides." Id. ¶ 2. The Court noted that "Plaintiff's motion seeks, among other things, sanctions for defendants' alleged spoliation of evidence." Id. ¶ 2. The County Defendants "confirmed that the evidence [Plaintiff's counsel] claims was "spoliated" (i.e., arresting officers' flashlights and batons) was initially taken from the officers at the time of the underlying incident and was then returned to them approximately one year later." Id. Upon inquiry from the Court, Plaintiff's counsel reported that she did not request to inspect this evidence from the County Defendants at the time the Complaint was filed. Id. (emphasis added).

Because of the gravity of the spoliation issue presented in Plaintiff's letter motion, the Court found that the letter motion, lacking "substantial case law support, was insufficient to address the issue" before the Court. DE 41 ¶ 2. As a result, the Court denied Plaintiff's letter motion [DE 39], without prejudice to renew. Id. The Court then granted Plaintiff permission "to make a formal motion for sanctions under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, with an accompanying memorandum of law setting forth the cases which support plaintiff's arguments on the motion." DE 41 ¶ 2. The parties then entered into a formal briefing schedule. Id.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

"Spoliation is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another's use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation." West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2d Cir. 1999); accord Byrnie v. Town of Cromwell, 243 F.3d 93, 107 (2d Cir. 2001). A court may impose sanctions against a party who spoliates evidence pursuant to Rule 37(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as well as through the Court's inherent powers to control the judicial process and the litigation before it. See Residential Funding Corp. v. DeGeorge Fin. Corp., 306 F.3d 99, 106-07 (2d Cir. 2002); West, 167 F.3d at 779. In situations where sanctions are warranted, district courts have broad discretion in "crafting an appropriate sanction for spoliation." West, 167 F.3d at 779; see Fujitsu Ltd. v. Fed. Express Corp., 247 F.3d 423, 436 (2d Cir. 2001) ("The determination of an appropriate sanction for spoliation, if any, is confined to the sound discretion of the trial judge...."); Reilly v. Natwest Mkts. Grp. Inc., 181 F.3d 253, 267 (2d Cir. 1999) ("Whether exercising its inherent power, or acting pursuant to Rule 37, a district court has wide discretion in sanctioning a party for discovery abuses."). The applicable sanction "should be molded to serve the prophylactic, punitive, and remedial rationales underlying the spoliation doctrine." West, 167 F.3d at 779. Stated another way, the selected sanction should be designed to "(1) deter parties from engaging in spoliation; (2) place the risk of an erroneous judgment on the party who wrongfully created the risk; and (3) restore the prejudiced party to the same position he would have been in absent the wrongful destruction of evidence by the opposing party." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); accord Chin v. Port Auth. of New York & New Jersey, 685 F.3d 135, 162 (2d Cir. 2012).

In some instances, the spoliation of evidence "can support an inference that the evidence would have been unfavorable to the party responsible for its destruction." Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 229 F.R.D. 422, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (" Zubulake V ") (quoting Kronisch v. United States, 150 F.3d 112, 126 (2d Cir. 1998)). A sanction in the form of an adverse inference instruction is, however, "an extreme sanction and should not be imposed lightly." Treppel v. Biovail Corp., 249 F.R.D. 111, 120 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); see Zubulake v. UBS Warburg LLC, 220 F.R.D. 212, 219 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) (" Zubulake IV" ) ("In practice, an adverse inference instruction often ends litigation - it is too difficult a hurdle for the spoliator to overcome.").

A party seeking sanctions has the burden of establishing "(1) that the party having control over the evidence had an obligation to preserve it at the time it was destroyed; (2) that the records were destroyed with a culpable state of mind'; and (3) that the destroyed evidence was relevant' to the party's claim or defense such that a reasonable trier of fact could find that it would support that claim or defense." Residential Funding Corp., 306 F.3d at 107 (quoting Byrnie, 243 F.3d at 107-12); accord Centrifugal Force, Inc. v. Softnet Commc'n, Inc., 783 F.Supp.2d 736, 741 (S.D.N.Y. 2011); Zubulake V, 229 F.R.D. at 430.

IV. ANALYSIS

A. Whether the Batons/Flashlights Were Spoliated by the County Defendants

Preliminarily, the Court addresses the County Defendants' argument that there was no spoliation of the batons and flashlights in the first instance. See County Defendants' Memorandum in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions ("County Defs.' Opp.") [DE 59]. According to Plaintiff's motion, Laura Jackson, the decedent's widow, made a statement to homicide Detective Bottari on the day of the incident that "one of the [officers] hit her husband and his head was bleeding." Pl.'s Mem. at 1. Detective Bottari later "confiscated the batons and flashlights from the two officers in question, Officers Breuer and Cipriano at 9:10 a.m. on April 2, 2011." Id. Although there were seven other officers on the scene, no evidence was taken from any officers other than Breuer and Cipriano, according to Plaintiff's counsel. Id. On May 24, 2012, over one year later, "Detective Bottari released the batons and flashlights to Officers Breuer and Cipriano." Id. at 2. Plaintiff's counsel states, "[a]ccording to the County Attorney's Office, no forensic testing was done on the batons and flashlights which had allegedly... been held as evidence in the... custody death investigation of Willie Jackson." Id. at 2. Through the "willful actions" of the County Defendants, "[a]ny chance for a proper and full evaluation of this evidence has been denied." Id. Plaintiff's counsel then argues that "[t]his evidence included potential fragments of tissue, hair, and DNA decedent Willie Jackson are now lost forever with no opportunity to be recovered." Id. (emphasis added).

The County Defendants contend, in opposing the motion, that the "flashlights and batons were taken simply as a precautionary measure, based upon Laura Jackson's allegation that one of the officers hit Willie Jackson with a stick.'" County Defs.' Opp. at 4 (citing 7/26/13 Deposition Transcript of Jeffrey Bottari ["Bottari Dep."] at 41:12-18). Defendants' counsel points out that as Detective Bottari explained, Ms. Jackson's allegation was not specific, insofar as she indicated that Mr. Jackson was hit with a "stick" and not specifically a flashlight or baton. Id. Moreover, ...


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