United States District Court, W.D. New York
HUGH B. SCOTT, Magistrate Judge.
Before the Court is plaintiffs' motions (under different rules) for relief from the judgment, namely (1) motion for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), (2) for a new trial, pursuant to Rules 50(d) and 59(b), (3) to amend the judgment, pursuant to Rule 59(e), or (4) for relief under Rule 60(b) (Docket No. 121). Following resolution of a conflict of interest with this Court and defense counsel, responses to this motion were due by July 8, 2014, replies by July 15, 2014, and the motion was deemed submitted (without oral argument) on July 15, 2014 (Docket No. 122). Familiarity with the facts from prior proceedings and trial testimony is presumed.
This is a civil rights action commenced against the Niagara County Sheriff's Department, the County, and three deputies and a Sheriff's Department investigator for the stop, detention, and search of a vehicle approaching the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge on April 28, 2009. At issue is the stop, search, and seizure of plaintiffs by defendant deputies and Niagara County Sheriff's Department investigator on April 28, 2009; familiarity with the basic facts is presumed from proceedings had herein (see Docket No. 59, Report & Recommendation at 2-6; Docket No. 64, Order). Following defense motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 50), plaintiffs' second cause of action for discrimination due to racial profiling and third cause of action for hindering their interstate travel were dismissed (as well as claims against Niagara County and its Sheriff's Department) (Docket No. 64), the focus for trial was the legitimacy of defendants' seizure of plaintiffs for the duration of less than three hours. What remained for trial were the legality of the nearly three hour detention and seizure of plaintiffs' and their vehicle and the legality of relocating the vehicle during that detention to conduct further investigation.
During the trial, plaintiffs argued that each event during the seizure merited consideration; defendants continued to focus on the totality of events during the seizure, resisting plaintiffs' attempts to challenge searches conducted during that period.
A five-day trial was held on May 12-19, 2014 (Docket Nos. 106-10). The jury was given a special verdict sheet with a series of questions. The first question addressed whether plaintiffs consented to the seizure at issue. The jury then sent a series of notes to the Court (Docket No. 113, Court Exs. 3A, 4A; see Docket No. 110; see also Docket No. 113, Court Ex. 8A (jury seeking to discuss issues in outstanding notes with Court and counsel)), some of which were not yet answered when they submitted its note that a verdict had been reached. The jury then had its outstanding questions addressed, including a reminder of the relevant portion of the jury charge, and the jury was ordered to resume deliberations with this additional information (Docket No. 110; Docket No. 113, Court Ex. 9; cf. Docket No. 113, Court Ex. 5 (proposed jury instruction, not given)). Thus informed, the jury returned and announced that it had reached a verdict for defendants (Docket Nos. 113, Court Ex. 10A, 112). As plaintiffs argue (Docket No. 120, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶ 91), the jury stated that its questions were answered by the further instruction. Judgment for defendants was entered on May 22, 2014 (Docket No. 115), with defendants later filing their bill of costs (Docket No. 120; see also Text Notice of Intent to Tax Costs, July 1, 2014).
Conflict with Defense Counsel
After the jury reached its verdict, this Court learned that defense counsel was about to become a member of board of directors the undersigned currently serves upon, cf. 28 U.S.C. § 455(a); Code of Conduct for United States Judges Canon 3C(1) ("a judge shall disqualify himself... in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned"), Canon 3 ("the duties of judicial office takes precedence over all other activities") (hereinafter "Canon"). On May 27, 2014, this conflict was announced to the parties and they were to report whether this case should proceed with the undersigned (Docket No. 116). Both parties submitted notices of their remittal of any conflict, pursuant to Canon 3D (see also Docket No. 118) (defense counsel's letter)).
Plaintiffs' Motion for a New Trial
On June 16, 2014, plaintiffs filed their motion for a new trial or to amend or alter the judgment (Docket No. 121). Plaintiffs argue that a new trial should be granted pursuant to four rules to revisit the judgment entered against them, principally arguing that there was no evidentiary basis for the jury to answer the first special jury verdict question and questioning the concept of consent in this case. They move for a new trial, under Rule 50 because no reasonable jury would find for defendants based on the evidence presented in this trial because the stop and subsequent detention was overly prolonged and violated plaintiffs' rights (Docket No. 121, Pls. Memo. at 13-17). They alternatively seek to amend or add findings, pursuant to Rule 52(b), because this Court erred in accepting the verdict before the jury's questions were answered (id. at 17-22, 20-21). Plaintiffs next claim entitlement to a new trial, under Rule 59(a), because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence for the reasons stated under the other rules (id. at 22). They seek to alter or amend the judgment, under Rule 59(e), because this Court disregarded United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decisions in United States v. Young , 140 F.3d 453 (2d Cir. 1998), and United States v. Gregory, No. 99-1765, 2000 U.S.App. LEXIS 27588 (2d Cir. Nov. 1, 2000) (summary order), in electing to accept the jury's premature verdict (id. at 23, 18, 20). Plaintiffs argue that the jury was confused by special verdict question 1 and that the passage of time did not resolve the jury's questions (Docket No. 120, Pls. Atty. Decl. ¶¶ 95, 96). They believe that the jury believed that plaintiff did not voluntarily consent and that what consent was given was given under duress (id. ¶ 97). The jury had rendered its verdict before receiving answers to its questions on consent (id. ¶ 98) and (given the late hour of the verdict) rushed to reach that verdict without first receiving the answers to these questions (id. ¶ 99). Plaintiffs claim that the Court instructed the jury to not return to the deliberation room but instead confer in the hall leading to that room to see if the instructions satisfied its questions (id. ¶ 100). They contend that, had this jury been advised of the proper consent standard, it would not have rendered a verdict for defendants (Docket No. 120, Pls. Memo. at 21). Finally, and for the same reasons stated for other rules, plaintiffs contend that they are entitled to relief from the judgment under Rule 60(b)(1) for the jury's mistake or the catchall for "any other reason that justifies relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(6), based upon the exceptional circumstances argued under other rules (id. at 24-25). They claim that this motion is timely under any of the rules cited (id. at 17 (Rule 50), 22 (Rule 52(b)), 22 (Rule 59(a)), 24 (Rule 59(e)), 24-25 (Rule 60(b)).
Defendants first argue that plaintiffs' Rule 50 motion should be denied because the verdict was fully supported by the evidence. The jury had contradictory testimony whether Rougier consented to the search, with defendant Douglas testifying that he had requested and received Rougier's consent to x-ray the vehicle. (Docket No. 125, Defs. Memo. at 1-2; see also Docket No. 125, Defs. Atty. Aff. ¶¶ 22, 26, 23-24, 25.) Defendants claim that plaintiffs are now contending that Rougier did consent, but under some form of duress (Docket No. 125, Defs. Memo. at 2). As a disputed fact issue, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to find for defendants as to consent (see id. at 2-4).
As for plaintiffs' Rule 52 motion, defendants first argue that this rule applies for bench trials, whereas this case was tried to verdict by the jury (id. at 4). Defendants next argue, as for the Rule 59(a) motion, that the verdict was neither erroneous nor a miscarriage of justice (id. at 6-10). Again, the Rule 59(a) issue turns on party credibility that was the jury's province rather than this Court on a post-trial motion (id. at 7-9).
Regarding plaintiffs' Rule 59(e) motion, defendants argue that one case which plaintiffs argue this Court disregarded, United States v. Young, supra , 140 F.3d 453, did not support plaintiffs' position (id. at 10, 5), while the second case they rely upon, United States v. Gregory, supra, 234 F.3d 1263, also fails to show plain error in handling the jury questions and the verdict return (id. at 10-11). While jury question notes were pending, the jury submitted a note indicating that they reached a verdict. The jury was recalled, their questions were answered, and then they asked whether their questions were addressed. (Id.) Finally, as for plaintiffs' Rule 60(b) motion, defendants conclude that plaintiffs fail to show that the jury was mistaken, again with the putative mistake turning on the credibility of defendant Douglas and plaintiff Rougier (id. at 11-13).
In reply, plaintiffs contend that Rougier consented only to Tracy's initial request to "have a look" around their vehicle (Docket No. 126, Pls. Atty. Reply Decl. ¶ 5), with plaintiffs arguing that this initial look was used by defendants to justify a broader and expansive search and seizure beyond the scope plaintiffs consent (id. ¶ 6). Plaintiffs renew their denial that Douglas asked them to move the vehicle to the border x-ray (id. ¶ 7); alternatively, if found that they were asked about the x-ray, such consent Rougier gave was coerced due to the threat of continued hours of detention if consent was not given while awaiting a search warrant (id.¶¶ 8, 12). Plaintiffs do not point to testimony or other evidence of this coercion. Plaintiffs note that, after the jury was further instructed following their questions, that they did not go into the deliberation room but conferred in the exit from the courtroom (id. ¶¶ 20-21), concluding that the jury was not allowed enough time to consider the jury instruction on coercion given in the further instructions (id.¶ 22)
I. Applicable Standards
Plaintiffs cite five rules to reconsider the judgment (and implicitly the jury verdict) in this case.
For a motion for judgment as a matter of law after the verdict under Federal Rule 50(b), this Court must determine whether there was evidence for the jury to find for the opponents of the motion, see 9A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Civil Practice § 2524, at 253-54, 250 (Civil 2d ed. 1995). Whether evidence at trial is sufficient to create an issue of fact for the jury is a question of law, id. at 249. The Court here does not weigh evidence or pass on witness credibility, these are the province of the jury, id. at 255-56. The weight of evidence is viewed in the light favoring the opponents to the motion for judgment and those parties are given the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from that evidence, id. at 256-57, 259. Without weighing credibility or weighing ...