United States District Court, S.D. New York
OPINION & ORDER
SIDNEY H. STEIN, District Judge.
After plaintiff Juan Hernandez litigated this section 1983 action pro se for more than a decade, the Court granted Hernandez's request for the appointment of pro bona counsel and the case proceeded to trial. On May 9, 2014, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Hernandez on two of his claims and in favor of various defendants on Hernandez's remaining claims.
The jury's verdict, and in particular its answers to a series of special interrogatories, prompted a flurry of post-trial motions by both plaintiff and by defendant Douglas Williams as follows: (1) Hernandez's request to amend the third amended complaint to conform to the evidence at trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b); (2) a motion by Williams for judgment in his favor pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b); (3) a motion by defendant Williams for relief from the judgment against him pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b); and (4) a motion by Hemandez's counsel for attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.
First, the Court grants plaintiff's motion to amend because the procedural history of this case demonstrates that Williams was long on notice that the May 2, 2005 incident where Williams purposely bumped Hernandez in a hallway was an aspect of Hernandez's retaliation claim, and Williams has demonstrated no prejudice from that incident being presented to the jury. Second, the Court dismisses Williams's Rule 50(b) motion as untimely. Third, the Court denies Williams's Rule 60(b) motion because Williams has not demonstrated exceptional circumstances that would entitle him to relief, and for substantially the same reasons that the Court grants plaintiff's motion to amend. Fourth, the Court grants in part Hernandez's motion for fees and costs.
Hernandez's original complaint, filed pro se in 2001, asserted claims for damages against no fewer than twenty-three employees of two New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) facilities at which Hernandez has been imprisoned. See Hernandez v. Goord, 312 F.Supp.2d 537, 539 (S.D.N.Y. 2004). Throughout the extended course of the litigation, this Court thrice granted Hernandez leave to amend the complaint and in three separate orders granted in part various defendants' motions to dismiss. See generally Hernandez v. Goord, 2013 WL 2355448, at *4-5 (S.D.N.Y. May 29, 2013).
Following extended motion practice and discovery proceedings, on May 29, 2013 the Court granted in part and denied in part the remaining defendants' motion for summary judgment. See id. at *1. Of many claims asserted over the course of this litigation, the Court permitted only the following claims to proceed to a jury trial:
I. First Amendment retaliation against prison counselor Robert Smith arising out of the inmate misbehavior reports Smith wrote in response to incidents on October 1 and October 4, 2001;
II. As to an alleged July 6, 2004 assault:
a) Eighth Amendment excessive force against prison guard Douglas Williams;
b) Failure to intervene to stop the alleged July 6, 2004 assault asserted against guards Robert Clerc, Michael Mrzyglod, and Colin Fraser; and
c) First Amendment retaliation against Williams, Clerc, and Mrzyglod arising out of their alleged threats to Hernandez after he filed a grievance based on the alleged July 6, 2004 assault.
See id. at *12. The Court also granted plaintiff's request for the appointment of counsel, and on September 27, 2013 attorneys from the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP appeared as counsel on a pro Bono basis. In light of the fact that Hernandez had proceeded pro se until that time, the Court permitted Weil, Gotshal to take certain additional discovery.
The parties tried this action to a jury over a six-day period. On May 9, 2014, the jury returned a verdict finding:
defendant Smith liable for retaliating against Hernandez in violation of the First Amendment;
defendants Williams, Clerc, Mrzyglod, and Fraser not liable on Hernandez's Eighth Amendment claim; and
defendant Williams liable for retaliating against Hernandez in violation of the First Amendment.
In its answers to a series of special interrogatories, the jury indicated that its verdict against Williams on Hernandez's First Amendment claim was based on the finding that "Williams retaliated against [Hernandez] on May 2, 2005, by crossing the yellow line in the F and G corridor and bumping his shoulder and forearm, for Hernandez having filed a grievance on July 14, 2004." (Trial Tr. 860:3-9.) The jury found that Williams did not retaliate against Hernandez by allegedly making certain statements on July 29, 2004 and in November 2004. ( Id. 859:16-860:2.)
The jury awarded Hernandez $1 in nominal damages and $15, 000 in punitive damages against Smith and $1 in nominal damages and $25, 000 in punitive damages against Williams. The Clerk of Court entered judgment on May 13, 2014. (Dkt. No. 295.)
II. THE COURT GRANTS HERNANDEZ'S MOTION TO AMEND THE COMPLAINT BECAUSE DEFENDANT WILLIAMS HAS NOT DEMONSTRATED PREJUDICE.
Plaintiff has moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b) to amend the third amended complaint to conform to the evidence presented at trial regarding a May 2, 2005 incident, which post-dated the filing of the third amended complaint by three months.
Plaintiff's third amended complaint, filed on February 4, 2005, asserted a First Amendment retaliation claim against defendant Williams. See, e.g., Hernandez, 2013 WL 2355448, at *11. Specifically, Hernandez alleged that after he filed a grievance regarding Williams's alleged assault against him on July 6, 2004, Williams retaliated in two ways: (1) by telling Hernandez on July 29 that because Hernandez had filed a grievance, "there is a lot we can do, there is a lot we will do"; and (2) by telling Hernandez on November 17: "We are going to get you again, this time nobody is going to help you and it will be worst.... And if you sue me, so what the state will have to pay not me." (Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 75, 79.)
At trial, as noted above, the jury found that Williams did not retaliate against Hernandez in either of those two respects, but did retaliate in another respect, as to which the jury also heard evidence: by intentionally bumping into Hernandez in a prison hallway on May 2, 2005.
A. Rule 15(b) Standard
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(b)(1) provides:
If, at trial, a party objects that evidence is not within the issues raised in the pleadings, the court may permit the pleadings to be amended. The court should freely permit an amendment when doing so will aid in presenting the merits and the objecting party fails to satisfy the court that the evidence would prejudice that party's action or defense on the merits. The court may grant a continuance to enable the objecting party to meet the evidence.
"In opposing a Rule 15(b) amendment, a party cannot normally show that it suffered prejudice simply because of a change in its opponent's legal theory. Instead, a party's failure to plead an issue it later presented must have disadvantaged its opponent in presenting its case." See Cruz v. Coach Stores, Inc., 202 F.3d 560, 569 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting N.Y. State Elec. & Gas Corp. v. Sec. of Labor, 88 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 1996)); see also 6A CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER ET AL., FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1495 (3d ed. updated 2014) ("To justify the exclusion of the evidence, the rule contemplates that the objecting party must be put to some serious disadvantage; it is not enough that the party advances an imagined grievance or seeks to protect some tactical advantage.").
"Rule 15(b) requires no motion or formal amendment of the pleadings." See N.Y. State Elec. & Gas Corp., 88 F.3d at 105. "A motion to amend the pleadings to conform to the evidence may be made at any time, even after judgment." See Regent Ins. Co. v. Storm King Contracting, Inc., 2008 WL 563465, at *14 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 27, 2008).
B. Defendant Williams Suffered No Prejudice from Plaintiff's Introduction of Evidence Regarding the May 2, 2005 Incident.
To determine whether Williams suffered prejudice from Hernandez's introduction of evidence regarding the May 2, 2005 bumping incident, the Court will review Williams's opportunity (or lack thereof) to prepare and present a defense regarding that issue. See Cruz, 202 F.3d at 569. Based on the following discovery proceedings and motion practice over the course of several years, the Court concludes that Williams and his attorneys the New York State Attorney General - had ample advance notice of
Hernandez's intent to offer evidence regarding the May 2, 2005 hallway incident in order to prepare a defense regarding that incident. Specifically:
An assistant attorney general deposed Hernandez on February 20 and 22, 2007. ( See Ex. to Pl.'s Opp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. dated Apr. 8, 2013.) During that deposition, Hernandez made repeated references to a May 9, 2005 grievance that he filed regarding the May 2, 2005 hallway incident. ( See Dkt. No. 317-1.) When asked "[w]hat, if any, contact" Hernandez had "with Williams after" the July 6, 2004 alleged assault, Hernandez directed counsel to refer to the various grievances that Hernandez had filed. (Hernandez Dep. at 483:8-10, 486:3-8, 489:4-5, 16-18, 489:24-490:3.) Hernandez even listed May 2, 2005 as one of the dates on which he had contact with Williams after the July 6, 2004 alleged incident. ( Id. at 490:25-491:7.)
Hernandez's May 9, 2005 grievance - made part of the record in this case by Williams's counsel himself at Hernandez's deposition ( see id. at 498:24-490:3 & Ex. D) - alleged that:
On May 2, 2005 at about 6:59 A.M. I was on my way to my morning medication from the clinic. C.O. D. Williams was reporting to F-block down F&G corridor. As C.O. D. Williams was about to pass me[, h]e intentionally, maliciously, willfully walked toward the other side of the corridor, where I was walking. Using his shoulder in the left side of his body, he violently banged into me, then shoved me almost to the floor. This was an assault on my person, because he's been informed of my filing a civil suit against him before his initial assault of me on July 6, 2004.
(Dkt. No. 317-1.) The grievance also discussed the July 29, 2004 and November 2004 incidents as to which the jury heard testimony at trial. ( Id. )
In response to Magistrate Judge Eaton's August 9, 2007 order directing Hernandez to provide further information regarding the proposed testimony of several inmate witnesses, Hernandez submitted a letter explaining that witness "A.S." would testify that he witnessed Williams bump into Hernandez on the morning of May 2, 2005. (Hernandez letter dated Aug. 18, 2007, at 14.)
In response to this Court's October 22, 2010 directive that Hernandez clarify his proposed witnesses' testimony, Hernandez explained that the same witness will testify "that he witnessed the second assault of plaintiff by defendant Williams on May 2, 2005. Mr. Santiago's affidavit... relates to the conspiracy to retaliate.... and harass plaintiff by defendant Williams." (Hernandez letter dated Nov. 15, 2010, at 5.)
At defendant Williams's February 4, 2014 deposition, plaintiff's counsel questioned Williams about the June 15, 2005 report he wrote in response to Hernandez's May 9, 2005 grievance, in which Williams denied encountering Hernandez on May 2, 2005. (Williams Dep. at 179:16-181:18.) Williams testified that he had no recollection of any interaction with Hernandez on May 2, 2005. ( Id. at 181:16-18.)
On April 1, 2014, plaintiff's counsel provided defense counsel with a copy of a March 26, 2014 letter in which plaintiff's counsel reiterated that "Santiago is expected to testify... that in or about May 2005, Mr. Santiago witnessed Defendant Williams strike Mr. Hernandez and taunt him. This testimony is relevant to prove that Defendant Williams took an adverse action against Mr. Hernandez following Mr. ...