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Rucks v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 30, 2015

JODY RUCKS, Plaintiff,
CITY OF NEW YORK, et al., Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Jody Rucks, Plaintiff: Gerald M. Cohen, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cohen & Fitch LLP, New York, NY; Katherine Elizabeth Smith, The Law Office of Katherine E. Smith, New York, NY.

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KATHERINE POLK FAILLA, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Jody Rucks[1] brought this action in May 2012 against the City of New York and New York City Police Department (" NYPD" ) officers Anthony Bruno, Michael O'Connor, and Michael Percy (collectively, the " Defendant Officers" ) in their individual and official capacities. In it, Plaintiff raised claims of false arrest, excessive force, denial of fair trial, and malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and for assault and battery under New York state law, stemming from his June 18, 2011 arrest and subsequent events. On July 14, 2014, following a one-week trial, a jury found for Plaintiff on his claims of false arrest and denial of fair trial, and for Defendants on the remaining claims. Both parties have filed motions for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 50 and 59. For the reasons set forth in the remainder of this Opinion, the Court denies Defendants' motions for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, and grants Plaintiff's motion for judgment as a matter of law as to his assault and battery claims and a new trial for damages.


A. The Pretrial Procedural History

Plaintiff Jody Rucks filed his Complaint against the City of New York and three individual NYPD officers -- Officers Bruno and Percy, and Sergeant O'Connor -- on May 29, 2012. (Dkt. #1). In it, he brought claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest, excessive force, denial of fair trial, and malicious prosecution, and under New York state law for assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, and negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention. ( Id. ). On June 24, 2013, the case was reassigned to the undersigned from United States District Judge Laura Taylor Swain. (Dkt. #18). On June 26, 2013, the parties stipulated to the voluntary dismissal of Plaintiff's claims against the City of New York for negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention, as well as claims for municipal liability pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978); in addition, Plaintiff dismissed the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against all parties. (Dkt. #20). Trial commenced on July 8, 2014. (Tr. 1).

B. The Evidence at Trial

1. Plaintiff's Evening and Arrival at the West 4th Street Station

Plaintiff spent the evening of June 17, 2011, at an art gallery event on West 27th Street in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. (Tr. 579-80). Plaintiff consumed one plastic cup of wine and departed at, by his estimate, roughly 2:30 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 18. ( Id. at 582-83). Witness Kasey Schweickert, who hosted the event, confirmed Plaintiff's presence and his consumption of roughly

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one cup of wine, though she placed his departure at roughly 1:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. ( Id. at 569-71). Plaintiff boarded the southbound E train at the West 23rd Street station, intending to transfer at the Canal Street station to the A or C train, and then take one of those trains to the Nostrand Avenue stop in Brooklyn, near where he lived. ( Id. at 584). When he arrived at Canal Street, however, he discovered that, due to construction, he would have to return uptown to the West 4th Street station, where he could then transfer to the downtown A or C train. ( Id. at 584-85). Accordingly, he boarded the E train headed north toward the West 4th Street station. ( Id. at 105-06, 585).

Defendants Bruno, O'Connor, and Percy, meanwhile, were patrolling the West 4th Street station along with Officer Joel Estevez, who was not named as a defendant. (Tr. 214). The officers, who were wearing plainclothes, were assigned to the location to focus on " quality-of-life" crimes. ( Id. at 95-99, 212). Their shift began at 3:00 a.m. ( Id. at 95). Plaintiff's northbound E train arrived at the station at roughly 3:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. ( Id. at 99, 167). It is at this point in the narrative that Plaintiff's testimony began to diverge significantly from that of each of the Officer Defendants.

2. Plaintiff's Exit from the Northbound E Train at West 4th Street

The West 4th Street station is divided into multiple levels. The uppermost level, where the events in question took place, is split into two platforms that offer access to four tracks serving the uptown and downtown A, C, and E trains. The southbound trains are accessible by the southbound platform and the northbound trains are accessible by the northbound platform. Express trains (the A) run on the two tracks located between the two platforms, while local trains (the C and Plaintiff's E train) run on tracks located to the outside of their respective platforms. Below this level, accessible by a number of stairways, is a mezzanine by which one can pass under the A, C, and E trains to move between the uptown and downtown platforms, as well as access the B, D, F, and M trains located on the lowest level. (Tr. 121, 222-23).

At the time that Plaintiff's E train arrived at the West 4th Street station on the northbound local track (the furthest track from the southbound platform), O'Connor, Bruno, and Estevez were on the northbound platform, while Percy was on the southbound platform. (Tr. 449, 545). O'Connor was located toward the northern end of the northbound platform, very near to where Plaintiff arrived on the E train. ( Id. at 545-46). O'Connor testified[3] that he observed Plaintiff lying completely horizontally across several subway seats, apparently sleeping. ( Id. at 546). O'Connor testified that he nudged Plaintiff, identified himself as a police officer, and asked Plaintiff to step outside the train, which he did. ( Id. at 547). O'Connor recalled other passengers on the train, but could not say how many. ( Id. at 547-48).

Bruno at this time was also on the northbound platform, further north than O'Connor. (Tr. 282). He testified that he saw O'Connor speak to the conductor and then step into a subway car, at which point he began walking briskly or jogging toward that car in time to observe Plaintiff standing and rubbing his eyes as though he had just awakened. ( Id. at 282-86). He did not personally see Plaintiff lying down, but O'Connor told Bruno that he had seen Plaintiff lying down on the subway seats. ( Id. at 286-97).

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Percy at this time was on the southbound platform. (Tr. 121). He testified that across the express tracks and the northbound platform he was partially able to see Plaintiff -- from the mid-torso down -- lying across several subway seats. ( Id. at 122-23). He either did not see or did not focus on any other passengers in the subway car. ( Id. at 124-25). Percy testified, after being confronted with some arguably inconsistent prior statements of his, that his attention was taken away at the moment that O'Connor and Bruno entered the subway car; although he did not see O'Connor and Bruno wake Plaintiff up, he assumed they did so. ( Id. at 139-45, 220). As Plaintiff and the two officers emerged from the subway car, O'Connor waved Percy over. ( Id. at 220-21). In response, Percy descended the stairway to the mezzanine, walked across, and ascended the stairway to the northbound platform. ( Id. at 222-23).

Estevez was on the extreme northern end of the northbound platform at the time when O'Connor and Bruno encountered Plaintiff roughly five to six subway car lengths away. (Tr. 449-50). Estevez was watching for riders avoiding the subway fare by hopping over the turnstiles or going through in pairs; an occurrence of the former at the same time that O'Connor and Bruno first encountered Plaintiff temporarily distracted him. ( Id. at 450).

Plaintiff testified to a very different sequence of events. After transferring to the northbound E train at the Canal Street station, Plaintiff testified that he remained seated, fully awake and with his feet on the floor, for the two stops from Canal Street to West 4th Street. (Tr. 586-87). Plaintiff testified that there were only two other people on the train when he arrived at West 4th Street. ( Id. at 587-88). At West 4th Street, Plaintiff stood up of his own accord and walked out of the subway car, not encountering any officers until O'Connor called out to him after Plaintiff had taken roughly five steps off the train toward the stairs to the southbound platform. ( Id. at 588-89).

3. Plaintiff's Encounter with the Officers on the Platform

The testimony of the parties at trial momentarily converged at this point, as Plaintiff was standing on the northbound platform with O'Connor and Bruno, joined shortly by Percy. ( See Tr. 223-25 (Percy's testimony), 516 (O'Connor), 591-92 (Rucks)). O'Connor showed Plaintiff his badge and asked for his identification, which Plaintiff surrendered either to Bruno directly or to O'Connor, who then passed it to another of the Defendant Officers. ( See id. at 516, 592). Bruno ran a name check to see if Plaintiff had any outstanding warrants, which he did not. ( Id. at 516). After Percy arrived, Bruno borrowed a criminal summons (a " C-summons" ) from Percy and at O'Connor's instruction wrote a summons for disorderly conduct. ( Id. at 110-13).[4] The parties dispute Plaintiff's conduct during the issuance of the summons -- Plaintiff testified that he was silent and more or less motionless ( id. at 654-55), while the Defendant Officers testified that he was yelling, cursing, and attracting a crowd ( id. at 162-64, 292, 516-18) -- but agree that after receiving the summons, Plaintiff disposed of it in a nearby trash receptacle ( id. at 601-05).

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Plaintiff testified that, somewhat taken aback, he walked to the platform's edge to check for an approaching train, before remembering that he needed to relocate to the southbound platform. (Tr. 605). Upon remembering, he turned back in the direction of the officers, walking toward them to get to the stairway to the mezzanine, and told O'Connor, " You know you can't get away with this, right? This is BS." ( Id. at 605-08). At that point, Plaintiff testified, O'Connor yelled, " Cuff him," and placed a handcuff on Plaintiff's left wrist. ( Id. at 611). Plaintiff testified that he instinctually grabbed his arm, before one or more officers tripped him to the ground, where he grabbed onto the stairway railing adjacent to him as multiple officers struck him from atop him as they tried to get the handcuffs on his other wrist. ( Id. at 612-18). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff was sprayed in the face with mace without warning. ( Id. at 619-20). Four to five seconds later the " beatdown" finally ended as Plaintiff was handcuffed, dragged to his feet, and marched out of the station by the Defendant Officers and multiple other officers who had arrived by this point. ( Id. at 618-23).

The Defendant Officers' testimony, with some variations between and among their accounts, paints a rather different portrait of the events immediately after Plaintiff discarded the summons. According to them, Plaintiff either touched or grabbed O'Connor and Bruno or menaced them, while pacing vigorously and cursing. (Tr. 185 (Percy testifying that Plaintiff grabbed O'Connor and Bruno's shoulders with one hand to each), 355-57 (Bruno testifying that Plaintiff grabbed or touched both O'Connor and Bruno), 523 (O'Connor testifying that Plaintiff touched neither officer, but came at them in a " boxer's stance" )). At this point, O'Connor put a handcuff on Plaintiff before a struggle commenced.

Estevez testified to seeing Plaintiff and the Defendant Officers in a pile on the ground and running over to help (Tr. 452); in addition, at least two other officers responded to a call for reinforcements radioed by Bruno during the struggle ( id. at 474-79). All three Defendant Officers described Plaintiff as having extraordinary strength, both at trial and to Assistant District Attorney Danielle Labadorf in the course of Plaintiff's subsequent criminal prosecution. ( Id. at 410-11). Percy in particular described Plaintiff as forcibly standing with five to six officers draped on him, and throwing officers back and forth across the narrow subway platform. ( Id. at 235-40). Percy, Bruno, and Estevez all attributed Plaintiff's strength potentially to the influence of narcotics, the former two specifically identifying PCP as a possibility ( id. at 203, 377, 455); Plaintiff, who is 5'9" and 185 pounds, denied having ever taken PCP or ingesting any drugs other than the single cup of wine that evening ( id. at 582-83). Ultimately, according to Percy, Percy sprayed mace into Plaintiff's face after warning him, and shortly thereafter the five to six officers were able to subdue him and remove him from the subway station. ( Id. at 240-43).

After being handcuffed, Plaintiff was taken to the Canal Street subway station precinct for booking. (Tr. 628). After being processed, Plaintiff was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center to have the mace washed out of his eyes. ( Id. at 631-32). Plaintiff also received an x-ray examination of his ribs ( id. at 632); though the hospital examination revealed no injuries, Plaintiff testified to numbness in his left arm, lacerations on his left wrist (which he supported with photographic evidence), and serious bruising ( id. at 643-45). Bruno was also taken to Bellevue Hospital from the scene with shortness of breath as well as neck and back pain. ( Id. at 471). Plaintiff appeared before a judge late on

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the evening of June 18, 2011, at which point he was charged with obstructing governmental administration and then released roughly 24 hours after ...

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