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Howard v. Town of Dewitt

United States District Court, N.D. New York

May 19, 2015

TIFFANY M. HOWARD, Individually and as the mother and natural guardian of A.M., an infant under the age of 18 years, Plaintiffs,
v.
TOWN OF DeWITT; TOWN OF DeWITT POLICE DEPARTMENT; OFFICER C. FULLER, Individually and in his Official Capacity; OFFICER EDWARD MASON, Individually and in his Official Capacity; OFFICER THOMAS NORTON, Individually and in his Official Capacity; and SERGEANT KEITH BURY, Individually and in His Official Capacity, Defendants.

DECISION and ORDER

THOMAS J. McAVOY, Senior District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court are Plaintiffs' motions for judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative for a new trial in this matter alleging that Defendants violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.

II. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the arrest of Plaintiff Tiffany Howard in the early morning hours of April 9, 2011 in DeWitt, New York. Plaintiff contends that DeWitt Police Officers Christopher Fuller, Edward Mason, Thomas Norton and Keith Bury violated her Fourth Amendment rights when they entered her apartment and arrested her for failing to let them in to check on her daughter. On the previous evening, Howard was scheduled to meet Bobby Martin, father of her daughter, minor Plaintiff A.M., at 9 p.m. at a local Barnes & Noble. A.M.'s father was scheduled to have custody of the child for the weekend. According to Howard, Martin did not show up. He had failed to show up on other occasions in the past, and Howard returned home to her apartment with A.M. Once she returned home, she went to bed, as did A.M. A.M. shared a bedroom and slept in a bed with her grandmother, Linda Howard, who lived in the area and was visiting.

According to Police, Bobby Martin told them he had attempted to keep his appointment to pick up his daughter. Martin claimed that Howard never showed up to drop A.M. off. Eventually, he went to Howard's apartment. He noticed that Howard's car was there and lights were on in the building. He tried to call, but Howard's cell phone was turned off and she did not answer. Martin then called 911 and requested assistance in obtaining his daughter as specified by the custody agreement between Martin and Howard. Martin made this call around 11:30 p.m.

What happened next is the subject of this case. Police claim that an officer arrived at the apartment shortly before 12 a.m., followed shortly by other officers. Officers claim they knocked on the door of Plaintiffs' apartment, but Tiffany Howard refused to let them in. Eventually, Defendants claim, they determined that the situation was an emergency and they entered the home without a warrant to check on A.M.'s safety. They found that A.M. was fine, but arrested Plaintiff Tiffany Howard for obstruction of governmental administration. Howard contends that she refused to open the door without a warrant, that the apartment was quiet and no danger to A.M. existed or was apparent, and that officers had no reason to enter the apartment without obtaining a warrant.

Plaintiffs' Complaint was filed in the Onondaga County Supreme Court and then removed to this Court. Plaintiffs filed an amended Complaint. The Amended Complaint raised four counts. Count One alleged a malicious prosecution tort claim against Defendants Town of DeWitt, DeWitt Police Department, and Defendant Fuller, in his official and individual capacity. Count Two, raised against all Defendants, was an unreasonable search and seizure claim under the New York Constitution. Count Three made a defamation claim against Defendant Fuller. That claim alleged that Fuller knew when he laid the obstruction charge against Plaintiff that such charges would be published in the local newspaper. As such, Plaintiffs' insisted, Fuller defamed Plaintiff. Count Four alleged a Section 1983 claim for illegal search and seizure against the individual defendants.

At the close of discovery, the parties filed motions for summary judgment. After briefing and a hearing, the Court denied the Plaintiffs' motion and granted the Defendant's motion in part. The Court dismissed Plaintiffs' claims against the Town of DeWitt Police Department and Town of Dewitt, Plaintiffs' claims for violation of the New York Constitution, Plaintiffs' claims for malicious prosecution, and Plaintiffs' claims for libel against Defendant Fuller. Remaining in the case was Plaintiff's claim for unreasonable search and seizure in violation of their constitutional rights.

The case proceeded to trial. At the close of the evidence, Plaintiffs moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court reserved decision on the motion. The jury eventually found for the Defendants. Plaintiffs then filed the instant motion, seeking judgment as a matter of law on the illegal search and false arrest claims or in the alternative a new trial.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

Plaintiffs seek judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 50(a), the Court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law on a claim or defense if, after hearing the evidence, "the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a). If the Court does not grant that motion, a party may renew that motion after trial and may also "include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59." FED. R. CIV. P. 50(b). A court may grant judgment notwithstanding the verdict "only if the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movants, without considering credibility or weight, reasonably permits only a conclusion in the movant's favor." Doctor's Assocs., Inc. v. Weible, 92 F.3d 108, 111-12 (2d Cir. 1996). This standard is a difficult one to meet: "there must be such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise or conjecture." Kroshnyi v. U.S. Pack Courier Servs., 771 F.3d 93, 106-107 (2d Cir. 2014) (citations omitted).

Plaintiffs in the alternative seek a new trial, alleging that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides that "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues... for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court[.]" FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a)(1)(A). "[A] decision is against the weight of the evidence... if and only if the verdict is [1] seriously erroneous or [2] a miscarriage of justice.'" Raedle v. Credit Agricole Indosuez, 670 F.3d 411, 417-18 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Farrior v. Waterford Bd. of Educ., 277 F.3d 633, 635 (2d Cir. 2002)). Such a motion can be granted "even if there is substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict." United States v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 104 (2d Cir. 1998). Though a trial judge "is free to weigh the evidence himself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner... the court should only grant such a motion when the jury's verdict is egregious.'" DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 134 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting Dunlap-McCuller v. Riese Organization, 980 F.2d 153, 157 (2d Cir. 1992)). Thus, "a court should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility." Id.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Plaintiffs argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on both of their claims. The ...


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