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Przybyla v. County of Suffolk

United States District Court, E.D. New York

July 11, 2017

TARA PRZYBYLA, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF SUFFOLK, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE OFFICER BRIAN MCMURRAY, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE OFFICER ROBERT MUDZINSKI, SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE OFFICER PETER ERVOLINA and SUFFOLK COUNTY POLICE OFFICER JOHN DOES 1-4 in their official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ANNE Y. SHIELDS, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Tara Przybyla (“Plaintiff”) commenced this action against defendants County of Suffolk (the “County”), and Suffolk County Police Officers Brian McMurray, Robert Mudzinski and Peter Ervolina (collectively the “Individual Defendants (collectively “Defendants”). Her complaint alleged violations of her constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”) and New York State law.[1]

         The case proceeded to trial before the undersigned against the named Defendants on February 27, 2017. The sole claim that proceeded to the jury was the excessive force claim against Defendant Police Officer Mudzinski. See Docket Entry herein (“DE”) 76 (Memorandum and Order explaining the Court's decision as to the claim to be charged to the jury). On March 6, 2016, the jury returned a defense verdict. Plaintiff was granted 30 days in which to submit any post-trial motion. That deadline was later extended, and Plaintiff filed her post-trial motion on April 20, 2017. DE 84. That motion was opposed on June 9, 2017, DE 88, and is now ripe for decision.

         Plaintiff moves for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In support of the motion Plaintiff argues that Defense counsel “participated in attorney misconduct” during her closing argument by “making inappropriate remarks, misstatements of law and speculation unsupported by the record.” DE 84 at 2. For the reasons set forth below, this Court disagrees, and denies the motion for a new trial in its entirety.

         I. Legal Principles: Standard for Rule 59 Motion for a New Trial

         Rule 59(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure codifies a trial court's ability to grant a new trial after a jury trial “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) (“Rule 59”). Among the grounds for granting a new trial is attorney misconduct in the form of making inappropriate comments during summation. Where such comments are held to have improperly influenced a jury, a new trial may be granted. See e.g., Pappas v. Middle Earth Condominium Ass'n., 963 F.2d 534, 539 (2d Cir. 1992). While counsel certainly has latitude in remarking upon the evidence, that latitude does not include comments that offend the “fundamental sense of fairness which guides our system of justice, and by the rules governing the ethical conduct of attorneys.” Id. at 540.

         When considering whether counsel's conduct warrants the grant of a Rule 59 motion, the Court must evaluate challenged statements in the context of the entire trial, and the evidence presented therein. Moreover, it is the trial Court that is in the best position to evaluate whether a jury verdict has been so tainted as to warrant a new trial. Not all allegations of misconduct warrant a new trial. “Some conduct is de minimis in the context of the entire trial, and some is promptly dealt with by the trial court's rulings and curative instructions. Yet, when the conduct of counsel in argument causes prejudice to the opposing party and unfairly influences a jury's verdict, a new trial should be granted.” Id. at 540 (citations omitted).

         With these standards in mind and the Court's recollection of the entire trial clear, the Court now turns to the merits of Plaintiff s motion.

         II. Plaintiffs Arguments

         As noted, Plaintiffs Rule 59 motion is based upon statements made by defense counsel during summation. In particular, Plaintiff argues that the jury was tainted by counsel's characterization of Plaintiff as a “drama queen, ” a term that is deemed inappropriate because it is gender-specific, and which tended to portray Plaintiff as a “silly woman who overreacts to everything”. Plaintiff further argues that defense counsel exceeded the bounds of appropriate closing remarks when she:

• indicated that police officers shouldn't be discouraged from making arrests for fear of being named as defendants in future civil lawsuits,
• implied that Plaintiff s lawsuit was motivated by a desire to retaliate against law enforcement,
• indicated that an award to Plaintiff would cheapen the cause of those who have genuinely been injured by police misconduct,
• stated that it was the Plaintiff s burden to prove that the named police officer ...

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