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Dolan v. The New Hyde Park Fire District

United States District Court, E.D. New York

December 21, 2017

Michael Dolan, Sr., et al., Plaintiffs,
The New Hyde Park Fire District, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiffs Michael Dolan, Sr. (“Dolan Sr.”) and Michael Dolan, Jr. (“Dolan Jr., ” and, together with Dolan Sr., “plaintiffs”) brought this action against the County of Nassau (the “County”), Detective James P. Gilroy (“Detective Gilroy”), and Detective Thomas Walker (“Detective Walker”), as well as the New Hyde Park Fire District (the “District”), Commissioner Richard Stein (“Commissioner Stein”), Commissioner John DiVello (“Commissioner DiVello”), Commissioner Michael Bonura (“Commissioner Bonura”), Commissioner John Brown (“Commissioner Brown”), Commissioner John Waldron (“Commissioner Waldron”), and Robert Von Werne (together, “defendants”). The amended complaint asserted violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York state law based upon alleged First Amendment violations, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, and false arrest/false imprisonment.[1]

         A jury trial on plaintiffs' claims took place from March 9, 2017 through March 28, 2017. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiffs on their claims for malicious prosecution and abuse of process against the District and Commissioners Stein, DiVello, Bonura, and Brown. The jury awarded Dolan Sr. $150, 000 in compensatory damages and $30, 000 in punitive damages against Commissioner Stein.[2] The jury awarded Dolan Jr. $400, 000 in compensatory damages, $30, 000 in punitive damages against Commissioner Stein, and $5, 000 each in punitive damages against Commissioners DiVello, Bonura, and Brown.

         Presently before the Court is defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 as to liability and as to the jury's award of punitive damages, or a new trial as to both liability and damages pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59.[3] In short, defendants argue that the Court's jury instructions relating to the abuse of process and malicious prosecution claims were erroneous; that there was insufficient evidence supporting the jury's finding that defendants' acted maliciously and its resulting punitive damages award; and that the damages awards were excessive. The Court disagrees.

         First, with respect to the jury instructions regarding abuse of process, any argument that the Court should have instructed that the jury had to find improper use of the process after plaintiffs were arrested has been waived by defendants (because it was not raised at trial), and the Court finds no manifest injustice will result from enforcing that waiver. In any event, even assuming arguendo that such a requirement exists for an abuse of process claim, such evidence clearly existed in the record to satisfy that requirement based upon the defendants' utilization of the process (i.e., the arrest) to bring departmental charges against plaintiffs. Although this Court ruled that the disciplinary proceeding could not itself constitute the necessary “process” for this claim, the Court did not rule that the departmental charges could not be the basis for the collateral objective, or the basis for any requirement that some improper use of the process must occur after the issuance of the process. Given the uncontroverted evidence that the process was used to bring departmental charges (and the ability for the jury to find that such action was both improper and the basis for the collateral objective), any alleged failure to instruct the jury on this alleged legal requirement was harmless.

         Second, with respect to the jury instructions on the malicious prosecution claim, the Court concludes that defendants' argument regarding the “probable cause” instruction is entirely unpersuasive. Contrary to defendants' contention, the Court properly instructed the jury that the “probable cause” analysis related to the felony crime that plaintiff was actually charged with-namely, Grand Larceny in the Third Degree-rather than some lesser crime such as theft. Here, a rational jury could have found: (1) that Commissioner Stein told the police that plaintiffs had removed 65 smoke detectors from the firehouse worth $50 (for a total value of $3, 250), even though Chief Murray valued them at $10 each, and Commissioner Stein later admitted at his deposition that they were valued at $20-30 each; and (2) that Commissioner Stein provided that false information concerning the value of the detectors intentionally and maliciously in order to reach the threshold of $3, 000 required to charge plaintiffs with a felony- which is exactly what the police did-so that plaintiffs could be removed from the fire department under the disciplinary rules. Defendants argue that they should not be held responsible for the “uncontrolled choice” of the police to charge the felony. However, under the particular circumstances of this case, the police's charging decision was far from uncontrolled. There was more than sufficient evidence from which the jury could rationally conclude that the police decided to charge exactly what Commissioner Stein hoped that they would charge, and that Commissioner Stein intentionally and maliciously provided false information to initiate and support that specific charge (in the form of a supporting deposition). For instance, the police officer testified that he had no independent information regarding the value of the fire detectors other than what Commissioner Stein told him. Accordingly, the Court properly instructed the jury that the “probable cause” analysis related to the felony charge, not some lesser charge. To hold otherwise would allow a private actor to supply false information for the specific reason of encouraging the police to initiate a prosecution for an extremely serious offense to avoid liability for malicious prosecution of that offense simply because there was probable cause for some minor uncharged offense. There is simply no legal basis for such a rule as it relates to a malicious prosecution claim under the circumstances presented in this case.

         Third, as noted above, there was more than sufficient evidence from which a rational jury could find that Commissioner Stein acted maliciously-specifically, by intentionally providing false information to the police regarding the value of the detectors (and other circumstances surrounding the removal of the detectors) for the malicious purpose of having plaintiffs charged with a felony which would allow Commissioner Stein to have plaintiffs automatically expelled from the fire department. In addition, defendants argue that there was no basis for the jury to find the other defendants (Commissioners Bonura, DiVello, and Brown) also acted maliciously such that punitive damages (in the amount of $5, 000 each) was warranted. The Court disagrees. There is evidence in the record that, inter alia, (1) these Commissioners approved of Commissioner Stein contacting the police regarding the detectors, (2) after the arrest, Commissioners Brown, Stein, and Bonura went to the District Attorney's Office to discuss the charges, including the value of the detectors (although Commissioner Bonura testified that they told the prosecutor during the meeting that they did not know the value, despite Commissioner Stein's prior sworn statement that they were worth $50 each), and (3) Commissioner DiVello testified that he knew that plaintiffs would be removed from the fire department automatically if there was a felony conviction.

         Fourth, the Court finds no basis to disturb the compensatory or punitive damages awarded to plaintiffs by the jury. As a threshold matter, given that plaintiffs prevailed on the abuse of process and malicious prosecution claims, the jury could award damages for the arrest and confinement prior to the arraignment. With respect to Dolan Jr., the Court concludes that it was not beyond the bounds of reasonableness for the jury to award compensatory damages in the amount of $400, 000 for his loss of liberty, his emotional distress, and the reputational damages caused by the arrest and prosecution. At the trial, Dolan Jr., among other things, testified that: (1) he was searched and held at the police station for eight hours, shackled to the wall; (2) his felony arrest was reported on television, in newspapers, and on the internet; and (3) he agonized for months over the negative impact that this charge would have over his career and his life. With respect to Dolan Sr., the Court similarly concludes that $150, 000 in compensatory damages is within the range of reasonableness given the evidence of his loss of liberty, emotional distress, and reputational harm. The Court also concludes that the award of punitive damages is supported by the evidence in the case and is reasonable. In short, in light of all of the damages evidence, there was nothing “conscience-shocking” about the jury's damages award, and the damages were well within the reasonable range.

         I. Background[4]

         A. Factual Background

         The Court assumes familiarity with the facts of this case, but provides a brief overview for purposes of the instant motion.

         On June 21, 2012, plaintiffs removed a number of smoke detectors from the firehouse. Commissioner Stein, acting as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners, reported the alleged theft to the Suffolk County Police Department. Commissioner Stein made incorrect statements as to the value and/or number of the removed smoke detectors. (Tr. 712:18-714:10.) Commissioner Stein was the only commissioner-defendant who contacted the police in connection with the smoke detector removal. (Tr. 281:17-293:19; 370:1-21; 392:5-23; 420:8-13; 516:15-518:8; 1444:19- 22; 1464:7-15; 1473:6-19.) Commissioner Stein did not identify plaintiffs or otherwise inform the police as to who he believed removed the detectors. (Tr. 257:7-17.) Commissioner Stein signed a deposition complaining of the alleged theft. (Pl.'s Ex. 20.)

         After Commissioner Stein reported the removal of the smoke detectors to the police, he spoke with Dolan Sr. and encouraged him to return the smoke detectors to avoid prosecution. (Tr. 154:19-24; 704:4-7.) Dolan Sr. failed to return the smoke detectors, and he and Dolan Jr. were subsequently arrested by the police. (Tr. 118:16-22; 154:19-24; 184:2; 186:5-9; 186:17-187:2.) Later, departmental charges were brought against plaintiffs for the removal of the smoke detectors. A hearing was held in January of 2013, and resulted in the recommendation that Dolan Jr. be reinstated as a firefighter and Dolan Sr. be discharged. The Board of Commissioners voted to accept the recommendation.

         B. Procedural Background

         As noted above, trial concluded in the instant case on March 28, 2017. Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 as to liability and punitive damages, or to set aside the verdict and for a new trial under Rule 59 on May 24, 2017 (ECF No. 98), and submitted a revised brief on May 25, 2017 (ECF No. 101). Plaintiffs filed their opposition to the motion on July 5, 2017. (ECF No. 105.) Defendants replied on July 21, 2017. (ECF No. 107.) The Court has fully considered the parties' submissions.

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Rule 50

         The standard governing motions for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 is well-settled. A court may not properly grant judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 against a party “unless the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is insufficient to permit a reasonable juror to find in his favor.” Arlio v. Lively, 474 F.3d 46, 51 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Galdieri-Ambrosini v. Nat'l Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 289 (2d Cir. 1998)). Generally, a court reviewing such a motion must defer to all credibility determinations and reasonable inferences that the jury may have drawn at trial. See Frank Sloup & Crabs Unltd., LLC v. Loeffler, 745 F.Supp.2d 115, 120 (E.D.N.Y. 2010). That is, a court considering a Rule 50 motion “may not itself weigh the credibility of witnesses or consider the weight of the evidence.” Meloff v. N.Y. Life Ins. Co., 240 F.3d 138, 145 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Galdieri-Ambrosini, 136 F.3d at 289); see also Playtex Prods., Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co., 02 Civ. 8046 (WHP), 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14084, at *5-6 (S.D.N.Y. July 26, 2004) (“A Rule 50(b) motion cannot be granted ‘if, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party and making all credibility assessments in his favor, there is sufficient evidence to permit a rational juror to find in his favor.'” (quoting Sir Speedy, Inc. v. L&P Graphics, Inc., 957 F.2d 1033, 1039 (2d Cir. 1992))).

         Thus, judgment as a matter of law is appropriately granted where:

(1) there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or
(2) there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded [persons] could not arrive at a verdict against [it].

Advance Pharm., Inc. v. United States, 391 F.3d 377, 390 (2d Cir. 2004) (alterations in original) (quoting Galdieri-Ambrosini, 136 F.3d at 289); see also Kinneary v. City of N.Y., 601 F.3d 151, 155 (2d Cir. 2010) (same); This is Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir. 1998) (stating that a court assessing a Rule 50 motion must consider whether “the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [people] could have reached” (quoting Cruz v. Local Union No. 3, Int'l Bd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154-55 (2d Cir. 1994))). In other words, this Court may only grant defendants' Rule 50 motion “if it cannot find sufficient evidence supporting the jury's verdict.” Playtex Products, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14084, at *6; see also Black v. Finantra Capital, Inc., 418 F.3d 203, 209 (2d Cir. 2005) (“A court evaluating . . . a motion [for judgment as a matter of law] cannot assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury.”). For this reason, a party moving to set aside a jury verdict must clear “a high bar.” Lavin-McEleney v. Marist College, 239 F.3d 476, 479 (2d Cir. 2001).

         B. Rule 59

         A court may grant a new trial in a jury case for any of the reasons “for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). The decision whether to grant a new trial under Rule 59 “is ‘committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge.'” Stoma v. Miller Marine Servs., Inc., 271 F.Supp.2d 429, 431 (E.D.N.Y. 2003) (quoting Metromedia Co. v. Fugazy, 983 F.2d 350, 363 (2d Cir. 1992)). Thus, “[a] new trial may be granted . . . when the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence.” DLC Mgmt. Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133 (2d Cir. 1998).

         In contrast to a motion for judgment as a matter of law, a court may grant a motion for a new trial “even if there is substantial evidence supporting the jury's verdict.” Id. at 134. Additionally, “a trial judge is free to weigh the evidence himself, and need not view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner.” Id. (citing Song v. Ives Labs., Inc., 957 F.2d 1041, 1047 (2d Cir. 1992)). A court considering a Rule 59 motion for a new trial, however, “must bear in mind . . . that the court should only grant such a motion when the jury's verdict is ‘egregious.'” Id. For this reason, “[a] motion for a new trial ordinarily should not be granted unless the trial court is convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.” Munafo v. Metro. Transp. Auth., 381 F.3d 99, 105 (2d Cir. 2004) (quoting Atkins v. New York City, 143 F.3d 100, 102 (2d Cir. 1998)); see also Patrolmen's Benevolent Ass'n of N.Y.C. v. City of New York, 310 F.3d 43, 54 (2d Cir. 2002). Furthermore, “[w]here the resolution of the issues depended on assessment of the credibility of the witnesses, it is proper for the court to refrain from setting aside the verdict and granting a new trial.” Fugazy, 983 F.2d at 363; see also DLC Mgmt. Corp., 163 F.3d at 134 (“[A] court should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility.”).

         With respect to damages, it is well settled that, pursuant to Rule 59, a trial judge has the discretion to grant a new trial if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, and “[t]his discretion includes overturning verdicts for excessiveness and ordering a new trial without qualification, or conditioned on the verdict winner's refusal to agree to a reduction (remittitur).” Gasperini v. Ctr. for Humanities, Inc., 518 U.S. 415, 433 (1996); accord Rangolan v. County of Nassau, 370 F.3d 239, 244 (2d Cir. 2004); Bracey v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Bridgeport, 368 F.3d 108, 117 (2d Cir. 2004). As the Second Circuit has instructed, “[w]here there is no particular discernable error, we have generally held that a jury's damage award may not be set aside as excessive unless ‘the award is so high as to shock the judicial conscience and constitute a denial of justice.'” Kirsch v. Fleet St., Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 165 (2d Cir. 1998) (quoting O'Neill v. Krzeminski, 839 F.2d 9, 13 (2d Cir. 1988)). However, if the trial judge identifies a specific error, “the court may set aside the resulting award even if its amount does not ‘shock the conscience.'” Id. In reviewing a claim that a jury's damages award was excessive, the court must “accord substantial deference to the jury's determination of factual issues.” Martell v. Boardwalk Enters., 748 F.2d 740, 750 (2d Cir. 1984). Moreover, “the trial judge is not called upon to say whether the amount is higher than he [or she] personally would have awarded.” Dagnello v. Long Island R.R., 289 F.2d 797, 806 (2d Cir. 1961).

         The compensatory damages awarded to Dolan Sr. in this case, however, were awarded based on the finding of liability on parallel federal and state law claims. “A federal court, in reviewing the amount of damages awarded on a state law claim, must apply New York law.” Patterson v. Balsamico, 440 F.3d 104, 119 (2d Cir. 2006) (citing Gasperini, 518 U.S. at 430-31 and Cross v. N.Y.C Transit Auth., 417 F.3d 241, 258 (2d Cir. 2005)). “New York law provides that the appellate division ‘reviewing a money judgment . . . in which it is contended that the award is excessive or inadequate . . . shall determine that an award is excessive or inadequate if it deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation.'” Id. (alterations in original) (quoting N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 5501(c)). The Supreme Court has held that “the role of the district court is to determine whether the jury's verdict is within the confines set by state law, and to determine, by reference to federal standards developed under Rule 59, whether a new trial or remittitur should be ordered.” Gasperini, 518 U.S. at 435 (quoting Browning-Ferris Indus. of Vt., Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., 492 U.S. 257, 279 (1989)).[5]

         “To determine whether an award ‘deviates materially from what would be reasonable compensation, ' New York state courts look to awards approved in similar cases.” Id. at 425. These awards, however, are “not binding but instructive.” In re Joint E. & S. Dist. Asbestos Litig., 9 F.Supp.2d 307, 311 (S.D.N.Y. 1998); see also Senko v. Fonda, 53 A.D.2d 638, 639 (N.Y.App.Div. 1976) (stating that prior awards are not binding but that they “may guide and enlighten the court and in a sense, may constrain it”). “[The § 5501(c)] standard requires a court to determine a reasonable range and ...

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