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Shepherd v. Fisher

United States District Court, S.D. New York

June 26, 2018

EON SHEPHERD, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER BRIAN FISCHER, et al, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          RONNIE ABRAMS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On September 5, 2017, after a five-day trial, a jury found in favor of Plaintiff Eon Shepherd, who is currently incarcerated, on his sexual assault claims against Defendants Shawn Sarles and Jason Ferrick, and in favor of correction officer Defendants Alan Twedt, Robert Bentivegna, and Robert Ercole on Plaintiffs remaining claims. The jury awarded Plaintiff one dollar in nominal damages and $20, 000 in punitive damages for each liable Defendant. Before the Court are Defendants Sarles's and Ferrick's motions for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, or a reduction in the punitive-damages award. See Dkt. 273. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motions are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 13, 2011, Plaintiff, then proceeding pro se, brought a variety of Federal constitutional claims in an amended complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. All of Plaintiff s claims arose from events that allegedly occurred between October 2005 and August 2008 while he was an inmate at New York State's Green Haven and Elmira Correctional Facilities. See Dkt. 61. Defendants were more than two dozen current and former employees of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, on whose behalf the Attorney General of the State of New York filed a consolidated motion for summary judgment. Defendants argued that the majority of Plaintiffs claims were precluded as a matter of law and that he had failed to properly exhaust the remainder. See Dkt. 109. On March 31, 2015, the Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 127. After the Court appointed counsel to represent Plaintiff, it sought additional briefing on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Dkt. 159.[1] On February 16, 2017, the Court reconsidered its previous decision to grant summary judgment to Defendants on Shepherd's claims that he was sexually assaulted, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that he was denied religious meals on two Rastafarian holidays in violation of the Free Exercise Clause, and it denied summary judgment as to those two causes of action. The Court had also previously denied summary judgment for three additional causes of action: (1) that Defendant Bentivegna had been deliberately indifferent to Plaintiffs request for pain medication, in violation of the Eighth Amendment; (2) that Defendant Sarles had frisk searched Plaintiff in retaliation for filing grievances, in violation of the First Amendment; and (3) that multiple Defendants had searched Plaintiffs hair, in violation of the First Amendment because of his Rastafarian religious beliefs. See Feb. 2017 Op. (Dkt. 194).

         On July 17, 2017, Plaintiff agreed to dismiss with prejudice his hair-search claims. Dkt. 220. On August 29, 2017, the parties proceeded to trial on the remaining four causes of action against five Defendants. On September 5, 2017, the jury found for Defendants on the retaliation, deliberate indifference, and religious-meal causes of action. Tr. Trans., Sept. 5, 2017 at 6-8 (Dkt. 272). The jury found for Plaintiff and against Defendants Sarles and Ferrick on the Eighth Amendment cause of action, specifically finding that Plaintiff had "proven by a preponderance of the credible evidence that he was sexually abused or assaulted in violation of his constitutional rights." Id. at 6-7. The jury awarded Plaintiff no compensatory damages, one dollar in nominal damages, and $20, 000 in punitive damages against both Sarles and Ferrick.

         On October 3, 2017, Sarles and Ferrick reiterated their motion for judgment as a matter of law-which they had first made at the close of Plaintiffs case-or a new trial, based on insufficient evidence, qualified immunity, and one of this Court's evidentiary rulings. Failing a favorable judgment or a new trial, they asked for a reduction in punitive damages. Plaintiff opposed the motion and Defendants replied. Dkts. 278, 279. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motions are denied.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Insufficient Evidence

         Defendants argue that the record did not contain sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find for Plaintiff and that the Court should either enter judgment for Defendants as a matter of law or, in the alternative, grant them a new trial. They argue that the only evidence in the record to support the verdicts are "Plaintiffs own self-serving complaints" and vague medical records. Defs. Memorandum of Law at 6 (Dkt. 274).

         A. Legal Standard

         A court may only grant judgment as a matter of law if "a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and 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)(1). That standard "imposes a heavy burden on a movant," requiring "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 the evidence in favor of the movant is so overwhelming that reasonable and fair minded persons could not arrive at a verdict against it." Cash v. Cty. of Erie, 654 F.3d 324, 333 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation omitted). This Court "must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility assessments or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). "In short, a Rule 50 motion may be granted only if the court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, concludes that 'a reasonable juror would have been compelled to accept the view of the moving party.'" Cash, 654 F.3d at 333 (quoting Zellner v. Summerlin, 494 F.3d 344, 371 (2d Cir. 2007)).

         B. Factual Background

         At trial, this Court instructed the jury that, to find for Plaintiff on his sexual abuse claims against Sarles and Ferrick, it would have to find (1) "that the [relevant] defendant sexually abused or assaulted the plaintiff," (2) "that the defendant did so intentionally or recklessly," and (3) "that the defendant's actions proximately caused injury to the plaintiff." Dkt. 227 at 24. In the instruction, the Court also advised that a "prison official's intentional contact with an inmate's genitalia or other intimate area which serves no penological interest and is undertaken with the intent to gratify the prison official's sexual desire or humiliate the inmate, violates the Eighth Amendment." Id. "An inmate need not show there was penetration, physical injury or direct contact with uncovered genitalia." Id.

         Plaintiff testified that on January 23, 2007, Defendant Sarles took a metal wand and "rammed it between [his] ass," meaning his "butt cheeks," while he was facing the wall and being searched. Tr. Trans., Aug. 29, 2017 at 76 (Dkt. 264). In addition to the physical intrusion, Plaintiff stated that Sarles, after Plaintiff asked what he was doing, said that "he should take this hand scanner and 'f [Plaintiff] with it." Id. at 77. Plaintiff testified that the "ramm[ing]" caused a "sharp pain." Id. Furthermore, Plaintiff said that shortly afterwards when he was "crying" and telling a doctor about what Sarles had just done to him, Sarles was standing nearby and "rubbing his eyes like [Plaintiff was] a cry baby." Id. at 78. Plaintiff told the jury that he was crying because of the pain, and because he felt "ashamed" and "embarrassed" by the incident. Id. at 78-79. He also testified that ...


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