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Zarcone v. Perry

March 3, 1978


Appeal from $60,000 punitive damages award in civil rights action after a jury trial before Mishler, J., in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Affirmed. ARNOLD B. FIRESTONE, Hauppage, New York (Firestone & Checkenian, of counsel), for Plaintiff-Appellee. JOSEPH D. STIM, Farmingdale, New York, for Defendant-Appellant.

Author: Feinberg

Before: FEINBERG and OAKES, Circuit Judges, and WYATT, District Judge.*fn*

FEINBERG, Circuit Judge:

In this unusual civil rights case, William M. Perry, a former judge of the District Court of Suffolk County, appeals from a verdict in favor of plaintiff Thomas Zarcone, after a jury trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, before Chief Judge Jacob Mishler. The basis of Zarcone's suit was that Perry and other defendants*fn1 had deprived plaintiff of his constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The jury awarded plaintiff $80,000 compensatory damages against Perry and Sheriff James Windsor, $60,000 punitive damages against Perry, and $1,000 punitive damages against Windsor. Only Perry appeals, and on the sole ground that the punitive damages award against him was excessive. We affirm.


The incident that gave rise to the lawsuit occurred on April 30, 1975. On that night, then Judge Perry was in his chambers during a break in an evening session of traffic court in Suffolk County, Long Island. Zarcone was operating a mobile food vending truck outside the courthouse. Perry asked Deputy Sheriff Windsor to get some coffee, which he did. Both Perry and Windsor thought the coffee tasted "putrid," and Perry told Windsor to get the coffee vendor and bring him "in front of me in cuffs." Perry directed two plainclothes officers, who happened to be nearby, to accompany Windsor. Wearing his sheriff's uniform equipped with badge, gun and handcuffs, Windsor went to Zarcone and told him that the judge said the coffee was terrible and that Zarcone had to go inside to see the judge. Windsor handcuffed Zarcone, despite the vendor's protestations that it was not necessary. When Zarcone said he was too embarrassed to go into the courthouse that way, one of the officers suggested that Zarcone walk between them with Zarcone's jacket over his hands.

The group then marched through the hallway of the courthouse, in full view of dozens of people.Zarcone heard someone yell that they were locking up the frankfurter man. When they arrived at Perry's chambers, the judge asked if the Sheriff had "the coffee vending man there in handcuffs." Upon entering the chambers, Perry ordered Zarcone to be left "in handcuffs until I get finished with him." A pseudo-official inquisition then began. Zarcone stood in front of the judge's desk, behind which the judge sat. A court reporter was present, along with Windsor and the two police officers. Perry told Zarcone that "I have the two cups of coffee here for evidence." According to Zarcone, whom the jury must have believed, Perry then started screaming at him, threatening him and his "livelihood" for about 20 minutes, and thoroughly scaring him. Just before Zarcone was allowed to leave, Perry commanded Windsor to note Zarcone's vehicle and vending license numbers and told Zarcone, "Mister, you are going to be sorrier before I get through with you."

After Zarcone left, he resumed his mobile truck route and came back to the night traffic courthouse about 45 minutes later. Shortly thereafter, Windsor returned and told Zarcone they were to go back to the judge. Zarcone asked if he had to be handcuffed again, but Windsor said no. When they reappeared before Perry, he told Zarcone that he was going to have the two cups of coffee analyzed. Perry also said that if Zarcone would admit he did something wrong, then Perry would drop the charges. Zarcone consistently denied that anything was amiss with the coffee, and no charges were filed.

We have described the night's events in such detail to impart some of the flavor that must have so impressed the jury. The unfortunate occurrence was publicized at the time, and ultimately led to the removal of Judge Perry from the bench.*fn2 There were unpleasant consequences for Zarcone, as well: He testified that he was very upset by the incident, that he could not sleep, and that he started to stutter and get headaches. Zarcone also required treatment at the Coney Island Hospital, he could not work, and his wife asked him to move out of the house. We need not dwell on this any further, except to note that Perry does not complain here about the jury's award to Zarcone of $80,000 compensatory damages. However, Perry does challenge the amount of punitive damages, and we now turn to this issue.


After the jury verdict, appellant unsuccessfully moved to set aside the award of punitive damages as excessive and for a new trial on that issue. Appellant impliedly concedes, as he must, that punitive damages may be an integral part of the remedy in a civil rights action. See, e.g., Adickes v. S.H. Kress Co., 398 U.S. 144, 233-34, 26 L. Ed. 2d 142, 90 S. Ct. 1598 (1970) (Brennan, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Sostre v. McGinnis, 442 F.2d 178, 204-05 (2d Cir. 1971) (en banc), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 1049, 92 S. Ct. 719, 30 L. Ed. 2d 740 (1972); see also Stengel v. Belcher, 522 F.2d 438, 444 n.4 (6th Cir. 1975), cert. dismissed, 429 U.S. 118, 97 S. Ct. 514, 50 L. Ed. 2d 269 (1976). However, appellant argues that Judge Mishler erred in denying his motion for the following reasons: (1) The "historic range" of punitive damages awards in civil rights actions is only $500-$2,500; (2) the jury in a civil rights action already has wide latitude in awarding compensatory damages, and a substantial compensatory award (here $80,000) must already reflect "a punitive element"; (3) a substantial punitive damages award in a civil rights action "perverts the intent of the civil rights statute, which was to end racial discrimination"; (4) a substantial punitive damages award does not have any "rational deterrent effect" where the compensatory award was $80,000 and Perry was subject to disciplinary sanctions; and (5) since there was no proof in the record concerning Perry's net worth or income, there is no way of gauging the severity of his punishment. As will be seen below, we do not agree with these contentions.

It is apparent that many of appellant's arguments against the $60,000 punitive damages award are based on the uniqueness of a civil rights action. Since damage actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are themselves of relatively recent origin see Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 5 L. Ed. 2d 492, 81 S. Ct. 473 (1961), there is no long history of punitive damages awards under that statute. Therefore, in judging the excessiveness of the jury award here, we do not believe that we must limit our research to the developing case law under section 1983, as appellant contends. Such precedents are instructive, of course,*fn3 but the relative paucity of such cases suggests that we look elsewhere as well.

This approach is supported strongly by the thrust of 42 U.S.C. § 1988, which directs the federal courts to invoke state law remedies as a supplement to federal substantive law when necessary to vindicate fully the civil rights of a meritorious complainant.*fn4 See, e.g., Moor v. County of Alameda, 411 U.S. 693, 698-703, 36 L. Ed. 2d 596, 93 S. Ct. 1785 (1973); Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc., 396 U.S. 229, 240, 24 L. Ed. 2d 386, 90 S. Ct. 400 (1969). Moreover, there is no logical reason why general principles of damages should not apply to a civil rights action. The primary purpose of punitive damages is to deter similar occurrences in the future. See Fisher v. Volz, 496 F.2d 333, 347-48 (3d Cir. 1974); Lee v. Southern Home Sites Corp., 429 F.2d 290, 294 (5th Cir. 1970); see also Comment, Implying Punitive Damages in Employment Discrimination Cases, 9 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 325, 334-37 (1974). It cannot be that it is less important to deter intentional deprivations of fundamental constitutional rights, such as the unlawful dragooning before a star chamber proceeding that occurred here, than it is to deter intentional injuries to personal property interests.*fn5 Therefore, we reject the notion that there is something inherent in civil rights cases, whether or not based on race discrimination, which precludes the award of substantial punitive damages in appropriate instances.*fn6

A brief review of exemplary damages verdicts in the quite relevant, albeit more traditional, field of intentional torts demonstrates that the award here is not unprecedented. Over twenty years ago, this court upheld a $100,000 punitive award against an individual in a libel case where the actual damages were found to be one dollar. Reynolds v. Pegler, 223 F.2d 429 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 350 U.S. 846, 100 L. Ed. 754, 76 S. Ct. 80 (1955).*fn7 Similarly, in Goldwater v. Ginzburg, supra, we upheld a total of $75,000 in punitive damages against an individual and his corporation for their intentional wrongdoings. See also Doralee Estates, Inc. v. Cities Service Oil Co., 569 F.2d 716, slip op. at 763 (2d Cir. 1977). Furthermore, a total of $100,000 in damages, the greater part of which was punitive, was upheld in the Seventh Circuit in an action for assault and false imprisonment. Bucher v. Krause, 200 F.2d 576, 586-88 (7th Cir. 1952), cert. denied, 345 U.S. 997, 97 L. Ed. 1404, 73 S. Ct. 1141 (1953). While those cases are factually distinguishable from this one, it is clear that substantial exemplary ...

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