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Cotto v. City of Middletown

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 19, 2016

ALEXANDER COTTO, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF MIDDLETOWN, et al., Defendants.

RULING AND ORDER

Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

The plaintiff, Alexander Cotto, brought a civil suit against the defendants, the City of Middletown and several of its police officers, asserting various federal and state claims related to their conduct during a traffic stop. (doc. 1) The matter proceeded to a jury trial against Lieutenant Richard Davis, Officer Lee Buller, Officer Daniel Schreiner, and Officer Jason Tetrault. After the close of Cotto's case, the defendants made a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law on certain counts. The jury found in favor of Cotto and awarded him nominal and punitive damages. (doc. 162) The jury then answered special interrogatories about the verdict. (doc. 163) The defendants renewed their Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law, asserting that no reasonable jury could have found for Cotto on any of his Fourth Amendment and invasion of privacy claims or found the malicious intent required for an award of punitive damages, or alternatively, they argue that their actions were entitled to qualified immunity. (doc. 168)

For the foregoing reasons, the defendants' motion is denied in its entirety and the verdict is sustained. The amount of punitive damages awarded, however, must be reduced.

I. Standard of Review

Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows for the entry of judgment as a matter of law if a jury returns a verdict for which there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50. The standard under Rule 50 is the same as that for summary judgment: A court may not grant a Rule 50 motion unless "the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable [persons] could have reached." This Is Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, in deciding such a motion, "the court must give deference to all credibility determinations and reasonable inferences of the jury . . . and it may not itself weigh the credibility of the witnesses or consider the weight of the evidence." Galdieri-Ambrosini v. Nat'l Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 289 (2d Cir. 1998) (citations omitted). In short, the court cannot "substitute its judgment for that of the jury." LeBlanc-Sternberg v. Fletcher, 67 F.3d 412, 429 (2d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). Rather, judgment as a matter of law may only be granted if:

(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.

Galdieri-Ambrosini, 136 F.3d at 289 (quoting Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of the Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers, 34 F.3d 1148, 1154 (2d Cir. 1994)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Luciano v. Olsten Corp., 110 F.3d 210, 214 (2d Cir. 1997). The test on a Rule 50(b) motion is not the strength or weakness of the evidence, but whether the evidence presented was such that a "reasonable juror would have been compelled to accept the view of the moving party." Densberger, 125 F.Supp.2d at 590 (citing This Is Me Inc., 157 F.3d at 142).

When a jury has provided both a verdict and special interrogatories, and there is a potential inconsistency between the jury's pronouncements, "it is the duty of the district court to reconcile the jury's general verdict and its interrogatory responses if reasonable reconciliation is possible." Kerman v. City of New York, 374 F.3d 93, 121 (2d Cir. 2004); see also Mien J. Studley, Inc. v. Gulf Oil Corp., 407 F.2d 521, 526-27) (2d Cir. 1969) ("[I]f it is discoverable that the jury might. . . have found consistent grounds for its ultimate decision-if the findings, therefore, are not necessarily in conflict-the general verdict must be sustained.") (citations and quotations omitted).

II. Background and Procedural History

Cotto filed his complaint against the defendants on April 12, 2010. Trial began on January 6, 2014, and lasted five days.

A. Evidence Adduced at Trial

Viewing the evidence put forth at trial in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the jury could have found the following relevant facts.

Alexander Cotto is an American citizen who was born in Puerto Rico. Tr. at 39. He speaks Spanish, but he is completely illiterate and does not understand English. Tr. at 40. He has mild mental retardation. Tr. at 45. At the time of the incident, he was 34 years old, stood about five foot two, and weighed 140 pounds. Tr. at 51.

Cotto's wife usually drove him to work at night because he did not have a driver's license. Tr. 50. On the night of January 12, 2010, however, she was unable to drive him, so Cotto drove himself to work through downtown Middleton, Connecticut. Tr. at 54-55. It was a cold evening, with temperatures in the low to mid thirties. Tr. 482. Around 10 p.m., Lieutenant Davis observed Cotto driving with his lights off, and pulled him over. Tr. at 289-90. Cotto parked his car on Green Street, approximately 100 feet from the Main Street intersection. Tr. 491. The location of the stop was in "plain view" of pedestrian traffic in the area. Tr. at 363. The incident was also captured by a video camera in a liquor store parking lot across the street. Ex. 12. The video demonstrates that Cotto was stopped in front of two residential houses, and across from another building and a parking lot that was used by several cars over the course of the search. Id.

Davis approached the car alone, without drawing his gun. Tr. at 337. Cotto's wife had instructed Cotto that if he was ever pulled over he should give the officer the papers in the car's console. Tr. at 58. Cotto behaved accordingly-when Davis came over to the car, he reached into the console and provided the papers that were there. Tr. at 59. He did not understand what Davis was saying to him, and responded in Spanish that he did not speak any English. Id. Although Cotto was unable to communicate, he was fully compliant throughout the search. Tr. at 481.

Davis then instructed Cotto to get out of the car, using hand gestures. Tr. 61. Davis placed Cotto's hands on top of the car, used his feet to spread Cotto's legs, and performed a thorough pat-down, including a manual over-the-clothes search of Cotto's genitals and buttocks. Tr. at 61-63. Although Davis found no weapons or contraband, and although he admittedly had no knowledge of Cotto's identity, Davis placed Cotto in handcuffs, sat him down on the sidewalk, and called for back-up. Tr. at 63. Buller, Tetrault, and Schreiner arrived. Tr. at 64. Davis did not indicate to the other officers either when they arrived or at any other point during the search that Cotto posed any kind of safety risk. Tr. at 492. At some point, Schreiner identified Cotto and incorrectly informed Davis that Cotto had previously been arrested for narcotics possession. Tr. at 461.

After the other officers arrived, Davis retrieved a narcotics-trained canine from his car and resumed searching Cotto. Tr. at 64. The dog sniffed Cotto and positively alerted to his upper left thigh and buttocks. Tr. 430. Davis then commenced a second pat-down, including a search of Cotto's jeans that turned up money but no narcotics. Tr. at 67, 431. During the second pat-down, Davis felt between Cotto's buttocks with his finger but uncovered no weapons or contraband. Tr. at 68. Davis also kicked off and searched Cotto's shoes. Tr. at 83, 85. Although Davis did not find any evidence of weapons or contraband in Cotto's shoes, he did not return them for the duration of the search, leaving Cotto to stand handcuffed in socks on the street on a cold night. Tr. at 83-84.

Davis searched the inside of Cotto's car with the canine. Tr. at 72. He ripped the door panel, pulled up the floor mats, and opened compartments in the car, but again came up with no weapons or contraband. Tr. at 72-74. Davis then again searched Cotto's person using the dog, and began the third pat-down. Tr. at 72, 85. During the third pat-down, Davis pulled down Cotto's jeans all the way to his ankles. Tr. 83, 85. Underneath his jeans, Cotto was wearing pajama pants/sweatpants as underwear. Tr. at 56. The dog then sniffed Cotto again, and again altered positively to the pocket-area of his pajamas. Tr. at 80. Davis conducted a fourth pat-down, searching Cotto's pajama pockets and feeling his buttocks and genitals through the fabric with his fingers. Tr. at 87.

Although Davis once again did not find any weapons or contraband, he then pulled down Cotto's pajamas. Tr. at 85-86. As discussed further below, the jury rejected testimony that the pajamas/sweatpants were pulled all the way down to Cotto's knees, but Cotto's statements were sufficient for the jury to find that they had been pulled down or away from his body a sufficient distance to expose Cotto's buttocks and genitals. See Tr. at 87-89.[1]Davis asked Tetrault, who was standing closest to him during the search, for his flashlight and Tetrault handed it over. Tr. at 433. Davis stated that he had no need to look at Cotto's genitals because if there was anything kept there, he would have felt it during the pat-downs. Tr. at 314. The jury could have found that he nevertheless used the flashlight to conduct a visual search of Cotto's genitals and buttocks. Tr. at 88. Once again, Davis found no evidence of weapons or contraband in the visual search.

Finally, Davis conducted a manual search of Cotto's bare buttocks and genitals, reaching in and feeling the area with his ungloved hand despite having gloves available in his car. Tr. at 89, 167-68, 434. Again, no evidence of contraband or weapons was found.

The entire stop and search took approximately one hour. Ex. 12. Despite periodic vehicular and pedestrian traffic, including people who could be seen on video to be slowing down to watch the search, id, none of the defendants made any effort to protect Cotto's privacy or to shield him from public view, Tr. at 362-63, 470. At one point, Davis referred to Cotto as a "Fucking Puerico, " a slang term for Puerto Ricans. Tr. at 183. And throughout the search, Buller, Tetrault, and Schreiner were talking and laughing. Tr. at 80. In particular, Cotto specified that they laughed at him when Davis pulled his pants down for the strip search. Tr. at 89, 90.

Davis ultimately issued Cotto a ticket, had his car towed, and the defendants left the scene. Tr. at 322-26, 436. Cotto went to a hospital, complaining about pain in his rectum and lower legs resulting from the search. Tr. at 98-99.

B. Jury Verdict and Interrogatories

The jury was instructed on section 1983 claims against Davis for unreasonable seizure, Tr. at 601-07, and for an unreasonable search, Tr. 607-09. In particular, the jury was instructed that it should find the search was unreasonable if it found either that Cotto was not lawfully detained, or that Davis had no reasonable suspicion to conduct the search, or that the search was not done in a reasonable manner. Id. It was also instructed on section 1983 claims against Buller, Tetrault, and Schreiner for failure to intervene, Tr. at 609, and claims against all of the defendants for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, Tr. at 611-16, and invasion of privacy, Tr. at 616. The jury was also instructed on compensatory, nominal, and punitive damages. Tr. at 616-22.

The jury returned a verdict largely in favor of Cotto. See Tr. at 714-16. doc. 162. Specifically, it found that Cotto had proved his claims of unreasonable search against Davis, the failure to intervene claims against the other defendants, and the invasion of privacy claims against all defendants, but that he had failed to prove an unreasonable seizure or either of the emotional distress claims. It awarded $1, 000 in nominal damages, and a total of $60, 000 in punitive damages from all of the defendants-$40, 000 from Davis, $10, 000 from Tetrault, and $5, 000 each from Buller and Schreiner.

The jury was then asked to answer specific interrogatories, which it did as follows:

The COURT:

[Interrog. #1] Did Lieutenant Richard Davis have probable cause to arrest Mr. Cotto for driving without an operator's license, making an illegal U-turn, or operating a motor vehicle without headlights?
Yes.
[Interrog. #2] Did Lieutenant Richard Davis have reasonable suspicion to suspect that Mr. Cotto was armed and dangerous which justified a pat down of Mr. Cotto when he exited his vehicle?
Yes.
[Interrog. #3] Was the canine, Rika, certified to detect the odor of narcotics?
Yes.
[Interrog. #4] Did Mr. Cotto rebut the presumption of the canine Rika's reliability as a detector of narcotics?
The answer there is "Yes, " and then the note next to it is, "But unsuccessfully." Is that an indication that the effort to rebut was made but it was not rebutted? Or -
The FOREPERSON:
We recognize that there was an attempt to rebut but it was unsuccessful. We didn't want the Court to believe that we did not understand that there was an attempt.
The COURT:
[Interrog. #5] Did the canine Rika alert to Mr. ...

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