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Gonzalez v. Waterbury Police Dept.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 9, 2016

WATERBURY POLICE DEPT., et al., Defendants.


          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

         This case arises out of a police “sting” operation conducted by members of the Waterbury Police Department that resulted in a lengthy high-speed chase and ultimately the arrest of Gabriel Gonzalez. Gonzalez alleges that the defendant police officers used excessive force in the course of taking him into custody following the high-speed pursuit. Such conduct, Gonzalez contends, was in violation of state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Following a jury trial that resulted in a mistrial, the defendants renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law.

         For the following reasons, the motion (doc. # 171) is denied.

         I. Standard of Review

         Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows for the entry of 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 . . . .” See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). If the court does not grant the motion made under Rule 50(a), “the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law” within 28 days from the entry of judgment or, if the motion concerns a matter not decided by a verdict, within 28 days after discharge of the jury. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). 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 . . . 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 making such a determination, the court “must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party” and “disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000).

         In short, judgment as a matter of law may only be granted if: “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');">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).[1]

         II. Background

         Gabriel Gonzalez filed a complaint against the City of Waterbury and members of the Waterbury Police Department on March 28, 2012. Thereafter, he made multiple amendments to his complaint. Because Gonzalez’s fourth amended complaint was struck for failure to comply with Rule 15, the operative complaint is the third amended complaint, which was filed on April 4, 2014. See Doc. # 59.

         On May 5, 2015, I granted in part, denied in part, and took under advisement in part, the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. See Doc. # 99. On February 29, 2016, I granted the portion of the motion that I had taken under advisement and dismissed the City of Waterbury from the case. See Docs. # 135, 146.

         Beginning on March 14, 2016, I held a jury trial with respect to the claims against the remaining defendants, Richard Hamel, Jason Lanoie, Maximo Torres, and Timothy Jackson. The trial concluded on March 18, 2016, when I declared a mistrial because the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Following trial, in accordance with Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the defendants renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law. The following is a summary of facts elicited at trial.

         In the early hours of August 7, 2010, in Waterbury, Connecticut, the Vice and Intelligence Division of the Waterbury Police Department was conducting a reverse-sting operation, headed by Waterbury Police Lieutenant Michael Ponzillo and Sergeant Angon. The defendants, all Waterbury police officers, were participating in the reverse sting. At approximately 2:35 a.m., Gonzalez and his cousin, Jacob Perez, interacted with a female undercover officer posing as a prostitute. Believing that Gonzalez and Perez were attempting to solicit the officer, police takedown teams approached Gonzalez’s vehicle intending to arrest Gonzalez and place him in custody.

         The parties dispute exactly what happened next. For the purposes of the remaining claims in the case, however, the only pertinent fact is that Gonzalez led police officers on a highspeed chase from Waterbury to Newington, Connecticut. Once in Newington, Gonzalez drove to the end of an industrial parking lot where he abandoned his car and began to flee on foot. Gonzalez jumped over a six or seven foot chain-link fence and landed in an area that the parties referred to as a “swampy area” or “drainage ditch, ” located adjacent to a set of railroad tracks. Some of the officers pursued Gonzalez over the fence and then began looking for him in the drainage ditch alongside the railroad tracks. Others attempted to find a different access point to the area in which they believed Gonzalez was located.

         There came a point in time when a number of the officers surrounded Gonzalez while he was hiding-and possibly stuck-in the drainage ditch. There were multiple officers alongside the fence adjacent to the ditch and there was at least one officer on the other side of the ditch, on or near the railroad tracks. At that point, according to Gonzalez, the officer on the side of the railroad tracks instructed the other officers to turn off their flashlights. When Gonzalez turned around to face the officer located on the railroad-track side of the ditch, Gonzalez saw rocks flying at him from that direction.

         Gonzalez testified that the first rock to hit him struck him in his midsection. The second rock struck his face. The third and final rock struck him again in the face and rendered him unconscious. After losing consciousness, Gonzalez testified that he awoke to two officers punching and kicking him while he was lying face-up on the bed of the railroad tracks. Gonzalez testified that the same two officers subsequently picked him up from the ground and walked him to a police cruiser. He was thereafter taken to the police station and then St. Mary’s Hospital to get treatment for his injuries, which included significant facial fractures.

         III. Discussion

         Defendants renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law on account of the fact that Gonzalez has failed to identify any particular defendant who is responsible for the use of excessive force during the course of Gonzalez’s seizure and arrest. Defendants also argue that, even if Gonzalez could identify which officer participated in what conduct, Gonzalez has failed to identify which injuries were caused by what conduct. Gonzalez contends that there were sufficient facts elicited at trial in order to hold the defendants liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         A. Individual Liability

         It is well established that “personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983.” Wright v. Smith, 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994) (quoting Moffitt v. Town of Brookfield, 950 F.2d 880, 885 (2d Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Costello v. City of Burlington, 632 F.3d 41, 49 (2d Cir. 2011). “Proof of an individual defendant’s personal involvement in the alleged wrong is, of course, a prerequisite to his liability on a claim for damages under § 1983.” Gaston v. Coughlin, 249 F.3d 156, 164 (2d Cir. 2001).

         “A police officer is personally involved in the use of excessive force if he either: (1) directly participates in an assault; or (2) was present during the assault, yet failed to intercede on behalf of the victim even though he had a reasonable opportunity to do so.” Jeffreys v. Rossi,275 F.Supp.2d 463, 474 (S.D.N.Y. 2003), aff’d sub nom. Jeffreys v. City of New York, ...

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