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Alston v. Pafumi

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 12, 2016

IRA ALSTON, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL PAFUMI, ET AL., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         From August 16, 2016 through August 18, 2016, this Court held a jury trial regarding a First Amendment retaliation claim and an Eighth Amendment excessive force claim brought by Plaintiff, Ira Alston, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. On August 18, 2016, the jury entered its verdict against Mr. Alston and in favor of the Defendants, Michael Pafumi and Melvin Saylor, finding that Defendants did not violate Mr. Alston's First Amendment or Eighth Amendment rights. Jury Verdict, ECF No. 377. On August 24, 2016, the Court entered a final judgment in favor of Defendants, consistent with the jury's verdict. Judgment, ECF No. 378. Mr. Alston now moves for a new trial or, in the alternative, an altered judgment in this matter. For the reasons set forth below, Mr. Alston's motion is DENIED.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Motions for a new trial and/or an altered judgment are governed by Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. “The decision whether to grant a new trial under Rule 59 is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.” Claudio v. Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free Sch. Dist., 955 F.Supp.2d 118, 142 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “As a general matter, a motion for a new trial should be granted when, in the opinion of the district court, the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.” DLC Management Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133-34 (2d Cir.1998) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “A new trial may be granted, therefore, when the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence… Moreover, 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. Nevertheless, courts are generally instructed to defer to the jury's credibility evaluations when considering a Rule 59 motion. See Ricciuti v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 70 F.Supp.2d 300, 306 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (“Where it appears that the district court failed to give the jury's credibility evaluations sufficient deference, an order granting a new trial will be reversed”).

         II. DISCUSSION

         Mr. Alston has specified ten separate grounds for a new trial and/or an altered judgment. He argues that the Court erred in the following ways: (1) granting the motion to withdraw filed by attorney Melissa Federico; (2) denying Mr. Alston's motion to re-appoint pro bono counsel; (3) denying Mr. Alston's request to subpoena Commissioner Scott Semple to testify at trial; (4) denying permission for Jermaine Jones to testify as a witness in Mr. Alston's case-in-chief; (5) admitting portions of Mr. Alston's medical records; (6) admitting testimony about Mr. Alston's disciplinary history; (7) prohibiting certain lines of inquiry regarding Correction Officer (“CO.”) Bowerman's testimony; (8) prohibiting Mr. Alston from accessing the Defendants' job performance and disciplinary records; (9) prohibiting cross-examination regarding Defendants' job performance and disciplinary records; and (10) admitting excerpts of Mr. Alston's original and amended complaints into evidence. The Court concludes that none of these rulings resulted in a seriously erroneous result or a miscarriage of justice as required for a new trial or an altered judgment under Rule 59.

         1. Withdrawal of Appointed Counsel and Denial of New Counsel

         Mr. Alston claims that a new trial is justified because the Court granted the motion to withdraw filed by his appointed attorney, Melissa Federico, and denied Mr. Alston's motion to appoint a new attorney in her place. Mem. in Supp. at 4-6, ECF No. 382. Attorney Federico was appointed to represent Mr. Alston in November 2012 along with Attorney Hugh F. Murray, III. Federico Not. of Appearance, ECF No. 160. When Attorney Murray moved to a new law firm and filed a motion to withdraw in December 2015, Attorney Federico continued representing Mr. Alston as pro bono counsel.[1] Murray Mot. to Withdraw, ECF No. 221.

         Attorney Federico filed a motion to withdraw in January 2016, referencing “safety concerns” about her continued representation and explaining that Mr. Alston's “failure to follow instructions and grievance threats” had resulted in a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. Federico Mot. to Withdraw, ECF No. 229. The Court initially denied Attorney Federico's motion for failure to comply with the notice provisions of the Local Civil Rules of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (“Local Rules”), and Attorney Federico subsequently filed a renewed motion that complied with the Local Rules. Federico Renewed Mot. to Withdraw, ECF No. 238. The Court granted Attorney Federico's renewed motion and denied Mr. Alston's subsequent motions for appointment of counsel. 2/5/2016 Order, ECF No. 239; 2/16/2016 Order, ECF No. 249.

         “There is no requirement that an indigent litigant be appointed pro bono counsel in civil matters, unlike most criminal cases.” Burgos v. Hopkins, 14 F.3d 787, 789 (2d Cir. 1994). Furthermore, “[t]he Second Circuit has repeatedly cautioned the district courts against the routine appointment of counsel.” Alston v. Bellerose, No. 3:12-cv-00147 (CSH), 2015 WL 4487973, at *15 (D. Conn. July 23, 2015). The decision to appoint counsel is committed to the sound discretion of the trial court, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), and permitting the withdrawal of appointed counsel without appointing new counsel has been found to be appropriate where, as here, the represented party's own behavior results in the need for withdrawal. See Whiting v. Lacara, 187 F.3d 317, 322 (2d Cir. 1999) (“We believe that appellee's desire both to dictate legal strategies to his counsel and to sue counsel if those strategies are not followed places [appointed counsel] in so impossible a situation that he must be permitted to withdraw”); Barnes v. Alves, 10 F.Supp.3d 382 (W.D.N.Y), reconsideration denied, 10 F.Supp.3d 391 (W.D.N.Y. 2014) (denying motion for appointment of counsel where pro bono counsel had previously been appointed for prisoner, counsel had aided prisoner in clarifying his claims but prisoner's allegedly threatening behavior had led to withdrawal of that counsel, and prisoner had demonstrated that he was capable of pursuing his claims without counsel).

         The Court's decisions to grant Attorney Federico's withdrawal as counsel and deny Mr. Alston's subsequent motions for appointment of counsel did not constitute an abuse of discretion and did not result in a “miscarriage of justice” as required for a new trial or an amended judgment under Rule 59. Accordingly, a new trial or an amended judgment is not justified on these grounds.

         2. Denial of Potential Testimony by Scott Semple and Jermaine Jones

         Mr. Alston argues that the Court erred in denying his request to subpoena Commissioner Scott Semple as an “expert witness” in his case. Mr. Alston also argues that the Court erred in denying his request to have former inmate Jermaine Jones testify at trial. In light of district judges' “wide latitude in determining whether evidence is admissible at trial, ” Caruolo v. John Crane, Inc., 226 F.3d 46, 54 (2d Cir.2000), the exclusion of these two witnesses does not provide a basis for a new trial or amended judgment.

         Mr. Alston's request to subpoena Commissioner Semple as a witness was properly denied. In its pre-trial order on August 11, 2016, the Court explained that the testimony of Commissioner Semple was “unnecessary in light of the narrow issues presented in this case.” 8/11/2016 Order, ECF No. 333. According to Mr. Alston, Commissioner Semple would have testified about general Department of Corrections (“DOC”) guidelines governing in-cell restraint ...


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