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Leniart v. Bundy

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 16, 2017

GEORGE M. LENIART
v.
WILLIAM BUNDY, et al.

          RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S RENEWED MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW [DOC. #265]

          HOLLY B. FITZSIMMONS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff George M. Leniart (“plaintiff”) brought this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, alleging that defendants[1] violated his constitutional rights by conducting warrantless searches of his residence and unlawfully arresting him on two separate occasions. See Doc. #35, Amended Complaint.[2] A jury trial was held on February 10 through 13, 2015, on the following claims: (1) unreasonable search on October 5, 2006, against defendants Bransford, Hoagland, Blanchette and Bundy; and (2) unreasonable search and seizure on September 25, 2007, against defendant Ellison. At the end of evidence, plaintiff orally moved for judgment as a matter of law with respect to the September 25, 2007, seizure and examination of a microcassette audiotape by defendant Ellison. [Doc. #252]. Following oral argument, the Court denied this motion on the record before charging the jury. [Doc. #253, 254]. On February 13, 2015, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of all defendants and against plaintiff. [Doc. #256]. On February 25, 2015, plaintiff filed his Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b). [Doc. #265]. On March 18, 2015, defendants filed a Memorandum in Opposition to plaintiff's motion [Doc. #266], to which plaintiff timely filed a Reply [Doc. #274]. For the reasons articulated below, the Court DENIES plaintiff's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. [Doc. #265].[3]

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court “will grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, a reasonable juror would be compelled to find in favor of the moving party.” Drew v. Connolly, 536 F. App'x 164, 165 (2d Cir. 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “When evaluating a motion under Rule 50, courts are required to ‘consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made and to give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in its favor from the evidence.'” ING Glob. v. United Parcel Serv. Oasis Supply Corp., 757 F.3d 92, 97 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001)). “The Court cannot assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury, and must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Id. (quoting Tolbert, 242 F.3d at 70) (internal quotation marks omitted). “In other words, either there must be such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's finding could only have been the result o[f] sheer surmise and conjecture or the evidence must be so overwhelming that reasonable and fair-minded persons could only have reached the opposite result.” Hardy v. Saliva Diagnostic Sys., Inc., 52 F.Supp.2d 333, 336-37 (D. Conn. 1999) (collecting cases) (internal quotation marks 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.

Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., 24 F.Supp.3d 155, 168 (D. Conn. 2014) (collecting cases); see also Cotto v. City of Middletown, 158 F.Supp.3d 67 (D. Conn. 2016) (“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.'” (quoting Densberger v. United Technologies Corp., 125 F.Supp.2d 585, 590 (D. Conn. 2000))). Accordingly, “[w]here a jury has rendered a verdict for the non-movant, a court may grant [judgment as a matter of law] 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.” MacDermid Printing Sols. LLC v. Cortron Corp., 833 F.3d 172, 180 (2d Cir. 2016) (footnote and internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis in original).

         II. RELEVANT FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Bearing in mind the Rule 50(b) standard articulated above, the following comprises the relevant evidence at trial. The Court limits the following background to plaintiff's claim for the allegedly unreasonable search and seizure on September 25, 2007, against defendant Ellison.

         In September 2007, plaintiff, a registered sex offender, was living in the community, having been previously released on special parole on July 5, 2007. See Doc. #266-2, Trial Transcript (hereinafter “Tr.”), at 121:5-8; 141:17-23;[4] see also Def. Ex. 507. Plaintiff was subject to numerous parole conditions while on special parole. Id. at 141:24-142:2; see also Def. Ex. 505. These conditions included, in pertinent part, that: plaintiff would live in a residence approved by his parole officer; his parole officer had the right to visit plaintiff's residence at any reasonable time; plaintiff would participate in a mental health treatment program for anger management; he would have no contact in any manner with any minors; and that plaintiff would participate in a mental health evaluation and treatment program for problem sexual behavior. See Def. Ex. 505. In anticipation of his release, plaintiff also signed a State of Connecticut Computer Access Agreement, which stated, inter alia, that plaintiff: would not access any website that is questionable as it relates to sexually explicit or graphic material; would not enter, or participate in, any bulletin boards or chat rooms of any type; and would agree to an examination of his computer, including an examination of all added devices, CDs or diskettes. See Def. Ex. 506.

         Plaintiff's special parole conditions also required him to wear a GPS monitoring device, which consisted of an ankle monitor and a box transmitter, which plaintiff wore on his waist. Tr. 144:13-145:5. In order for the GPS device to work, the ankle monitor and the box transmitter had to be within 60 feet of each other. Tr. 144:23-144:1. At the time of the September 25, 2007, search, plaintiff was being supervised by defendant parole officer Larry Bransford, to whom plaintiff complained about the GPS device malfunctioning. Tr. 145:6-9, 273:13-21, 309:19-22.[5] On the morning of September 25, 2007, defendant Bransford made a home visit to plaintiff's residence due to the malfunctioning of the GPS device, where he verified that there was in fact a problem with the unit. Tr. 274:9-18. During the visit, plaintiff indicated that he needed to go to work, and following the verification of the device's malfunction, defendant Bransford permitted plaintiff to attend work. Tr. 274:19-275:3.

         On September 25, 2007, defendant Bransford was supervised by defendant Parole Manager Eric Ellison. Tr. 275:4-9, 450:23-24.[6] While at plaintiff's residence, defendant Bransford called defendant Ellison to advise that plaintiff's GPS device was malfunctioning. Tr. 275:16-17. Later that morning, defendant Ellison advised defendant Bransford that plaintiff would need to be remanded to custody due to alleged parole violations. Tr. 275:19-25, 368:19-20.

         Sergeant William Bundy at the time was a unit supervisor, detective sergeant, with the Connecticut State Police Eastern District Major Crime Unit located at Troop E in Montville, Tr. 423:19-424:24. He testified at trial that around July 2007, plaintiff was a person of interest in several crimes that Troop E was then investigating, including several sexual assaults. Tr. 438:8-20.[7] Between July and September 2007, Troop E was provided information by witnesses to, and victims of, crimes allegedly committed by plaintiff. Tr. 438:21-439:4. Sergeant Bundy testified that around September 25, 2007, one of his detectives had been in contact with Parole Officer Cartagena regarding this information about plaintiff, and in light of these allegations, Sergeant Bundy “reached out to then program manager Eric Ellison, to bring the information to [parole's] attention.” Tr. 439:7-13 (alterations added). At a meeting with Parole Officers Cartagena and Ellison, Sergeant Bundy provided these officers with copies of the witness and victim statements relating to the crimes allegedly perpetrated by plaintiff. Tr. 439:14-19, 455:23-456:11. One of these sworn statements was that of Doug Leniart, plaintiff's son, which described, inter alia, an alleged sexual assault by plaintiff on “a kid ... from New York.” Tr. 456:6-458:18; see also Def. Ex. 537. Defendant Ellison was also provided with the “statement from [a] confidential victim to law enforcement officials in the state of New York[, ]” which also described an alleged sexual assault on the victim by plaintiff, as well as plaintiff providing the victim with alcohol to the point of intoxication. Tr. 459:14-461:15; see also Def. Ex. 539. Defendant Ellison was also provided with another sworn statement from the confidential victim to the Connecticut State Police, which again detailed an alleged sexual assault on the minor victim by plaintiff, as well as plaintiff providing the minor victim with alcohol to the point of intoxication. Tr. 461:19-465:18; see also Def. Ex. 538.[8]

         The information contained in these statements raised a number of immediate concerns for defendant Ellison, including that plaintiff had committed numerous parole violations, that is, assault of a 17-year old male; conveyance of alcohol to a minor; and the consumption of alcohol by plaintiff. Tr. 466:12-16. Defendant Ellison testified that the sworn statements with which he was provided set forth sufficient evidence for him to authorize plaintiff's remand to custody. Tr. 466:16-21, Tr. 439:20-24. Specifically, based on defendant Ellison's “knowledge and training with sex offenders, [he determined] that [plaintiff] was recidivating, was not following his parole conditions, was violating possible numerous other conditions of his parole and that he had to be returned to custody in order to protect the public and to protect future victims[.]” Tr. 466:22-467:3 (alterations added); see also Tr. 476:9-477:25 (Defendant Ellison's testimony delineating the conditions of parole violated). Further contributing to this decision was Parole Officer Bransford providing defendant Ellison with a history of plaintiff's “past sexual offenses, past sexual conviction, [and] the type of behavior involved[.]” Tr. 467:7-15 (alterations added).

         After receiving the direction to remand plaintiff to custody, and developing with the Connecticut State Police a proposed plan of action to complete the remand, Parole Officer Bransford contacted plaintiff and directed him to return to his residence and wait there until the GPS technician arrived. Tr. 276:9-19, Tr. 480:15-481:4. When Parole Officer Bransford arrived at plaintiff's residence with the other law enforcement and parole officers, plaintiff did not answer the door to the residence, causing the officers to conduct a search of the surrounding area for approximately an hour and a half. Tr. 278:9-279:4, 280:1-3, 368:16-22, Tr. 443:2-11, Tr. 483:20-25. Parole Officer Cartagena eventually found plaintiff lying facedown next to a stonewall on the property. Tr. 280:9-281:11, Tr. 325:15-16, 370:12-371:1, 443:15-22, 484:1-10. Plaintiff was then secured in a law enforcement vehicle, while the parole officers conducted a search of plaintiff's residence. Tr. 281:15-282:11, 325:19-326:1.

         Plaintiff told defendant Ellison which of his keys would provide access to the residence. Tr. 282:7-9, 326:2-5, 374:1-12, 444:23-445:3, 490:1-3. During the search, Parole Officer Bransford testified that he “was looking for anything that [plaintiff is] not supposed to have, anything of deviant sexual interests, ... the GPS unit, weapons, alcohol, drugs.” Tr. 282:22-283:1 (alterations added); see also Tr. 326:24-327:17 (Bransford testimony on cross-examination that the parole officers “were looking for any storage device that he should not have had, whether it be a computer, a laptop ... anything he shouldn't have, whether it be alcohol, drugs, a human being, a child - anything we were looking for, anything that he would not be in compliance with the conditions of his supervision.”). Specifically, the parole officers were searching for “anything that would imply deviant sexual interest, ” and evidence that plaintiff had contact with minors. Tr. 344:16-24.

         Defendant Ellison testified that it was his intent to recover plaintiff's laptop, establish that the laptop belonged to plaintiff, and have the laptop forensically examined for evidence of any criminal activity or of a parole violation that was referenced in the sworn statements provided to Troop E. Tr. 488:1-489:17. Defendant Ellison also instructed the other parole officers on site to “assist [him] in conducting a search for the laptop, for the GPS device, and anything else associated with a parole violation.” Tr. 490:1-6; see also Tr. 494:7-21 (Defendant Ellison testimony: “I was looking for anything that would be any evidence of any of the potential crimes or parole violations that were listed in those statements and any of the violations that I planned to charge Mr. Leniart with. It was important for me to determine if Mr. Leniart had had contact with the victims of those statements ... It was important for me to determine if there were any references to the use of alcohol or illegal drugs or any other sexual assault victims. So it was important to seize [the laptop] and any other device or object that was relevant to my parole investigation, to this parole investigation.” (alterations added)). On cross-examination, defendant Ellison confirmed that he was specifically concerned with the sexual assault and alcohol related allegations set forth in the sworn victim and witness statements. Tr. 509:2-5; 514:3-10.

         Defendant Ellison further articulated the basis upon which he believed the search was justified:

I believed I had sufficient evidence to conduct a search of that residence. I had reasonable suspicion to conduct a limited search of the residence, which I did. The search was limited to Mr. Leniart's bedroom and basement area because Mr. Leniart identified that as being his living space. That was the extent of our search. It was specifically to locate any evidence associated with the numerous parole violations that I had, that I delineated, that I determined Mr. Leniart would be facing charges for, parole charges.
...
My understanding is that based on the parole violations, my investigation of the parole violations, I had the authority to conduct a search based on reasonable suspicion, based on witnessing Mr. Leniart not following Officer Bransford's instructions, attempting to flee, my observation of Mr. Leniart not wearing his GPS device, and all of the charges, all of the concerns, the behaviors, in the two apartments, that I reviewed. I believed I had clear authority to search Mr. Leniart's living space.

         Tr. 490:6-491:1.[9] Defendant Ellison further testified that he was permitted to search plaintiff's bedroom “because [he] was conducting an investigation into [parole] violations, and [he] believed there was reasonable suspicion that - evidence or information was in Mr. Leniart's bedroom because that's where the alleged offense occurred.” Tr. 516:16-20 (alterations added).

         During the search, parole officers found a closed-captioned television system with a recording device and VHS tapes, all of which were seized. Tr. 376:1-8, [10] Tr. 483:3-8. Defendant Ellison also seized from Mr. Leniart's bedroom plaintiff's laptop, which was contained in a laptop bag. Tr. 496:16-18.[11]

         Following the search of plaintiff's residence, plaintiff was taken for questioning by the Connecticut State Police to the Troop E barracks. Tr. 497:20-498:12. While plaintiff was being interviewed, defendant Ellison, in the next room, started looking through the laptop bag, where he found a micro-cassette recorder. Tr. 498:12-16; see also Tr. 519:13-22. As to the importance of the micro-cassette, defendant Ellison testified:

Again, just as the VHS tapes may have been evidence to the parole violations, I retained that micro-cassette recorder. I seized that micro-cassette recorder pursuant to my duties in investigating a parole violation of Mr. Leniart, and I believed I had full authority, I had reasonable suspicion. I have more than reasonable suspicion when I witness Mr. Leniart hiding behind that stone wall; I had more than reasonable suspicion when Mr. Leniart was not wearing his GPS device, to conduct a parole violation investigation.

         Tr. 498:18-499:4. Defendant Ellison further testified as to his understanding of his authority to seize the micro-cassette tape:

My authority to seize a micro-cassette tape in this instance was based on reasonable suspicion related to the parole violation, reasonable suspicion that a violation had occurred. ... When there's reasonable suspicion, I would have the authority to seize any device, any item, related to that investigation, such as a micro-cassette recorder, a laptop computer. VHS tapes, a beer can.

         Tr. 522:14-523:6.

         Ellison then directed Parole Officer Cartegena to deliver the laptop and micro-cassette to the state police crime lab for examination to look for parole violations. Tr. 377:18-21, 382:16-383:17, 390:24-391:14, 499:10-12, 520:9-14. ...


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