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Bryant v. Meriden Police Department

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2017

DERRICK BRYANT, Plaintiff,
v.
MERIDEN POLICE DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

          Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge.

         This case arises out of the arrest and subsequent search of Derrick Bryant by members of the Meriden Police Department. Bryant alleges that the defendant police officers used excessive force against him, in violation of state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“section 1983”). Following a jury verdict in favor of all the remaining defendants, Bryant moved for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial.

         For the following reasons, the motion (doc. # 141) is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Standard of Review

         A. Rule 50

         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 . . . .” 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).

         A party who fails to move for a judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) is procedurally barred from challenging the verdict through a Rule 50(b) motion after trial. See Walling v. Holman, 858 F.2d 79, 82 (2d Cir. 1988) (“Appellants are precluded from challenging the sufficiency of the evidence because they failed to move for a directed verdict at trial in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).”). The procedural requirement “may not be waived by the parties or excused by the district court.” Bracey v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Bridgeport, 368 F.3d 108, 117 (2d Cir. 2004).[1] Nevertheless, a party who has failed to comply with the procedural requirements of Rule 50 is not foreclosed from challenging the verdict by means of a Rule 59 motion. La France v. N.Y., N. H. & H. R. Co., 191 F.Supp. 164, 166 n.1 (D. Conn.), aff'd, 292 F.2d 649 (2d Cir. 1961) (treating defendant's motion as a motion made under Rule 59(a) because defendant was procedurally barred from bringing the motion under Rule 50(b)).

         B. Rule 59

         Under Rule 59, a court may “grant a new trial after a jury trial for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. Where the movant seeks a new trial “on the grounds that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, ” the district court can “weigh the evidence” and is not required to “view it in the light most favorable to the verdict winner.” DLC Management Corp. v. Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 133-34 (2d Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A new trial should only be granted, however, if “the court is convinced that the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or that the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.” Kosmynka v. Polaris Indus., 462 F.3d 74, 82 (2d Cir. 2006). In reviewing a jury's verdict, the court “should rarely disturb a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility.” DLC Management Corp., 163 F.3d at 134 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Principles of deference, however, do not “override the trial judge's duty to see that there is no miscarriage of justice.” Ruffin v. Fuller, 125 F.Supp.2d 105, 109 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (quoting United States v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 105 (2d Cir. 1998)) (granting plaintiff's Rule 59 motion when no reasonable jury could have examined evidence and found that plaintiff's constitutional rights were not violated).

         II. Background

         A. Procedural History

         Derrick Bryant filed a complaint against the Meriden Police Department and nine of its officers on April 2, 2013. On January 19, 2014, Bryant filed an amended complaint (doc. # 39-1). In his amended complaint, Bryant alleged state and federal claims relating to his arrest and the subsequent search of his person that occurred on March 6, 2011.[2] Bryant alleged that he was falsely arrested without probable cause, subjected to the unconstitutional use of excessive force, and unreasonably searched, both at the scene of the arrest and, later, in a holding cell at the Meriden Police Department. Bryant also alleged a Monell claim against the Meriden Police Department and Police Chief Jeffrey Cossette by asserting that they failed to institute adequate policies and/or procedures in order to prevent the unconstitutional deprivation of civil rights.

         On June 29, 2015, I granted in part, and denied in part, the defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Doc. # 86. I granted summary judgment in favor of the Meriden Police Department and Police Chief Jeffrey Cossette on Bryant's Monell claim, and I also dismissed Officer Evan Cossette from the case. I denied summary judgment with respect to the section 1983 and related state law claims against John Slezak, Dexton Palmer, Kenneth Egan, John Cerejo, Michael Merrigan, and Robert Pekrul, based on a violation of Bryant's Fourth Amendment rights. Finally, I allowed Bryant's state law claim, filed under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-571c against “Officer John Doe, ” to proceed to trial to the extent that Bryant could identify at trial that Officer Doe was one of the remaining defendants. Bryant did not move for summary judgment, so I had no occasion to consider whether the officers' use of force against Bryant was unreasonable as a matter of law.

         B. Proceedings at Trial

         Beginning on April 20, 2016, I conducted a jury trial of the claims against the remaining defendants: Slezak, Palmer, Egan, Cerejo, Merrigan, and Pekrul. Following Bryant's case-in-chief, the defendants moved for a judgment as a matter of law in accordance with Rule 50(a). I granted that motion with respect to Pekrul and Merrigan because Bryant had failed to provide sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that they participated in the alleged conduct, either at the scene of the arrest or in the Meriden Police Department holding cell. See Doc. # 124-1. I reserved ruling on the remaining portion of the defendants' motion. Following the close of evidence, the defendants filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, under Rule 50(b), which I took under advisement pending the jury verdict. See Doc. # 129. At no point in the trial did Bryant move for a judgment as a matter of law.

         On April 28, 2016, the jury found all of the remaining defendants-Egan, Cerejo, Palmer, and Slezak-not liable for the alleged unconstitutional use of excessive force and unreasonable search of Bryant. See Doc. # 134. Judgment entered on May 9, 2016. See Doc. # 137. On June 6, 2016, Bryant timely moved for a judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial. See Doc. # 141.

         C. Facts Elicited at Trial

         The following is a summary of facts elicited at trial:

         On March 9, 2011, Bryant was riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by his friend, Kaonna Potts. Shortly after pulling into the parking lot of the Old Dutch Liquor Store in Meriden, Connecticut, the car was surrounded by four officers of the Meriden Police Department. The officers demanded that the passengers exit the vehicle and then proceeded to take the passengers, including Bryant, into custody. Egan, Cerejo, and Palmer were the only defendants who were involved in the arrest. The officers testified that Bryant was noncompliant with their requests for him to exit the vehicle. While Palmer stood watch over the other passengers who had exited the vehicle, Egan and Cerejo attempted to gain control over Bryant. There was considerable conflicting testimony with regard to exactly how the officers interacted with Bryant. Bryant and other plaintiff's witnesses testified that he was compliant with the officers and that the officers beat him for no reason. Furthermore, Bryant testified that the officers pulled his pants down and strip searched him at the scene of the arrest.

         The officers testified that Bryant resisted their attempts to remove him from the vehicle and place him under arrest. Cerejo testified that he punched Bryant multiple times in order to gain compliance. Those strikes were corroborated by other eyewitnesses and could be observed via a partially-obstructed cellphone video that was shown to the jury. During the struggle, Cerejo testified that he observed Bryant attempt to lodge a bag of crack cocaine into his anal cavity. Cerejo also testified that Bryant was unsuccessful in that attempt, but had managed to lodge the bag between the cheeks of his buttocks, where it remained in place until it was removed by officers at the Meriden Police Department. The officers corroborated Bryant's testimony that, during the arrest, his pants had fallen below his knees, exposing his genitals. They testified that it was the result of Bryant's own attempts to resist arrest and was not, as Bryant testified, the product of the officers' attempt to conduct a strip search at the scene of the arrest.

         Following his arrest, Bryant was taken to the Meriden Police Department and placed in a holding cell. His time in the holding cell was captured by closed-circuit video, which was shown to the jury and used to complement the parties' respective testimony. In the holding cell, Bryant was handcuffed and had a “spit-mask” placed over his face. The video and the testimony showed that multiple officers went in to speak with Bryant at various times, and that he was subjected to multiple attempts to search his person. At times, only a single officer was in the holding cell with Bryant; at other times, there were multiple officers. The video shows that Bryant was not actively resisting the officers, but also shows the officers suddenly bringing Bryant to the floor and tasing him.

         Bryant testified that he was tased more than the single time that the officers admit. Bryant also testified that one of the officers, Egan, stuck his fingers into Bryant's anal cavity. Egan and Slezak testified that no officer performed any type of anal cavity search. Rather, the officers testified that they were able to retrieve the alleged bag of crack cocaine by reaching in between the cheeks of Bryant's buttocks and pulling the bag out without entering the anal cavity.

         III. Discussion

         Bryant moves for judgment as a matter of law and, in the alternative, for a new trial. Defendants contend that Bryant waived his right to move for a judgment as a matter of law, and that Bryant is not otherwise entitled to a new trial because the jury's verdict was not against the weight of the evidence.

         A. Rule 50

         Bryant did not move for a judgment as a matter of law at the close of evidence and thus is barred from making a Rule 50 motion following the jury verdict. See Walling v. Holman, 858 F.2d 79, 82 (2d Cir. 1988). Bryant provides no reason why he should be excused from his failure to comply with Rule 50. Accordingly, his Rule 50 motion is denied. See Cotto, 2016 WL 223692, at *14 n.10.

         B. Rule 59

         Bryant alleges that he was subjected to excessive force and an unreasonable search both at the scene of his arrest and subsequently in the holding cell at the Meriden Police Department stationhouse. At trial Bryant supported those allegations with his own testimony to that effect. He also called witnesses who corroborated his testimony regarding what occurred at the scene of his arrest, and he supported his testimony of the conduct in the holding cell by showing a close-circuit video of Egan and Slezak present in the holding cell while he was tased and subjected to a strip search. Bryant testified that he was tased notwithstanding the fact that he was compliant with the officers' orders, and that Egan subjected him to an anal cavity search in which Egan put his fingers inside Bryant's anal cavity.

         The defendants, however, told a different story. Based on their account, they applied a reasonable amount of force to accomplish the legitimate law enforcement objectives of (1) securing Bryant's arrest; and (2) forcing Bryant to submit to a search in the Meriden Police Department holding cell.

         It is within the province of the jury to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. Though Bryant is correct that I am not required to examine a Rule 59 motion in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, I also should avoid “disturb[ing] a jury's evaluation of a witness's credibility.” DLC Management Corp., 163 F.3d at 134.

         1. Location of Bag ...


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