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Edwards v. Cornell

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 13, 2017

FABIAN EDWARDS and KENVILLE EDWARDS, Plaintiffs,
v.
MATTHEW CORNELL, CHRISTOPHER MAY, and THE CITY OF HARTFORD, Defendants.

          RULING ON CITY OF HARTFORD'S RULE 50 MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

          WILLIAM I. GARFINKEL, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this civil rights action, plaintiffs Fabian Edwards and his brother Kenville Edwards brought claims against the City of Hartford and Harford police officers Matthew Cornell and Christopher May. After a jury trial, on April 27, 2017, a jury rendered a verdict for Officer Cornell on all claims brought by Fabian Edwards. The jury also returned a verdict for Kenville Edwards on his claims against Officer May. The jury found that Officer May violated Kenville's rights by using excessive force against him; it awarded $135, 000.00 in compensatory damages and $275, 000.00 in punitive damages.[1] Now before the Court is the City of Hartford's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. [Doc. # 170]. For the reasons set forth below, the City's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         Legal Standard

         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. “A district court may not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law 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) (internal quotations marks omitted). The standard under Rule 50(b) is not one of strength or weakness of the evidence; rather, “the evidence must be such that a reasonable juror would have been compelled to accept the view of the moving party.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added). In short, judgment as a matter of law may not be granted unless

(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 v. Nat'l Realty & Dev. Corp., 136 F.3d 276, 289 (2d Cir. 1998). In determining whether judgment as a matter of law is appropriate, “the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         Discussion

         The issue presented in the City's motion is one of great import for all involved: whether, under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-465, a municipality is required to indemnify an officer for compensatory damages in an excessive force case when a jury also awards punitive damages. § 7-465, provides, as relevant, that a municipality “shall pay on behalf of any employee of such municipality ... all sums which such employee becomes obligated to pay ... for damages awarded for infringement of any person's civil rights ... if the employee, at the time of the occurrence, accident, physical injury or damages complained of, was acting in the performance of his duties and within the scope of his employment, and if such occurrence, accident, physical injury or damage was not the result of any wilful or wanton act of such employee in the discharge of such duty.”

         Here, it is undisputed that Officer May was acting in the performance of his duties and within the scope of his employment at the time of the incident involving Kenville Edwards. The City argues that, since the jury made an award of punitive damages, it necessarily found that Officer May's conduct was willful or wanton, and thus not subject to indemnification under § 7-465. Kenville Edwards objects to the City's statutory interpretation, and argues a municipality must indemnify for compensatory and punitive damages arising out of the excessive force verdict. He agrees that in circumstances inapposite to those here, a municipality would not be liable for losses and expenses resulting from a wilful or wanton act that is not a civil rights violation. The argument hinges, in sum, on this matter being a civil rights case. Inexplicably, counsel for Officer May did not present any meaningful argument that would have advanced the clear interest of his client: that, at a minimum, the statute requires indemnification of Officer May for the compensatory damages award. Officer May's counsel, despite the existence of a sound argument, did not distinguish between compensatory and punitive damages in his feckless one-and-a-half page response to the City's motion, much to the disadvantage of the actual client and to the advantage of the entity paying the bills.

         The Supreme Court of Connecticut has provided helpful guidance in City of W. Haven v. Hartford Ins. Co., 221 Conn. 149, 154 (1992), which involved a jury award of $30, 000 in compensatory damages and $60, 000 in punitive damages in a civil rights case. West Haven's insurance company paid the compensatory damages, plus attorney's fees, but refused to pay the punitive damages portion of the award; West Haven paid the punitive damages and sought to recover the amount from its insurer. Id. The trial court found that because West Haven was not legally required to pay the punitive damages award, the insurer was not obligated to reimburse it for the amount. Id. West Haven appealed.

         The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that West Haven was not under a legal obligation to pay the punitive damages award. Id. at 159-63. It reasoned that “the municipality is obligated, pursuant to § 7-465, to indemnify a municipal employee unless the municipal employee acted wilfully or wantonly.” Id. at 159. Wanton acts include those performed in “reckless and callous disregard of the rights of others.” Id. at 160 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         While the case is silent on the municipality's legal obligation to indemnify for the compensatory portion of the award, it is clear from its analysis that the parties and the court viewed them as indemnifiable. The court examined and approved the jury instructions given at the civil rights trial, which explained that “[p]unitive damages are additional damages beyond those awarded as compensatory to be awarded to the plaintiff as a deterrent to the defendants to discourage them from committing the conduct complained of in the future … You may add such amount as you shall unanimously agree is proper to punish the defendants for extraordinary misconduct and to serve as an example or warning to others not to engage in such conduct.” Id. at 162 (emphasis in original).[2] Thus, the court's reasoning indicates that, at least in interpreting §7-465, damages for civil rights violations are categorical by degree. An award of compensatory damages addresses the civil rights violation. As the statute states, “a municipality shall pay on behalf of any employee of such municipality ... all sums which such employee becomes obligated to pay ... for damages awarded for infringement of any person's civil rights ...” An award of punitive damages, however, is for conduct that goes beyond merely a civil rights violation; such an award provides additional compensation for “extraordinary misconduct, ” or conduct that is more severe than the civil rights violation itself. Under § 7-465, then, it is the damages awarded for that extraordinary conduct, conduct that was “the result of any wilful or wanton act, ” that does not give rise to municipal indemnification. In this case, the City must indemnify Officer May for the compensatory damages award. The punitive damages award does not require indemnification.

         The City did not cite any case that holds that an award of punitive damages for a civil rights violation relieves a municipality from its obligation to pay compensatory damages for the same violation. In fact, the cases cited in the City's motion are consistent with this Court's analysis of City of W. Haven. In Gothberg v. Town of Plainville, 148 F.Supp.3d 168, 194 (D. Conn. 2015), the court granted a municipality's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the plaintiff's § 7-465 claim for indemnification for a Section 1983 claim alleging an intentional violation of the 14th Amendment. In fact, the complaint expressly described the defendants' actions as “willful and wanton.” Id. at n. 13. This is distinguishable from the Section 1983 violation in the instance case - excessive force - because proof of an excessive force violation does not require a showing of specific intent. See Graham v. O'Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989) (explaining that ...


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