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Edwards v. Cornell

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

November 28, 2017

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

          RULING

          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. On April 27, 2017, after a jury trial, a jury rendered a verdict for Officer Cornell on claims brought by Fabian Edwards. The jury also returned a verdict for Kenville Edwards on his claims against Officer May.[1] The jury found that Officer May violated Kenville's civil rights by using excessive force against him; it awarded $135, 000.00 in compensatory damages and $275, 000.00 in punitive damages. Now before the Court is Officer May's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law [Doc. # 174] and Motion for a New Trial [Doc. # 175].

         Facts

         The following evidence was adduced at trial.[2]

         Testimony of Fabian Edwards

         On June 14, 2012, Fabian was living in a multi-family house owned by his mother, Elizabeth Edwards. (Tr. 1237-38). His mother lived on the first floor, Fabian lived on the second floor, and Fabian's brother, Kenville Edwards, lived on the third floor. (Tr. 1238). Paulino's Grocery Store was across the street from the home. (Tr. 1241). On June 14, 2012, Fabian arrived home from work around 4 or 5 p.m. and at some point that evening noticed activity going on outside of the house. (Tr. 1249). He saw a police cruiser near Paulino's and people outside. (Tr. 1250). He also saw other police cars in the area. (Tr. 1251). Fabian wanted to go into Paulino's to get a beer. (Tr. 1253). He testified that he stopped outside of the front of the store to call his wife when Officer May told him to “get in the fucking store or [he would] arrest [him].” (Tr. 1258). Fabian moved toward the store and then Officer May pushed him inside. (Tr. 1258).

         Soon after, Fabian left the store without purchasing anything, crossed the street, and jumped over the fence into his yard. (Tr. 1259). Once in the yard, he yelled to the officers, Officer May and Officer Cornell, “why did you push me?” (Tr. 1260). The officers then entered the Edwards's property and Elizabeth came out of the house. (Tr. 1261). Fabian and Elizabeth were on the front porch of the house when the officers came up and asked Fabian for his identification. (Tr. 1262). Fabian gave his identification to his mother and then saw Kenville come onto the porch. (Tr. 1262).

         Testimony of Officer Cornell

         On June 14, 2012, Officer May and Officer Cornell were on duty, assigned to the neighbored in which the Edwards's home was located. (Tr. 1567). Officer Cornell noticed Fabian Edwards when Fabian was standing at the fence in his yard. (Tr. 1577). He recalls hearing Fabian yelling. (Tr. 1578). At some point, he and Officer May went over to Fabian. (Tr. 1578). Officer Cornell saw Fabian walk up to the front porch of the home and then he and Officer May went onto the property. (Tr. 1585, 1586). Fabian's mother was standing on the porch with Fabian. (Tr. 1587). At some point Kenville Edwards appeared on the porch. (Tr. 1588).

         Testimony of Kenville Edwards

         Kenville Edwards testified that he saw two officers walking towards the front porch of his house after he saw Fabian and his mother walking to the front of the house. (Tr. 1438). He came to the front of the house from around the back. (Tr. 1439). When he arrived at the front porch, both officers were there with Fabian and Elizabeth. (Tr. 1439). He asked the officers what his bother did. (Tr. 1439). Officer May asked Kenville if he lived there, and Kenville replied yes. (Tr. 1439). Then, Officer May told Kenville to “back up off the porch.” (Tr. 1439). Kenville again inquired about his brother. (Tr. 1439). At that point, Officer May grabbed Kenville's right hand and bent it behind him, and grabbed Kenville around the throat, “choking [him].” (Tr. 1140). At some point thereafter, Officer May pushed Kenville away. (Tr. 1140). Kenville stated he stumbled and then went inside the front door. (Tr. 1441). He did not believe, at that time, that Officer May was attempting to place him under arrest. (Tr. 1481). Kenville testified that if May wanted to arrest him, “all he had to say to [him] was just, put [his] hands behind [his] back.” (Tr. 1482). Then, Officer May deployed pepper spray in Kenville's face. (Tr. 1441).

         Kenville testified that at the time the pepper sprayed was deployed he was just inside the doorway to the house; he tried to find the railing so that he could make his way upstairs. (Tr. 1442). He went from the first floor to his apartment on the third floor; his apartment door was already open. (Tr. 1443). He went up the stairs “step by step, ” but could not run because he could not see. (Tr. 1443). Once he got into his apartment, there was a clear space “straight to the kitchen.” (Tr. 1443). He felt his way to the kitchen sink, turned on the water, and tried to flush out his eyes. (Tr. 1444). The water made the burning worse. (Tr. 1444). Then, he heard “the door beating, ” and his friend tell him that the police were there. (Tr. 1444).

         Kenville testified that he “felt something hit [him] on [the] side of [his] head” when he was at the sink, and it was “something hard… not a fist.” (Tr. 1444, 1447). He fell to the ground. (Tr. 1446). He testified that he did not take a “fighting stance” while on the third floor. (Tr. 1446). He could not even open his eyes to see where the officers were. (Tr. 1446). While on the ground, he was trying to block strikes from the officers, attempting to “stop the punches from going to [his] head.” (Tr. 1446). He felt punches to the head and hits to his body. (Tr. 1444).

         After receiving a couple of punches, he passed out. (Tr. 1445). The next thing Kenville recalls was waking up in the hospital where a nurse was stitching up his ear; he had sustained a tear to his left ear requiring five sutures. (Tr. 1445).

         Kenville stated that, during the incident, he never punched or kicked any officer. (Tr. 1447). He did not fight with any officer. (Tr. 1459). He weighed 140 pounds on the date of the incident. (Tr. 1497). As a result of the incident, he feels “scared, threatened most of the time” when he sees police officers and stays away from police. (Tr. 1460). He moved out of state shortly after the incident. (Tr. 1461).

         Testimony of Elizabeth Edwards

         Elizabeth Edwards, mother of Kenville and Fabian, testified that she saw the officers bringing Kenville down to the back porch. (Tr. 1381). She stated that the officers “just dropped him on the floor on the back porch.” (Tr. 1381). Elizabeth Edwards further testified that she took several photos the day after the incident, and other photos several weeks after. (Tr. 1381). She photographed the third floor kitchen floor, the stairs, and the back porch. (Tr. 1382-84).

         Testimony of Officer May

         Officer May testified that he and Officer Cornell initially entered the Edwards's property to investigate and “quell the situation.” (Tr. 1752). While the officers were on the front porch asking Fabian for his identification, Kenville came onto the porch. (Tr. 1753). Officer May asked Kenville if he lived there and Kenville said he did. (Tr. 1753). When he asked Kenville to step off of the porch, Kenville said “make me” and “balled up his fists in a, like, kind of defiant type manner.” (Tr. 1753). Officer May described this as a “pre-attack indicator, ” a sign a suspect exhibits before engaging in a fight or attack. (Tr. 1754). Officer May testified that, at that point, he informed Kenville he was under arrest and attempted to cuff him by trying to grab his left hand. (Tr. 1755). Officer May stated that Kenville pulled his hand away and then pushed Officer May and struck him in the torso; Officer May thought he was being attacked. (Tr. 1756). He and Kenville were struggling with each other. (Tr. 1756). Officer May denied putting Kenville into a choke hold, but said it was possible that his arm went around Kenville's head or neck because of Kenville's resistance. (Tr. 1757).

         Officer May further testified that, at some point, he released Kenville and gave Kenville a burst of pepper spray in the face. (Tr. 1760). He denied pushing Kenville. (Tr. 1760). After the pepper spray was used, Kenville went upstairs into the apartment. (Tr. 1761). Officer May went to assist Officer Cornell, who was restraining Fabian Edwards, and then went upstairs after Kenville. (Tr. 1762). He took a back stairway to the third floor and found the rear door to the third floor apartment to be open. (Tr. 1766). Officer May entered the third floor apartment and observed Kenville by the sink with the water running. (Tr. 1766). He testified that Kenville “step[ped] back from the sink kind of like in a fighting stance.” (Tr. 1767). Officer May perceived this as another “pre-attack indicator.” (Tr. 1767). Officer May then grabbed Kenville around the waist and brought him to the ground. (Tr. 1768). He tried to control Kenville's hands to handcuff him. (Tr. 1768). Officer Baumgarten, who had recently arrived on the scene, was behind Officer May trying to control Kenville's legs. (Tr. 1768). Officer May testified that because Kenville was resisting being handcuffed, he “administer[ed] two punches to his head in [a] controlled pain compliance technique.” (Tr. 1768). While Kenville was “temporarily stunned, ” the officers were able to get him into handcuffs. (Tr. 1768). The officers then carried Kenville downstairs to an ambulance. (Tr. 1770). Officer May stated that he held Kenville's torso and Officer Baumgarten held Kenville's feet. (Tr. 1704). They carried him from the third floor to the first floor, face down. (Tr. 1704). They carried him down the back stairwell, but did not drop him on the back porch. (Tr. 1771). Officer May did note that Kenville had a laceration to his ear but did not observe any dripping blood. (Tr. 1703, 1772).

         Testimony of Officer Baumgarten

         When Officer Baumgarten arrived on the scene, he went up the stairs to the third floor apartment. (Tr. 1780). When he got to the third floor, the first thing he observed was Officer May bringing Kenville to the ground. (Tr. 1781). He did not see Kenville take a “fighting stance.” (Tr. 1781). At no point on the third floor did he see Kenville punch or kick an officer. (Tr. 1782). Officer Baumgarten testified that he saw that Kenville was bleeding from the ear but did not observe blood on the floor. (Tr. 1783). He testified that four officers carried Kenville down the stairs, and did not drop him on the back porch. (Tr. 1784). The officers brought Kenville to a police car to secure him and then notified emergency medical services that Kenville needed medical attention. (Tr. 1785).

         Testimony of Gerardo Paulino

         Gerardo Paulino testified that he works in his father's store, Paulino's Grocery Store. (Tr. 1328). He knows of Kenville and Fabian Edwards as customers. (Tr. 1329, 1330). On June 14, 2012, he recalled seeing Fabian almost falling as he came into the store, but did not actually see if Fabian was pushed. (Tr. 1332, 1334). He did see a police officer behind Fabian. (Tr. 1334).

         Kenville's medical records

         Ambulance records from June 14, 2012 indicate that Kenville was found lying on the porch. (Ex. 38). He was alert to verbal stimuli and was disoriented with incoherent speech. (Ex. 38). There was bleeding from the head/face. (Ex. 38). There was swelling to the face and head and a small laceration to the left earlobe. (Ex. 38).

         Kenville was admitted to Hartford Hospital on June 14, 2012. (Ex. 39). Emergency medical services stated that the patient was unresponsive upon their arrival to the scene. (Ex. 39). His diagnoses were laceration and closed head injury. (Ex. 39). Kenville was given five sutures to close a laceration on his left ear. (Ex. 39).

         Kenville had a follow up visit to Hartford Hospital on June 19, 2012. (Ex. 41). He was diagnosed with post-concussive syndrome and a closed head injury. (Ex. 41).

         Discussion

         A. Officer May's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         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. 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). Thus, Officer May's motion may not be granted unless he can demonstrate

(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 [him].

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, [3] and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         Officer May's motion raises numerous arguments, which the Court will address in turn.

         1. The jury's finding that Officer May used excessive force

         Officer May first argues that the jury could not have reasonably found that he used excessive force against Kenville Edwards. In making this argument, Officer May's brief breaks down the incident into a series of events. The Court, however, declines to take such an approach. What is critical here is not whether one act or another constituted excessive force, but that the jury found that the force used under the circumstances was unreasonable. See Rasmussen v. City of New York, 766 F.Supp.2d 399, 404 (E.D.N.Y. 2011) (declining to grant summary judgment on one act in an excessive force case, explaining that “the jury will be required to determine whether excessive force was used to effectuate the arrest in the whole context in which it happened; it will not be asked to slice it into individual pieces to determine whether any of those pieces standing alone constituted excessive force.”). Further, as explained more fully below, in this particular case it is not necessary to divide the interaction into separate components in order to decide whether Officer May is entitled to qualified immunity. Accordingly, the Court will consider the incident as a whole when determining whether the jury's liability finding has a sufficient evidentiary basis.

         The Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of excessive force by a police officer in effecting an arrest. The determination of whether an officer's use of force is reasonable Fed.App'x 17 (2d Cir. 2004) (where the Second Circuit noted that counsel's brief in support of appeal of the district court's denial of it motion for summary judgment was “glaringly replete with [their] own versions of the events.”). Perhaps, after a second reminder, the message will stick. “requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). The law is clear that some degree of force is permitted in effectuating a lawful arrest; thus, “not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The question is whether the officer's use of force was objectively reasonable. Id. at 397. The reasonableness test “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Id. at 396. The officers' actions must be objectively reasonable “in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” Id. at 397. “In sum, the ‘standard' to be applied in determining whether ‘the amount of force' used exceeded the amount that was ‘necessary' in the particular circumstances is ‘reasonableness at the moment.'” Rogoz v. City of Hartford, 796 F.3d 236, 247 (2d Cir. 2015) (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 396-97).

         As explained above, in excessive force cases, the jury need not “dissect a police encounter into its separate components… or view each specific act taken by police officers in isolation.” Rickettes v. Turton, No. 12-CV-6427(SMG), 2015 WL 3868070, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. June 23, 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). What the jury must do is “pay careful attention to the facts and circumstances of the incident and determine whether, in ...


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