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Pitt v. District of Columbia

December 23, 2005

CHRISTOPHER G. PITT, SR., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the Court on defendants' motion for judgment [40], filed on August 18, 2003, and their second motion for judgment [48], filed on September 4, 2003. After supplemental briefing, the Court heard oral argument on these motions on September 15, 2005. On September 27, 2005, the Court issued an order granting both motions in part and denying both in part. It indicated that an opinion would follow in due course. This opinion explains why the Court grants the defendants' motion on Count I and denies it in all other respects.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises from the arrest and subsequent criminal prosecution of the plaintiff, Christopher Pitt, for the robbery of an older couple, Henry and Gloria Feldman, which occurred at or very close to 12:00 noon on January 2, 2001, inside the Feldmans' apartment building at 3003 Van Ness Street, N.W. Mrs. Feldman called 911 and gave a description of the robbery suspect. Some time after the robbery, two of the defendants, Metropolitan Police Department Officers Bryan C. Adams and Steven Baxter, saw Mr. Pitt enter his car a few blocks away from the Feldmans' building. Officers Adams and Baxter followed Mr. Pitt and then stopped his car at the Taft Memorial Bridge on Connecticut Ave., N.W. near Calvert Street. They held him there for the Feldmans and employees of the apartment building to view him and either identify him or rule him out as the robber. Mrs. Feldman told the police that Mr. Pitt was not the robber. She testified at trial that she told the police: "No. That's not the man that attacked us." She testified that she got "a good look" and "knew immediately it was not him. . . .

I was sure." Mr. Feldman said that he was uncertain whether Mr. Pitt was the robber; he was "about 50-50, . . . but I don't think so." Mr. Pitt was arrested and held in custody at the D.C. Jail and then at a halfway house until January 13, 2001. On January 19, 2001, the criminal charges against him were dismissed.

Mr. Pitt claims that the police lacked grounds to arrest him and that they misrepresented and omitted critical facts when they initiated prosecution against him. For example, Mr. Pitt claims that the police improperly omitted from their reports the fact that Mrs. Feldman stated that he was not the robber. A security videotape at the Feldmans' apartment building showed the robber following the Feldmans into their building. The plaintiffs claim that it obviously is not Mr. Pitt's image in the videotape and that the police were not truthful when they said that they "determined that the subject stopped and arrested on the Taft Bridge was the same individual observed in the videotape." The Court and the jury viewed the videotape. The person on the tape bore little resemblance to Mr. Pitt. The plaintiffs also claim that before arresting him (and certainly before charging him) the police should have confirmed the fact that Mr. Pitt was at the Qatar Embassy, making a delivery or picking up a package at the time of the robbery.

Mr. Pitt and his wife, Tela Hansom-Pitt, made claims for violation of Mr. Pitt's civil rights, false arrest, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and related claims against Officer Adams, Officer Baxter, Detective James T. Bovino, and the District of Columbia. The defendants denied any liability to Mr. Pitt or his wife. The officers denied that they falsely arrested Mr. Pitt or that they acted maliciously or recklessly with the intent to violate plaintiffs' civil rights. They maintain that they had probable cause to arrest and acted reasonably and in good faith at all times under the circumstances. They also maintain that they had a good faith belief that their actions in arresting and charging Mr. Pitt were lawful.

The case was tried to a jury for eight days beginning on August 24, 2003. The jury returned a verdict finding liability against all three of the individual defendants on Count I (violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983) and against the individual defendants and the District of Columbia on Count III (malicious prosecution) and Count VII (loss of consortium). As to Count IV (intentional infliction of emotional distress), it found no liability against any of the three individual defendants, but it did find for each of the plaintiffs separately as against the District of Columbia on that claim. The jury found no liability with respect to Count II (the common law false arrest claim) against any of the defendants. The jury awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages to plaintiff Christopher Pitt and $50,000 in compensatory damages to plaintiff Tela Hansom-Pitt. As punitive damages are not available against the District of Columbia, the jury verdict form only asked the jury to consider punitive damages against the three individual police officer defendants. The jury assessed $1,000 in punitive damages against each of the individual defendants. On August 26, 2001, the Clerk of Court entered judgment on the verdict for plaintiffs in the amounts just stated, or a total amount of $153,000 in damages, together with costs.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Rule 50(b) Standard

On this motion for judgment as a matter of law after trial under Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court may grant the motion only if it determines that "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for" Mr. and Mrs. Pitt on a particular issue. FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1). Judgment as a matter of law is proper if, "considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the [Pitts] and making all reasonable inferences in their favor," the Court concludes that there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to have found in their favor under controlling law. Hendry v. Pelland, 73 F.3d 397, 400 (D.C. Cir. 1996); see Fox v. District of Columbia, 990 F. Supp. 13, 19 (D.D.C. 1997). The jury's verdict must stand "unless the evidence, together with all inferences that can be reasonably drawn therefrom is so one-sided [in favor of the moving party] that reasonable persons could not disagree on the verdict," Milone v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 91 F.3d 229, 231 (D.C. Cir. 1996), that is, unless the non-movant's evidence is so insufficient that a reasonable finder of fact "could not possibly find for the non-movant." 9 MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE § 50.60[1] at 50-87 (3d ed. 2002).

In deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Court is not to resolve legitimately disputed issues of fact already decided by the jury. 9 MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE § 50.60[1] at 50-87 (3d ed. 2002). Even if the Court finds the evidence that led to the jury verdict unpersuasive, or that it would have reached a different result if it were sitting as the fact-finder, that is not a basis for overturning the jury's verdict and granting judgment as a matter of law. Id. The Court may not grant the motion 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." Me, Inc. v. Taylor, 157 F.3d 139, 142 (2d Cir. 1998).

B. The Specific Claims

The verdict form for Count II -- common law false arrest -- first asked the question, separately for each defendant: "Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that [the particular defendant] arrested the plaintiff Christopher G. Pitt, Sr., and that the arrest was without probable cause?" With respect to each of the four defendants, the jury unanimously answered "Yes." The jury was then asked: "If you answered 'Yes' to the previous question, do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that [the defendant] nonetheless, reasonably and in good faith, believed that his conduct toward Mr. Pitt was ...


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