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Hudson v. Dist. of Columbia

April 2, 2007

GRACE HUDSON, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is Defendants' motion for partial judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, and a remittitur [Dkt. #85]. Because Plaintiffs failed to adduce adequate evidence from which a reasonably jury could conclude that Plaintiff Grace Hudson's emotional injury was sufficiently serious under D.C. law, judgment as a matter of law will be granted to Defendants on her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendants' motion will be denied in all other respects.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case arises out of an incident that led to the arrest of Plaintiff Karim Clayton on November 8, 2001. Briefly recounted, shortly before midnight on November 7, Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") Officer Richard Merritt and then--MPD Officer John Hackley observed a gathering of young adults in the 600 block of Keefer Street in Northwest Washington, D.C., just outside the residence of Mr. Clayton's grandmother, Ms. Hudson. They exited their patrol wagon to investigate, and a dispute over who was the rightful owner of a Sony PlayStation ensued. While the testimony about what happened next was not fully consistent, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs it established that Gad Doreus, a friend of Mr. Clayton's, intervened in the dispute and was struck by Officer Merritt. Mr. Clayton, who was watching events unfold from his grandmother's front porch, urged Mr. Doreus to retreat into the home for shelter from what he considered to be an unjustified beating. The officers pursued Mr. Doreus onto Ms. Hudson's porch, where Officer Merritt struck Mr. Clayton several times with a metal baton before the two friends got into the house and secured the door behind them.

Intent on arresting the youths, the officers attempted to force open the front door. As a result of the melee, Ms. Hudson, who was then 87 years old and had come downstairs to see what the ruckus was about, was accidentally knocked to the floor. Mr. Doreus helped her to the living room sofa. After the officers, then joined by backup, gained entry to the home, Officer Merritt encountered Mr. Clayton in the living room and struck him at least once with a metal baton, roughly three to four feet from where Ms. Hudson lay on the sofa. Mr. Clayton then managed to move into the kitchen, where he was handcuffed and taken into custody.

Both Ms. Hudson and Mr. Clayton were taken to the hospital for medical treatment. Ms. Hudson sustained a head injury in her fall and stayed in the hospital for eight days. Mr. Clayton suffered a broken pinky finger and a lacerated forehead. A forehead scar remained visible at trial.

Mr. Clayton was charged in D.C. Superior Court with simple assault and possession of a prohibited weapon. He was acquitted of both charges in a bench trial.

Plaintiffs filed this action against Officer Merritt, former Officer Hackley, and the District of Columbia on November 8, 2002. A jury trial commenced on August 23, 2005. The jury found Officer Merritt liable to Mr. Clayton for assault and battery (Count II) and excessive use of force in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III). It also found in favor of Mr. Clayton on his false arrest (Count V) and malicious prosecution (Count VI) claims. It found against Mr. Clayton on his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IV).*fn1 The jury awarded Mr. Clayton a total of $81,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages.

Ms. Hudson's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count IV) was her only claim to go to trial.*fn2 The jury returned a verdict in her favor and awarded her $25,000 in compensatory damages.

A counter-claim by Officer Merritt and the District of Columbia against Mr. Clayton for assault and battery was also submitted to the jury. The jury found in favor of Mr. Clayton. In so finding, the jury presumably rejected the officers' testimony that Mr. Clayton, in trying to help Mr. Doreus and avoid his own arrest, struck Officer Merritt with a 10-pound weight and a piece of wood, both allegedly launched from inside the home.

Defendants Officer Merritt and the District of Columbia*fn3 now move, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, for judgment as a matter of law as to four claims: Ms. Hudson's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count IV), and Mr. Clayton's false arrest, malicious prosecution, and § 1983 claims (Counts V, VI, and III, respectively). In the alternative, Defendants move, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, for a new trial on all claims submitted to the jury - with the exception of Ms. Hudson's negligent infliction claim, which they ask the Court to leave undisturbed in the event that it denies their motion for judgment as a matter of law. Defs.' Notice of Withdrawal at 1 [Dkt. #109]. As a final alternative, Defendants move the Court to remit Mr. Clayton's damages for false arrest.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 permits the Court to grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law if "a party has been fully heard on an [essential] issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). Where, as here, "the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made at the close of all of the evidence, the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b). A defendant seeking judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 must demonstrate that "the evidence and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are so one-sided that reasonable men and women could not have reached a verdict in plaintiff's favor." McGull v. Munoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). "In making that determination, a court may not assess the credibility of witnesses or weigh the evidence," Hayman v. Nat'l Academy of Sciences, 23 F.3d 535, 537 (D.C. Cir. 1994), nor may it "substitute its judgment for that of the jury," Bodoo v. Cary, 21 F.3d 1157, 1161 (D.C. Cir. 1994). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and all conflicts must be resolved in that party's favor. Mackey v. United States, 8 F.3d 826, 829 (D.C. Cir. 1993). In sum, the "jury's verdict must stand unless the evidence, together with all inferences that can reasonably be drawn therefrom[,] is so one-sided that reasonable men could not disagree on the verdict." Carter v. Duncan-Huggins Ltd., 727 F.2d 1225, 1227 (D.C. Cir. 1984).

B. Motion for New Trial

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 provides: "A new trial may be granted . . . in an action in which there has been a trial by jury, for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). "Discretion to grant a new trial has generally been understood to include actions rendering the trial unfair." Sparshott v. Feld Entm't Inc., 311 F.3d 425, 433 (D.C. Cir. 2002). This Court has noted that a new trial should be granted "if the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, damages are excessive, for other reasons the trial was not fair, or substantial errors occurred in the admission or rejection of evidence or the giving or refusal of instructions." Nyman v. FDIC, 967 F. Supp. 1562, 1569 (D.D.C. 1997) (citing 11 C. Wright, A. Miller & Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2805 (1973)). Although the standard under Rule 59 is "less onerous" than under Rule 50, id. (citing Lewis v. Elliott, 628 F. Supp. 512, 516 (D.D.C. 1986)), a Rule 59 motion should generally be granted "only where the court is convinced that the jury verdict was a 'seriously erroneous result' and where denial of the motion will result in a 'clear miscarriage of justice,'" Sedgwick v. Giant Food Inc., 110 F.R.D. 175, 176 (D.D.C. 1986) (quoting Chedd-Angier Prod. Co. v. Omni Publ'n Int'l, 756 F.2d 930, 934 (1st Cir. 1985)).

C. Motion for Remittitur

A remittitur is appropriate only when the jury's verdict is "beyond all reason, or . . . is so great as to shock the conscience," or is "so inordinately large as obviously to exceed the maximum limit of a reasonable range within which the jury may properly operate." Jeffries v. Potomac Dev. Corp., 822 F.2d 87, 96 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (internal quotation marks omitted; omission in original). The D.C. Circuit permits remittitur "only if the reduction permits recovery of the highest amount the jury tolerably could have awarded." Langevine v. District of Columbia, 106 F.3d 1018, 1024 (D.C. Cir. 1997). It has further instructed that courts be "especially hesitant to disturb a jury's determination of damages in cases involving intangible and non-economic injuries." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Defendants move for judgment as a matter of law as to four claims: Ms. Hudson's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count IV), and Mr. Clayton's false arrest, malicious prosecution, and § 1983 claims (Counts V, VI, and III, respectively).

1. Ms. Hudson's Claim for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to Ms. Hudson's negligent infliction claim for three reasons: (1) she failed to introduce evidence of a standard of care that was breached by the officers; (2) she failed to present evidence that she was in the "zone of danger"; and (3) she failed to adduce evidence of an emotional injury that is "serious" and verifiable." Pls.' Mem. at 26-31. Because the last argument disposes of the issue, the Court need not address the other two.

"In a negligent infliction case, there can be recovery for mental and emotional distress only if the plaintiff's injuries are serious and verifiable." Bahura v. S.E.W. Investors, 754 A.2d 928, 937 (D.C. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the Court instructed the jury that emotional distress is serious "only if it results in long-term physical symptoms that amount to physical illness, or long-term mental disturbance that can be classified as an illness in and of itself." Jury Instr. at 44 [Dkt. #112]. It instructed the jury that emotional distress is verifiable "if there is evidence to demonstrate that the illness is not feigned, fabricated, or imagined." Id. These rules serve to exclude recovery for "trifling distress," Williams v. Baker, 572 A.2d 1062, 1068 (D.C. 1990); Jones v. Howard Univ. Inc., 589 A.2d 419, 424 (D.C. 1991), and generally preclude recovery for symptoms that are "transitory, non-recurring, or inconsequential." Bahura, 754 A.2d at 938.

Because Ms. Hudson was left with no triable claim for assault and battery or intentional infliction of emotional distress, see supra n.2, her recovery was limited to "any emotional distress she may have suffered specifically from witnessing the alleged beating of Mr. Clayton," Jury Instr. at 44. Defendants submit that the only evidence of Ms. Hudson's emotional distress was her own testimony that she was "concerned" about her grandson, Mr. Clayton. They also argue that she presented no verifiable evidence of distress. Defs.' Mem. at 31. Plaintiffs limply counter that Ms. Hudson also testified that she was "apprehensive," "afraid," and "worried" about her grandson and herself. Pls.' Mem. at 14-15. Rather than relying on the characterizations of counsel, the Court looks to the record. Ms. Hudson's relevant trial testimony was as follows:

Q: At the time that [the officer] was hitting Karim what was going through your mind?

A: I was, I was afraid that he was going to hurt him. And I was afraid that, I was just afraid for him.

Trial Tr. at 18:22-25 (Aug. 24, 2005).

A: I didn't see Karim after I got to the hospital. We seem like we went our separate ways.

Q: How did that make you feel?

A: I was just apprehensive.

Q: Why?

A: Because I didn't know whether he was still bleeding or what. I was worried about him.

Q: How long was it before you got an opportunity to see him again?

A: I don't think I saw him for about two days.

Q: And during that two day period how did it make you feel or what were you feeling?

A: I was feeling apprehensive about him and I was wondering how he was doing and besides I was worried about myself and the sore was in my head [sic] and I was, all in all I was just worried about him and also myself.

Id. at 20:11--21:3.

Q: How did [coming home from the hospital] make you feel?

A: I was feeling despondent and look like [sic] I was just ready to cry, but I was trying to, trying not to get too upset.

Q: What about that was making you upset?

A: Because I didn't have anything to do with anything. I was inside of my home, in my bed. I didn't see why I had to have my place torn up . . . .

Id. at 26:13-22.

Q: How did [seeing Karim again] make you feel?

A: It made me feel better because I could see that he was like on his way to recovery. His head was still, he still had the gash in his head and he had a splint like on his finger, on his finger, you know, and wrapped. . . . .

Q: Before you got to see him, did you know what his condition was?

A: No, I did not.

Q: How did that make you feel?

A: I was apprehensive until I saw him. After I saw him ...


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