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Mazloum v. District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Dep't

September 15, 2008

EMILE MAZLOUM, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

A jury trial commenced in this case on April 23, 2008. At the close of plaintiff Emile Mazloum's case-in-chief, all defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. The Court granted the Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a) motion with respect to the assault and battery claims against Officers Phillips, Modlin, and Schneider but denied all of the other motions. At the close of the defense case, the defendants renewed their Rule 50 motions, which the Court took under advisement. The case went to the jury on May 2, 2008. On May 6, 2008, the jury returned a verdict finding: (1) defendant Michael Persons liable to Mazloum for battery in the amount of $5,000; (2) defendant Anthony Ramirez liable to Mazloum for violating 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the amounts of $5,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000 in punitive damages; and (3) for the defendants on all remaining counts. The jury also answered a series of special interrogatories designed to aid the Court in its qualified immunity determination with respect to Officer Ramirez.

In the days following the verdict, both sides filed post-trial motions. Ramirez moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the § 1983 claim and defendants Phillips, Modlin, and Schneider moved for judgment as a matter of law with respect to the § 1983 claims against them, which were not tried and are currently on appeal before the D.C. Circuit challenging this Court's pre-trial denial of qualified immunity. For his part, Mazloum moved for entry of judgment against Ramirez on the battery claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 49(b) and 59(e) or, alternatively, for a new trial on the battery claim. Those fully briefed motions are presently before the Court. Upon careful consideration, and for the reasons identified below, the Court will deny defendants' motions and grant in part and deny in part Mazloum's motion.

BACKGROUND

The factual record elicited at trial mostly conformed to the parties' proffered showings at the summary judgment phase of this case. Suffice it to say, the parties presented dramatically different accounts of the events of March 12-13, 2005 to the jury.*fn1 Mazloum took the stand first. He testified that during the night in question he had one or two beers prior to arriving at the FUR Nightclub and perhaps had another drink once he was there. He claimed, however, that he was not intoxicated at any point during the evening. Mazloum explained that at some point he climbed onto the stage at the club from the dance floor and proceeded to dance there for several minutes. He then decided to descend from the stage by way of the stairs. At that point, Mazloum stated that he was accosted from behind by defendant Persons, a club employee monitoring access to the stage, and wrestled to the ground. Mazloum's friends Marwan Abi-Aad and Imad Alkadi, who were working as promoters at the nightclub that evening, attempted to intervene on his behalf to no avail, and at some point all of them fell to the ground.

It was then that the off-duty officers joined the scrum. Although they did not witness the onset of the altercation and at the time they intervened Persons had Mazloum pinned to the ground, the off-duty officers nonetheless identified Mazloum as the aggressor and decided to remove him from the club.*fn2 They proceeded to drag Mazloum across the dance floor towards a tunnel leading to an exit. That, Mazloum said, explained the strong smell of alcohol emanating from his person later in the night: the dance floor, he stated, was soaked with alcohol spilled by dancing patrons throughout the evening and his clothes absorbed some of that spillage while he was being dragged across the floor.

After Mazloum was already being dragged by the other off-duty officers -- and admittedly attempting to free himself -- Officer Ramirez became involved in the incident. He had not witnessed any of the events prior to the other officers' intervention. He produced a set of handcuffs and, with the aid of another officer, successfully placed them on Mazloum. At that point, Mazloum testified that Ramirez punched him in the face and exclaimed: "Shut up, you fucking al-qaeda!" The officers then proceeded to force Mazloum outside of the club and sit him on the sidewalk outside. Screaming that he had done nothing wrong, Mazloum attempted to get up but was slammed to the ground by the officers. According to Mazloum, Ramirez kicked him and slammed his head against the curb, causing him to incur significant injury. Ramirez then once again referred to him as a "fucking al-qaeda," according to Mazloum.

On-duty Officers Acosta and Smith then arrived. After consulting with individuals on the scene and questioning Mazloum, the officers released him without charge. Mazloum indicated that he wanted to file a complaint against the off-duty officers, but Acosta and Smith informed him that he would have to be arrested and taken to the police station to accomplish that. Mazloum, however, insisted on filing a report and even went as far as to place himself in the back seat of the police cruiser so that he could be taken to the police station. Acosta and Smith removed Mazloum from the vehicle and then departed from the scene.

The next day, after being treated for his injuries at a hospital in Virginia, Mazloum went to the police station to file a citizen complaint report. There he saw and recognized Ramirez and proceeded to get his name and badge information. Mazloum then lodged his official complaint. Two friends of Mazloum, Alkadi and Abi-Aad, testified at trial and corroborated parts of Mazloum's account of the events. Mazloum's case-in-chief then concluded by reading certain deposition excerpts into the record.

At the close of Mazloum's evidence, the Court granted defendants' Rule 50 motion on the assault and battery counts against the off-duty officers (aside from Ramirez). The only evidence introduced against those defendants during Mazloum's case-in-chief was that they had "dragged" Mazloum across the floor in the process of removing him from the club. The Court concluded that such a limited showing was insufficient as a matter of law to establish battery, particularly in light of the qualified privilege that officers enjoy while performing an arrest. The remainder of Mazloum's claims survived defendants' Rule 50 motion.

Defendants sent several witnesses to the stand during the presentation of their case. Persons testified that he had asked Mazloum to leave the stage area several times before the final incident occurred. When Persons sought to remove him that final time, Mazloum moved aggressively towards him and he believed that Mazloum was poised to strike him, according to Persons's testimony. Persons then grabbed Mazloum, and in the ensuing struggle, Persons admitted to striking Mazloum and pinning him to the ground, although he maintained that he did so only in self-defense.

The off-duty officers then took the stand to testify to their roles in the incident. They stated that they used the minimal force necessary to remove an unruly, aggressive, and intoxicated*fn3 patron who was engaged in a physical altercation with one of the club's hosts (Persons). They denied seeing Ramirez punch or kick Mazloum and also denied hearing Ramirez refer to Mazloum as a "fucking al-qaeda."

Finally, Ramirez testified that he did not punch Mazloum in the face or refer to him as a "fucking al-qaeda." Ramirez did, however, admit to using a "sweep" maneuver to knock Mazloum down after he refused to remain seated on the sidewalk curb outside the club as the officers had commanded. That maneuver, Ramirez claimed, is a standard police tactic for dealing with unruly individuals resisting arrest, such as Mazloum, and does not constitute an unlawful or excessive use of force.

After the Court held defendants' renewed Rule 50 motions in abeyance, the case went to the jury. Following three days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict against Persons on the battery count and against Ramirez on the § 1983 count. The jury found for the defendants on all other claims, including on the battery claim against Ramirez. In addition, the jury answered several specific factual interrogatories designed to aid the Court's qualified immunity determination.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A Court may "grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal law." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). The decision to grant a new trial falls within the sound discretion of the trial court. See Hutchinson v. Stuckey, 952 F.2d 1418, 1420 (D.C. Cir. 1992). "[M]indful of the jury's special function in our legal system and hesita[nt] to disturb its findings," Nyman v. FDIC, 967 F. Supp. 1562, 1569 (D.D.C. 1997), a court should only grant a new trial "'where the court is convinced the jury verdict was a seriously erroneous result' and where denial of the motion will result in a 'clear miscarriage of justice,'" Martinez v. Dist. of Columbia, 503 F. Supp. 2d 353, 355 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Nyman, 967 F. Supp. at 1569) (internal quotations omitted). "Generally, a new trial may only be granted when a manifest error of law or fact is presented." In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litig., 467 F. Supp. 2d 74, 87 (D.D.C. 2006).

Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a), a court may grant judgment as a matter of law during or after "a jury trial . . . [if] the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). In entertaining a "motion for judgment as a matter of law, the court should review all of the evidence in the record." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 540 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). "[T]he court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Id. "Entry of judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 is warranted only if '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.'" Alkire v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 2007 WL 1041660 at *1 (D.D.C. Apr. 5, 2007) (quoting McGill v. Munoz, 203 F.3d 843, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2000)).

DISCUSSION

I. Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict

Defendants' motion breaks down into two constituent parts. First, defendants Phillips, Modlin, and Schneider have moved for judgment as a matter of law on the outstanding ยง 1983 claim against them. Second, defendant Ramirez has moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict with respect to the ...


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