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Gloria Halcomb v. Nopadon Woods

March 3, 2011


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


In November of 2009, plaintiff Gloria Halcomb presented to a jury her claims that defendant Nopadon Woods was liable to her for false arrest, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of her Fourth Amendment rights. The jury found in Ms. Halcomb's favor as to most of those claims and awarded her $75,000 in compensatory and $175,000 in punitive damages. This matter is now before the Court on Mr. Woods' motion for judgment as a matter of law or, alternatively, for a new trial. Mr. Woods argues that (1) he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Ms. Halcomb's common law claims of false arrest, assault, and battery, and on her Section 1983 claim of unconstitutional arrest; (2) no reasonable jury could have awarded punitive damages based on the evidence presented at trial; and (3) qualified immunity shields him from liability for unconstitutional search and arrest. The Court will grant Mr. Woods' motion in part and deny it in part, vacating the jury's award of punitive damages but leaving the remainder of its verdict unchanged.*fn1


A. Procedural History

Ms. Halcomb's complaint, filed on July 1, 2002, originally contained claims against Mr. Woods, the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority ("WMATA"), and the District of Columbia. See Compl. ¶¶ 6-8. Against Mr. Woods, Ms. Halcomb pled claims of false arrest, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶¶ 37-48, 52-56. She claimed that WMATA was liable under the theory of respondeat superior for the allegedly tortious actions of Mr. Woods. Id. ¶¶ 49-51. In addition, she asserted a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against the District of Columbia, alleging that the District was vicariously liable for the actions of several unidentified officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. Id. ¶¶ 60-63. She also sought to hold the District of Columbia liable for Mr. Woods' alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶¶ 64-67. Ms. Halcomb requested compensatory damages in the amount of at least $75,000 and an unspecified amount of punitive damages. Id. at 12.

At Ms. Halcomb's request, her claims against WMATA were dismissed in September of 2002. On March 13, 2003, on the District of Columbia's motion, the Court dismissed Ms. Halcomb's Section 1983 claims against the District. Halcomb v. Wash. Area Metro. Transit Auth., Civil Action No. 02-1336, Order at 1-2 (D.D.C. Mar. 14, 2003). Ms. Halcomb's remaining claims against the District of Columbia and Mr. Woods were tried to a jury beginning on December 10, 2007. After eight days of trial and nearly two days of deliberations, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, and the Court declared a mistrial. Although the jury had failed to reach a decision on Ms. Halcomb's claims, the defendants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, which was granted as to the District of Columbia but denied as to Mr. Woods. See Halcomb v. Woods, 610 F. Supp. 2d 77, 87 (D.D.C. 2009). Ms. Halcomb's claims against Mr. Woods were tried again before a jury in November of 2009. After five days of trial and nearly three days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict for Ms. Halcomb on a number of her claims.

B. Evidence Presented at the Second Trial The evidence presented by the parties at trial must be understood in light of the undisputed facts about the manner in which the District of Columbia's subway system, called "Metro," operates. A passenger may reach a Metro train platform only after first passing through a barrier called a faregate. To open a faregate, a passenger must either touch a plastic card, called a SmarTrip card, to an electronic sensor located on top of the gate, or insert a paper card, called a farecard, into a slot located on the side of the gate. The card - whether made of paper or plastic - is electronically encoded with a monetary value. If that value is equal to or higher than the minimum fare needed to ride a Metro train, the faregate will open after electronically "reading" the card.

1. The Plaintiff's Evidence

Ms. Halcomb testified as follows at the second trial: On October 30, 2001, at around 6 p.m., she left the United States Capitol building, where she worked, and walked to Union Station to catch a Metro train. She inserted a paper farecard containing sufficient fare to enter the Metro system into a faregate and passed through the gate after it opened. Once in the area of the station reserved for Metro passengers, she then proceeded to a bank of pay phones and called Sam Taylor, a friend whom she was scheduled to meet for dinner that night. While she was on the phone, she was approached by Mr. Woods, at the time an officer of the WMATA Metro Transit Police. He informed her that her farecard did not have sufficient monetary value to trigger the faregate and asked Ms. Halcomb to give him the card. Once she had done so, he carried the farecard to a nearby kiosk. Ms. Halcomb did not see what he did there.

When Mr. Woods returned from the kiosk, he said that he had checked the value of Ms. Halcomb's card and confirmed that it was below the minimum value needed to enter the Metro system. Ms. Halcomb denied this claim and asked if Mr. Woods would accompany her to a fare machine so that they could check the value of the card together. He refused her request and retained possession of the farecard, informing Ms. Halcomb that he was going to write her a citation for fare evasion.*fn2 He asked to see her identification. After at first refusing to provide identification, Ms. Halcomb showed him a media credential and a work identification card, but Mr. Woods rejected those and asked for a different form of identification, one with her photograph on it. He then reached for Ms. Halcomb's purse, whose straps Ms. Halcomb was holding with her right hand. Saying that he was sure there was identification in her bag, Mr. Woods grasped two of Ms. Halcomb's fingers, bent them back, and held onto them for a couple of seconds.

Ms. Halcomb told Mr. Woods to let go of her hand. He did so, and she withdrew her wallet from her purse and showed him her driver's license. Mr. Woods then called another police unit on his radio and read off Ms. Halcomb's identifying information. He told Ms. Halcomb that he was going to issue her a citation. Ms. Halcomb still denied that she had done anything wrong and insisted that he show her the farecard he had taken from her. He refused to do so. Ms. Halcomb's fingers, the ones that Mr. Woods had bent back while trying to obtain her driver's license, were beginning to swell. She complained to him that he had injured her and warned him that she would file a complaint against him. Mr. Woods told her that if she wanted medical treatment, he would have to take her D.C. General Hospital, and that she would also have to "go to jail" first in order to get medical attention.

At that point, Mr. Woods put a hand cuff on Ms. Halcomb's right wrist and then "yanked" her right arm behind her back to complete the process of handcuffing her, injuring her arm and shoulder in the process. Once Ms. Halcomb was handcuffed, Mr. Woods put on rubber gloves and began to search her and collect her property. He roughly pulled off her earrings and, in trying to remove her necklace, twisted it in such a way that it broke. He also ripped her belt from her trench coat. Then he put his knee between Ms. Halcomb's legs to push them apart, bruising them in the process, and searched her front, back, and sides. He "stomped" on Ms. Halcomb's right foot.

At the conclusion of the search, an officer from the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department arrived on the scene, and he and Mr. Woods placed Ms. Halcomb in a patrol car outside Union Station. Ms. Halcomb was driven to a police precinct and led inside. Somehow during all of this, Ms. Halcomb said, her blouse had come open, exposing her breasts, and officers and prisoners in the precinct taunted her as she was led past them. She was locked in a cell for an unspecified number of hours, until she was removed from the precinct and taken to D.C. General Hospital by Mr. Woods and another officer.

At D.C. General, Ms. Halcomb was placed in another cell while she waited to receive medical attention. Ms. Halcomb was so horrified by the dirty condition of the cell that she urinated on herself rather than use the toilet provided. Her hand and foot pained her, and at some point she vomited. After she had been in the cell for some time, Mr. Woods arrived and took her to be treated by a physician. Before seeing the doctor, Ms. Halcomb spoke with a nurse, who asked her some questions and recorded her contact information on a medical form. When Mr. Woods saw the address that was written on the medical form, he said something along the lines of, "Now that I know where you live, I ought to come out there and put a bullet in your head for making me go through all this [expletive] with you tonight."

A physician ordered x-rays of Ms. Halcomb's right hand and foot but found no fractures of her bones. On Ms. Halcomb's medical forms, he wrote that she had a contusion (bruise) on her right hand and instructed her to use compresses and Motrin to treat the injury. After the doctor's examination of Ms. Halcomb had ended, Mr. Woods took her back to the cell where she previously had been placed. At about 5:00 a.m. on the morning of October 31, 2001, she was driven to another police precinct, where she was photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in another cell. She was released later that morning, at about 7:30 a.m., after her friend Sam Taylor paid her fine. At the time, she had pain in her shoulder, foot and hand, and her thighs were bruised.

After Ms. Halcomb finished testifying, her counsel called several supporting witnesses. Ruth Enoch, a friend of Ms. Halcomb's, testified that Ms. Halcomb had been very upset after her experience with Mr. Woods. A former New York City police captain, Edward Mamet, appeared as an expert witness and testified regarding the standards governing police behavior during investigations and arrests. Ms. Halcomb's doctor, Danny Mamodesene, testified that Ms. Halcomb came to see him on November 1, 2001, claiming that she had been injured during a confrontation with a police officer and complaining of injuries to her right hand, right foot, and both thighs. Dr. Mamodesene diagnosed Ms. Halcomb as having a right wrist "sprain/contusion," a shoulder sprain, and bruises on her right thigh and ankle, along with insomnia and anxiety.

Sam Taylor, Ms. Halcomb's friend, testified that he had gone to Union Station on the evening of October 30, 2001, after hearing over the phone the beginning of Ms. Halcomb's confrontation with Mr. Woods.*fn3 According to Mr. Taylor, he arrived at Union Station after Ms. Halcomb had already been handcuffed and searched by Mr. Woods. Ms. Halcomb was crying and told Mr. Taylor that Mr. Woods had bent back her fingers and stomped on her foot. She seemed to Mr. Taylor to be in great pain. She insisted on getting medical treatment for her injuries, prompting a police officer who was standing with Mr. Woods and Ms. Halcomb to inform Mr. Taylor that the police could only get Ms. Halcomb medical treatment by taking her to D.C. General Hospital, and could only do that if Ms. Halcomb was under arrest.

Once Ms. Halcomb was removed from Union Station by the officers, Mr. Taylor tried to find out where she had been taken. Eventually he found her at the New York Avenue police substation, where he paid Ms. Halcomb's fine, and she was released.

2. The Defendant's Evidence

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Woods related an account of his confrontation with Ms. Halcomb that differed dramatically from hers. He testified that he had stood in the kiosk in Union Station on October 30, 2001, monitoring the faregates. Through the transparent windows of the kiosk, he could see people passing through the gates. He could also look down at a machine called the "System Monitor Acknowledgment Display" ("SMADS machine"), which displayed on a screen the information encoded on the cards being used at the faregates. When Ms. Halcomb approached a faregate, Mr. Woods noticed that although she was using a paper farecard, which must be inserted into a slot on the side of a faregate to be processed, she swiped the card across the top of the faregate as if it were a plastic SmarTrip card. She then "piggybacked" through the faregate by slipping through the gate behind another person before it closed behind the person who had entered in front of her. Mr. Woods, believing that Ms. Halcomb had evaded paying her fare, glanced down at the SMADS screen and saw that no SmarTrip card had been used at the faregate through which she had just passed.

Convinced that Ms. Halcomb had entered the Metro system illegally - he said he had "reasonable suspicion" at this point - Mr. Woods approached her and asked for her farecard. After she handed it to him, he took it to the kiosk, where he inserted it into the SMADS machine. According to the machine, the card had not been used to enter a Union Station faregate that evening; the last place of entry encoded on the card was Glenmont station. Mr. Woods concluded that Ms. Halcomb had not paid her fare when she passed through the faregate and believed he then had probable cause to believe she had committed the offense of fare evasion. Mr. Woods returned to the place where Ms. Halcomb was standing, asked her for a form of identification, and informed her that he was going to issue her a citation for fare evasion. Ms. Halcomb denied that she had done anything wrong, refused to give Mr. Woods any identification, and walked off toward a bank of pay phones to make a call. Mr. Woods followed her and again asked for a form of identification or for identifying information. He advised her that he needed certain information, including her name and address, in order to issue her a citation for fare evasion. When Ms. Halcomb refused to provide identification after Mr. Woods' third request, he told her that he would have to arrest her if she refused to identify herself, and he showed her his handcuffs.

Ms. Halcomb continued to refuse to provide any information about her identity. Mr. Woods then attempted to place her in handcuffs. She resisted, pulling away from him and twisting from side to side; they struggled. Ultimately, Mr. Woods was forced to obtain assistance from another Metro Transit police officer, Spencer Pines, before he was able to close the handcuffs around both of Ms. Halcomb's wrists. Mr. Woods then performed a search of Ms. Halcomb. He removed her jewelry and belt without damaging either. He said he did not intentionally stomp on her foot and did not bend her fingers back.

Eventually, after waiting at Union Station for a transport vehicle for roughly ninety minutes, Mr. Woods took Ms. Halcomb to D.C. General Hospital because she was complaining of injuries. Once at the hospital, he informed personnel there that he had brought in a prisoner who required medical attention. After Ms. Halcomb was registered as required by the hospital, Mr. Woods took her to a cell for arrestees/prisoners that is maintained and monitored by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. Sometime later Ms. Halcomb was seen by a physician and x-rays were taken, after which she was returned to the cell. Later Mr. Woods took her to the Third District Metropolitan Police Department station to be booked and placed in a cell. She was released later that morning after Sam Taylor paid her fine. Mr. Woods denied ever threatening to come to her house and "put a bullet in [her] head."

To support his testimony, Mr. Woods produced a paper farecard that he identified as the one given to him by Gloria Halcomb on the night in question. He testified that, as was standard practice for transit police officers, he had kept the card in a filing cabinet at his home since that night. His counsel introduced in evidence a photograph of the information displayed on the screen of a SMADS machine when the card was inserted into the machine approximately two years after Ms. Halcomb's arrest. She also introduced a second, more recent photograph of the information displayed by a SMADS machine when the card was inserted. Mr. Woods testified that both photographs showed what the SMADS machine had shown him on October 30, 2001: that the card had not been used to enter the Metro system at Union Station that evening.

Mr. Woods' testimony was followed by that of three other individuals: Paul Mazzei, an expert on police procedures; Jonathan Strong, a Metro technician who explained the operation of the SMADS machines; and Spencer Pines, the other Metro ...

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