Walters v. Hazelwood, city of et al.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER - IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendants renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, for new trial, or to amend judgment [Doc. # 86 ] is denied. Signed by District Judge Carol E. Jackson on 5/29/13. (KJS)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
CITY OF HAZELWOOD, MISSOURI and
Case No. 4:09-CV-1473 (CEJ)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
On April 2, 2013, a jury awarded plaintiff Ronnie Walters $25,000 on his claim
that defendants City of Hazelwood, Missouri, and Carl Wolf deprived him of his property
– a Ruger pistol and ammunition – without due process of law, in violation of the
Fourteenth Amendment. At the close of evidence, the Court granted judgment as a
matter of law to plaintiff on the issue of liability and submitted the damages
determination to the jury. Defendants now move for judgment as a matter of law, for
new trial, and to amend judgment.
On February 11, 2007, a Hazelwood police officer arrested plaintiff on an
outstanding warrant and seized a pistol and ammunition from him. Defendant Wolf,
then Hazelwood’s chief of police, refused to return the property without a writ of
replevin. Plaintiff filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting as relevant here
that defendants deprived him of his property without due process of law, in violation
of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court granted defendants’ motion for summary
judgment on this claim, finding that due process was satisfied because plaintiff had a
postdeprivation remedy in the form of a replevin action.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Walters v. Wolf, 660 F.3d 307 (8th
The appellate court reasoned, “when an established state procedure
deprives one of property, postdeprivation remedies generally fail to satisfy [due
process requirements] . . . [T]his maxim especially holds true when the proffered
postdeprivation remedy is a subsequent tort suit.” Id. at 313 (emphasis in original)
(citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981), Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319
(1976), Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113 (1990), and Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co.,
455 U.S. 422 (1982)). “[T]he availability of state law postdeprivation remedies bears
relevance only where the challenged acts of state officials can be characterized as
random and unauthorized.” Id. at 314 (emphasis in original) (quoting Coleman v.
Watt, 40 F.3d 255, 257 (8th Cir. 1994)). The court of appeals held that the initial
deprivation at plaintiff’s arrest was valid. However, the court found that a second
deprivation occurred after the dismissal of a charge in St. Louis County and dismissal
of an outstanding warrant in the municipality of Edmundson, Missouri. Id. Defendants’
continued refusal to return the firearm and ammunition amounted to an
unconstitutional deprivation and relegation to a state tort action was insufficient. Id.
at 315. The case was remanded to this Court for further proceedings.
Following a jury trial resulting in an adverse judgment, a party may move for a
new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Under this Rule, “[a] new trial is appropriate
when the first trial, through a verdict against the weight of the evidence, an excessive
damage award, or legal errors at trial, resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” Gray v.
Bicknell, 86 F.3d 1472, 1480 (8th Cir. 1996). A miscarriage of justice does not result
whenever there are inaccuracies or errors at trial; instead, the party seeking a new
trial must demonstrate that there was prejudicial error.
Buchholz v. Rockwell
International Corp., 120 F.3d 146, 148 (8th Cir. 1997). Errors in evidentiary rulings
or in jury instructions are only prejudicial, and therefore only represent a miscarriage
of justice that requires a new trial, where the error likely affected the jury’s verdict.
Diesel Machinery, Inc. v. B.R. Lee Industries, Inc., 418 F.3d 820, 833 (8th Cir. 2005)
(evidentiary rulings); Sherman v. Winco Fireworks, Inc., 532 F.3d 709, 720 (8th Cir.
2008) (jury instructions).
A motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted only if the jury’s
verdict is utterly lacking in evidentiary support.
In re Prempro Products Liability
Litigation, 586 F.3d 547, 571 (8th Cir. 2009). When deciding a Rule 50 motion, the
court must construe the evidence most favorably to the prevailing party and draw all
inferences in its favor, denying the motion “if reasonable persons could differ as to the
conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.” Western American, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty
and Surety Co., 915 F.2d 1181, 1183 (8th Cir. 1990).
The court may not make
credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. In re Prempro, 586 F.3d at 572.
Motions to amend judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) “serve the limited
function of correcting manifest errors of law or fact or to present newly discovered
evidence.” Innovative Home Health Care, Inc. v. P.T.-O.T. Assocs. of the Black Hills,
141 F.3d 1284, 1286 (8th Cir. 1998). A motion to amend a judgment under Rule
59(e) can be granted for one of three purposes: (1) to incorporate an intervening
change of law; (2) to present new evidence previously unavailable; or (3) to correct
clear error or prevent manifest injustice. Hagerman v. Yukon Energy Corp., 839 F.2d
407, 413 (8th Cir. 1988) (citation omitted).
Defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the
basis of qualified immunity because plaintiff’s due process rights were not clearly
established at the time defendant Wolf refused to return plaintiff’s pistol.
argument is refuted by the extensive precedent cited by the Court of Appeals. See
Walters, 660 F.3d at 313-14 (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527 (1981), Mathews
v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113 (1990), Logan v.
Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422 (1982), Coleman v. Watt, 40 F.3d 255 (8th Cir.
1994)). In deciding this case, the Eighth Circuit found that its decision in Lathon v.
City of St. Louis, 242 F.3d 841 (8th Cir. 2001)), was”on point and controlling.” Thus,
the law was clearly established at the time of the deprivation in this case.
Defendants also argue that the Court erred by granting plaintiff’s motion for
judgment as a matter of law because he failed to establish that the unlawful
deprivation caused damages. However, once it was determined that plaintiff was
subjected to an impermissible deprivation without due process, he was entitled to
damages -- either actual or nominal, as the jury in this case was instructed.
Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 266 (1978) (“Because the right to procedural due
process is ‘absolute’ in the sense that it does not depend upon the merits of a
claimant’s substantive assertions, and because of the importance to organized society
that procedural due process be observed, we believe that the denial of procedural due
process should be actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury.”)
(citations omitted). Plaintiff testified that he was distressed by defendants’ refusal to
return his property. “Compensatory damages are recoverable in § 1983 actions for
injuries including personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering.” Rogers v.
City of Little Rock, Ark., 152 F.3d 790, 798 (8th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation and
citation omitted). Plaintiff’s testimony provided a sufficient basis from which the jury
could conclude that he sustained actual damages.
Defendants also argue that the Court erroneously precluded them from
introducing evidence that, subsequent to the deprivation, plaintiff was charged in
connection with a federal drug conspiracy,1 a circumstance which might have
accounted for his distress during the time defendants refused to return his property.
The Court discussed on the record its reasons for excluding the evidence and will not
repeat those reasons here. Additionally, plaintiff testified that there could have been
causes for his distress other than the defendants’ refusal to return his property. The
defendants were not prejudiced by the ruling on the motion in limine.
Defendants argue that the jury improperly included attorneys’ fees in its
calculation of damages. During deliberations, the jury sent a note asking whether
plaintiff had to pay attorneys’ fees from the amount awarded. The Court’s note in
response stated: “I am unable to answer your question. Please follow the instructions
on the law that were given to you.” [Doc. #80]. Instruction 5 told the jury to award
plaintiff “an amount of money that will fairly compensate him for any actual damages
you find he sustained as a direct result of the violation of his constitutional rights.
Actual damages may include any mental suffering the plaintiff experienced.” [Doc.
#78]. This instruction, which the jury is presumed to have followed, conforms with the
evidence and the Eighth Circuit Model Instruction on actual damages. Defendants’
contention that the jury improperly factored in attorneys’ fees in determining damages
The charges were dismissed.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendants’ renewed motion for judgment as a
matter of law, for new trial, or to amend judgment [Doc. #86] is denied.
CAROL E. JACKSON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Dated this 29th day of May, 2013.
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