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Kawin Reese v. Deputies Christopher Dale Gray

January 27, 2011

KAWIN REESE PLAINTIFF
v.
DEPUTIES CHRISTOPHER DALE GRAY, RONALD WEST, AND MDOC AGENTS RANDY PERKINS AND CHRISTOPHER RIEVES DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sharion Aycock United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Rule 50 Judgment in Favor of Plaintiff in the Amount of $30,000.00; Alternatively, Motion for Rule 50 Judgment in Favor of Plaintiff in the Amount of Nominal Damages of $1.00; Alternatively, Motion for New Trial. [125]. After reviewing the motion, responses, rules, and authorities, the Court finds as follows:

I. BACKGROUND

On Christmas day, 2005, John Lowe, an escaped fugitive from the Mississippi Department of Corrections' (MDOC) house-arrest program, was in Kawin Reese's home (house trailer). While there, John Lowe called his girlfriend, Lisa Spence, to come and pick him up. Spence instead contacted Randy Perkins, Lowe's MDOC house-arrest officer, and gave him directions to Reese's trailer. Perkins contends that Spence told him that Lowe was being held hostage by Antonio Reese, a drug dealer related to Kawin Reese.

Perkins, accompanied by MDOC Agent Christopher Rieves (collectively MDOC Defendants), and MDOC Agent Dallas Burkes, contacted the Monroe County Sheriff's Department for backup. In his deposition, MDOC Agent Perkins testified that Antonio Reese was dangerous and previously had been charged with assaulting police officers.

At approximately 3:00 a.m. on December 26, MDOC Agents Perkins, Burkes, and Rieves arrived at Kawin Reese's trailer and found Lowe outside it. Lowe was arrested without incident. The MDOC Defendants maintain Lowe told them Antonio Reese was inside Kawin Reese's trailer. The MDOC Defendants (Agents Perkins and Rieves) entered Kawin Reese's trailer, without a warrant, and found him awake with his girlfriend. The two Monroe County Deputies, Gray and West (Monroe County Defendants), subsequently arrived at, and entered, Reese's trailer. According to Plaintiff, the MDOC Defendants searched his bedroom drawers, his trousers, and his girlfriend's purse.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Kawin Reese filed this action in April 2006, initially against unknown officers with the MDOC and Monroe County, but subsequently amended his complaint to name as defendants Monroe County Deputies Gray and West, and MDOC Agents Perkins and Rieves. Following discovery, a summary judgment motion was filed by the Monroe County Sheriff's Department and its two deputies (the three Monroe County Defendants). This Court granted MDOC Defendants an extension to file a similar dispositive motion; however, the Defendants never did. Subsequently, this Court granted the three Monroe County Defendants' motion and ordered Kawin Reese to show why summary judgment should not also be granted, sua sponte, to the MDOC Defendants.

After Kawin Reese responded, this Court granted summary judgment for the MDOC Defendants. The Fifth Circuit, however, determined that there were issues of material fact as to whether exigent circumstances existed for the search, and, as such, this case was tried from Monday, May 17, 2010, through Wednesday, May 19, 2010. At trial, the jury considered the questions of exigent circumstances and qualified immunity. The jury answered two special interrogatories. The jury first gave an inconsistent response, determining that there were no exigent circumstances to enter the home and that the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, but still awarding the Plaintiff damages in the amount of $30,000. This Court directed the jury to then complete a revised verdict form. The jury then returned the second special interrogatory, finding again that there were no exigent circumstances and that the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, but this time returning a judgment in favor of Defendants.

Plaintiff filed this Motion on June 16, 2010, arguing that (1) Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law and the issue should not have gone to the jury; (2) if the issue of qualified immunity was a factual issue for the jury, then there were no facts present to support such a verdict; (3) even if qualified immunity applies, Plaintiff is entitled to nominal damages of $1.00; and (4) alternatively, for a new trial.

II. JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW and NEW TRIAL STANDARD

Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sets forth the standard for granting judgment as a matter of law:

If a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue, the court may: (A) resolve the issue against the party; and (B) grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the party on a claim or defense that, under the controlling law, can be maintained or defeated only with a favorable finding on that issue . . . In ruling on a renewed motion, the court may: (1) allow judgment on the verdict, if the jury returned a verdict; (2) order a new trial; or (3) direct entry of judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1), (b).

In applying this standard, the court must consider all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, drawing all reasonable factual inferences in that party's favor, and leave credibility determinations and the weighing of evidence to the jury. McCrary v. El Paso Energy Holdings, Inc., 209 F. Supp. 2d 649, 651 (N.D. Miss. 2002) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149-50, 120 S. Ct. 2097, 147 L. Ed. 2d 105 (2000)). The court should grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law only when "the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of [the moving] party that the court believes that reasonable [jurors] could not arrive at a contrary verdict." Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374 (5th Cir. 1969).

In considering a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict, the court must be "especially deferential" to the jury's findings. Brown v. Bryan Cnty, 219 F.3d 450, 456 (5th Cir. 2000). The Fifth Circuit's standard for evaluating a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict is whether "the state of proof is such that reasonable and impartial minds could reach the conclusion the jury expressed in its verdict." Am. Home Assur. Co. v. United Space Alliance, 378 F.3d 482, 487 (5th Cir. 2004). A jury verdict must stand unless there is lack of substantial evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the successful party, to support the jury's factual findings, or the legal conclusions implied from the jury's verdict cannot, in law, be supported by those findings. Id.

As for the Plaintiff's motion for a new trial, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a trial court to grant a new trial based on that court's appraisal of the fairness of the trial and the reliability of the jury's verdict. FED. R. CIV. P. 59. The rule does not specify what grounds are necessary to support such a decision, but states only that the action may be taken "after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a)(1)(A); see also Smith v. Transworld Drilling Co., 773 F.2d 610, 613 (5th Cir. 1985). A new trial may be granted, for example, if the district court finds that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages awarded are excessive, the trial was unfair, or prejudicial error was committed in the course of the trial. See, e.g., Eyre v. McDonough Power Equip., Inc., 755 F.2d 416, 420-21 (5th Cir. 1985); Westbrook v. Gen. Tire and Rubber Co., 754 F.2d 1233, 1241 (5th Cir. 1985); Carson v. Polley, 689 F.2d 562, 570-71 (5th Cir. 1982); Martinez v. Food City, Inc., 658 F.2d 369, 372-74 (5th Cir. 1981); Conway v. Chem. Leaman Tank Lines, Inc.., 610 F.2d 360, 363 (5th Cir. 1980).

III. ANALYSIS AND DISCUSSION

Qualified Immunity as a Question of Fact for the Jury

Plaintiff claims that the issue of qualified immunity was an issue of law for the court, not an issue of fact for the jury.*fn1 It is logically preferred that the applicability of qualified immunity should be determined at the earliest possible point in litigation, as qualified immunity is immunity not only from liability, but also from suit. McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002). While the issue of qualified immunity is indeed a question of law, see Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228, 112 S. Ct. 534, 116 L. Ed. 2d 589 (1991), the Fifth Circuit has found that, in certain circumstances where there remain disputed issues of material fact relative to immunity, a properly instructed jury may decide the question. See Presley v. City of Benbrook, 4 F.3d 405, 410 (5th Cir. 1993); see also Sikes v. Gayton, 218 F.3d 491, 493-94 (5th Cir. 2000). If the application of qualified immunity remains undecided until trial, the defense may be submitted to the jury which must then determine the objective legal reasonableness of the official's conduct. McCoy v. Hernandez, 203 F.3d 371, 376 (5th Cir. 2000); see also Castellano v. Fragozo, 311 F.3d 689, 704 (5th Cir. 2002) (jury may resolve issue of qualified immunity if facts about official conduct are in dispute), rev'd on other grounds, 352 F.3d 939 (5th Cir. 2003); White v. Walker, 950 F.2d 972, 976 (5th Cir. 1991) ("The entitlement to qualified immunity may be established as a matter of law by the district court. But if there are triable issues of fact about whether an officer could reasonably believe his conduct legal, then a jury should evaluate the question."); Poppell v. City of San Diego, 149 F.3d 951, 961 (9th Cir. 1998) (affirming district court's decision to submit to jury question of whether qualified immunity proper, because immunity depended on resolution of factual issue); Maestas v. Lujan, 351 F.3d 1001, 1010 (10th Cir. 2003) (district court properly presented reasonableness element of qualified immunity analysis to jury; jury may determine qualified immunity ...

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