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Campos v. Ness

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 29, 2014

CAMILA M. CAMPOS, Individually, and as Administratrix of the Estate of Andre Martins, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRISTOPHER VAN NESS and the TOWN OF YARMOUTH, Defendants

Page 241

For Camila M Campos, Individually, and as Administratrix of the Estate of Andre Martins, Plaintiff: Deborah M. Santello, Paul F. Leavis, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Leavis & Rest, P.C., Boston, MA.

For Christopher Van Ness, Yarmouth Police Officer, Yarmouth, Town of, Defendants: Gregor A. Pagnini, Jeremy I. Silverfine, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Brody, Hardon, Perkins, & Kesten LLP, Boston, MA; Leonard H. Kesten, LEAD ATTORNEY, Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, Boston, MA.

Page 242

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

MARK L. WOLF, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. INTRODUCTION

On July 28, 2008, following a high-speed vehicular chase through a residential neighborhood, Yarmouth, Massachusetts police officer Christopher Van Ness shot and killed Andre Martins. Martins' girlfriend, Camila Campos, who was also a passenger in Martins' car, brought a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against Van Ness in both her individual capacity and as administratrix of Martins' estate.

On May 19, 2014, following seven days of trial and three days of deliberations, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on either claim. However, the jury did make unanimous findings on two of the three factual questions presented to it. The court declared a mistrial, directed entry of the factual findings, and ordered the parties to brief the issue of qualified immunity in light of the jury's factual findings. A hearing on that issue was held on June 20, 2014.

For the reasons explained below, the court finds that Van Ness is entitled to judgment as a matter of law with respect to the claims by Campos individually and on behalf of Martins because he is shielded by qualified immunity as to both. Therefore, judgment is being entered for the defendant.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Pre-Trial Proceedings

On October 30, 2009, Campos filed suit, seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,

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against Van Ness and the Town of Yarmouth. Asserting claims individually and in her capacity as administratrix of Martins' estate, Campos alleged that Van Ness had violated Martins' Fourth Amendment rights and her own by using excessive force to terminate a police chase, resulting in Martins' death.

On January 5, 2012, Judge Edward F. Harrington denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment without an opinion. The defendants appealed. On April 1, 2013, the First Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. See Campos v. Van Ness, 711 F.3d 243, 248 (1st Cir. 2013). Despite the existence of factual disagreements concerning whether the car was moving when Van Ness fired the first shot, the defendants claimed that an interlocutory appeal was appropriate because " [Campos'] account 'is so blatantly contradicted by the record . . . '" that it should not be credited. Id. at 245 (quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007)). As the First Circuit summarized this argument:

While defendants-appellants dispute several aspects of Campos's story, they are primarily asking us to set aside two claims she has made that are relevant to the issue of qualified immunity: (1) that Martins's car was not moving when Van Ness fired the fatal shot; and (2) that the car began moving only after that point and did not move near Van Ness. Her testimony on those two points, in defendants-appellant's view, contradicts the opinions of her own accident reconstruction and ballistics experts.

Id. at 246-47.

The First Circuit, however, explained that neither the accident reconstruction report nor the ballistics report necessarily discredited Campos' account. The accident reconstruction report " does not establish when, within th[e] movement sequence [of Martins's car], Van Ness fired," and the ballistics report " seems to have assumed the truth of Van Ness's account." Id. at 247. The First Circuit explained that " [w]e are therefore a long way from the videotape in Scott that captured the car chase in question and 'quite clearly contradict[ed]' the plaintiff's account." Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Scott, 550 U.S. at 378). The First Circuit concluded:

In short, defendants-appellants have not convinced us that Campos's story is so " blatantly contradicted by the record . . . that no reasonable jury could believe it." Scott, 550 U.S. at 380. Nor have they attempted, in the alternative, to accept all of Campos's facts and inferences as true and " argue that even on [Campos's] best case, they are entitled to immunity." Mlodzinski [v. Lewis], 648 F.3d 24, 28 (1st Cir. 2011). We therefore dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. See id.

Campos, 711 F.3d at 248 (footnote omitted). Because the dismissal was based on lack of jurisdiction, the First Circuit did not decide the question of whether, even if the plaintiff's account had been discredited, the defendants would be entitled to summary judgment.

In anticipation of Judge Harrington's retirement, the case was reassigned to this court on October 8, 2013. The court held pretrial conferences on February 27, 2014 and April 22, 2014. The parties agreed to the dismissal of Campos' Massachusetts Civil Rights Act claim (Count II) and municipal liability claim (Count III), eliminating the Town of Yarmouth as a defendant and restricting the legal issues to the Fourth Amendment claims. See Apr. 23, 2014 Order; Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice.

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B. The May 2014 Trial

At trial, the jury heard testimony from witnesses called by the plaintiff: (1) Campos; (2) Van Ness; (3) Officer Christopher A. Kent; (4) Officer Kevin Leon Antonovich; (5) Officer Neal Donohue; (6) and Officer Erica Wenberg. The plaintiff also read to the jury the deposition testimony of Dr. Henry M. Nields, the medical examiner who examined Martins' body after the shooting. In addition, the plaintiff proffered expert testimony from George Kirkham on whether Van Ness' actions were objectively reasonable. However, after a voir dire, the court excluded Kirkham's proposed testimony. See May 13 Tr. 72-75. The plaintiff read certain stipulations to the jury. See May 14 Tr. 51:4-17. She did not call Dr. Zhukov, her accident reconstruction expert, and the court excluded Zhukov's report. See May 12 Tr. 81-82.

On May 14, 2014, after the plaintiff rested, the defendant moved for judgment as a matter of law, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). See May 14 Tr. 52. The defendant argued that because no reasonable trier of fact could find that Van Ness shot at Martins' car when the car was not moving, judgment should enter in favor of Van Ness either on the Fourth Amendment claim or based on qualified immunity. The court denied the motion, concluding that the jury could reasonably credit Campos' testimony that the car was not moving when Martins was shot, and that even if the car were moving, the constitutional issue would not necessarily be resolved. See May 14 Tr. 53-54.

The defense then presented two witnesses: (1) State Trooper Paul Chastenay, who worked on accident reconstruction; and (2) Officer Melissa Alden. The defendant also read into evidence excerpts from the deposition of Theodosios Sperounis, who was a witness to part of the incident. See May 14 Tr. 101.

During its deliberations, the jury asked several questions, and eventually indicated that it might not be able to reach a unanimous verdict on either claim. Following three days of deliberations, the jury reported that it was at an irresolvable impasse regarding the ultimate questions in the case. See May 19 Tr. 28. However, the jury was able to unanimously decide two of the three factual questions they were asked to resolve:

o 1(b)(i): " Did Officer Van Ness shoot Mr. Martins before Mr. Martins' car began moving?" No.

o 1(b)(iii): " Was Mr. Martins' car moving, but not at Officer Van Ness, when Officer Van Ness shot him?" Yes.

See id. 29:1-9. The jury was not able to unanimously decide Question 1(b)(ii): " Was Mr. Martins' car moving at Officer Van Ness before Officer Van Ness shot him?" See id. 29:13-15.

On May 19, 2014, the court declared a mistrial on all claims and directed the Clerk to enter the jury's two factual findings. See id. 29.

C. Post-Trial Orders

After declaring the mistrial, the court ordered the parties to brief the qualified immunity issues concerning Martins and Campos separately, and to address the implications of Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (2004). A hearing on the issue of qualified immunity was held on June 20, 2014.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The defendant did not file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) following the declaration of a mistrial. See González Pérez v. Gómez Aguila,

Page 245

312 F.Supp.2d 161, 164 (D.P.R. 2004) (Rule 50 motion is permissible after a mistrial). However, the court essentially preempted such a motion by ordering the parties to brief the issue of qualified immunity. Therefore, as the parties agreed at the June 20, 2014 hearing, see June 20, 2014 Tr. 4, the court is now applying the Rule 50 standard for judgment as a matter of law.

The First Circuit has explained that:

When a qualified immunity defense is pressed after a jury verdict, the evidence must be construed in the light most hospitable to the party that prevailed at trial. One difference [from a motion for summary judgment] is that, in such an exercise, deference should be accorded to the jury's discernible resolution of disputed factual issues.

Iacobucci v. Boulter, 193 F.3d 14, 23 (1st Cir. 1999) (citations omitted).

The First Circuit has not addressed the appropriate standard of review when, as here, the jury returned only a partial verdict and neither party prevailed at trial. However, the First Circuit has suggested that the post-trial qualified immunity analysis is similar to that used to analyze a motion for summary judgment filed before trial, see Iacobucci, 193 F.3d at 23, and has indicated that in both postures it is appropriate to " construe the . . . evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant," Wilson v. City of Boston, 421 F.3d 45, 53 (1st Cir. 2005).

This standard of review is also similar to that employed when a party moves for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50.[1] Rule 50 provides that " [i]f 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 " resolve the issue against the party." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). Such a motion " may be filed even if a mistrial has been declared." González Pérez, 312 F.Supp.2d at 164 (citing DeMaine v. Bank One, Akron, N.A., 904 F.2d 219, 220 (4th Cir. 1990)).

In evaluating such a motion:

The court considers " [a]ll of the evidence and reasonable inferences drawn from the evidence . . . in the light most favorable to the non-moving party," and may not evaluate the credibility of the witnesses or the weight of the evidence. Malone v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 610 F.3d 16, 20 (1st Cir. 2010) (alteration in original) (quoting Espada v. Lugo, 312 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2002)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, " the plaintiff is not entitled to inferences based on speculation and conjecture." Id. (quoting Vázquez--Valentí n v. Santiago--Dí az, 385 F.3d 23, 30 (1st Cir. 2004), rev'd on other grounds, 546 U.S. 1163, 126 S.Ct. 1329, 164 L.Ed.2d 43 (2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Cham v. Station Operators, Inc., 685 F.3d 87, 93 (1st Cir. 2012). Furthermore, the court " must disregard evidence supporting the moving party unless it is both uncontradicted and unimpeached." Muñoz v. Sociedad Española De Auxilio Mutuo y Beneficiencia De Puerto Rico, 671 F.3d 49, 55 (1st Cir. 2012) (citing Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151,

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120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 ...


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