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Shea v. Porter

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 31, 2014

BETH E. SHEA, Plaintiff,

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For Beth E. Shea, Plaintiff: Richard A. Goren, LEAD ATTORNEY, Boston, MA.

For R. Bradford Porter, Individually and in his official capacity as an Officer of the Massachusetts State Police, Defendant: Joseph P. Kittredge, Margaret A. Rubino, Rafanelli & Kittredge, PC, Acton, MA; Scott W. Dunlap, Attorney at Law, P.C., Norwood, MA.

For Keeper of Records, Middlesex District Attorney's Office, Third Party Witness: Argiro K. Shapiro, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Attorney General (MA), Boston, MA.

For Keeper of Records, Massachusetts State Police, Third Party Witness: Jennifer G. Miller, Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Boston, MA; LaDonna J. Hatton, Massachusetts State Police, Framingham, MA; Sean W Farrell, Commonwealth Of Massachusetts - Dept.of State Police, Framingham, MA.

For Keeper of Records, Norfolk District Attorney, Third Party Witness: Argiro K. Shapiro, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of the Attorney General (MA), Worcester, MA.

For Tracy Gorfinkle, Witness: Sean E. Capplis, Ficksman & Conley LLP, Boston, MA.

For Massachusetts Office of the Commissioner of Probation, Intervenor: Daniel P. Sullivan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Administrative Office of the Trial Court, Boston, MA.

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F. Dennis Saylor, IV, United States District Judge.

This is a civil rights action arising out of an arrest by an officer of the Massachusetts State Police. On June 5, 2007, plaintiff Beth Shea was driving on a residential street in Milton when a woman stepped into the street and waved her arms at her. Shea thought that the woman, Tracy Gorfinkle, was in trouble; Gorfinkle thought Shea was driving too fast and wanted her to slow down. Shea stopped her car. A state trooper named R. Bradford Porter, who was a friend and neighbor of Gorfinkle's, was on the sidewalk. He was wearing plain clothes, although his badge was on his belt and his gun was in a holster on his hip. Porter walked up to the car, banged on the window, and asked her to roll it down. Shea, not realizing that he was a police officer, did not comply. After less than a minute, Porter left Shea alone and walked away. Shea then drove away.

Porter got in an unmarked cruiser and chased after Shea, catching up with her about a half-mile away. He was red-faced and enraged. After pounding on the window until his hand was bleeding, he retrieved a flashlight from his car and shattered the window. He then opened the door and dragged her out, shouting obscenities at her and calling her a " fucking bitch." Neither Shea nor any of the four witnesses to the episode who testified at the trial realized that Porter was a police officer. Multiple witnesses to the event called 911, thinking that Shea was a victim of domestic violence. Milton police officers quickly arrived on the scene, and Shea was taken away in handcuffs.

Shea was later charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, resisting arrest, speeding, reckless operation of a motor vehicle, failure to identify herself, and failure to stop for police. Several months later, in October 2007, the criminal case against Shea was nolle prossed, and her record was expunged.

Shea brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that her arrest and the ensuing events violated her constitutional rights under various theories. She also brought a series of state law claims. The case was tried to a jury in 2013. The jury found for plaintiff on her claim of malicious

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prosecution and awarded her $60,000 in damages. It found for defendant Porter on her claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unlawful arrest and excessive force.

Plaintiff moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial, which the Court denied without written opinion. Plaintiff has now moved for reconsideration of the denial of the motion for a new trial, contending that the Court did not correctly apply the legal standard to the facts.

For the reasons set forth below, and after careful consideration, the motion for reconsideration will be granted. The jury's verdict--specifically, its verdict as to the claims of false arrest and excessive force--were against the clear weight of the evidence and will be set aside in favor of a new trial.

I. Background

A. Events on Centre Lane

Beth Shea is a lifelong resident of Milton, Massachusetts. (Tr. 4:142). At the time of the events at issue, she was approximately 44 years old. ( See Tr. 4:142).

On June 5, 2007, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Shea was driving through Milton on her way home from work. (Tr. 4:143; 5:74). She was driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a sport utility vehicle. (Tr. 2:164). She was alone in the vehicle. To avoid traffic, she turned onto Centre Lane. ( See Tr. 5:74).

As she drove down Centre Lane, Shea noticed a car parked on the right-hand side of the street, facing the wrong direction. (Tr. 4:144; 5:75-76). She then saw a woman " dashing" out in front of the car, waving her arms. (Tr. 4:144; 5:76).

The woman was Tracy Gorfinkle. (Tr. 5:76). Shea did not know her, and had not seen her before. ( See Tr. 6:96). Gorfinkle lived on Centre Lane. (Tr. 6:89).

It is undisputed that Gorfinkle ran a short distance into the street, and that she was trying to get Shea's attention. ( See Tr. 5:79; 6:94). Gorfinkle testified that she thought Shea was speeding, and her hand motions were intended to get her to slow down. (Tr. 6:94). Shea, however, thought Gorfinkle needed help. (Tr. 5:79).

Shea pulled over and brought her car to a quick stop. (Tr. 5:79-80). It stopped a short distance away from Gorfinkle. ( See Tr. 4:120).

Bradford Porter was a Massachusetts State Police officer who lived next door to Gorfinkle. (Tr. 3:62, 67, 167, 170; 6:90). He and Gorfinkle were friends. ( See Tr. 3:70-73). Gorfinkle also provided daycare for his child. (Tr. 3:70, 169; 6:90-92). At the time of the incident, Porter had been a state trooper for less than two years. (Tr. 3:167-68).

Porter was off-duty at the time of the incident. ( See Tr. 3:176-78). He had just arrived home and was standing on the sidewalk talking to Gorfinkle. (Tr. 3:176-78; 6:92).[1] When Shea drove down Centre Lane, Porter had his back to the oncoming car. (Tr. 3:180). He heard Gorfinkle say, " oh my God." (Tr. 3:180, 3:68). Gorfinkle then crossed the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street and stepped out into the street. (Tr. 3:180-81, 3:68-69).

Porter was wearing street clothing, consisting of an open-collar polo shirt and blue pants. (Tr. 3:109, 6:18). He was wearing a badge on his belt and a gun in a holster on his right hip. (Tr. 3:80-81, 119, 172).

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1. The Vehicle " Swerve"

Shea testified that she stopped the car when Gorfinkle ran into the street. (Tr. 5:80). Because of the parked car, she did not park parallel to the edge of the street, but on an angle. (Tr. 4:144-45; 5:78).[2] She first came to a stop, then turned in toward the side of the road and stopped again. (Tr. 5:78). Her brakes did not squeal, and there was no evidence that her tires either skidded or squealed. ( See Tr. 3:75-77).[3] She denied that she swerved her car at Gorfinkle. (Tr. 5:77-81).

Porter testified that Shea drove her vehicle at a " high rate of speed, stopped very quickly, and veered right at [Gorfinkle]." (Tr. 3:181).[4] He testified that Shea's car came to a stop " within arm's length" of Gorfinkle. (Tr. 3:181).

Gorfinkle testified that the car " swerved at me, literally at me, almost hit me." (Tr. 6:94). Gorfinkle testified that Shea " looked [her] in the eye" when she stopped. (Tr. 6:95). [5]

There was no testimony that Shea said or shouted anything to Gorfinkle, or that she made any gesture (such as an extended middle finger) to suggest anger or malice. According to Porter, Shea " did not look at [Gorfinkle]" or " attempt to speak to her in any way." (Tr. 3:183).

Gorfinkle did not say anything aloud in response to the stopping of the car. ( See Tr. 3:85, 125; 6:95). She also did not cry out in fear or alarm. ( See Tr. 3:125-26; 6:95). There was no testimony that she jumped back or took any other kind of defensive or protective action. There was no evidence that she flinched or made a startled movement.

At some point soon afterward, Gorfinkle went into her house, without having said a word to Porter about the incident. (Tr. 3:83-84, 158).[6]

2. Shea's Version of the Centre Lane Events

Shea testified as to the next sequence of events as follows.

Immediately after she came to a stop, Shea put the car in park, picked up her cell phone, and called 411 in order to be connected to the Milton Police. (Tr. 4:145-46; 5:79-80).[7] She did so because she thought Gorfinkle needed help. (Tr. 4:144-46; 5:79).[8] While she was on the phone, she saw or heard Gorfinkle say,

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" slow down." (Tr. 4:146). She then testified as follows:

. . . I thought oh, my God, that's what she wanted, so I kind of went back in my seat, and then all of sudden I was really scared because there was a bang at my window, and I heard, " Police officer, you're going to jail for the night."

(Tr. 4:146).

Porter had approached the car on the driver's side, and was standing next to the window. (Tr. 5:82-83). As noted, he was in street clothes. He identified himself as a police officer. (Tr. 5:83-84). He did not ask Shea for her driver's license and registration. Although he testified that he pointed to the badge on his belt, Shea testified that she did not see it. (Tr. 5:86). Porter did not show her any photographic identification or credentials. (Tr. 3:120, 139).

Porter knocked on the window and told her to roll it down. (Tr. 5:85-86). Shea testified that she was somewhat confused, and did not understand Porter to be a police officer, because he was not in uniform and she did not " believe police would ever speak like that." (Tr. 5:86-87). She was afraid to open her window or door. (Tr. 5:88).

. . . Then I thought this is the guy that she needs the help for, and I didn't know. I had no idea what's going on. I had no idea what's going on, so he was hitting my window telling me to roll down the window, and I told him I was on the phone with the police. . . .
. . . He heard me because he said [" ]I am the police.[" ]
I got in touch with the [Milton police] officer, and I was telling her exactly what happened, and I said, " I don't know what's going on because the woman came out in the street, I stopped, now there's this guy hitting my window." He was extremely mad, his face was all red, and I had no idea. I said, " Could you please send somebody down." . . . [S]he asked me the name of the road, and I didn't know the name of the road, and I tried to describe it. . . .
He was still yelling at me, and he was hitting my window, and I told him to stop hitting my window, I'm on the phone with the police. He kept doing it, then he tried to open my door . . . .

(Tr. 4:146-47).

At that point, Porter left Shea, turned his back to her, and went inside his house. (Tr. 3:64; see Tr. 2:68-69).[9] Porter did not tell Shea to stay where she was, or provide any explanation as to where he was going or why. (Tr. 4:29). Shea described what happened next as follows:

. . . then as I was talking [to the Milton police officer], I was trying to keep my eye on him, he went around the back of my car, and I noticed he looked down at my license plate, then he came over to the other side, and then the next thing I know, he goes away in his house.

(Tr. 4:147).

Shea had " no idea" why Porter went into the house. (Tr. 5:88). Gorfinkle had also gone into her own house. (Tr. 3:83-84; 5:90). Shea was left alone. (Tr. 4:148). She then drove away. (Tr. 5:88, 121).

The entire episode on Centre Lane happened very quickly; Porter testified that he was at the side of Shea's vehicle for approximately 45 seconds. (Tr. 4:35).

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3. Porter's Version of the Centre Lane Events

Porter's version of the events on Centre Lane was as follows.

After Shea's car came to a stop, he approached the driver's side window of the car. (Tr. 3:75).[10] He testified that he identified himself as " state police." (Tr. 3:76, 182-83). He told Shea to roll down the window. (Tr. 3:76, 182-83). She did not comply. (Tr. 3:80, 183). He testified that " [t]he driver didn't look at me, didn't acknowledge that I was there, didn't make any type of movement or anything to make me feel like she knew I was there." (Tr. 3:183). He made multiple requests, but she would not roll down the window. (Tr. 3:78-81, 183). He testified that he pointed to his badge. (Tr. 3:80). He also knocked on the window. (Tr. 3:80, 184). When he knocked, she told him not to touch her car. (Tr. 3:81, 184; 4:30). At some point, he tried to open the driver's side door. (Tr. 3:184-85).

Porter did not testify that he asked for her driver's license and registration. Although he had photographic identification with him, he admitted that he did not take it out and show it to her. (Tr. 3:120, 139).

Porter testified that he then " jogged" away from the car and into his house. (Tr. 3:184). He testified that his purpose in doing so was to retrieve his car keys, because he " decided that [he] might need his cruiser." (Tr. 3:184).[11] It is undisputed that he did not explain to Shea where he was going.

Porter admitted that he did not tell Shea to stop or remain where she was. (Tr. 4:29). He simply assumed that " it was understood that she had been approached, if you will, by a police officer." (Tr. 4:29). He also testified, however, that she was " free to leave." (Tr. 4:29). He did not tell her that she was under arrest.

Gorfinkle's husband, Brian Murphy, who witnessed part of the episode, testified that Shea pulled away " slowly" when she left the scene and " drove slowly down the street." (Tr. 2:70). However, Porter testified that Shea drove away from the scene at a " high rate of speed." (Tr. 3:132).

B. The Events on Clifton Road

Shea made it to an intersection about a half-mile away on Clifton Road in Milton. (Tr. 4:17; 5:93; see Tr. 2:150). There, she stopped directly behind another vehicle at a stop sign. (Tr. 4:149).[12] At that point, she heard a siren and saw blue lights behind her in her rear view mirror. (Tr. 4:149; 5:93-94; see Tr. 3:101).

Porter had pursued Shea in an unmarked vehicle. (Tr. 3:109).[13] It was equipped with a siren and blue police lights mounted in the grille. (Tr. 3:109, 5:93).

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Porter had a radio in his vehicle. (Tr. 4:16). He did not radio for a marked cruiser, or any kind of backup, at any time. (Tr. 4:16-17).[14] He testified at one point that he did not do so because he " didn't know what she might do next." (Tr. 3:121). He testified at another point that he did not ...

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