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Ciolino v. Eastman

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 4, 2016

AARON EASTMAN, et al., Defendants.



         This civil action involves claims of excessive force during an arrest. After a jury trial, one of the arresting officers - George Gikas - was found liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Presently before the Court is Gikas’ post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, on the grounds of qualified immunity. [ECF No. 129]. For the reasons set forth in this Memorandum and Order, the motion is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On the evening of June 30, 2013, while attending the annual St. Peter’s street festival in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Plaintiff Alfonso Ciolino (“Plaintiff”) was arrested by officers of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department. Plaintiff, whose rotator cuff was torn during the arrest, later filed this civil action against the arresting officers - Defendants Aaron Eastman, David Earle, and George Gikas. In Count I of his First Amended Complaint, [ECF No. 29], Plaintiff asserted a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants used excessive force in violation of Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights. In Count VI, Plaintiff asserted a state-law claim for malicious prosecution, alleging that the Defendants conspired to provide false information to the Gloucester Police Department, resulting in the filing of criminal charges against Plaintiff.[1]

         After discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s § 1983 excessive force claim, arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The Court denied the motion, holding that it would defer ruling on the qualified immunity issue until after trial, because certain critical facts remained in dispute. [ECF No. 68].

         Trial began on January 19, 2016 and concluded with a jury verdict on January 25, 2016. On the malicious prosecution claim, the jury found in favor of Defendants. With respect to the § 1983 excessive force claim, the jury found that only Gikas was liable and awarded Plaintiff $140, 000 in damages. Defendants Eastman and Earle were found not liable under § 1983. The jury also answered several special questions posed by the Court, which were designed to assist the Court in deciding the qualified immunity issue.[2]

         Gikas moves for judgment as a matter of law on Count I, on the grounds that he is qualifiedly immune from suit. Defendants timely made their motion after Plaintiff rested [ECF No. 123], and Sergeant Gikas renewed the motion after the jury verdict. [ECF No. 129]; see Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. The parties also submitted post-trial memoranda on this issue. [ECF Nos. 130, 132, 133, 134].

         II. FACTS

         When deciding the issue of qualified immunity after a jury verdict, “the evidence must be construed in the light most hospitable to the party that prevailed at trial, ” and “deference should be accorded to the jury’s discernible resolution of disputed factual issues.” Jarrett v. Town of Yarmouth, 331 F.3d 140, 147 (1st Cir. 2003) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Iacobucci v. Boulter, 193 F.3d 14, 23 (1st Cir.1999)). Therefore, the Court construes the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff and the verdict.

         On the evening of June 30, 2013, Plaintiff and his wife, Cinsia Ciolino (“Mrs. Ciolino”) and two other couples, (the LoGrassos and the Giordanos) went to a barbeque at Mrs. Ciolino’s mother’s residence. At approximately 10:00 p.m., they departed the barbeque and drove to downtown Gloucester to go to the annual St. Peter’s street festival. After arriving downtown, the three couples went to a local bar and restaurant called Captain Carlo’s, then to another restaurant called Café Sicilia, and finally to the St. Peter’s Club on Main Street. Plaintiff testified that over the course of the evening, he consumed one to two beers, but was not intoxicated when he left the St. Peter’s Club.

         When Plaintiff exited the St. Peter’s Club at approximately midnight, there was a small crowd gathered outside the club. Law enforcement officers and K-9 dogs from the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and the Gloucester Police Department were stationed outside the club to perform crowd control. Defendant George Gikas, a Sergeant of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, was assigned to K-9 duty that evening. Defendants Eastman and Earle, who are also Officers employed by the Essex County Sheriff, were assigned to plainclothes duty.

         Around the time that Plaintiff exited the club onto Main Street, or shortly thereafter, law enforcement officers gave the crowd orders to disperse and clear the area. Video footage of the incident, which was admitted into evidence at trial, revealed that some people in the crowd were moving along the sidewalk, but some remained immobile. Sergeant Gikas stood in the street with his K-9 dog, facing the crowd, approximately six feet away from the sidewalk. Another K-9 officer, identified as Sergeant Pickles, was standing with his own K-9 dog, in front of Sergeant Gikas, and in closer proximity to the sidewalk. Officers Eastman and Earle stood in the street behind Sergeant Gikas, also facing the crowd. Both K-9 dogs were barking continuously in the direction of the crowd.

         After leaving the St. Peter’s Club, Plaintiff walked into the area where the crowd was gathered, and then took several steps down the sidewalk, towards Sergeant Gikas and Sergeant Pickles. He paused in front of Sergeant Pickles’ K9 and briefly lifted his arm, which came within two feet of the dog’s head. Plaintiff testified that while making this gesture, he also made a statement to the effect of “look, the dog’s got a muzzle in its mouth. What’s he going to do? The dogs can’t hurt us . . . they have muzzles on.” Plaintiff then turned around and faced the opposite direction, with his back towards the officers. Sergeant Pickles did not immediately react. Sergeant Gikas, however, who was standing behind Sergeant Pickles, took several steps towards the sidewalk, grabbed Plaintiff by the shirt collar, and, with one hand, forcibly pulled Plaintiff’s body backwards into the street and down onto the pavement. Plaintiff fell on his right arm, which resulted in an injury to his rotator cuff. As he fell, Officers Eastman and Earle approached, and each took hold of one of Plaintiff’s arms. Officers Eastman and Earle then pushed Plaintiff onto his stomach and placed Plaintiff in handcuffs. The video ends with Plaintiff lying face-down on the pavement. Officer Gikas testified that prior to approaching Plaintiff, he had observed Plaintiff repeatedly taunt the dogs and then turn to incite the crowd, and that he was not going to allow this disruptive conduct to continue while they the officers were trying to disperse the crowd at the end of the festival.

         After his arrest, Plaintiff was transported to the Gloucester Police Department and charged with a municipal ordinance violation and disorderly conduct. Those charges, however, ...

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