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Faria v. Harleysville Worcester Insurance Co.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 24, 2017

BRIAN and MELISSA FARIA, Plaintiffs, Appellants,


          John B. Harwood, with whom McKinnon & Harwood LLC was on brief, for appellants.

          Kevin J. Holley, with whom Gunning & LaFazia, Inc. was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Lynch, Lipez, and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

         Jury selection is a fundamental step in our legal process, and when juror-screening mechanisms do not function as they are meant to, we end up faced with situations such as the one in this case: a post-verdict discovery that an individual served as a juror when he should not have cleared preliminary procedural hurdles due to a prior felony conviction prompted a new-trial motion challenging the jury's verdict. But even though this individual slipped through the qualification cracks, his inclusion is not fatal to the jury's verdict. We conclude that the district court properly denied the new-trial motion.

         The Case

         In March 2012, Brian Faria was injured in a car accident, which he claimed was caused by a reckless highway driver who cut him off. Eventually, Mr. Faria and his wife (collectively, "the Farias") brought a lawsuit against their insurance carrier, Harleysville Worcester Insurance Company ("Harleysville"), claiming that Harleysville had incorrectly denied coverage under the uninsured motorist provision of his automobile insurance policy. Litigation proceeded in the normal course, and, ultimately, the case was slated for a jury trial.

         A prospective juror by the name of John R. Rieger ("Mr. Rieger") was randomly selected for jury service, and he received a juror qualification form by mail.[1] When completing his form, Mr. Rieger selected "Yes" in response to a question asking whether he had ever been convicted of a crime for which punishment could have been more than one year in prison.[2] Following the form's instructions, Mr. Rieger elaborated in the "Remarks" section: he represented that the date of the offense was "Feb. 1995, " the date of the conviction was "2000-2001, " and he served eighteen months of the four-year sentence imposed. He also selected "Yes" in response to the question "Were your civil rights restored?" and specifically wrote "Voting Rights." As per the qualification form's instructions, he returned it to the clerk of court, however, he did not sign (under penalty of perjury) and date the form as required.

         Fast-forward to voir dire on August 4, 2015, at which point counsel for the Farias asked the summoned panel, amongst other things, whether "anyone [had] served as a juror in another case, whether it be criminal or civil?" He also asked them questions designed to ferret out their knowledge of personal injury claims, such as whether any of them, or anyone they personally knew, had made such a claim. And continuing with questioning centered on civil litigation, he asked whether "anyone, any relative, children, husbands, uncle, aunts that are very close to you, any of them been a Plaintiff or a Defendant in a case?" Mr. Rieger remained silent in response to these questions.

         When the jury was empaneled on August 4, 2015, it included Mr. Rieger. Trial began on August 24, 2015, and the jury's unanimous verdict, announced -- yes -- by foreperson Rieger, was for Harleysville.

         But twelve days later, the Farias filed a motion for a new trial after learning that Mr. Rieger had been convicted in Rhode Island state court of assault with a dangerous weapon in 1997, and he had been sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, with four years to serve, as well as an eleven-year suspended sentence that would run concurrently with probation.[3] And due to his state court appeal, his sentence was not executed until March 23, 2001, meaning he was on a suspended sentence and probation at the time he served on the jury. The Farias contended that Mr. Rieger was not qualified to serve on the jury under 28 U.S.C. § 1865(b)(5).

         Ruling on the new-trial motion, the district court found that following his conviction, Mr. Rieger's civil rights had not been fully restored and, therefore, he was not qualified to serve. But it also found that the Farias "arguably waived [their] right to challenge [Mr. Rieger]'s service" because they did not follow the proper procedure for contesting his service, nor did they seek to obtain a copy of the qualification forms which disclosed Mr. Rieger's conviction, despite having "ample time to learn something about the members of the jury either through the questionnaires or otherwise." Reluctant, however, to dispose of the case on waiver, the district court turned to the fairness of the trial and whether any prejudice resulted from Mr. Rieger's inclusion. The district court concluded that the questions asked during voir dire focused on the potential jurors' experiences in civil matters, and there were no questions about anything to do with the criminal justice system. From this, the district court concluded that Mr. Rieger's silence in response to the questions during voir dire "was appropriate and did not amount to a dishonest nondisclosure." The district court went on, "[Mr. Rieger] told the truth about his record in his questionnaire, " and saw "no reason to believe that [Mr. Rieger]'s representation was anything other than a mistaken belief that because his voting rights were restored upon his release from prison that all of his civil rights were restored at that time."

         The district court denied the new-trial motion, concluding that the Farias had not shown that Mr. Rieger's "service deprived [them] of a fundamentally fair trial, " and that "the jury was impartial" and the Farias "had a fair trial." The Farias timely appealed and we take the arguments in turn.

         Standard of Review

         "Generally, motions for a new trial are committed to the discretion of the district court." McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 556 (1984) (quoting Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)). Abuse of discretion occurs when our appellate review reveals that the district court erred in its legal rulings or clearly erred in its factual findings. Sampson v. United States, 724 F.3d 150, 161 (1st Cir. 2013); see also United States v. Bater, 594 F.3d 51, 54 n.1 (1st Cir. 2010) (explaining that "'abuse of discretion' is used as well to embrace mistakes on abstract issues of law (reviewed de novo) and errors of fact (for which clear error is the customary test)"). Elaborating on that standard, we have noted that "[w]here the [new-trial] motion rests on a challenge to the qualification of a juror, our standard of review is highly deferential because 'the district court is closer to the action and has a better "feel" for the likelihood that prejudice sprouted.'" United States v. Nickens, 955 F.2d 112, 116 (1st Cir. 1992) (quoting United States v. Uribe, 890 F.2d 554, 562 (1st Cir. 1989)). Further, "[a] trial court's findings on issues of juror credibility and honesty are determinations 'peculiarly within a trial judge's province' and are accorded great deference." Amirault v. Fair, 968 F.2d 1404, 1405 (1st Cir. 1992) (quoting Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 428 (1985)).

         The System: Jury Selection and Service Act, Jury Selection Plan, and Juror Qualification Forms

         Before we address the parties' arguments, a general primer on the jury selection system in place at the time of the Farias' trial would be useful. To put matters in context, [4] the Farias tell us the system broke down when the clerk, on the basis of Mr. Rieger's juror qualification form, allowed the statutorily ineligible felon-juror to slip through the cracks onto this jury. Here's how the system works.

         The Jury Selection and Service Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1861-1878 (JSSA) directs the District Court of Rhode Island to create a Jury Selection Plan (the "Jury Plan").[5] See U.S. D. Ct. D.R.I., Jury Selection Plan (Oct. 2013) (hereinafter Jury Plan). In accordance with the Jury Plan, a master jury wheel is created by selecting names at random from the voter registration lists as maintained by the Secretary of State of Rhode Island. Id. §§ 6(a)-(c). Names are randomly drawn from the master jury wheel, and the individuals selected receive juror qualification forms. Id. §§ 7(a), (b).

         The qualification forms are designed to screen prospective jurors to ensure that every juror summoned meets the requirements of § 1865(b)(5) of the JSSA, which, in pertinent part, explains that any person is qualified to serve on a jury unless he "has a charge pending against him for the commission of, or has been convicted in a State or Federal court of record of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and his ...

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