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WAITS v. CITY OF CHICAGO

June 4, 2003

KENTIN WAITS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, MICHAEL PRUSANK, AND DANIEL DURST, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Hibbler, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Currently pending before the Court are plaintiffs motions for entry of judgment. Plaintiff filed this action against the City of Chicago and two police officers, alleging the use of excessive force in violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a violation of the Illinois Hate Crimes Act, 720 ILCS 5/12-7.1. The case proceeded to jury trial on October 21, 2002. A week later, the jury began is deliberations. On November 1, 2002, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and against defendants on the excessive force claim, in the amount of $15,000 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 against Officer Durst, and $1,500,000 against Sergeant Prusank in punitive damages. Additionally, the jury found in favor of defendants and against plaintiff on the Hate Crime claim. Because I was unavailable at that time to receive the verdict, the district judge sitting in my stead advised the parties to await my return for entry of judgment. Nevertheless, plaintiff proceeded to file two separate motions seeking to have judgment entered on the jury verdict as rendered. Nor wanting to delay resolution of this matter any further, the Court issued a minute order on December 3, 2002, setting a briefing schedule on plaintiffs motions, with defendants' objections to the amount of judgment due by December 13, 2002, and plaintiffs reply due by December 27, 2002. The parties have submitted those filings*fn1 and the issues with respect to the proper amount of the judgment are now ripe for resolution. For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the evidence sufficiency supports the compensatory damages award; however, the punitive damages award must be reduced.

I. EVIDENCE PRESENTED AT TRIAL

On July 23, 2000, plaintiff was arrested at his home for spraying water on a Chicago police officer on the previous afternoon. Among the arresting officers were defendants Durst and Prusank. Plaintiff testified that during transport to the police station, Durst made threatening gestures and comments. Once inside the station, plaintiff testified that he was led into a small interrogation room and his hands were cuffed behind his back. Plaintiff then explained that Durst and Prusank entered the room, closed the door, and began berating plaintiff for spraying water on the police officer. Plaintiff then testified that Durst proceeded to strike him fifteen to twenty times in the face, head and neck with his open hand and kneed him in the groin. Plaintiff further testified that Prusank, who was Durst's superior officer, did nothing to stop the assault. After defendants finished their interrogation, plaintiff was processed and released the following morning. Plaintiff did not present evidence (other than his own testimony) regarding any physical injuries suffered during the attack, but did offer evidence concerning his emotional distress following the attack. Specifically, plaintiffs friends and therapist testified that after the beating plaintiff became depressed, unable to concentrate at work, and fearful.

Defendants argue that the jury's large compensatory and punitive damage awards are not rationally connected to the evidence. Defendants claim that plaintiff failed to produce evidence of physical injury resulting from the arrest and did not present credible evidence regarding his allegations of emotional distress. Thus, defendants maintain that the jury's verdict could only have been the result of bias, passion, or prejudice rather than based upon the evidence presented at trial.

In response, plaintiff asks the Court to defer to the jury's considerable discretion to fashion appropriate awards. Plaintiff also argues that the evidence accepted by the jury justifies a substantial punitive damage award because defendants' conduct was particularly reprehensible. Plaintiff further maintains that the award, while high, falls within the range of acceptable awards in comparable cases and that jury's award is necessary to deter and punish defendants.

II. DISCUSSION

The jury's damage calculations are entitled to great deference, and the Court may only vacate the jury's verdict if the award is either "monstrously excessive," "shocks the judicial conscience," "has no rational connection to the evidence," or "clearly appears to be the result of passion or prejudice." American National Bank & Trust Company of Chicago v. Regional Transportation Authority, 125 F.3d 420, 437 (7th Cir. 1997); McNabola v. Chicago Transit Auth., 10 F.3d 501, 516 (7th Cir. 1993).

Compensatory and punitive damages, although usually awarded at the same time by the same decision-maker, serve different purposes. Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., 532 U.S. 424, 432 (2001). Compensatory damages "are intended to redress the concrete loss that the plaintiff suffered by reason of the defendant's wrongful conduct." Id. By contrast, punitive damages serve a broader function; they are aimed at deterrence and retribution. Id. Here, defendants ask the Court to set aside or significantly reduce both the jury's compensatory and punitive damage awards. The Court will therefore address each award.

A. Compensatory Damages

The Seventh Circuit uses three criteria to review a compensatory damages award: (1) whether the award is "monstrously excessive"; (2) whether there is no rational connection between the award and the evidence; and (3) whether the award is roughly comparable to awards made in similar cases. See Tullis v. Townley Eng'g Mfg. Co., 243 F.3d 1058, 1066 (7th Cir. 2001). Because the Seventh Circuit views the "monstrously excessive" standard as "rather vague," it has suggested that it be merged with the rationality inquiry. U.S. EEOC v. AIC Sec. Investigations, Ltd., 55 F.3d 1276, 1285 n. 13 (7th Cir. 1995).

Defendants claim that the $15,000 compensatory damages has no rational connection to the evidence. Defendants argue that plaintiff did not produce any evidence of physical injuries and did not offer any credible evidence demonstrating emotional damages. Defendants conclude that this glaring lack of evidence must mean that jury based their decision on passion and prejudice rather than on a rational connection to the evidence. Defendants therefore request that the Court set aside or substantially reduce the jury's compensatory damages award to reflect the insubstantial evidence supporting plaintiff's claims.

Defendants' position is unconvincing. Defendants do not explain why plaintiff was required to produce actual physical evidence to substantiate his injury claims. The jury was presented with evidence, in the form of plaintiffs own testimony, regarding his physical pain and suffering following the arrest and they were therefore permitted to make the rational connection that defendants' tortious conduct caused plaintiffs injuries. Moreover, even if plaintiff did not convincingly demonstrate his physical injuries, he certainly offered substantial evidence regarding his emotional distress flowing from defendants' activities. See Tullis, 243 F.3d at 1068 ([a]n award for non-pecuniary loss can be supported, in certain circumstances, solely by a plaintiff's testimony about his or her emotional distress."); see also Niebur v. Town of Cicero, No. 98 C 4157, 2002 WL 485698, at *22 (N.D.Ill. 2002) ("[T]he Seventh Circuit has not established any requirement that claims of emotional injury must be supported by corroborating testimony."). In addition to his own testimony regarding his post-arrest symptoms, plaintiff produced three witnesses to corroborate his emotional decline. While the defendants might not have found plaintiffs testimony in this regard particularly credible, it appears the jury concluded otherwise. The jury was able to observe plaintiff when he was testifying and they apparently found his testimony to be sincere and sufficient to convince them that he deserved the award they gave him. Defendants' contention that plaintiff did not produce adequate evidence to justify the jury's compensatory damage award is therefore without merit.

Additionally, the jury's $15,000 compensatory damage award is not considerably out of line with comparable cases in this circuit and in other circuits. For example, in Taliferro v. Augle, 757 F.2d 157 (7th Cir. 1985), the plaintiff claimed he was arrested for no reason and the police injured him by destroying his dental plate and knocking out many of his teeth. On appeal, the court allowed $22,000 in compensatory damages. Similarly, in Terrel v. Village of University Park, 1994 WL 30960 (N.D Ill. 1994), the court upheld an award of $5,000 in compensatory damages where the plaintiff was arrested, slapped and slammed against a police car. Another example is Burks v. Harris, 1991 WL 140114 (N.D.Ill. 1991), where the court upheld an award of $13,000 in compensatory damages where the plaintiff was struck below the ...


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