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Purtell v. Mason

July 18, 2006

JEFFREY R. PURTELL AND VICKI A. PURTELL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BRUCE MASON, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy J. St. Eve, District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Jeffrey R. Purtell and Vicki A. Purtell bring a post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), or in the alternative, a motion for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59(a). For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motions.

BACKGROUND

The Purtells filed the present lawsuit against Defendant Village of Bloomingdale Police Officer Bruce Mason alleging that he violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights to the United States Constitution. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court granted Officer Mason's Motion for Summary Judgment regarding the Purtells' Fourth Amendment claim. The Court, however, denied Officer Mason's summary judgment motion regarding the Purtells' First Amendment claim. At trial, the Purtells argued that Officer Mason violated their First Amendment rights when he requested that they remove certain Halloween tombstone "decorations" from their property. The Court conducted a jury trial on April 17 and 18, 2006, after which the jury returned a verdict in favor of Officer Mason. The Purtells then filed the present post-trial motions.

ANALYSIS

I. Judgment as a Matter of Law Pursuant to Rule 50(b)

The Purtells first argue that based on the evidence presented at trial, no reasonable jury could have determined liability in favor of Officer Mason. When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict, the Court does not re-weigh the evidence presented at trial or make credibility determinations. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000). Instead, considering the totality of the evidence, the Court determines whether the jury was presented with a "legally sufficient amount of evidence from which it could reasonably derive its verdict." Massey v. Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Illinois, 226 F.3d 922, 924 (7th Cir. 2000). In other words, the Court must determine whether any rational jury could have found for Officer Mason. See Harvey v. Office of Banks & Real Estate, 377 F.3d 698, 707 (7th Cir. 2004). In determining a motion under Rule 50(b), the Court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the party who prevailed under the verdict -- in this case Officer Mason. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150-51; Learning Curve Toys, Inc. v. PlayWood Toys, Inc., 342 F.3d 714, 721 (7th Cir. 2003).*fn1

A. Fighting Words

The Purtells argue that the language on the Halloween tombstones contained speech that was protected by the First Amendment, specifically, that such speech was not "fighting words." Although the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expressive conduct, see RAV v. City of St. Paul, Minnesota, 505 U.S. 377, 382, 112 S.Ct. 2538, 2542, 120 L.Ed.2d 305 (1992), First Amendment protections are not absolute. Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 358, 123 S.Ct. 1536, 155 L.Ed.2d 535 (2003). The Supreme Court has held that fighting words -- "those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace" -- are not protected under the First Amendment. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 572, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031 (1942).

Viewing the Evidence and All Reasonable Inferences in a Light Most Favorable to Officer

Mason, the parties presented the jury with a "legally sufficient amount of evidence from which it could reasonably derive its verdict." See Massey, 226 F.3d at 924. In short, a rational jury could return a verdict in Officer Mason's favor by concluding that the words on the tombstones constituted fighting words, and thus were not protected by the First Amendment.

Evidence presented at trial revealed that the Purtells placed the tombstones referring to their neighbors in their front yard facing the street. The tombstones specifically referred to their neighbors, who saw the language on the tombstones. For instance, the tombstone that referred to the Purtells' neighbor James Garbarz stated:

Here Lies Jimmy, The OlDe Towne IdioT MeAn As sin even withouT his Gin No LonGer Does He wear That sTupiD Old Grin ...

Oh no, noT where they've sent Him! -1690-

The tombstone referring to the Purtells' neighbor Betty Garbarz read: BeTTe wAsN'T ReADy, BuT here she Lies Ever since that night she ...


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