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Spencer v. Dawson

September 28, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blanche M. Manning United States District Judge


After a two-week trial, a jury rejected plaintiff Steven Spencer's claims that his arrest was wrongful, the defendant officers used excessive force on him, and the Village of Wheeling's policies regarding deaf individuals violate the Rehabilitation Act. Spencer's motion for a new trial is before the court. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.


For the purposes of this order, the court assumes familiarity with this case and its prior orders and will thus provide only a brief recap of the essential facts. Plaintiff Steven Spencer is deaf and communicates primarily through the use of sign language. Spencer and his former girlfriend, Aliza Meyer, who is also deaf and communicates using sign language, co-owned a trailer home in Wheeling, Illinois. On March 25, 2003, Allen Meyer, Aliza's father, arrived at the trailer to speak with Spencer about selling it since Spencer and Aliza had split up. The two men had a falling out and each called the police.

Officers Dawson and Conway arrived at the scene to investigate. Matters went downhill, and eventually Spencer was arrested. The officers testified that they arrested Spencer because Officer Conway thought Spencer was about to punch him in the face. On the other hand, Spencer testified that he was merely using sign language when he made the gestures that the officers believed were threatening and that he never threatened the officers.

According to Spencer, a new trial is appropriate because: (1) the defendants violated the court's rulings on the motions in limine by eliciting testimony from Allen Meyer that the police were aware of Spencer's address because he had a history of violence and from Thomas Walton, the defendant's expert, that the police knew of Spencer's violent history; (2) the trial was unfair because the court refused to allow him to ask the defendants about their knowledge of and compliance with the Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and refused to approve his corresponding jury instructions; (3) the trial was unfair because he was not allowed to introduce into evidence two documents he used when cross-examining Walton; (4) the jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (5) the court erred in granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment in favor of the Village of Wheeling.

In response, the defendants contend that Spencer's motion is untimely. Alternatively, they contend that the court's evidentiary rulings were fair, the jury's verdict reflected the clear weight of evidence presented at trial, Spencer is attempting to improperly attack the court's prior ruling on the defendants' motion for summary judgment, and Spencer cannot move for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 at this point in the proceedings.

Standard of Review

The court will grant a new trial if the jury's verdict was "against the clear weight of the evidence or the trial was unfair to the moving party." David v. Caterpillar, Inc., 324 F.3d 851, 863 (7th Cir. 2003); see Lemons v. Skidmore, 985 F.2d 354, 357 (7th Cir. 1993) ("[C]ivil litigants are entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect one"). When considering a motion for a new trial, the court must give "the jury's verdict great deference." Calusinski v. Kruger, 24 F.3d 931, 936 (7th Cir. 1994).

Thus, the court will not overturn a jury verdict if it has a reasonable basis in the record, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party and leaving issues of credibility and weight to the jury. Kapelanski v. Johnson, 390 F.3d 525, 530 (7th Cir. 2004). In turn, if a jury instruction is at issue, a party is entitled to a new trial if the court finds that "(1) the instruction inadequately states Seventh Circuit law; and (2) the error likely confused or misled the jury causing prejudice to the movant." Gile v. United Airlines, Inc., 213 F.3d 365, 375 (7th Cir.2000).


The court begins with the defendants' argument that Spencer's motion for a new trial is untimely. Rule 59(b) provides that "[a]ny motion for a new trial shall be filed no later than 10 days after the entry of the judgment." Here, the jury returned its verdict on June 29, 2007. Immediately thereafter, the court asked Spencer's counsel if he intended to file post-trial motions so it could set a briefing schedule. When counsel indicated that he wanted to file post-trial motions, the court allowed him to specify when he wanted to file his motions and set a briefing schedule based on counsel's requested date (twenty-one days, which was subsequently extended another seven days at counsel's request). The court then entered judgment on July 2, 2007. On July 27, 2007, Spencer filed a motion for a new trial.

Spencer acknowledges that his motion for a new trial is untimely under Rule 59, but contends that the "unique circumstances" doctrine excuses his untimely filing. Eady v. Foerder, 381 F.2d 980 (7th Cir. 1967). Under the "unique circumstances" doctrine in Eady, "when a judge extends the time within which to file an application for a new trial, and counsel relies to his detriment on that extension, the 'unique circumstances' of this reliance allows the court to dispose of the motion before it." Varhol v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 909 F.2d 1557, 1568 (7th Cir. 1990) (en banc); Osterneck v. Ernst & Whinney, 489 U.S. 169, 179 (1989) (an untimely filing may be excused if a party "has received specific assurance by a judicial officer").

The rule in Eady does not necessarily save Spencer, as the Seventh Circuit has recently noted that the unique circumstances "doctrine's continued validity has been seriously questioned both in this court, see Varhol v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 909 F.2d 1557, 1573 (7th Cir. 1990) (en banc) (Manion, J., joined by Cummings, Posner, Coffey, and Easterbrook, JJ., and Eschbach, Senior J., concurring), and in the Supreme Court, see Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 282, 108 S.Ct. 2379, 101 L.Ed.2d 245 (1988), (Scalia, J., joined by Rehnquist, C.J., and O'Connor and Kennedy, JJ., dissenting)." Robinson v. City of Harvey, 489 F.3d 864, 870-71 (7th Cir. 2007). These cases have, as the Seventh Circuit has recognized, "[prompted] the observation that the 'unique circumstances' doctrine is, at ...

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