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Elrod v. City of Chicago

November 1, 2007

MARIA ELROD, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF KENNETH ELROD, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, AND OFFICER EDWARD YERKE #1105, INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS.
CHRISTINA CENTERA, ON HER OWN BEHALF AND AS ADMINISTRATOR FOR THE ESTATE OF DEMETRI CENTERA, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, AND CHICAGO POLICE OFFICER EDWARD P. YERKE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Mark Filip

Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Maria Elrod, as administrator of the estate of Kenneth Elrod, and plaintiff Cristina Centera, on her own behalf and as administrator of the estate of Demetri Centera (collectively, "Plaintiffs") filed separate complaints pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants City of Chicago ("the City") and individual police officer Edward Yerke. The lawsuits allege that on the same night, April 7, 2006, Yerke beat up Kenneth Elrod and shot and killed Demetri Centera. (Centera Comp. ¶¶ 6-8; Elrod Compl. ¶¶ 5-8.) Centera's lawsuit was reassigned to District Judge Filip as related to Elrod's. [Dkt 42.] In addition to claims under state law, both Plaintiffs bring § 1983 claims of excessive force against Yerke, and claims against the City pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), alleging that certain customs, policies, and practices of the City caused the alleged constitutional violations.

Presently before the court is Defendants' Motion to Bifurcate § 1983 Claims and to Stay Discovery and Trial On Those Claims ("Defs' Mot.") [dkt 43], which the District Judge referred to this court for decision. [Dkt 45.]*fn1 The City has offered to stipulate to the entry of judgment against it for any compensatory damages awarded to Plaintiffs if any City employee is found to have violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights as alleged in their Complaints. (Defs.' Mot. Leave Cite Suppl. Auth., Ex. B, Stip. ¶ 5.) [Dkt 57.]

For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is granted. Plaintiffs' claim against Yerke under § 1983 and Plaintiffs' state law claims are bifurcated from Plaintiffs' Monell claims against the City, and discovery on the Monell claims, including expert discovery, is stayed at least until after discovery on Plaintiffs' remaining claims has been completed.

Discussion

Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(b) provides, in pertinent part, that "[t]he court, in furtherance of convenience or to avoid prejudice, or when separate trials will be conducive to expedition and economy, may order a separate trial of any claim . . . or of any separate issue or of any number of claims . . . ." District courts have discretion in determining whether to try issues separately pursuant to Rule 42(b). McLaughlin v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 30 F.3d 861, 870 (7th Cir. 1994); see also Medina v. City of Chicago, 100 F. Supp. 2d 893, 894 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (stating that "[t]here is no question that a district court has the discretion to sever a Monell claim against a municipality from claims against individual police officers and stay litigation of the Monell claim until the rest of the case is resolved") (citing Treece v. Hochstetler, 213 F.3d 360, 364 (7th Cir. 2000)).

The issue of whether to bifurcate a Monell claim from the discovery and trial of the underlying constitutional tort claim (and the related state law claims) is one that has been addressed by a number of courts in this district. Some judges have exercised their discretion in favor of bifurcating the Monell claims from the other claims.*fn2 Other judges have refused to bifurcate Monell claims.*fn3 Some of the judges denying motions to bifurcate indicated a willingness to revisit the issue again later or deferred discovery on the Monell claims until after the completion of fact discovery on the other claims. See, e.g., Medina, 100 F. Supp. 2d at 898 (stating intention to revisit issue of bifurcation at later point in the litigation and deferring discovery on Monell claim); Lopez, 2002 WL 335346 at *3 (deferring discovery on Monell claim).

Thus, there is a growing body of precedent in this district for both granting and denying bifurcation in § 1983 cases. Although most of the courts deciding the issue begin their discussions with the same general principles, the outcome of each decision is dependent upon the facts of that particular case. Thus, this opinion will not recite the analyses of the many various cases granting or denying bifurcation, but rather will consider the principles in light of the facts of this case and the parties' arguments.

Here, Defendants argue that bifurcation would expedite the litigation process and promote judicial economy, allowing the City to avoid potentially unnecessary discovery and litigation costs, and protecting Yerke from possible prejudice. (Defs.' Mot. at 2-4.) Plaintiffs respond that bifurcation will decrease efficiency because the same discovery will be needed to prove the Monell claims as the other claims and discovery disputes will increase, that bifurcation will result in two trials rather than one, that limiting instructions can be used to cure any prejudice to Yerke, and that there are non-economic benefits such as deterrence that would be lost if bifurcation is ordered. (Pls.' Resp. at 4-7, 9-10, 13.) [Dkt 47, 53.]

A. Avoiding a Trial of the Monell Claims

Defendants' primary argument is that bifurcation should be ordered because a trial on the Monell claims will not be necessary, and therefore, discovery on those claims can be dispensed with. In order to assess that argument, it is necessary to review the relationship between the Monell claims against the City and the claims against the individual officer, Yerke.

Monell held that a local government can be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, but only "when execution of a government's policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury." 436 U.S. at 694. When the local government's failure to train its officers constitutes "deliberate indifference" to a person's rights and causes a deprivation of a person's constitutional rights, the local government is liable to that person for his injuries. See, e.g., Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388-89 (1989). However, "[m]isbehaving employees are responsible for their own conduct[;] 'units of local government are responsible only for their policies rather than misconduct by their workers." Estate of Sims v. County of Bureau, _____F.3d _______, 2007 WL 3036752 (7th Cir. 2007)(citations omitted). Thus, to prevail on a Monell claim, a plaintiff must go beyond proving that an individual municipal employee violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. A fundamental issue here is whether the City's proffered Stipulation makes such additional proof, and the related discovery, unnecessary.

To start, if Plaintiffs cannot prove that Yerke violated their constitutional rights, their Monell claims against the City will fail as a matter of law, and the litigation will be over without the need for a trial on the Monell claims. See Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986) (stating that "neither [Monell] nor any other of our cases authorizes the award of damages against a municipal corporation based on the actions of one of its officers when in fact the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm").

If Plaintiffs prove that Yerke violated their constitutional rights, they are not entitled to recover any additional compensatory damages from the City because of their Monell claims. See, e.g., Spanish Action Committee of Chicago v. City of Chicago, 766 F.2d 315, 321 (7th Cir. 1985). Thus, the City argues, if Plaintiffs win a verdict against Yerke, Plaintiffs may decide as a practical matter that it is not necessary to go forward to try the Monell claim. However, although Plaintiffs may not recover any additional damages, if Plaintiffs prove that Yerke's violation of their rights was a result of the City's policy, the City as well as Yerke is liable to Plaintiffs for the damages caused thereby. Monell, 436 U.S. at 690, 691-92, 694.

Defendants argue that it is not necessary or efficient to have a trial of all of the additional issues necessary to prove the Monell claims just to obtain a judgment against the City for the same amount as the judgment against Yerke. Under Illinois law, a local government is required to pay tort judgments for compensatory damages for which its employees are liable for acts within the scope of their employment. 745 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 10/9-102. The Illinois statute permits a plaintiff to bring a claim directly against the municipality and obtain a judgment requiring the municipality to pay the amount due to the plaintiff from the officer. Wilson v. City of Chicago, 120 F.3d 681, 684-85 (7th Cir. 1997). Thus, if a plaintiff obtains a judgment for compensatory damages against the individual officer, he may recover the amount of the judgment from the municipality with no need to prove his Monell claim. See Patterson, No. 03 C 4433, dkt 298 at 5; Medina, 100 F. Supp. 2dat 895-96 (stating that, "from an economic standpoint, a prevailing plaintiff in a § 1983 excessive force case against police officers in Illinois gets nothing more from suing the municipality under Monell than he would get from suing just the officers. . . . As a result, plaintiffs generally choose to forego the more difficult route of seeking to hold the municipality liable under Monell"); Grant v. City of Chicago, 2006 WL 328265 at *1, 3 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 10, 2006) (Lefkow, J.) (stating that, "[i]n the final analysis, the plaintiff gains nothing in her pocket from a [Monell]judgment against the City").*fn4

There is no guarantee, however, that the municipality will concede liability under the Illinois statute if a verdict is rendered against an individual officer. The municipality may dispute payment, for instance, by arguing that the plaintiff cannot prove that the police officer was acting within the scope of his employment -- a requirement under the Illinois statute. See 745 ILCS 10/9-102. Here, the City has denied that Yerke acted within the scope of his employment with respect to plaintiff Elrod, but admitted that Yerke acted within the scope of his employment with respect to plaintiff Centera. See Elrod, No. 06 C 2505, Answer ¶ 4 [dkt 21]; Centera, No. 07 C 203, Answer ¶¶ 4, ...


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