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Cruz v. City of Chicago

December 16, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert M. Dow, Jr. United States District Judge


Before the Court are Defendant City of Chicago's ("City") motion [35] to bifurcate and to stay discovery and trial as to Plaintiffs' claims against the City under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1976), Plaintiffs' response in opposition [38], and the City's reply in support [42]. For the reasons stated below, the City's motion is granted, subject to the City's acceptance of the modifications to its proposed stipulation outlined in this opinion.

I. Background

Plaintiffs Ricardo Cruz and Pearl Lufrano filed this action against Defendants City of Chicago and Chicago Police Officer John Haleas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs contend that Haleas violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights through various actions, including false arrest, false imprisonment, fabrication of police reports, and false testimony in criminal proceedings. Plaintiffs also seek recovery against the City under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1976), alleging that municipal customs, policies, and practices caused the alleged constitutional violations. In addition, Plaintiffs have brought various state law claims against both Defendants.

Shortly after the commencement of this action, the Court was informed that a criminal action against Defendant Haleas is pending in state court. In light of that criminal action, the Court entered an order [43] granting Haleas' motion to stay proceedings in this case to ensure that Haleas would not be forced to make a decision concerning his Fifth Amendment privilege while the stay is in place. In the same order, the Court denied the City's motion to stay the entire case. The City now has moved for bifurcation of Plaintiffs' Monell claims and to stay discovery and trial on those claims [35] until the claims against Officer Haleas are resolved.

II. Analysis

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) authorizes federal courts to order a separate trial of one or more separate issues or claims if separation (or bifurcation) is warranted "[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize." Bifurcation may be appropriate if one or more of the Rule 42(b) criteria is met. See, e.g., Treece v. Hochstetler, 213 F.3d 360, 365 (7th Cir. 2000). District courts approach bifurcation motions with a pragmatic mindset, and the district court's exercise of its "'considerable discretion to order the bifurcation of a trial'" will be set aside on appeal "'only upon a clear showing of abuse.'" Id. at 364-64 (quoting Krocka v. City of Chicago, 203 F.3d 507, 516 (7th Cir. 2000)).

Motions to bifurcate Monell claims are now commonplace, and "[c]courts in our district have both granted and denied similar motions by the City." Ojeda-Beltran v. Lucio, 2008 WL 2782815, at *1 (N.D. Ill. July 16, 2008). "Thus, there is a growing body of precedent in this district for both granting and denying bifurcation in § 1983 cases" (Elrod v. City of Chicago, 2007 WL 3241352, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 1, 2007)), with the result in each instance "reflect[ing] a case-specific assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of bifurcation." Ojeda-Beltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *1.

The spate of bifurcation motions and the willingness of many judges to grant them stems in large part from the recognition that, in many (perhaps most) instances, "claims of municipal liability require an extensive amount of work on the part of plaintiff's attorneys and experts, and an extraordinary amount of money must be spent in order to prepare and prove them." Moore v. City of Chicago, 2007 WL 3037121, at *9 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 15, 2007); see also Ojeda-Beltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *2 (noting that litigating plaintiffs' Monell claim will be a "more burdensome and time-consuming task" than litigating plaintiffs' claims against the individual officer defendant). Here, the claims against the City alleged in Plaintiffs' complaint refer to a sufficiently wide-ranging set of potentially relevant policies and practices that the characterizations of the Monell claims in Moore and Ojeda-Beltran may well apply to this case. In addition, because of state law and the City's frequent practice of offering to stipulate to judgment being entered against it and to pay compensatory damages and reasonable attorneys' fees in the event of a judgment against the individual defendant officer(s) on the plaintiff's constitutional claims,*fn1 judges in this district have questioned why Section 1983 plaintiffs would "want or need to proceed any further" after resolution of their claims against the individual officer defendants. Moore, 2007 WL 3037121, at *9. Here, for example, if Plaintiffs prevail against Officer Haleas, state law "directs local governments to pay tort judgments for compensatory damages" for which their employees are liable (id.), and the City has acknowledged in its reply brief (at 1) that the stipulation to the entry of judgment that it has offered includes reasonable attorneys' fees as well. If, on the other hand, Plaintiffs cannot prove that Officer Haleas "violated their constitutional rights, their Monell claim against the City will fail as a matter of law." Ojeda-Beltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *2.

On the other side of the ledger, the Court notes that judges in this district have echoed Plaintiffs' concerns about delay of the case and possible prejudice to Plaintiffs from that delay. The Court also recognizes that Plaintiffs have the right to select the claims that they wish to pursue, and that even if pursuing a Monell claim may have minimal pecuniary reward, the potential to deter future official misconduct is itself "a proper object of our system of tort liability." Cadiz v. Kruger, No. 06-cv-5463, Memorandum Opinion and Order, at 11, 16 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 29, 2007); see also Ojeda-Beltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *4 ("there are non-economic benefits that can be obtained through suing the City that are unavailable through the suit of Defendant Officers").

After consideration of the arguments of the parties and the pertinent authorities, the Court is persuaded that, on balance, bifurcation of Plaintiffs' Monell claim under Rule 42(b) and a stay at least as to "purely Monell" discovery are warranted in the circumstances of this case.*fn2 In reaching that decision, the Court concludes (i) that the interests of convenience and efficiency will be served through bifurcation and a stay and (ii) that no party will suffer substantial prejudice in view of the stipulation proposed by the City and the suggested modifications to that stipulation discussed below. See Almaraz v. Haleas, ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2008 WL 4868635, at *2-*5 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 9, 2008); Ojeda-Beltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *2; Moore, 2007 WL 3037121, at *9.

In regard to the stipulation, the Court initially observes that several other judges in this district have found that stipulations containing similar language adequately ensure that successful plaintiffs will obtain the full measure of their damages. See Elrod, 2007 WL 3241352, at *4 (collecting cases). As Judge Zagel has explained, "the stipulation is binding for the life of this case, even if state law or union agreements change" and it "guarantees that if the officer[] [is] finally assessed damages, Plaintiff[s] will be paid notwithstanding any change in law or policy, and without further legal costs." Parker v. Banner, 479 F. Supp. 2d 827, 829 n.3 (N.D. Ill. 2007).

Nevertheless, Plaintiffs raise concerns about certain aspects of the stipulation that the Court believes merit discussion and clarification. To the extent that the stipulation can be said to suffer from potential vagueness or ambiguity, the Court finds the recent opinion by Judge Hart in Almaraz--considering a stipulation offered in support of a motion to bifurcate in another case involving the City and Officer Haleas--to be highly instructive. Both here and in Almaraz the stipulations refer to liability findings by "the finder of fact." See Almaraz, 2008 WL 4868635, at *3. This Court adopts the clarification made by Judge Hart--namely that "[t]he terms of the stipulation will also be applied if an individual is held liable on a motion for summary judgment or any other court procedure not involving a finder of fact." Id. The Court also recognizes the "exception" noted by Judge Hart for "liability based on a settlement to which the City is not a party, or a non-court procedure such as arbitration or mediation unless the City agrees to be bound by such proceedings." Id. The Court also notes a discrepancy between the proposed stipulation, which omits any discussion of attorneys' fees, and Defendants' reply brief, which acknowledges up front (at 1) that the City will pay any "reasonable attorneys' fees" awarded to Plaintiffs. In view of that acknowledgment, the Court directs the City to revise the stipulation to track paragraph 3 of the stipulation in Almaraz, which includes the language "and, to the extent allowed by the Court, reasonable attorneys fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988." Id. at *2. Finally, as Judge Hart recently stated, any remaining ambiguities in the document "would be resolved against the City as the drafter" and "construed in light of the understanding that the City was attempting to avoid litigating Monell issues and instead concede liability if one of its employees is liable." Id.*fn3

In accepting the stipulation (as modified), granting the motion to bifurcate Plaintiffs' Monell claim, and staying discovery as to that claim pending further order of the Court, the Court stresses that "[b]ifurcation of the Monell claim is not dismissal of the Monell claim" (OjedaBeltran, 2008 WL 2782815, at *4), and that "Plaintiffs retain the right to discover and try their Monell claims" (Elrod, 2007 WL 3241352, at *8). As Magistrate Judge Brown succinctly summarized, Bifurcation in this case means structuring the process to facilitate a more economical and efficient process of discovering the merits of the underlying ยง 1983 claim, at the conclusion of which the parties will have the opportunity to consider possible settlement or go to trial on the underlying claim, without having incurred the expense of discovery relating to the Monell claims. If ...

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