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Gaik v. Mullins

July 30, 2009

FRANCES V. GAIK AND CASEY GAIK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OAK BROOK VILLAGE PROSECUTOR JOAN E. MULLINS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In this civil action, Plaintiffs Dr. Francis V. Gaik ("Dr. Gaik") and her husband Casey Gaik ("Mr. Gaik") ("Plaintiffs") allege that Defendant Joan E. Mullins ("Defendant"), a former village prosecutor for the village of Oak Brook, Illinois, maliciously prosecuted Plaintiff Casey Gaik and denied both Plaintiffs' civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Am. Compl. [117] at 13-15.) Following a five-day jury trial, the jury found Defendant not liable on each of Plaintiffs' three claims: an Illinois state law claim alleging malicious prosecution; a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging that Defendant deprived Plaintiffs of their freedom of speech; and a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging that Defendant deprived Plaintiffs of equal protection of the law. (Trial Tr. vol. 5, 923:1-23.) Plaintiffs now move for a new trial, arguing that misconduct on the part of Defendant's counsel prejudiced Plaintiffs' case and entitles them to a new trial. (Pl.'s Mot. for a New Trial [202] (hereinafter "Pl.'s Mot.") at 1.) As Defendant points out in her response, Plaintiffs do not argue that the verdict is unsupported by the evidence. (Def.'s Response to Pl.'s Mot. for a New Trial [225] (hereinafter "Def.'s Resp.") at 1.) For the reasons stated below, the court finds that Defendant committed no misconduct or misstatement resulting in prejudice. Plaintiffs' motion for a new trial is therefore denied.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This action stemmed from a dispute beginning in 2005 between Plaintiffs, former residents of Oak Brook who became vocal critics of the local government and police force, and Defendant, the Oak Brook village prosecutor. (Trial Tr. vol. 1, 8:1-7.) Before becoming village prosecutor, Defendant had worked for the DuPage County state's attorney's office. As village prosecutor, she was responsible to prosecute misdemeanors, traffic violations, and infractions of village code. (Id. vol. 2, 303:15-18.) In 2004, Dr. Gaik was president of a concerned citizens' group called "Oak Brook Citizens for Better Government." (Id. at 11:3-7). Dr. Gaik testified that in December of 2004 she received an anonymous note in the mail informing her that "[t]he village prosecutor received a ticket for leaving the scene of an accident." (Id. vol. 4, 702:14-15.) A few weeks later, on February 8, 2005, Dr. Gaik made public comments at a village meeting in which she criticized village officials, specifically mentioning Defendant's auto accident. (Id. at 703:13.) Soon after that, Dr. Gaik also made statements to a newspaper reporter who had heard Dr. Gaik's public comments and had begun investigating Defendant's accident for a story to be published in the Oak Brook Daily Herald on February 10th. (Id. at 705:1-7.) Apart from these comments, Dr. Gaik asserted, she has never "attacked" Defendant or Defendant's family, nor has she made comments about any of Defendant's family members. (Id. at 706:21-707:19.)

On February 11, the day after the Daily Herald story appeared, Plaintiffs, Defendant, and other village officials began receiving e-mails mocking or questioning Dr. Gaik and Mr. Gaik's credibility. (Id. vol. 4, 707:22-25.) Defendant stated she does not know who sent the e-mails. (Id. vol. 3, 477:2.) Plaintiffs argued at trial that "the evidence will show Sergeant Mucha was the one who was sending the harassing e-mails." (Id. vol. 1, 15:6-8.) In fact, Sergeant Randy Mucha ("Sergeant Mucha"), a former Oak Brook village police officer and friend of Defendant, admitted to sending at least one of these messages. (Id. vol. 3, 518:1-3.)

Plaintiffs believe, however, that Defendant Mullins is responsible for the alleged harassment as well. (Id. vol. 1, 15:11-13.) They contend that Defendant and Mr. Mucha began communicating by e-mail while Defendant "began pursuing an improper investigation of Fran and Casey Gaik." (Id. vol. 1, 12:17-18.) Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant "looked up information about the Gaiks," including Dr. Gaik's educational credentials, professional licenses, and a past criminal complaint. (Id. at 12:23, 13:8-14, 24-25.) Defendant denied she ever "investigated" Plaintiffs; she acknowledged that she had looked up some information while waiting in line in the county courthouse in September 2004, but insists that she never used or communicated any of the information she uncovered. (Id. vol. 2, 349:2-5; vol. 3, 485:23; vol. 3, 437:19-21.) By March of 2005, both parties were receiving neighborhood mailings critical of the village administration, Defendant, or alternately the Oak Brook Citizens for Better Government group. (Id. vol. 3, 435:11-24.) At least one mailing from late March mentioned Plaintiffs Dr. Fran and Casey Gaik by name and contained personal accusations and criticism as well as statements that "[p]ublic records [about Plaintiffs Dr. Fran and Casey Gaik] can be found at the DuPage County Courthouse." (Id. at 436:14-15.) Defendant denied participating in any of these mailings. (Id. at 437:2-6.)

The disputes between Plaintiffs and Defendant culminated on the evening of March 16, 2005. After a contentious village meeting, in which both Defendant and Plaintiff Casey Gaik were in attendance, but neither spoke publicly, Mr. Gaik approached Defendant in a hallway, said a few words to her and then allegedly touched or grabbed her arm. (Id. vol. 1, 16:12-15.) Defendant stated that Mr. Gaik "grabbed both my arms" and "was holding me," (Id. vol. 3, 447:6-10); Mr. Gaik himself reported he had no recollection of the incident when police first questioned him weeks later. (Id. vol. 2, 181:16-18.) The incident was, however, recorded by video surveillance of the village administrative building. (Id. vol. 2, 138:21-24.) Sergeant Mucha was also present at the meeting but not during the incident. (Id. vol 3, 546:12-14.) Sergeant Mucha testified that he was the only officer present after the incident with experience accessing the village's surveillance video, and that he collected and preserved tape from two cameras that captured the incident. (Id. vol 3, 546:9-11, 19-22.)

Several weeks later, Defendant Mullins signed and filed a two-count criminal misdemeanor complaint against Mr. Gaik for battery and disorderly conduct. (Id. vol. 2, 302:22-23.) Mr. Joe Ruggiero is the deputy chief of the DuPage County state's attorney's office who supervises misdemeanor prosecutions and first prosecuted the battery; he testified that before Defendant could sign her misdemeanor complaint, the state's attorney's office consulted with Defendant, screening the alleged battery and disorderly conduct charge for prosecution as a felony, because the alleged battery happened in a public place and involved a village prosecutor. (Id. vol. 3, 415:14-20.) Ultimately, though, Mr. Ruggiero's office decided to prosecute the incident as a misdemeanor. (Id. at 415:21-25.)

On March 29, 2005, the state's attorney's office commenced misdemeanor proceedings against Mr. Gaik, which ultimately took over two years to resolve. (Id. vol. 2, 155:9-12.) During that time, Mr. Gaik, through his attorney, repeatedly asked the DuPage County state's attorney's office to dismiss the charges or defer to a special prosecutor. (Id. vol. 3, 393:12-15.) In a letter dated September 7, 2006, Mr. Gaik's attorney told Mr. Ruggiero that he believed the charges were part of a retaliation campaign and that Defendant's previous employment and contacts with the DuPage state's attorney's office could result in improper bias against Casey Gaik. (Id. vol. 2, 149:9-11, 150:1-7, 21-24, 151:1; Letter from Russo to Ruggiero of 9/7/06, Pl.'s Trial Ex. 5A.) Mr. Ruggiero declined to relinquish supervision of Mr. Gaik's prosecution, but later that month transferred the case to another prosecutor at the DuPage County office, Mr. Jeffery Muntz. (Id. vol. 3, 396:1-4.) Mr. Ruggiero testified, "It came to a point in time where I did not have time to deal with this case anymore as I had other trials to go to. So I just let the attorneys that were in the courtroom handle the case." (Id. at 395:6-9.)

On May 7, 2007, the day scheduled for Mr. Gaik's criminal trial, Mr. Muntz informed Mr. Gaik that the district attorney's office was dropping the charges against him. (Id. vol. 2, 154:7-12.) Mr. Muntz explained to the DuPage County court that his office had concluded "that the additional evidence required was simply not there." (Transcript of Proceedings against Mr. Gaik, Joint Trial Ex. 2 at 4; Trial Tr. vol. 2, 155:22-23.)

Plaintiffs commenced the present civil action on April 20, 2005, shortly after Mr. Gaik was first charged, against the Village of Oak Brook, Sergeant Randy Mucha, and Defendant Joan Mullins. (See Compl. [1] at 1.) Plaintiffs settled with the village and Sergeant Mucha in September of 2006, leaving Ms. Mullins as sole Defendant. (Am. Compl. [117] ¶ 8.) After a five-day trial, the jury found Defendant not liable for malicious prosecution or depriving Plaintiffs of their civil rights. (Trial Tr. vol. 5, 923:1-23.) This motion for a new trial followed.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs seek a new trial pursuant to Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. That Rule authorizes the court to set aside a jury's verdict and grant a new trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." FED. R. CIV. P. 59(a)(1)(A).*fn1 The reasons for granting a new trial fall into two categories; either "the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or a prejudicial error occurred." Romero v. Cincinnati, Inc ., 171 F.3d 1091, 1096 (7th Cir.1999) (citations omitted). Plaintiffs argue that three types of prejudicial errors resulted from the conduct of Defendant's counsel during trial: "Specifically, the Gaiks were prejudiced by [Defendant's] last-minute document production, misuse and misstatement of jury instructions during closing argument, and exploitation of the Court's evidentiary rulings regarding the [criminal record of Defendant's relative]." (Pl.'s Mot. at 1.)

The standard for setting aside a jury verdict because of alleged misstatements or misconduct by an attorney during trial is a high one. Rule 61 provides: "Unless justice requires otherwise, no error in admitting or excluding evidence--or any other error by the court or a party--is ground for granting a new trial. . . ." FED. R. CIV. P. 61. To order a new trial under this standard, the court must find both that attorney statements amounted to misconduct and that the misconduct prejudiced the moving party. Soltys v. Costello, 520 F.3d 737, 744 (7th Cir. 2008). As Plaintiffs point out, the court may consider the cumulative impact of irregularities or misstatements during trial in determining whether they were prejudicial. Hillard v. Hargraves, 197 F.R.D. 358, 361 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (citing U.S. v. Williams, 81 F.3d 1434 (7th Cir. 1996)). Considering each of Plaintiffs' allegations of misconduct below, the court finds that none resulted in prejudice justifying a new trial.

I. Reasonable Basis for the Jury's Verdict

Plaintiffs have not challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's verdict, (Pl.'s Mot. at 1), but in assessing their specific arguments, a summary of that evidence is useful. Plaintiffs' first claim was for malicious prosecution under Illinois law. In order to ...


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