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Detrick Thomas v. Officer Zala and City of Chicago

June 27, 2011

DETRICK THOMAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OFFICER ZALA AND CITY OF CHICAGO, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Detrick Thomas and against the City of Chicago and Officer Veejay Zala as to the counts for malicious prosecution, battery, excessive force and punitive damages for a total award of $55,000 in damages. The defendants move for a new trial under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59. Rule 59 allows a court to order a new trial if "the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, the damages are excessive, or if for other reasons the trial was not fair to the moving party." Pickett v. Sheridan Health Care Ctr., 610 F.3d 434, 440 (7th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). For the reasons stated below, the motion [is granted in part and denied in part.

A. Did Jury Render Inconsistent Verdicts as to the False Arrest and Malicious Prosecution Counts?

The jury found for the plaintiff with respect to the malicious prosecution count but for the defendants with respect to the false arrest count. The defendants contend that these verdicts were inconsistent because they both require a finding of a lack of probable cause for liability. Thus, according to the defendants, probable cause cannot exist in one count but not another.

"A new trial based on inconsistent verdicts is warranted only when a jury's verdict cannot be reconciled with the evidence at trial." Fox v. Hayes, 600 F.3d 819, 844 (7th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). "Any plausible explanation for the verdict precludes reversal." Id. The instruction as to false arrest stated as follows:

In this case, plaintiff claims that defendant Officer Zala falsely arrested him. To succeed on this claim, plaintiff must prove each of the following things by a preponderance of the evidence: one, defendant Officer Zala arrested plaintiff and two, defendant Officer Zala did not have probable cause to arrest plaintiff.

The instruction for malicious prosecution was given as follows:

Another action brought by plaintiff against defendant is for malicious prosecution under state law. In order for the plaintiff to succeed on this claim, he must provide [sic] the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence: number one, defendant Officer Zala initiated the criminal proceedings against the plaintiff; two, the criminal proceeding ended in plaintiff's favor; three, defendant Officer Zala lacked probable cause to initiate the proceeding; four, defendant Officer Zala acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing plaintiff to justice; and five, resulting damages.

As the defendants correctly state, generally, "the existence of probable cause for an arrest totally precludes any Section 1983 claim for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment or malicious prosecution, regardless of whether the defendant had malicious motives for arresting the plaintiff." Smith v. City of Chicago, 913 F.2d 469, 473 (7th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). Thus, the defendants state that because the jury concluded that probable cause existed for the arrest, it also must have existed to preclude success on the malicious prosecution claim.

The plaintiff, however, without citation to authority, asserts that the verdicts are not necessarily inconsistent because false arrest and malicious prosecution are two distinct causes of action with "two different probable cause standards," Resp. a t 4, Dkt. #100, and thus, the jury could have concluded that probable cause existed for the arrest but not for the malicious prosecution. The court notes that the plaintiff does not dispute that the plaintiff was arrested or argue that the jury could have concluded that the plaintiff was not arrested. Accordingly, the court only addresses the probable cause prong of the false arrest jury instruction.

It is true that the Seventh Circuit has stated that:

[A] malicious prosecution claim is treated differently from one for false arrest: whereas probable cause to believe that a person has committed any crime will preclude a false arrest claim, even if the person was arrested on additional or different charges for which there was no probable cause, probable cause as to one charge will not bar a malicious prosecution claim based on a second, distinct charge as to which probable cause was lacking.

Holmes v. Village of Hoffman Estates, 511 F.3d 673, 682 (7th Cir. 2007) (internal citations omitted). Indeed, another court in this district has noted that cases that state that probable cause is an absolute bar to false arrest and malicious prosecution claims "are incomplete" because they fail to take into account the holding of Holmes. Akbar v. City of Chicago, No. 06 C 3685, 2008 WL 5272463, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 12, 2008).

In Holmes, the Seventh Circuit concluded that defendant Officer Teipel was entitled to summary judgment on the false arrest claim for battery on a fellow officer because Teipel had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff after a fellow officer told Teipel that the plaintiff had hit him. The plaintiff had also alleged a malicious prosecution claim. The Seventh Circuit noted that "probable cause to believe an individual committed one crime [i.e., the battery against the fellow officer]-- and even his conviction of that crime -- does not foreclose a malicious prosecution claim for additionally prosecuting the individual on a separate charge." Id. Thus, the Holmes court stated that "although there was probable cause to support the charge that Holmes had committed a battery against [the fellow officer], we must separately consider whether there was probable cause to support the other charges for which Holmes was prosecuted." Id. at 684.

Specifically, Holmes clarified that his malicious prosecution claim was based only on the charges for battery against Officer Teipel and resisting arrest, not the battery charge against the fellow officer. After reviewing the record, the Holmes court concluded that genuine issues of material fact existed to preclude summary judgment on the malicious prosecution claim with respect to the charges for battery against Officer Teipel and resisting arrest.

In the instant case, it appears that the false arrest and malicious prosecution claims are based on the same charges against Thomas, i.e., battery and resisting arrest. The plaintiff points to no evidence or argument upon which the jury could have concluded that the false arrest claim was related only to one charge while the malicious prosecution claim related only to the other. Accordingly, Holmes does not assist the plaintiff.

The plaintiff also argues, again without citation to authority, that the jury could have concluded that Zala had fabricated his story and falsified his reports, and if so, that Thomas then would not have had to defend the battery and resisting arrest charges. As noted above, the Seventh Circuit stated that the "the existence of probable cause for arrest is an absolute bar to a Section 1983 claim for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution." Schertz v. Waupaca County, 875 F.2d 578, 582 (7th Cir. 1989). However, "[a]n exception to this rule exists, if the finding of probable cause is based on the defendant's intentional misrepresentation or concealment of material facts, the plaintiff may be able to proceed on a Fourth Amendment claim challenging the reasonableness of an arrest." Id. While the plaintiff argued to the jury that Officer Zala had misrepresented facts in his reports, the jury apparently concluded that it did not extinguish probable cause for the arrest as they concluded that the defendants were not liable for false arrest (and, as previously noted, there is no dispute that the plaintiff was arrested). Given that the complaint initiated by ...


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