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Margie Moffett v. Chicago Police Officer Jose Sandoval (Star #11169)

June 28, 2012

MARGIE MOFFETT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHICAGO POLICE OFFICER JOSE SANDOVAL (STAR #11169), AND THE CITY OF CHICAGO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Susan E. Cox

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER*fn1

Plaintiff Margie Moffett brought claims against Chicago Police Officer Jose Sandoval for unlawful seizure under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and for conversion and intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") under Illinois law. Defendant City of Chicago was included for indemnity purposes. The claim for conversion was dismissed during the trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Officer Sandoval and against Ms. Moffett on the other charges and the City of Chicago was dismissed. Ms. Moffett now seeks a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1)(A) on the Unlawful Seizure and IIED claims [dkt. 78]. For the reasons outlined below, Ms. Moffett's motion for a new trial is denied.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On November 18, 2009, six Chicago Police Officers executed a search warrant at the first floor apartment of 7750 South Seeley Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. This was Ms. Moffett's residence and where Stephen Hopkins, a friend of one of Ms. Moffett's children, was living at the time. The search warrant targeted Mr. Hopkins, whom the police suspected was dealing some form of cocaine out of the apartment. The first officer to enter the apartment was Officer Jack Meseck, the "shield officer." Officer Meseck was carrying a two-by-three foot plexiglass shield to protect the officers from the threat of Ms. Moffett's bullmastiff, Chief, which they knew lived in the apartment. Officer Sandoval was the second officer to enter the apartment, the "cover officer." As the cover officer, it was Officer Sandoval's duty to protect Officer Meseck, who had both of his hands on the shield. Within sixty seconds of entering the apartment, Officer Sandoval shot Chief eight times. Officers Sandoval and Meseck allege that Chief was in "attack mode" and that Officer Sandoval had to shoot the dog to protect the officers, whereas Ms. Moffett alleges that Chief posed no threat to the officers and, therefore, was shot unreasonably.

During the trial, Stephon Bellanger, Ms. Moffett's great-grandson, testified that he was in the apartment during the incident, and that at the time of the shooting, Chief was sleeping in the corner of the dining room. He also testified that at the time of the shooting, an African-American police officer put a gun to his head. The three police officers that testified all testified that none of the team that day were African-American and that nobody put a gun to Mr. Bellanger's head. As to evidence used in the trial, the Court allowed the search warrant and related affidavit to be entered into evidence (after removing irrelevant information from the affidavit). But we excluded a photograph of what Ms. Moffett claimed to be bullet holes in her floor and wall located in the corner of her dining room.

II. ANALYSIS

Ms. Moffett argues that the Court should grant a new trial because the jury verdict was against the manifest weight of evidence, and because the Court made erroneous evidentiary rulings. These arguments are addressed in turn.

A. The jury's verdict was not against the manifest weight of evidence.

Ms. Moffett argues that the jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of evidence because no reasonable trier of fact could have found the testimony of Officer Sandoval and Officer Meseck credible.*fn2 When a party alleges that a jury verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence, "a new trial should be granted only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or where the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks [the court's] conscience."*fn3 The district court "has the power to get a general sense of the weight of the evidence, assessing the credibility of the witnesses and the comparative strength of the facts put forth at trial."*fn4 The district court may grant a new trial if, "after evaluating the evidence, [it] is of the opinion that the verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence."*fn5 A verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence if "only another outcome is obviously correct and the verdict is clearly unsupported by the evidence."*fn6

The outcome of the trial depended on whose story the jury believed. Stephon Bellanger testified that there was no way that Officers Sandoval and Meseck could have thought that Chief was attacking them, but the jury chose to believe the officers, who claimed that Officer Sandoval shot Chief because the dog was lunging toward them. Even if we doubted the officers' story, we must balance the "'respect for the collective wisdom of the jury'" against "a duty not to 'approve miscarriages of justice.'"*fn7 A district court's power to grant a new trial is not unlimited. A "certain deference to the jury's conclusions is appropriate."*fn8 Under that standard, we find the jury was entitled to conclude that the officers were more credible than Mr. Bellanger.*fn9

The jury's outcome on both the unreasonable seizure and IIED counts is also supported by precedent. As to the unreasonable seizure, in Ellis v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit upheld a jury verdict that found that a police officer did not commit an unreasonable seizure when he entered onto the plaintiff's property without a search warrant and shot and killed the plaintiff's dog because it lunged at him.*fn10 The court reasoned that the jury legitimately found that the officer's conduct was reasonable.*fn11 Likewise, in the present case, the jury found Officer Sandoval's conduct to be similarly reasonable.

Regarding Ms. Moffett's IIED claim, conduct must be extreme and outrageous.*fn12 Although police officers are in a position of authority, which may make their conduct more likely to be extreme and outrageous,*fn13 the conduct must still be "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency."*fn14 Additionally, the emotional distress inflicted must be "so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it."*fn15 The jury found that Officer Sandoval's conduct, and Ms. Moffett's distress, did not meet these high standards.

B. The Court's evidentiary rulings were proper.

Moving to the Court's evidentially rulings, Ms. Moffett argues that: (1) the Court erroneously admitted the search warrant and affidavit; (2) the Court erroneously excluded the photograph of the alleged bullet holes; (3) Officer Sandoval's counsel improperly impeached Stephon Bellanger; and; (4) Officer Sandoval's counsel made ...


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