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Degorski v. Wilson

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

July 16, 2014

THOMAS WILSON, et al., Defendants.


ROBERT M. DOW, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Thomas Wilson's post-trial motion for remittitur altering or amending judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 [198, 199]. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part Defendant Wilson's motion and remits the punitive damages award to $150, 000.00.

I. Background

Following a four-day jury trial, a jury entered a verdict in favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant Wilson, finding that that Defendant Wilson had violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights when he used excessive force against Plaintiff while Plaintiff was a pre-trial detainee in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The jury awarded Plaintiff $225, 000 in compensatory damages and $226, 000 in punitive damages. Following trial, Defendant Wilson file a motion pursuant to Rule 59(e), requesting that the Court amend the judgment and remit the punitive damages award to $0.

II. Analysis

Defendant Wilson, moving pursuant to Rule 59(e), contends that the punitive damages award in this case should be vacated because the award (i) is excessive under the Due Process Clause and (ii) lacks a rational connection between the evidence and the award. In order to alter or amend a judgment under Rule 59(e), the court must find a manifest error of law or fact. Moro v. Shell Oil Co., 91 F.3d 872, 876 (7th Cir.1996); Quad/Graphics, Inc. v. One2One Communications, LLC, 529 Fed.Appx. 784, 792 (7th Cir. 2013).

As noted, the jury awarded $226, 000 in punitive damages against Defendant Wilson individually. Punitive damages are recoverable in § 1983 actions where the defendant showed a reckless or callous disregard to the federally protected rights of others. Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 35, 51 (1983). Punitive damages are appropriate when a defendant acted wantonly and willfully or was motivated by ill-will or a desire to injure. Hendrickson v. Cooper, 589 F.3d 887, 894 (7th Cir. 2009) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted); Marshall v. Teske, 284 F.3d 765, 772 (7th Cir. 2002) ("A jury may award punitive damages in a § 1983 case if it finds that the defendants' conduct was motivated by evil intent or callous indifference to the plaintiff's federally protected rights."). Wilson argues that the Court should vacate the jury's award of punitive damages because his actions do not meet this standard, or because Plaintiff's evidence and testimony did not support an award of punitive damages.

Because the parties point to the same evidence and factors in addressing both of Defendant's arguments, the Court also concurrently addresses whether the punitive damages award offends the Due Process Clause and is supported by the evidence. In assessing whether a punitive damage award is constitutionally appropriate, the Supreme Court has directed courts to focus their evaluation on three guideposts: (1) the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct; (2) the relationship between the amount of the punitive damages awarded and the harm or potential harm suffered by the Plaintiff; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages award and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases. See BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 575 (1996); see also G.G. v. Grindle, 665 F.3d 795, 798 (7th Cir. 2011) (in determining whether an award is reasonable, courts consider whether "(1) the award is monstrously excessive; (2) there is no rational connection between the award and the evidence * * *; and (3) whether the award is roughly comparable to awards made in similar cases").

Here, tracking the Seventh Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction, the Court instructed the jury that it may award punitive damages against a defendant "only if you find that his conduct was malicious or in reckless disregard of Plaintiff's rights." The Court defined malicious conduct as "accompanied by ill will or spite, or is done for the purpose of injuring Plaintiff" and reckless disregard as "complete indifference to Plaintiff's safety or rights." Id. The Court further instructed the jurors that if they determined punitive damages to be appropriate, the following factors were to be considered in assessing the amount: (1) "the reprehensibility of the particular Defendant's conduct;" (2) "the impact of the particular Defendant's conduct on Plaintiff;" (3) "the relationship between Plaintiff and particular Defendant;" (4) "the likelihood that the particular Defendant would repeat the conduct if an award of punitive damages is not made;" and (5) "the relationship of any award of punitive damages to the amount of actual harm the Plaintiff suffered."

The United States Supreme Court has held that the most important indicium of the reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct. Gore, 517 U.S. at 575. Evaluating reprehensibility involves inquiry into whether the injury was physical, whether it evinced a reckless disregard for the health of the target, whether the target had a financial vulnerability, and whether the injury was clearly intentional. Kunz v. DeFelice, 538 F.3d 667, 679 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 419 (2003)). Based on the evidence presented at trial, Plaintiff's injury was clearly physical and evinced a reckless disregard for Plaintiff's health. Defendant Wilson punched Plaintiff repeatedly, knocking him temporarily unconscious. The blows caused Plaintiff to lose a tooth and suffer at least six separate fractures to his face that required surgery and the insertion of a metal plate in Plaintiff's cheek bone. The jury plainly concluded from the evidence that Defendant Wilson's actions not only were intentional, but clearly pre-meditated and motivated by "evil intent." Among other things, there was evidence that immediately prior to attacking Plaintiff, Wilson put on leather "shake down" gloves. A reasonable jury could have concluded that Wilson's act of putting on leather gloves revealed his intent to physically injure Plaintiff without leaving obvious injuries to Plaintiff's face in the form of cuts, abrasions, and or bruises and to protect his own hands from injury as a means of concealing his involvement in the assault.[1] On this note, the Seventh Circuit specifically has stressed that it "takes police brutality very seriously as grounds for punitive damages." Id. at 679 (citing Cooper v. Casey, 97 F.3d 914, 919 (7th Cir. 1996)). "The need to deter such behavior is plain: police brutality is a longstanding problem with which many cities are still coming to grips." Id. Thus, the reprehensibility of [Wilson's] conduct in his position of public trust justifies a substantial punitive damages award." Id.

The second guidepost is the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages awards. There is no "simple mathematical formula" that courts must follow. See Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471, 501 (2008); Gore, 517 U.S. at 580-82. Instead, the Exxon Court acknowledged that "heavier punitive awards have been thought to be justifiable when wrongdoing is hard to detect" or "when the value of injury and the corresponding compensatory award are small." Exxon, 554 U.S. at 494. In making the latter point, the Court relied on Gore, which recognized that "low awards of compensatory damages may properly support a higher ratio than high compensatory awards, if, for example, a particularly egregious act has resulted in only a small amount of economic damages." 517 U.S. at 582. In this case, the jury's award of $225, 000 in compensatory damages against Defendant was high for a beating of this kind; thus, there is no reason to think that the "punitive" award was disguised compensation for pain and suffering. Rather, this is a case in which the ratio between punitive and compensatory damages is almost exactly 1:1. In fact, the reasonable inference to be drawn from the jury's decision to award Plaintiff $1, 000.00 more in punitive damages than the already substantial sum imposed as compensatory damages is that the jury found Defendant's conduct so reprehensible as to warrant severe punishment. Despite Defendant's arguments to the contrary, the jury's punitive damages award evinces a rational connection to the evidence and an attitude similar to that espoused by the Seventh Circuit: "the reprehensibility of [Wilson's] conduct in his position of public trust justifies a substantial punitive damages award." Kunz, 538 F.3d at 679.

In deciding whether an award of punitive damages violates due process, the Court also considers "civil or criminal penalties that could be imposed for comparable misconduct" so that it may show "substantial deference to legislative judgments concerning appropriate sanctions for the conduct at issue." E.E.O.C. v. AutoZone, Inc., 707 F.3d 824, 840 (7th Cir. 2013). (quoting Gore, 517 U.S. at 583). Here, Defendant Wilson was criminally prosecuted for aggravated battery as a result of beating Plaintiff. He was found not guilty. Aggravated battery is a class three felony that carries a possible fine of $25, 000.00 per offense. See 720 ILCS 5/12-3.05. He also was terminated from his employment with the Cook County Sheriff's Department. In light of these circumstances, a punitive damages award of $226, 000 seems excessive in comparison to a $25, 000 fine, and comes on top of losing his employment. These factors counsel in favor of remittitur.

The last inquiry involves a comparison of the facts of this case with similar cases. Although "such comparisons are rarely dispositive given the fact-specific nature of damages claims, " in the due process calculation "it is useful to compare the challenged punitive damages award with other awards upheld in the past." Hendrickson v. Cooper, 589 F.3d 887, 892-93 (7th Cir. 2009). The Seventh Circuit has noted that $125, 000, an amount substantially less than the $226, 000 awarded to Plaintiff, is "larger than the punitive damages awards that we have upheld in similar, though less recent, excessive force cases." Id. at 894 (citing Bogan v. Stroud, 958 F.2d 180, 182, 186 (7th Cir. 1992) ($7, 000 in total punitive damages against three prison officers who beat and stabbed an inmate after subduing him); Hagge, 827 F.2d at 104, 110 ($25, 000 against a police officer who kicked an arrestee and broke her leg); Taliferro v. Augle, 757 F.2d 157, 159, 162 (7th Cir. 1985) ($25, 000 against two police officers who beat an arrestee)); cf. Kunz, 538 F.3d at 671, 679 ($90, 000 in total punitive damages where multiple police officers beat an arrestee after he was subdued and, later at the station, beat out a false confession); Marshall ex rel. Gossens v. Teske, 284 F.3d 765, 768-69, 772-73 (7th Cir. 2002) ($100, 000 against three officers who chased a minor at gunpoint, arrested him, and detained him for several hours without probable cause); Cooper, 97 F.3d at 916, 920 ($120, 000 against seven prison guards who beat inmates and then refused requests for medical treatment). Hendrickson is factually very similar to the instant case. Described by the Seventh Circuit as "a rogue officer who attack[ed] a prisoner for no good reason, " the jury tagged the defendant with a $125, 000 punitive damages award, which the Seventh Circuit upheld. Hendrickson, 589 F.3d at 89. Notably, the plaintiff in Hendrickson was partially disabled from two car accidents, but he also was a convicted offender (as opposed to Plaintiff Degorski, who was a pre-trial detainee), [2] he insulted the officer before the beating (although after provocation by the officer), and his injuries were less serious. In upholding the punitive damages award, the Seventh Circuit noted that "$125, 000 approaches the upper end of what [is] necessary to punish [the officer's] lone act of attacking a prisoner for no good reason." Id. at 894.

Guided by the Seventh Circuit's decision in Hendrickson, the Court concludes that substantial evidence of malice, serious injuries, and an almost exact 1:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages in this case brings a significant award of punitive damages within the bounds of reasonableness. Defendant Wilson's use of force was reprehensible because the evidence supports the jury's obvious conclusion, as reflected in its verdict, that Wilson's actions were completely unprovoked and vicious. In Hendrickson, the inmate was goaded into leveling an assault at the officer before the beating; here, the jury clearly credited Plaintiff's version of the events - namely, that he did nothing prior to Wilson's assault. It was simply Plaintiff's status as a high-profile pre-trial detainee charged with a serious crime (processed at the jail on the day of the beating) that provoked Wilson to initiate a violent confrontation with Plaintiff. And the confrontation was even more violent than in Hendrickson, where the plaintiff was treated initially for pain all over and then for ongoing back pain. Here, Plaintiff was severely beaten, lost consciousness, and suffered several fractures to his face that required surgery.[3] Furthermore, the jury awarded punitive damages against Defendant Wilson in an almost exact 1:1 ratio to compensatory damages. The addition of the $1, 000.00 in their award of punitive damages reflects the jury's "sound reasoning" in setting the amount of those damages, taking into account not only Plaintiff's physical injuries, but Defendant Wilson's offensive actions in his role as an law enforcement officer. Thus, while the Court is constrained by the Seventh Circuit's assessment in Hendrickson that "$125, 000 approaches the upper end of what was necessary to punish [the officer's] lone act of attacking a prisoner for no good reason" and concludes that $226, 000 in punitive damages for a lone act is too much, the Court concludes that an amount above $125, 000 is appropriate in these unique circumstances. Therefore, the Court grants in part Defendant Wilson's request for remittitur [198, 199], but reduces the amount of punitive damages to $150, 000, as opposed to the $0 requested by Defendant.[4]

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