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Smith v. Altman

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

July 14, 2015

JOSEPH P. SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAPTAIN MARK ALTMAN, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

SARA L. ELLIS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Joseph Smith brought suit against Captain Mark Altman and the City of Chicago on a claim of excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arising from a water rescue to which both Smith, a Chicago Marine Unit Officer, and Altman, a Chicago Fire Department Captain, responded. After a trial in October 2014, a jury found in favor of Smith and against Altman on the excessive force claim and awarded compensatory damages in the amounts as follows: medical care: $264, 330.15; wages: $162, 449.00; pain and suffering: $600, 000.00; and loss of normal life: $300, 000.00. The jury also awarded punitive damages in the amount of $5, 000.00 against Altman. Altman now brings a motion for new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, arguing that exclusion of evidence related to a Fire Department empowering ordinance was an error of law and failure to order a new venire after the Court dismissed two jurors denied him a fair trial. Because the Court did not commit error by excluding evidence of the ordinance and Altman has not shown that he was prejudiced by the jury that heard the case, the motion for new trial [184] is denied.[1]

LEGAL STANDARD

The decision to grant a new trial is committed to the Court's discretion. Johnson v. Gen. Bd. of Pension & Health Benefits of United Methodist Church, 733 F.3d 722, 730 (7th Cir. 2013). In deciding whether to grant a new trial, the Court considers "if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or if the trial was in some way unfair to the moving party." Venson v. Altamirano, 749 F.3d 641, 656 (7th Cir. 2014).

To obtain a new trial based on exclusion of evidence, Altman must demonstrate that the court abused its discretion. See Thompson v. City of Chicago, 722 F.3d 963, 971 (7th Cir. 2013). "Special deference" is given to the trial court's decisions. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). A court will only order a new trial "if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence, or if for other reasons the trial was not fair to the moving party." Willis v. Lepine, 687 F.3d 826, 836 (7th Cir. 2012) (alteration omitted) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). This is a difficult burden for Altman to meet. See Alverio v. Sam's Warehouse Club, Inc., 253 F.3d 933, 939 (7th Cir. 2001).

Similarly, to receive a new trial based on the Court's decisions during the jury selection process, Altman must show an abuse of discretion that resulted in prejudice to him. See Griffin v. Bell, 694 F.3d 817, 821 (7th Cir. 2012). For prejudice, Altman must demonstrate that the juror selection issue "affected the outcome of the trial." United States v. Osigbade, 195 F.3d 900, 904-905 (7th Cir. 1999).

ANALYSIS

I. Exclusion of the Ordinance

Altman challenges the exclusion of evidence about his ability to issue orders to and arrest individuals at the scene of a fire emergency and the refusal of his Proposed Jury Instruction 29, a modification of § 2-36-390 of the City of Chicago Municipal Code establishing that authority. Altman argues that a firefighter's authority to order and arrest is not well-known and the failure to inform the jury of the source of this authority prejudiced him because the jury was not able to consider one of the bases of his decision to use force. Smith defends the exclusion of this evidence as irrelevant to the excessive force inquiry and potentially confusing for the jury. Because the refusal of the jury instruction and the limitation of testimony on the source of Altman's authority were not error, Altman's motion on this basis is denied.

A. Altman's Proposed Jury Instruction 29

During the pre-trial conference, the Court refused Altman's Proposed Jury Instruction 29, a modification of § 2-36-390 of the City of Chicago Municipal Code. The proposed instruction read:

All persons in the vicinity of an emergency shall be subject to the orders of the chief fire marshal or other member of the fire department in charge of the control thereof; provided, however, that no person not a member of the fire department shall be bound to obey any member of the fire department in charge at such emergency unless such member shall wear an insignia indicating his status or that such status shall be made known to the person charged with obedience of orders. The chief fire marshal or other member of the fire department in charge shall have power to arrest any person refusing to obey lawful orders issued in accordance with this section.

Doc. 135-4 at 40. The Court stated that a jury instruction on this issue would be confusing because this was not a false arrest case. Doc. 185-1 at 3. The Court further noted that, under Thompson v. City of Chicago , Altman's actions in conformity with that Code section are irrelevant to an analysis of whether his actions were objectively reasonable for the excessive force inquiry and it would confuse the jury to be specifically instructed on this issue. See 472 F.3d 444, 455 (7th Cir. 2006). After hearing argument from Altman's counsel, the Court stated that having this information in an instruction elevated it more than was warranted. Doc. 185-1 at 5. The Court then suggested that the parties agree on an evidentiary stipulation about a firefighter's authority to issue orders and make arrests, and said, "I'm not saying that that can't come in. I just don't think that it should be the subject of a jury instruction." Id. Altman's counsel and Smith's counsel agreed that they would discuss the possibility of a stipulation. Id. at 6. Altman's counsel also proposed bringing this evidence in via the testimony of Police Captain Marc Buslik. Id. at 5. It was noted that Agreed Proposed Jury Instruction 20 would inform the jury that a firefighter can use reasonably necessary force in performing his job.[2] Id. at 6-7. Ultimately, the Court refused Proposed Jury Instruction 29, but did not make a ruling barring any such evidence and explicitly allowed Altman's counsel to readdress the issue at a later time as needed. Id. at 9.

B. Motions In Limine and Trial Rulings Limiting the Scope of Questioning About the Ordinance

i. Motions in Limine

The ordinance and Altman's authority to issue orders and to arrest at the scene were addressed several times in the Parties' motions in limine. Smith's motion in limine number thirteen sought to preclude Altman from presenting any evidence of any alleged violations by Smith of Chicago Police Department or Chicago Fire Department practices or procedures. In finding that any evidence of Smith's compliance or noncompliance with practices and procedures was not relevant, the Court explained:

As an initial matter, Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996), and Thompson v. City of Chicago, 472 F.3d 444 (7th Cir. 2006) are inapplicable. Evidence of an officer's violation or conformity with police procedures is not relevant to an analysis of whether that officer's actions were objective[ly] reasonable for the excessive force inquiry. See Thompson, 472 F.3d at 455. Therefore, evidence of Altman's compliance with Chicago Fire Department procedures would be irrelevant. However, here the defendant seeks to admit evidence of Smith's compliance with the Chicago Police Department's, rather than the Chicago Fire Department's, procedures. Such evidence is not precluded by Thompson.

Doc. 142 at 6.

In his motion in limine number fifteen, Smith sought to exclude evidence that he disobeyed Altman's direct order, arguing that evidence of Altman's authority to issue such an order would require expert testimony and that whether he followed that order is irrelevant to an excessive force inquiry. The Court found that Altman's issuance of an order and Smith's actions in response were directly relevant to the excessive force analysis and would not be excluded. The ...


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