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Fields v. City of Chicago

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

September 11, 2017



          MATTHEW F. KENNELLY United States District Judge.

         Nathson Fields sued Chicago police detectives David O'Callaghan and Joseph Murphy and the City of Chicago[1] under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for claims arising from his prosecution for the 1984 murders of Talman Hickman and Jerome Smith. Fields was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986. His convictions were affirmed on appeal but were overturned on post-conviction review in 1998. Fields was acquitted on retrial in 2009. He filed this lawsuit in 2010.

         The first trial in this case, held in March 2014, resulted in a mistrial after seven days of trial when defendants introduced prejudicial testimony that the Court had excluded in a pretrial in limine ruling. See Fields v. City of Chicago, No. 10 C 1168, 2015 WL 12806567 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 6, 2015) (imposing a sanction on defendants' counsel).[2] The second trial, held in April 2014, ended in a finding for Fields on one of his claims against O'Callaghan and for the defendants on the other claims. The jury awarded Fields $80, 000. The Court later ordered a new trial. The Court's ruling was based on newly-discovered evidence concerning a key defense witness, who had been released on parole shortly after the trial even though he has been expected to remain in prison for 13 more years, as well as the Court's conclusion that it had erroneously limited discovery on Fields's Monell claim against the City and had given the jury an erroneous instruction on the Monell claim. Fields v. City of Chicago, No. 10 C 1168, 2015 WL 13578989 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 7, 2015).

         Fields then retained new, additional counsel to represent him. O'Callaghan also retained new counsel. The case was retried in November-December 2016. The jury found for Fields against O'Callaghan and Murphy on one of his claims against them under section 1983; for Fields against the City on his Monell claim under section 1983; for Fields against O'Callaghan only on a state-law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED); and for the defendants on the remaining section 1983 and state law claims. The jury awarded Fields compensatory damages of $22 million, as well as punitive damages of $30, 000 against O'Callaghan and $10, 000 against Murphy.

         Defendants have moved under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for entry of judgment as a matter of law and under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) for a new trial.

         A. Motion for entry of judgment[3]

         A court may enter judgment as a matter of law in a party's favor only if "the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is [not] sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Clarett v. Roberts, 657 F.3d 664, 674 (7th Cir. 2011). A jury's verdict may be overturned "only if no reasonable juror could have found in the [prevailing party's] favor." Id. The court "must construe the facts strictly in favor of the party that prevailed at trial." Schandelmeier-Bartels v. Chicago Park Dist., 634 F.3d 372, 376 (7th Cir. 2011). In addressing defendants' motion, the Court assumes general familiarity with the case.

         1. Claims against individual defendants

         The evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to Fields, amply supported the jury's verdicts on the claims on which it found in his favor against O'Callaghan (due process and IIED) and Murphy (due process). First of all, the Court rejects defendants' attempt to divide Fields's due process claim into two separate claims, one involving his prosecution through the 1986 criminal trial and one involving his continued prosecution through the retrial in 2009. Fields asserted a single due process claim; the jury was instructed accordingly; and defendants interposed no objection to that instruction.

         Fields contended, and the evidence supported, that O'Callaghan and Murphy falsified incriminating evidence and concealed favorable evidence, and that he was deprived of his liberty as a result. This includes evidence from which the jury reasonably could infer, among other things, that Murphy pulled a group of suspects, including Fields, more or less out of the air and turned them over to O'Callaghan; O'Callaghan in turn fabricated identifications by witnesses who had no real opportunity to see the perpetrators; Murphy caused the fabrication of a purported admission by Fields to Anthony Sumner; O'Callaghan had responsibility-perhaps along with others- to review a police investigative "street file" and provide it to Cook County prosecutors; Murphy, too, had information placed in the street file (a request for photographs used to purportedly identify the perpetrators); and the street file, which was never turned over, contained information that a reasonably competent defense attorney could have used to show the existence of reasonable doubt. This, along with other evidence introduced by Fields, plainly supported due process claims against O'Callaghan and Murphy. See, e.g., Avery v. City of Milwaukee, 847 F.3d 433, 439-40 (7th Cir. 2017).

         Defendants contend that the bribery of Judge Maloney in connection with the 1986 criminal trial eliminates any possibility that defendants' misconduct caused Fields's injury. The 1986 trial may have been corrupted by bribery, but that does not wipe out defendants' liability for the foreseeable results of their conduct-specifically, Fields's conviction for murder. As the court of appeals stated in an earlier appeal in this case, "[h]e who creates the defect is responsible for the injury that the defect foreseeably causes later." Fields v. Wharrie, 740 F.3d 1107, 1111-12 (7th Cir. 2014). In any event, direct evidence of Judge Maloney's specific motivation was not introduced. What was introduced is evidence that he was bribed; returned the bribe and convicted the defendants; and that the corruption undermined confidence in the outcome, requiring the vacating of the convictions. The jury reasonably could find that absent the defendants' misconduct, there would have been no evidence at all to support a conviction. The evidence against Fields consisted of eyewitness identifications, which the jury reasonably could find had been fabricated by O'Callaghan, and the testimony of Sumner, which the jury reasonably could find had been fabricated by Murphy.[4] The jury reasonably could conclude that without this evidence, the charge against Fields would have been dismissed or Maloney would have felt compelled to acquit him irrespective of the bribery scheme, and that this same evidence was what enabled him to convict Fields.

         Assuming it was necessary for Fields to demonstrate that the fabricated and withheld evidence was material to his reprosecution after the reversal of his 1986 conviction, the evidence supported that.[5] Cook County prosecutor Brian Sexton testified otherwise, but the jury was entitled to find that he was biased and, that aside, was not required to accept his testimony. The question-as the Court's instructions told the jury, without objection by defendants-was what would influence a reasonable prosecutor, not what Sexton said influenced him. There was evidence that the primary evidence used against Fields to continue the prosecution after the reversal included significant fabricated identifications and also that Sexton would have turned over the "street file"-which a jury reasonably could find contained material exculpatory evidence that a competent defense attorney could have used to show reasonable doubt-had he known about it. The jury was entitled to infer from this that the fabricated and withheld evidence was material irrespective of Sexton's denial.[6]

         Finally, defendants' contention that Fields's acquittal bars his claim lacks merit. Unlike a defendant who is released after his arrest and is later acquitted, Fields was deprived of his liberty; he was held in custody from 1984 through 2003. This is more than sufficient to support his due process claim. See, e.g., Cairel v. Alderden, 821 F.3d 823, 833 (7th Cir. 2016). The key to a due process claim is not a conviction but rather a deprivation of liberty. See Id. at 833; Armstrong v. Daily, 786 F.3d 529, 553-55 (7th Cir. 2015) (affirming denial of dismissal where destruction of exculpatory evidence caused accused to spend three more years in prison pending retrial until charges against him were dismissed). The Court also notes that defendants interposed, and still interpose, no objection to the instructions to the jury on the due process claim, which did not suggest that the 2009 acquittal undermined Fields's claim or any part of it.

         With regard to the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the same points discussed above likewise support the jury's verdict against O'Callaghan. In addition, defendants argue that O'Callaghan could not possibly have had the intent to inflict emotional distress upon Fields because he did not know Fields before 1985. This misses the point. The jury reasonably could find that O'Callaghan essentially pinned the case on Fields because he was a member of the El Rukn gang, in willful disregard of whether he was an actual perpetrator. Finally, even if O'Callaghan did not participate in making the decisions to charge or retry Fields, a tortfeasor is liable for the natural and probable consequences of his wrongdoing.

         2. Claim against City

         The City also challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's finding of liability on the Monell claim.[7]

         The City contends there was no evidence that any other street file containing material exculpatory or impeachment evidence was withheld. It is true that to prove an official policy, custom, or practice under Monell, a plaintiff "must show more than the deficiencies specific to his own experience." Daniel v. Cook Cty., 833 F.3d 728, 734 (7th Cir. 2016). But the plaintiff "need not present evidence that these systemic failings affected other specific [persons]." Id. at 735. Fields's evidence, including evidence of systematic underproduction of police reports, [8] was sufficient to show a systemic failing that went beyond his own case. The City and police department were on notice, via the Jones/Palmer litigation and the department's own subsequent internal inquiry, of deficiencies in its recordkeeping and record-production practices that, at least in some situations, led to harm. And Fields offered evidence that permitted a reasonable jury to find that the policies instituted to deal with these problems were insufficient to correct them. Under Daniel, policymakers' knowledge of deficiencies and failure to correct them suffices; "[a]n unconstitutional policy can include both implicit policies as well as a gap in expressed policies." Daniel, 833 F.3d at 734, 735. The gaps here include, but are not limited to, insufficient or unnecessarily subjective instructions regarding what materials had to be maintained, insufficient instructions on producing materials to prosecutors, and the absence of any supervision or after-the-fact auditing.

         The verdict on the Monell claim is also sustainable on other bases, as Fields argues, see Pl.'s Resp. at 14-25, but the Court need not deal with those points expressly, as the verdict need only be sustained on a single basis.

         B. Motion for new trial

         In seeking a new trial, defendants do not challenge any of the instructions that the Court gave to the jury. Rather, they argue that the jury's verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence, and they assert a lengthy laundry list of purportedly erroneous rulings by the Court before and during trial, mostly concerning the admissibility of evidence or the propriety of counsel's arguments. A new trial is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 only "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).

         1. Weight of the evidence

         A court may set aside a verdict as against the manifest weight of the evidence "only if no rational jury could have rendered the verdict. The . . . court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, leaving issues of credibility and weight of the evidence to the jury." Lewis v. City of Chicago Police Dep't, 590 F.3d 427, 444-45 (7th Cir. 2009). The verdict must be upheld so long as there is a "reasonable basis in the record" to support it. Flournoy v. City of Chicago, 829 F.3d 869, 874 (7th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court overrules defendants' challenge regarding the weight of the evidence for the same reasons it overruled their motion for judgment as a matter of law. As the Court has discussed, there was a more-than-reasonable basis in the record to support the jury's liability findings.

         2. Claimed errors on evidentiary and other pretrial and trial rulings

         Defendants' remaining grounds for seeking a new trial largely involve challenges to rulings by the Court admitting or excluding evidence. A new trial is warranted on such grounds only if the Court's ruling on the particular point was erroneous and the error had "a substantial or injurious effect or influence on the determination of a jury and the result is inconsistent with substantial justice." Lewis, 590 F.3d at 440; see also Doornbos v. City of Chicago, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 3574812, at *4 (7th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017).

         As indicated earlier, defendants cite a laundry list of alleged errors by the Court. The Court will address them in the sequence in which defendants argue them in their opening memorandum, with some exceptions.

         a. Jones/Palmer evidence

         The Court permitted Fields to introduce, via retired Chicago police lieutenant James Hickey, the following points that related directly or indirectly to the case of People v. Jones and the case of Palmer v. City of Chicago (in summary):

         • In or about 1982, in Jones, a homicide detective disclosed the existence of undisclosed police investigative files.

         • This put the City on notice that there was a problem that needed to be addressed, sometimes involving pertinent information not being recorded in official police reports and not being turned over to the criminal justice system.

         • Hickey was tasked with attempting to identify current practice and report to the superintendent of police.

         • The superintendent issued a directive in 1982 to preserve all investigative files.

         • Hickey drafted a proposed policy change that was adopted in 1983, requiring recordation and preservation of any relevant information obtained by a detective during the course of a violent crime field investigation. This included a specific format, called a "general progress report, " for recording a detective's notes. These were to be maintained in an investigative file and turned over to the criminal justice system in connection with an ensuing court case.

         The Court permitted Fields to introduce, via its police practices expert Michael Brasfield, the following points related to Jones and Palmer (in summary):

         • In 1982, George Jones was prosecuted for a murder. A detective obtained information exculpatory of Jones, wrote it up, and put it into an investigative file. The information was not disclosed to Jones's attorney. When the detective learned that the case was proceeding, he went to the defense attorney and shared the exculpatory information.

         • There was litigation in 1982-1983, the Palmer case, in which the plaintiffs alleged that the Chicago police had a practice of suppressing investigative information similar to what had occurred in the Jones case. In 1982, a federal judge entered an order requiring all investigative documents to be retained.

         • The City's policymakers were called upon to testify and were put on notice of the lawsuit. In response to the litigation, the City instituted policies requiring preservation, retention, and non-disposal of investigative files and making them available in criminal matters.

         • The problem persisted after this, and the City did not do an adequate job of remedying the problem. It left too much leeway to detectives to determine what was relevant, and it did not establish guidelines regarding how materials were to be produced or for after-the-fact auditing. There was also inadequate training. This was a problem given the department's practice of creating parallel files that had become ingrained.

         As indicated, this testimony included limited and circumscribed evidence regarding the Jones and Palmer cases, all of it predating the relevant events in this case. This was admitted, in a series of rulings the Court made after extensive argument, for the purpose of showing that the City had notice of claimed deficiencies in the police department's prior practices. See dkt. no. 1076 at 8. The Court excluded, on defendants' objections, a significant amount of additional evidence that Fields wanted to introduce regarding the Jones and Palmer matters.

         The Court excluded, over defendants' objection, a ruling made by the Seventh Circuit in the Palmer case in 1986, after the events relevant to the creation of the policy challenged in Fields's case and after the creation of the street file in Fields's case.

         Palmer v. City of Chicago, 806 F.2d 1316 (7th Cir. 1986). The ruling was made on an appeal from an attorney's fee award. The City wanted to introduce the court of appeals' statement that the plaintiffs in the Palmer case had not uncovered any situation in which a class member had been convicted in violation of the constitution or in which there was exculpatory material in street files. Contrary to defendants' argument, the Court properly excluded this. It had no bearing on the question of notice at the relevant time. And the exclusion did not leave the jury with an unfairly erroneous understanding of the relevant points concerning Palmer. The Court did not admit any finding from Palmer that was contrary to the points defendants cite from the court of appeals' ruling. Rather, plaintiffs' evidence regarding actual exculpatory material in street files concerned Jones-which was summarized in an accurate and even-handed way-Fields's own case, another particular case offered by Fields, and analysis by Fields's expert of discrepancies between police files and materials obtained by criminal defense ...

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