United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
B. GOTTSCHALL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Detlef Sommerfield (“Sommerfield”), a patrol
officer in the Chicago Police Department, brought this action
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 against the City
of Chicago (“the City”) and Sergeant Lawrence
Knasiak (“Knasiak”). Sommerfield alleged that
Knasiak repeatedly harassed and discriminated against him on
the basis of his race, religion, and national origin, and
that Knasiak retaliated against him after he complained about
the harassment. The case went to trial in July 2014. The jury
returned a verdict for Sommerfield. It awarded him $540, 000
in punitive damages and $0 in compensatory damages. ECF No.
366 at 1. Post-trial litigation took nearly three years. The
court entered judgment on May 12, 2017, ECF No. 507; see
also ECF No. 505.
court has before it post-judgment motions filed by
Sommerfield and Knasiak twenty-eight days after the entry of
judgment. Sommerfield seeks to bring an indemnity count
against the City. Knasiak asks the court alternatively to set
aside the judgment and enter judgment for him as a matter of
law or to reduce the award of $540, 000 in punitive damages,
which he claims is grossly excessive. For the reasons that
follow, the court denies both motions.
court's prior orders recite the protracted procedural
history of this case in detail. See, e.g., ECF No.
469 at 2-4; ECF No. 496 at 2-3. This order will not retread
that ground but will briefly sketch the pertinent history
relevant to the pending motions.
case is a sequel to, or perhaps the second act of, a 2006
case growing out of the same course of conduct brought by
Sommerfield against the City of Chicago (“the 2006
case”). Sommerfield v. City of Chicago, No. 06
C 3132, 2013 WL 139502 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 10, 2013),
aff'd 863 F.3d 645 (7th Cir. 2017). The jury in
the 2006 case awarded Sommerfield $30, 000 from the City in
2009, this court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against the
City as duplicative of his claims in the 2006 case.
Sommerfield v. City of Chicago, No. 08 C 3025, 2009
WL 500643 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 26, 2009). This court ruled at
summary judgment in this case that Sommerfield “ha[d]
not suffered an injury distinct from Knasiak's
retaliatory harassment that could be compensated in addition
to the recovery he has already received in the 2006 case for
Knasiak's discriminatory remarks” and was
“precluded from recovering compensatory damages based
on his retaliation claim” in the 2006 Sommerfield
litigation. Sommerfield v. City of Chicago, No. 08 C
3025, 2013 WL 4047606, at *13, 14 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 9, 2013).
But this court also ruled “that Sommerfield [could]
proceed on his claims of verbal harassment and retaliation
against Knasiak to the extent that he seeks punitive
damages.” Id. at *15.
trial the parties litigated, in a motion in limine, whether
the jury should be told about the verdict in the 2006 case;
Knasiak favored disclosure. Order 1, Apr. 11, 2014, ECF No.
301. The court proposed, and the parties accepted, a trial
plan designed to minimize the risk of prejudicing the jury by
telling it about the prior verdict. Id. Under the
plan, the jury would not be told about the 2006 case and
would make an independent finding on compensatory damages.
See id. If the jury awarded more than $30, 000 in
compensatory damages, Sommerfield would receive no double
recovery. Id. at 2.
court modified its ruling at the conference on jury
instructions. The parties agreed that the court had ruled
that Sommerfield could recover compensatory damages stemming
from one incident, his suspension and denial of a canine
handler position based on a series of events that led to the
filing of a disciplinary complaint called a complaint
register (“CR”) lodged against Sommerfield. Trial
Tr. 1234-36. Knasiak's counsel argued, and the court
agreed, that the jury should be instructed on Seventh Circuit
law holding that it could award “punitive damages even
if you do not award compensatory” damages. Trial Tr. at
1275:11-14; see also Id. at 1272:5- 1276:9 (adopting
defendant's proposed instruction no. 28, which included
this language); Hennessy v. Penril Datacomm Networks,
Inc., 69 F.3d 1344, 1352 (7th Cir. 1995). After further
discussion, the court concluded, as the parties argued, that
it had labored under a “misapprehension of the
law” because the jury did not have to award
compensatory damages to award punitive damages. Trial Tr. at
1297:7-8 (discussing order dated Apr. 11, 2014).
Knasiak's attorney advocated for putting a blank for
compensatory damages beneath each claim on the verdict form,
but the court, with the parties' extensive input,
eventually worked out a set of instructions and a verdict
form designed to minimize confusion and avoid prejudicing the
parties. See Id. at 1297-1321.
with the court's rulings, the jury was instructed that it
could award compensatory damages “for emotional
distress and/or pain and suffering stemming from
Defendant's issuance of a complaint register (CR) against
Plaintiff.” Jury Instructions 25, ECF No. 365
(“You should not determine compensatory damages for any
other injury . . . . If you determine that Plaintiff has
proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant is
liable for any other injury to Plaintiff, the court will
decide the appropriate amount of compensatory
damages.”). The court added that it would calculate
damages for lost wages and benefits. Id.
verdict form asked four questions. ECF No. 366 at 1. The
first three asked whether Sommerfield was liable for
“verbal harassment” (question one), for being
“treated unequally based on the consequences that
resulted from Defendant's issuance of the complaint
register” (question two), and for retaliation (question
three). Id. A blank for an amount of compensatory
damages was indented beneath question two, but not questions
one and three. Id. The jury found for Sommerfield on
all three questions but awarded $0 in compensatory damages.
Id. Question four asked the jury what amount of
punitive damages were appropriate if it “found for the
Plaintiff on one or more of Plaintiff's claims.”
Id. Next to its $540, 000 answer a handwritten
notation on the verdict returned by the jury reads,
“(10 years pension).” Id.
conclusion of the evidence at trial, Knasiak moved for entry
of judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 50(a). ECF No. 359. The court denied his motion by
written order. ECF No. 362.
the trial the court initially denied Sommerfield's
motions seeking an award of pre-judgment interest. It also
rebuffed his efforts to amend his complaint post-trial to add
a pre-judgment interest claim. The court denied
Sommerfield's motions to add an indemnity claim against
the City to his complaint because the City had made a
voluntary payment of all of the economic damages he claimed
to him after the trial.
February 21, 2017, the court partially reconsidered one of
those decisions and found that Sommerfield was entitled to
pre-judgment interest. ECF No. 496 at 3-5. The parties
litigated the amount of pre-judgment interest, the amounts of
back pay and benefits that should be awarded (economic
damages), and the form of the judgment over the next two
months. Sommerfield never mentioned an indemnity claim. On
May 12, 2017, the court held a hearing, made findings, and
entered judgment. ECF No. 507.
with the jury's verdict, the judgment awarded $540, 000
against Knasiak in punitive damages and nothing in
compensatory damages. Id. at 1. The court also
dismissed the City of Chicago. Id. The accompanying
order noted that neither of the parties' proposed
judgments mentioned the City. ECF No. 505 at 1.
the parties agreed to leave the computation of economic
damages to the court if Sommerfield prevailed at trial. The
judgment recites, as the parties agreed, that Sommerfield is
entitled to $54, 315.24 in economic damages offset by the
same amount due to a voluntary payment made by the City to
Sommerfield during the pendency of this case. See
Id. The court also awarded $8, 703.96 in pre-judgment
interest. Id. at 2.
KNASIAK'S POST-JUDGMENT MOTION
first portion of Knasiak's post-judgment motion raises a
challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence at trial.
Procedurally, this challenge comes under the heading of a
motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) and
alternatively for new trial under Rule 59(a). Finally,
Knasiak moves under Rule 59(e) to amend the judgment, arguing
that the jury's punitive damages award offends due
process principles because it is excessive and
disproportionate to Sommerfield's damages.
it is a jurisdictional doctrine, the court must first address
Sommerfield's claim that Knasiak's motion is moot.
See, e.g., Genesis Healthcare Corp. v.
Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66, 71- 72 (2013); Germeraad v.
Powers, 826 F.3d 962, 967 (7th Cir. 2016). Mootness
occurs “only when it is impossible for a court to grant
any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party.”
Wright v. Calumet City, 848 F.3d 814, 817 (7th Cir.
2017) (citing Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S.Ct.
663, 669 (2016)). Sommerfield contends that the City's
voluntary payment to him judicially admitted Knasiak's
liability, so even if Knasiak wins his post-trial motion, the
judgment would nevertheless stand on the strength of the
judicial admission. Sommerfield's mootness argument fails
on its own terms.
City's voluntary payment to Sommerfield did not hamstring
Knasiak's ability to contest his liability in this case.
“A judicial admission is a statement, normally in a
pleading, that negates a factual claim that the party making
the statement might have made or considered making.”
Robinson v. McNeil Consumer Healthcare, 615 F.3d
861, 872 (7th Cir. 2010). Sommerfield contends that the
City's voluntary payment admitted Knasiak's liability
or perhaps that the evidence at trial was legally sufficient
to support the verdict. Because these are legal conclusions
rather than facts, the judicial admission doctrine does not
apply to them. See McCaskill v. SCI Mgmt. Corp., 298
F.3d 677, 681-82 (7th Cir. 2002) (Rovner, J., concurring in
the judgment) (“Because the matter [the appellant]
claims was admitted is a proposition of law, the doctrine of
judicial admission is not applicable.” (quotation
omitted)); see also Cal. N. R.R. Co. v. Gunderson Rail
Servs., LLC, 912 F.Supp.2d 662, 669 (N.D. Ill. 2012)
(holding failure to demand indemnity under contract did not
admit judicially that indemnity was unavailable under
contract because that was a legal, not factual, question).
The judicial admission doctrine also does not apply because
the City made the payment outside of this proceeding as part
of a disciplinary process. See, e.g., Facebook,
Inc. v. Teachbook.com LLC, 819 F.Supp.2d 764, 772 (N.D.
Ill. 2011) (“a statement made in one lawsuit cannot be
a judicial admission in another” (quoting Kohler v.
Leslie Hindman, Inc., 80 F.3d 1181, 1185 (7th Cir.
1996))); Nat'l Spiritual Assembly of
Baha'is of U.S. Under Hereditary Guardianship, Inc. v.
Nat'l Spiritual Assembly of Baha'is of U.S.,
Inc., 547 F.Supp.2d 879, 898 (N.D. Ill. 2008)
(collecting authority and holding that statement in sworn
declaration submitted to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was
not a conclusive judicial admission). Finally, the parties
have not suggested that Knasiak participated in or ratified
the City's decision to pay Sommerfield. Hence the
City's decision cannot be fairly attributed to Knasiak as
a voluntary choice to relinquish his right to contest
liability in this case. See Higgins v. Mississippi,
217 F.3d 951, 958 (7th Cir. 2000) (explaining that “a
judicial admission is in the nature of a waiver. A waiver is
a deliberate relinquishment of a known right, and a waiver
made for purposes of one lawsuit needn't have been
intended to carry over to another”).
a judicial admission, the predicate for Sommerfield's
mootness argument collapses. The City's payment does not
bar the court from vacating or reducing all or part of the
judgment ordering a new trial, or rendering judgment for
Knasiak, and “[s]o long as a court retains the
‘raw ability' to take some action that will have a
concrete effect on the parties' rights, the case is not
moot even if the court would be reluctant to take that
action.” Germeraad, 826 F.3d at 968 (quoting
In re UNR Indus., Inc., 20 F.3d 766, 768-69 (7th
Cir. 1994)) (other citation omitted).
Judgment as a Matter of Law
arguments he made at summary judgment and at the end of
Sommerfield's case in chief, see Fed. R. Civ. P.
50(a), Knasiak contends that the evidence admitted at trial
was legally insufficient to support the jury's verdict.
He moves under Rule 50(b) for entry of judgment as a matter
of law in his favor. Because the evidence was legally
sufficient to allow the jury to conclude that Knasiak
directly caused ...