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Sommerfield v. City of Chicago

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

April 2, 2018




         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         This 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 compensatory damages.

         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.

         Before 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.

         The 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.

         Consistent 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.

         The 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.

         At the 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.

         After 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.

         But on 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.

         Consistent 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.

         Again, 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.


         The 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.

         A. Mootness

         Because 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.

         The 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. 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”).

         Without 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).

         B. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Renewing 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 ...

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