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Synnott v. Burgermeister

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

September 5, 2019




         Pro se plaintiff James Synnott prevailed at trial against Paul Burgermeister and Ian Northrup, two deputies in the DuPage County Sheriff's Office, on his claims under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The jury found that both Northrup and Burgermeister unlawfully entered Synnott's home without knocking or announcing their presence and that Northrup used excessive force by pointing his gun at Synnott. The jury awarded Synnott $250, 000 in compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages. The defendants have moved for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively for a new trial. Synnott, despite obtaining this favorable verdict, has also moved for a new trial.


         A. Procedural history

         In September 2016, Synnott sued a wide range of individuals and entities, including his ex-wife, her attorneys, Burgermeister, Northrup, the DuPage County Sheriff's Office, and several DuPage County judges. After the Court dismissed his complaint because it was too unintelligible to permit the Court to discern whether there was a basis for federal jurisdiction, he filed an amended complaint alleging that the defendants violated his constitutional rights. The claims primarily involved actions in and around Synnott's divorce and child custody proceedings but also included claims against certain of the defendants arising out of an alleged illegal entry into Synnott's home in connection with an apparent attempt to serve him with legal papers.

         The Court dismissed all but three counts of the amended complaint, specifically, those alleging Fourth Amendment violations and related state-law claims against Northrup and Burgermeister regarding the entry into Synnott's home. See dkt. no. 14. Synnott filed a second amended complaint, which the Court dismissed because it failed to rectify the defects in the previous complaints. See dkt. no. 26. The Court gave Synnott a final opportunity to amend, and he filed a third amended complaint that included only the claims against Northrup and Burgermeister. The Court concluded that this version of the complaint was legally sufficient and allowed the case to proceed. See dkt. no. 29.

         In January 2019, the Court set dates for the trial and final pretrial conference in April 2019. About one month before the trial was scheduled to begin, Synnott filed a motion for an extension of time to file the final pre-trial order and for a continuance of the trial date. The Court denied the motion because Synnott had failed to show good cause for the extension. However, the Court permitted the parties to forego filing a full final pretrial order, instead requiring only lists of witnesses, exhibits, and proposed questions for voir dire. See dkt. no. 98. Synnott filed a written motion for reconsideration of the Court's ruling denying the motion for an extension of time, which the Court denied at the final pretrial conference. The case proceeded to trial as scheduled on April 30, 2019.

         B. Trial evidence

         At trial, Synnott and his sisters, Deborah Synnott and Michelle Davy, testified about the events of January 2, 2016. It was undisputed at trial that Burgermeister and Northrup entered Synnott's house on that date. At the time, Synnott's sisters (to whom the Court will refer by their first names for ease of reference) were present in the home. The parties agree that the deputies entered the house and that a heated conversation or argument ensued. The deputies remained there for approximately half an hour to an hour before leaving. No. one was arrested or physically injured during the incident.

         Beyond those basic facts, at trial each side offered a different account of what transpired. Synnott, Michelle, and Deborah testified that the front door to the house was closed and that the deputies entered the house without being let in and without knocking at the door, ringing the doorbell, or announcing that they were law enforcement officers. They stated they heard the deputies calling out Synnott's first name as they entered. Although Michelle did not testify to seeing either deputy point his gun at Synnott, both Synnott and Deborah stated that each deputy drew his weapon. Specifically, they testified that Burgermeister entered the house, went into the attached garage through an open door, and encountered Synnott. According to Synnott and Deborah, Burgermeister pointed his gun at Synnott for a period of time before holstering his weapon and following Synnott back into the house. Synnott and Deborah testified that once Synnott, his sisters, and the deputies were all gathered in or around the den, Northrup pointed his gun at Synnott and interrogated him about his ownership of the house.

         Burgermeister and Northrup also testified at trial. They testified that they entered the house because they saw the front door standing open and had reason to believe that the house's occupants might be elderly and in danger. They also stated that before they entered the home, they knocked on the door loudly and announced that they were from the sheriff's office. Burgermeister denied removing his gun from its holster at any point during the incident, but both Burgermeister and Northrup testified that Northrup did take out his gun at some point during the incident.

         After trial, the jury found both Northrup and Burgermeister liable for unlawfully entering Synnott's home and failing to knock and announce their presence. The jury also found that Northrup, but not Burgermeister, used excessive force against Synnott. It awarded $250, 000 in compensatory damages and $100, 000 in punitive damages ($70, 000 against Northrup and $30, 000 against Burgermeister). The defendants have moved for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively for a new trial. Synnott has also moved for a new trial. For the reasons explained below, the Court grants the defendants' motion insofar as the defendants seek remittitur of the compensatory damages award but otherwise denies both motions.


         A. Synnott's motion

         Several weeks after the trial concluded, Synnott filed a motion styled as a request "for a supplemental trial and leave to amend complaint." Dkt. no. 131. In that motion, Synnott sought leave to file a fourth amended complaint requesting declaratory and injunctive relief-namely, to have certain Illinois statutes regarding child custody declared unconstitutional and to obtain injunctions to reform the DuPage County law enforcement and judicial systems with respect to child custody decisions. The Court denied the motion, explaining that the case had already been tried and was near its conclusion and that Synnott could not amend his complaint to raise new claims. See dkt. no. 133. The Court later revised that ruling, noting that although Synnott was not permitted to amend his complaint at this very late stage, the portion of his motion seeking a "supplemental trial" could be appropriately construed as a motion for a new trial under Rule 59. See dkt. no. 139.

         To the extent Synnott seeks a new trial, he contends that the Court erred by denying his motions for an extension of time and to continue the trial date, limiting his cross-examination of Burgermeister, and failing to permit him to introduce certain evidence of his damages. Synnott also contends that the defense attorneys engaged in misconduct that deprived him of a fair trial and that the jury's damages award was insufficient to compensate him for the harm he suffered. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         1. Denial of motions for extensions of time

         Synnott argues that the Court erred in denying his motion to extend time to file the final pretrial order and continue the trial date. He argues that this decision deprived him of the opportunity to fully prepare for trial, including preparing to make appropriate objections and having impeachment evidence ready for cross-examination.

         The Court partially accommodated Synnott's request by relieving the parties of the obligation to file a full-blown final pretrial order. But the Court denied the motion to continue the trial date and Synnott's subsequent motion to reconsider that denial. At the final pretrial conference, the Court noted that twenty months had passed since the defendants filed their response to the third amended complaint. In addition, the Court observed that it had set dates for the pretrial conference and the trial on January 16, 2019-leaving Synnott with two and a half months to work on the final pretrial order and three months to prepare for trial. The Court acknowledged that Synnott was proceeding pro se but explained that the scope of the case had become quite narrow-focused entirely on the alleged unlawful entry-after the Court had dismissed most of his claims. Under these circumstances, and especially after the Court largely excused Synnott's failure to file a final pretrial order, the Court was not and is not persuaded that it was error to deny his motion to push back the trial date. See Keeton v. Morningstar, Inc., 667 F.3d 877, 884 (7th Cir. 2012) ("District courts have considerable discretion to manage their dockets and to require compliance with deadlines.").

         In any case, Synnott has not shown that he was prejudiced by the denial of his motion. See Ruiz-Cortez v. City of Chicago, 931 F.3d 592, 602 (7th Cir. 2019) (explaining that "a new trial is appropriate" when "errors occurred and the trial was fundamentally unfair as a result"). He overwhelmingly prevailed at trial, with the jury ruling in his favor on all but one claim and awarding him substantial compensatory and punitive damages. And, as the Court repeatedly noted throughout the proceedings, Synnott performed well in representing himself at trial. See Trial Tr. Vol. 2-A, dkt. no. 166, at 42:5-12, 78:19-25; Vol. 3-A, dkt. no. 167, at 271:3-7. Beyond general references to impeachment evidence and objections, he has failed to point to instances in which the denial of his motion to continue the trial date made the proceedings unfair.

         The Court is therefore not persuaded that this supposed error is a basis on which to grant a new trial.

         2. Limitations on ...

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