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Rodriguez v. City of Chicago

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

December 17, 2019

THE CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.



         For the reasons stated below, Judge Cox's Order denying the Defendant City of Chicago (the “City”)'s motion to bifurcate Monell claims without prejudice [51] is AFFIRMED, and the City's Rule 72(a) objection [54] is OVERRULED.


         This case arises from Plaintiff Ricardo Rodriguez' arrest and conviction for the murder of Rodney Kemppainen and attempted murder of Rudolfo Zaragoza on December 16, 1995. After spending over 22 years in prison, Plaintiff's conviction was vacated in March 27, 2018. (Dkt. 11 at ¶50). Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that several Chicago Police Officers (the “Individual Defendants”) framed him for murder and attempted murder in 1995. Plaintiff alleges that the Individual Defendants fabricated purported eyewitness testimony and suppressed exculpatory evidence in order to secure Plaintiff's arrest and conviction. (Id. at ¶¶24-25, 34-40, 47). Plaintiff also alleges that the City failed to train, supervise, and discipline its officers, and had a practice of suppressing important investigatory materials in clandestine files (“street files”) which were maintained solely at the police department but never disclosed to state prosecutors or criminal defendants. (Id. at ¶¶55-72). On September 11, 2019, Judge Cox denied the City's motion to bifurcate Plaintiff's Monell claims for the purpose of discovery and trial. (Dkt. 51). Before the Court is the City's Rule 72(a) objection to the magistrate judge's order denying bifurcation.


         Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 72(a) governs the district court's review of nondispositive magistrate judge decisions. Rule 72(a) provides: “The district judge . . . must consider timely objections and modify or set aside any part of the order that is clearly erroneous or is contrary to law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). “The clear error standard means that the district court can overturn the magistrate judge's ruling only if the district court is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Weeks v. Samsung Heavy Indus. Co., 126 F.3d 926, 943-44 (7th Cir. 1997); see also McGuire v. Carrier Corp., No. 1:09-CV-315-WTL-JMS, 2010 WL 231099, at *1 (S.D. Ind. Jan. 13, 2010) (“This is an extremely deferential standard and the district court may not reverse the magistrate judge's decision simply because the district court judge would have come to a different conclusion.”); S Indus., Inc. v. Centra 2000, Inc., 249 F.3d 625, 627 (7th Cir. 2001) (“We will not reverse a determination for clear error unless it strikes us as wrong with the force of a 5 week old, unrefrigerated, dead fish.”). “An order is contrary to law when it fails to apply or misapplies relevant statutes, case law, or rules of procedure.” Baker v. McCorkle, No. 116CV03026JMSMPB, 2018 WL 3439078, at *3 (S.D. Ind. July 17, 2018) (citations omitted). To prevail in its objections, the City must demonstrate that Judge Cox's order was clearly erroneous or contrary to law. See Dyson, Inc. v. SharkNinja Operating LLC, No. 14-CV-779, 2017 WL 446043, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 2, 2017).

         Rule 42(b) provides “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, crossclaims, counterclaims, or third-party claims.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b). The Seventh Circuit has emphasized that only one of the above criteria, prejudice or judicial economy, needs to be satisfied for a court to grant bifurcation “as long as doing so will not prejudice the non-moving party or violate the Seventh Amendment.” Chlopek v. Fed. Ins. Co., 499 F.3d 692, 700 (7th Cir. 2007). The district court has considerable discretion in deciding whether to bifurcate claims. Volkman v. Ryker, 736 F.3d 1084, 1089 (7th Cir. 2013); Krocka v. City of Chicago, 203 F.3d 507, 516 (7th Cir. 2000). In this district, there is a growing body of precedent for both granting and denying bifurcation of Monell claims in §1983 cases. Giles v. Ludwig, No. 12-CV-6746, 2013 WL 6512683, at *1 (N.D. Ill.Dec. 6, 2013). “[T]he decision to grant or deny bifurcation is a heavily fact-intensive analysis, dependent upon costs and benefits of bifurcation under the unique circumstances of each case.” Awalt v. Marketti, 2012 WL 11615000, at *10 (N.D. Ill. April 9, 2012).


         A. Prejudice to Plaintiff

         The City asserts that the magistrate judge committed clear error by finding that Plaintiff would suffer prejudice from bifurcation. The City argues that the Judge Cox failed to consider its arguments that Plaintiff is not entitled to any additional compensatory damages if there is a finding of liability against Defendant and is only entitled to monetary damages by law. (Dkt. 54 at 4). But the magistrate judge did consider these arguments and noted that she was not persuaded by them because Plaintiff has more than monetary interests in this case. The magistrate judge explained that Plaintiff “‘has a profound interest in pursuing his claims with an eye towards institutional reform,' and ‘a judgment naming the City itself and holding it responsible for its policies may have a greater deterrent effect than a judgment against a police officer that is paid by the City.'” (Dkt. 51 at 4) (quoting Gomez v. Guevara, 18-cv-3335, Dkt. 65 at 10 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 8, 2019)).

         Numerous courts have recognized the importance of weighing such non-monetary considerations in the bifurcation analysis. See e.g., Estate of Loury by Hudson v. City of Chicago, No. 16-CV-04452, 2017 WL 1425594, at *5 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 20, 2017) (“In sum, Plaintiff has other important objectives-most notably, deterrence and reform- that would be furthered by a judgment holding the City liable for the Defendant Officers' alleged misconduct.”); Estate of McIntosh v. City of Chicago, No. 15 C 1920, 2015 WL 5164080, at *10 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 2, 2015) (“A judgment against a municipality can be a catalyst for change, because it not only holds that entity responsible for its actions and inactions, but also can encourage the municipality to reform the patterns and practices that led to constitutional violations, as well as alert the municipality and its citizenry to the issue.”); Giles, 2013 WL 6512683, at *3 (“mere monetary compensation for constitutional injuries may not have the same deterrent effect as a judgment naming the municipality as responsible based on its policies and customs”).

         Next the City argues that Plaintiff will suffer no prejudice from bifurcation because “the City has already agreed to a judgment against it if Plaintiff proves any one of the individual officers violated his constitutional rights (whether there is a successful qualified immunity defense or not).” (Dkt. 54 at 4). Although some courts in this district have found that the City's willingness to consent to a judgment against it for compensatory damages serves as an adequate deterrent, see Ezell v. City of Chicago, No. 18 C 1049, 2019 WL 3776616, at *6 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 12, 2019); Williams v. City of Chicago, 315 F.Supp.3d 1060, 1083-84 (N.D. Ill. 2018), others have found “such stipulations insufficient to justify bifurcation, noting that the plaintiff is entitled to be the master of her own complaint and pursue claims even if they have a minimal pecuniary reward.” Rodriguez v. City of Chicago, No. 17 CV 7248, 2018 WL 3474538, at *3 (N.D. Ill. July 19, 2018) (citing McIntosh, 2015 WL 5164080, at *9; Warren v. Dart, No. 09 CV 3512, 2012 WL 1866372, at *2 (N.D. Ill. May 22, 2012)).

         Courts have reasoned that there are valid non-economic reasons for pursuing a Monell action “even if she has already won a judgment against individual officers and the municipality has consented to judgment.” Loury, 2017 WL 1425594, at *5; King v. Evans, No. 13-CV-1937, 2015 WL 4397761, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 17, 2015) (noting that even if the City “is willing to stipulate to judgment in the event Plaintiff succeeds on her claims against the individual officer[s], ” there are legitimate non-monetary benefits to pursuing a Monell claim, such as deterring future official misconduct). Further, courts in this district have taken issue with similar consents as offering little, if any, deterrent effect where, as here, the proposed consent expressly denies any wrongdoing on the part of the City. See (Dkt. 54-3, ¶¶3-4); Rodriguez, 2018 WL 3474538, at *3 (“A proposed consent judgment is particularly ill-designed to have any deterrent effect where, as here, it expressly denies any wrongdoing on the City's part.”); Loury, 2017 WL 1425594, at *5 (noting same); Giles, 2013 WL 6512683, at *3.

         Similarly unavailing are the City's arguments that the magistrate judge erred because “the policies at issue are 25 years old, so any effect a judgment on those policies may have on institutional reform are moot, ” and “Plaintiff is not requesting a consent decree or equitable relief where the City would be forced into reform” so his argument is pretextual.” (Dkt. 54 at 4-5). As noted earlier, Plaintiff is the master of his own complaint, and failure to pursue a consent decree or injunctive relief in this case does not foreclose the possibility that he still has significant non-monetary incentives for pursuing a Monell claim. Also, even though the policies at issue are 25 years old, the City has not demonstrated that all of the policies at issue have been meaningfully reformed such that a finding of Monell liability in this case would have no impact on institutional ...

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