Friday, June 18, 2010
Court Upholds $1 Damage Award for Excessive Force
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday ruled that a man who won an excessive force lawsuit against the City of San Diego after he was thrown to the ground by a police officer while handcuffed following a brawl outside a bar can collect only $1 in damages.
But the split, three-judge panel reversed a district court ruling that Anthony Guy was not entitled to any attorney fees, holding that the jury’s verdict brought “clear and important guidance” to the city’s police department on how to treat subdued suspects.
Guy was arrested outside of a bar in San Diego’s nightlife district near closing time in January 2005 after he joined a fight that was broken up by San Diego Police Department officers. He was arrested after he threw a punch at Officer David Maley, but the two later disputed whether Maley had identified himself as a police officer.
They also disputed whether Guy continued to resist as he was being taken into custody, but did not dispute that Maley threw Guy to the ground while he was handcuffed.
Guy claimed that Maley and other officers beat and kicked him, and filed suit for civil rights violations against Maley and the others after the police department conducted an internal affairs investigation exonerating Maley of wrongdoing.
Although the jury rejected most of Guy’s claims, it found that Maley used excessive force causing “injury, damage, loss, or harm to Plaintiff.” However, the jury awarded no compensatory or punitive damages.
Citing a possible incongruity, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller of the Southern District of California instructed the jury to award at least one dollar in nominal damages for a constitutional violation, and the jury did so on a supplemental special verdict form to which Guy’s counsel did not object.
Guy sought a new trial on damages, and attorney’s fees as a prevailing party, but Miller rejected both requests. He concluded that the jury could have found that Guy’s injuries were the result of the lawful portion of Maley’s conduct in subduing Guy, and that the lawsuit didn’t achieve any tangible result beyond the nominal damage award.
On appeal, Judge Ronald M. Gould and Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Beistline of the District of Alaska, sitting by designation, agreed with the former proposition, but took exception to the latter.
Gould wrote that the award could be reconciled with the verdict on “a reasonable theory consistent with the evidence”: that the jury concluded Guy was injured by Maley’s other, lawful actions, not the excessive force.
But he said Miller abused his discretion in denying Guy any attorney fees, even though Gould acknowledged that it was a “close question.”
“[A] fee award serves a purpose beneficial to society by encouraging the City of San Diego to ensure that all of its police officers are well trained to avoid the use of excessive force, even when they confront a person whose conduct has generated the need for police assistance…,” he wrote.
“The jury verdict that some of Maley’s force was excessive offers clear and important guidance to the police department, which is a sufficiently tangible result.”
Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson dissented. Agreeing “in principal that a plaintiff may be a prevailing party when he is awarded nominal damages,” she said she would not reach the issue because the jury’s award did not match the evidence.
“[T]he majority’s statements of justification stray perilously closer to speculation than to reconciliation of the verdict with the evidence in the record,” she wrote.
The case is Guy v. City of San Diego, 08-56024.
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