Thursday, August 2, 2012

Court of Appeals throws out $900,000 wrongful death verdict

The Court of Appeals has thrown out a $900,000 jury verdict in a wrongful death case, ruling that that jury had no basis to find that the Town of East Haven was responsible for the shooting death of a young black man by a police officer. This case generated extensive news coverage in Connecticut, including a good summary of the oral argument in January 2012.

The case is Jones v. Town of East Haven, decided on August 1. This a crushing blow to the mother of the deceased, who filed this action in 1999 and endured two trials before a jury exonerated the police officer on qualified immunity grounds. But the jury accepted plaintiff's municipal liability claim under Monell on the basis that the shooting was part of the town's custom or practice of deliberate indifference toward the rights of blacks.

Here is how Monell claims work. Normally, in a civil rights case under Section 1983, you sue the individual public officer/wrongdoer. You can only sue the municipality if the civil rights violation was part of a policy or custom. This is not easy to prove. No municipality has a formal policy against the rights of minorities. But you can show a custom or policy based on a pattern of rights violations. But again, this is hard to prove, and the plaintiff cannot prove it here, though she tries through a series of incidents. The jury deemed these episodes as part of the town's custom and practice, but the Court of Appeals sees it differently. The verdict is vacated and the case is over.

Jones was shot and killed while driving his car in reverse toward officer Flodquist, who fired shots at the car in the belief that Jones was trying to run him over. Since the jury exonerated Flodquist on qualified immunity grounds, Jones could only prevail on her Monell claim, based on a series of incidents: (1) in 1991, Flodquist apprehended a black male who fled from a moving car during a joyride; (2) in 1996, four East Haven officers beat up and used anti-black slurs against a white suspect who attacked them during an arrest; (3) in 1998, a black female came to believe she was being followed by East Haven officers because of her race; (4) in 2000, the same female was physically abused and subjected to racial slurs at the police station after they booked her on an outstanding warrant; (5) in 1997, some East Haven officers wore T-shirts during a softball game that showed two white suspects on the hood of a police car, with the phrase "Boyz in the Hood."

The Second Circuit says that each of these incidents was insufficient on its own and in the aggregate to show a custom or policy against the rights of black residents. The Court of Appeals reviews them in detail in highlighting the evidentiary deficiencies. For example, the officer in 1991 was justified in apprehending the escapee. The 1998 traffic stop "did nothing for plaintiff's case" as her subjective belief that the officers were pursuing her was mere speculation. The T-shirts may have been disrespectful of blacks (and the police chief did nothing to put a stop to it) but "while the message of the T-shirts was disrespectful of black people, it did not reveal an inclination on the part of the officers to abuse the rights of black people." And the officers may have even had the right to wear shirts like this off-duty. And so on.

The Court of Appeals (Leval, Pooler and Walker) is defensive about this opinion, noting in a footnote that the Justice Department in December 2011 found that the East Haven Police Department had engaged in all kinds of lawbreaking, including "widespread biased policing." But "a federal appellate court makes no assessment of the true facts. Our court has no investigative authority and does not find facts. It reviews only the record created by the parties in the course of trial."

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