Monday, January 14, 2019

Yes, there can be excessive force without any actual damages

Sometimes, you lose even when you win. In this police misconduct case, the plaintiff won his jury trial. The jury said the jury used excessive force against him. But the jury only awarded him a dollar in damages. As for the other plaintiff, her case did not even reach the jury, as the trial judge dismissed her claims mid-trial. They both appeal, and they both lose the appeals.

The case is Feliciano v. Thomann, a summary order issued on January 11. Let's start with Hector Feliciano's case. The jury said Hector suffered excessive force. But it was all worth only a dollar. Juries can do that; they are not required to award damages when your civil rights are violated. To win a damages award, you have to prove them. Now, if the plaintiff puts on compelling (and largely undisputed) evidence of damages and the jury still gives you nothing, the court can award you a new trial on damages. But if there is no proof of actual injury, then a dollar may be all you get. Hector asks the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Pooler and Droney) to award him a new trial, but the Court notes that Hector said at trial that the excessive force did not cause any long-lasting injuries. This means the one-dollar award is not a miscarriage of justice or seriously erroneous. No new trial for Hector on damages.

At least Hector got the satisfaction of a verdict in his favor. Elisa Felicano's case did not even reach the jury. The trial judge said that Elisa did not prove that she suffered anything beyond the minimal use of force. Under the case law, even a legitimate arrest can involve too much force. Although the Second Circuit's ruling does not tell us what happened, or even how a husband-wife plaintiff team would have occasion to sue the police for excessive force in the first place, the Court says Elisa did not put on enough evidence to take her case to a jury.

One final slap in the face, at least for Hector's lawyers. As every civil rights lawyer knows, the prevailing party in a Section 1983 civil rights case can recover her attorneys' fees from the losing party. But a key exception to that rule is that a one-dollar jury award normally entitles you to no attorneys' fees at all. This stems from Farrar v. Hobby, a Supreme Court ruling from 1992. This outcome may puzzle the non-lawyer. If the plaintiff proves her rights were violated, then the case was worth bringing, right? The Supreme Court did not see it that way. No attorneys' fees means the plaintiff had minimal success. Farrar represents one of those loopholes in civil rights law that will probably never be remedied.

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