Thursday, July 18, 2019

Court of Appeals reinstates excessive force verdict

Even experienced judges make mistakes. The Court of Appeals has reinstated a verdict that a longtime Southern District judge vacated. The plaintiff has regained his excessive force verdict against a New York City police officer.

The case is Ortiz v. City of New York, a summary order issued on July 17. Plaintiff testified that he was walking down the street when officer Vazquez attacked him without warning, kicked his knee and sent him face first into the pavement. Plaintiff said the police injured his knee, wrist and back. Of course, the officers told a different story: that Ortiz was slumped against buildings and collapsed on the ground over the course of about 40 minutes, and that since he was intoxicated, they made arrangements for him to be taken to the hospital. This is why we have trials. The jury ultimately ruled in plaintiff's favor against one of the police defendants, Vazquez, awarding him $118,000. The trial court then asked the jury if Vazquez handcuffed the plaintiff after they observed him on the pavement that day. The jury said "yes." The judge next vacated the verdict, concluding that "Ortiz's testimony at trial 'inextricably linked' his claims of unlawful seizure and excessive force, because he testified that 'the altercation between him and Vazquez was so sudden and quick that any unlawful seizure and use of excessive force were simultaneous."

The Court of Appeals (Livingston, Lynch and Sullivan) reverses and reinstates the verdict. The Second Circuit reminds us that the only way the district court can erase a verdict is if there is no evidence whatsoever to support the verdict. The court has to be convinced the plaintiff had nothing, and that the case never should have gone to trial in the first place. The principle here is that the jury may believe only parts of the plaintiff's testimony en route to a plaintiff's verdict. While "the jury does seem to have accepted the officers' account of how, why, and when they handcuffed Ortiz," that does not mean the district court had a basis to find that the jury had rejected all of Ortiz's testimony relating to the excessive force. As the Court of Appeals says:

The jury may well have disbelieved Ortiz’s testimony that Officer Vazquez attacked Ortiz from behind and drove him to the ground with a kick, or thought that Ortiz was exaggerating in his description of the altercation; nonetheless, the jury may still have credited Ortiz’s testimony that Officer Vazquez kicked him at some point during the encounter.

The jury was entitled to credit some portions of Ortiz’s testimony while disbelieving other portions. The jury could have reasonably regarded the medical evidence Ortiz presented as corroborating his testimony that he was violently kicked—in contrast to his uncorroborated and somewhat implausible account of the genesis of the encounter. As a result, the district court erred in directing judgment for Officer Vazquez on the excessive force claim, because a “reasonable jury” may have had a “legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for [Ortiz] on that issue.”

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