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Keller v. City of Stockton
July 20, 2006
United States District Court,
David John Beauvais, Oakland, CA, for Plaintiffs
Joseph Martin Quinn, III, Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, Oakland, CA, Shelley Lorene Green, City of Stockton, City Attorney's Office, Daniel Carl Cederborg, Office of the County Counsel, County of San Joaquin, Stockton, CA, for Defendants.
Lawrence K. Karlton, Senior District Judge.
*1 Pending before the court are motions for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), for a new trial, or for remittitur brought by the City of Stockton, Officer Kathryn Henderson, and Sergeant Ken Praegitzer ("defendants"). Plaintiffs, Dennis and Crystal Keller, oppose these motions. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion for remittitur is granted in part and denied in part. All other motions must be denied.
I. Factual Background
On July 10, 2002, four-year-old Crystal Keller was taken from her day care provider's house in Sacramento by Stockton Police Officers Kathryn Henderson ("Henderson") and Ken Takeda ("Takeda") and placed at a children's shelter in Stockton. [FN1] The removal was approved by Henderson's supervisor, Stockton Police Sergeant Ken Praegitzer ("Praegitzer"). Trial Transcript ("TT") at 41:8- 9. No warrant was obtained prior to removing Crystal. TT at 42:4-5.
On July 9, 2004, plaintiffs filed suit against the City of Stockton ("City"), the County of San Joaquin, Child Protective Services worker Jose Romero, and Officers Henderson and Praegitzer, alleging unreasonable seizure of Crystal from the custody of her father. Suit was premised on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and alleged violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. [FN2] Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendants unreasonably seized Crystal and unlawfully interfered with their parent-child relationship. Amend. Compl. at 4:23; TT at 426:4.
After a four-day trial, which ended on March 31, 2006, the jury found that the City, Henderson, and Praegitzer violated the Kellers' civil rights and awarded compensatory damages to Dennis Keller in the amount of $100,000 and to Crystal Keller in the amount of $500,000. The jury awarded punitive damages against Henderson and Praegitzer in the amount of $1,000,000 for each plaintiff, for a total of $2,600,000 in damages. Special Verdict, filed March 31, 2006. Defendants filed the present motions on April 17, 2006.
Defendants make the following arguments:
Defendants urge the court to take one or more of the following actions:
A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law
*2 Praegitzer and Henderson move for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50 on the issue of punitive damages because they contend "there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to support the jury's conclusion that defendants acted either with malice or in reckless disregard of the Kellers' rights." Defs .' Mot. at 2, 11. Defendants also assert that plaintiffs had the burden of establishing the appropriate amount of punitive damages and that they were required to present evidence regarding defendants' ability to pay punitive damages. Defendants' arguments are unavailing.
Defendants failed to move for JMOL before submission of the case to the jury. By not doing so, they failed to comply with the procedural prerequisite for renewing their motion for JMOL after trial, and thus, the court is precluded from reviewing the sufficiency of evidence. Janes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 279 F.3d 883, 886-87 (9th Cir.2002); Farley Transp. Co. v. Santa Fe Trail Transp. Co., 786 F.2d 1342, 1345 (9th Cir.1985). The Ninth Circuit construes this requirement strictly. Farley, 786 F.2d at 1346 ("the requirement that [a JMOL motion] be made at the close of all the evidence is to be strictly observed").
When a party loses its right to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence because it failed to file a procedurally-sound Rule 50(b) motion, the court is limited to reviewing the jury's verdict for plain error and should reverse only if such plain error would result in a "manifest miscarriage of justice." Janes, 279 F.3d at 888 (9th Cir.2002). See also Bird v. Glacier Elec. Coop., Inc., 255 F.3d 1136, 1148 (9th Cir.2001)("We will review for plain or fundamental error [in a civil case] ... where the integrity or fundamental fairness of the proceedings in the trial court is called into serious question"). If such a finding is made, this court is still not required to reverse unless the error "seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings." United States v. Cooper, 173 F.3d 1192, 1203 (1999)(internal quotation and citations omitted).
As explained below, there is sufficient evidence from which a jury could conclude that punitive damages should be awarded.
2. A Reasonable Jury Could Conclude that Defendants Acted With Deliberate Indifference to Plaintiffs' Rights
The court instructed the jury that "plaintiff has the burden of proving that punitive damages should be awarded, and the amount, by a preponderance of the evidence," and that punitive damages are appropriate if the defendant's conduct "was malicious or in reckless disregard of plaintiff's rights." [FN3] See Jury Instructions, Instruction No. 31, filed March 31, 2006. The instruction further stated that "conduct is in reckless disregard of plaintiff's rights if, under the circumstances, it reflects complete indifference to the safety and rights of others." [FN4] Id. Defendants contend that there is no evidence from which a jury could conclude that Praegitizer or Henderson acted with malice or in reckless disregard of the Kellers' rights. I cannot agree.
*3 Defendants argue that they followed city policy and there was no reason to believe that the policy deviated from the requirements of the law. The record, however, reflects that defendants were aware of the state-mandated procedures and standards that they were obligated to follow--specifically, Welfare and Institutions Code § 305--and that they failed to do so. Defendants testified that they understood the law governing their conduct as codified in § 305--that an "imminent threat" must be present. [FN5] Henderson testified that a police officer is allowed to take a child without getting a warrant only when he or she was in "imminent danger," and in this case, sexual abuse. Trial Transcript ("TT") at 114-115. Henderson further testified that the removal of a child from a parent should only happen in "exigent circumstances" and that in this case, "it applied to sexual abuse," and could happen only where "she [Crystal] had either been sexually abused or at risk of being subjected to sexual abuse." TT at 111-112.
Any peace officer may, without a warrant, take into temporary custody a minor:
Despite her knowledge of the governing standards, Henderson removed Crystal based on one-year-old allegations against Dennis Keller which were previously investigated by Child Protective Services and found to be inconclusive. TT at 108-111. Henderson conducted no independent investigation as to Dennis Keller's parenting skills prior to removing Crystal from his care. Id. Because such evidence could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that defendants were aware of the legal standards which govern the removal of Crystal but that they nevertheless acted in "reckless disregard" of the Kellers' rights, the court did not err in allowing the punitive damages claim to go to the jury.
Defendants additionally assert that the punitive damages award cannot stand because plaintiffs "made no effort to establish an appropriate amount." [FN6] Defs.' Mot. at 12. Again, I cannot agree. First, defendants have cited no binding authority, and the court has found none, which requires plaintiffs to tell the jury exactly how much they request in punitive damages. Secondly, it appears that plaintiffs met their burden of establishing the appropriate amount of damages by providing evidence that an award of punitive damages was appropriate, and then asking the jury to use their judgment to determine the appropriate amount. [FN7] While plaintiffs' counsel made no mention of the specific amount during the trial, he explained to the jury in his closing statement that the amount is to be "determined with the use of reason and consideration of the damages that we've been able to prove in this case." TT at 399-400. Plaintiffs' counsel also argued to the jury that "defendants need to be told that what they did here is wrong so they don't do it again," and that plaintiffs hoped "this case has managed to serve a purpose to protect children in the future and protect Crystal in the future." TT at 399-400. Based on plaintiffs' instructions to the jury, the court holds that plaintiffs made an effort to establish the appropriate amount of damages as required under the law. No plain error occurred in allowing the punitive damages to be presented to the jury on this account.
*4 Finally, defendants contend that the punitive damages award cannot stand because plaintiffs failed to present evidence of defendants' financial condition, and that their motion for a new trial must be granted on this account. Defs.' Mot. at 12. Defendants cite to a number of cases from other circuits and from the California Supreme Court. While it may be true that this is a requirement in other jurisdictions, the Ninth Circuit has not imposed any such requirement for supporting a punitive damages award. C.f. Morgan v. Woessner, 997 F.2d 1244, 1259 (9th Cir.1993)(remanding only state law portion of punitive damages award for the purpose of reconsidering the award in light of the fact that plaintiff must provide evidence of defendant's financial worth under California law); see also Hilao v. Estate of Marcos, 103 F.3d 767, 781-82 & n. 7 (9th Cir.1996)(approved a jury's discretion to consider financial condition as one relevant factor in awarding punitive damages).
For all the reasons discussed above, no plain error was committed and the court must accordingly deny defendants' motion for JMOL.
B. MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL
Defendants request a new trial for two errors that they contend were made by the court--namely, that the court erred in declining to give defendants' special jury instruction based on California Penal Code § 279.6 and for providing a verdict form that "substantially confused the issue of punitive damages." Defs.' Mot. at 9, 12. Defendants' arguments are unavailing.
Defendants' failure to move for judgment as a matter of law does not preclude their motion for a new trial under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. Freund v. Nycomed Amersham, 347 F.3d 752, 765 (9th Cir.2003). The Ninth Circuit has articulated a number of different circumstances that warrant a new trial, stating that district courts have discretion to grant Rule 59 motions when the verdict is "against the clear [or "great"] weight of the evidence," when the evidence shows that the jury has reached a "seriously erroneous result," and/or when the evidence shows that acceptance of the verdict would cause a "miscarriage of justice." Id.; EEOC v. Pape Lift, Inc., 115 F.3d 676, 680 (9th Cir.1997)(internal quotations and citations omitted); see also Landes Constr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371 (9th Cir.1987)(Rule 59 motion for a new trial should be granted if "the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence.... The judge can weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of witnesses, and need not view the evidence from the perspective most favorable to the prevailing party"); Roy v. Volkswagon of America, 896 F.2d 1174 ("The trial court may grant a new trial, even though the verdict is supported by substantial evidence, if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, or is based upon evidence which is false, or to prevent, in the sound discretion of the trial court, a miscarriage of justice.") (citation omitted). While the court undoubtedly has discretion to assess the evidence based on these various standards ("against the clear weight of the evidence," "seriously erroneous result," "miscarriage of justice"), the standard for finding insufficient evidence warranting a new trial remains stringent.
2. Special Jury Instruction Based on Penal Code § 279.6
*5 Defendants maintain that the court erred when it declined to give defendants' special jury instruction based on Penal Code § 279.6. They argue that Section 279.6 "provided a complete defense to Plaintiffs' federal claims," Defs.' Mot. at 9, and that the court's refusal to give this instruction "deprived the jury of important legal considerations probative of the reasonableness of the Defendants' actions." Defs.' Repl. at 5.
Defendants' proposed instruction stated:
(California Penal Code section 279.6)
Def.'s Supp. Jury Instructions, filed March 27, 2006. [FN8]
First, the court notes that the proffer of the instruction was untimely. The court instructed the parties in its February 23, 2006 Pretrial Order that counsel's "specific jury instructions shall be filed fourteen (14) calendar days prior to trial." Defendants, however, did not submit the proposed instruction at issue until the day before trial. [FN9] As the court admonished counsel during oral argument, such deadlines provide the court with an opportunity to research difficult questions raised by the proposed instructions. Defendants' failure to timely submit this instruction deprived the court of the appropriate opportunity to consider its applicability. Nevertheless, the court considered the instruction during trial, and declined to provide it to the jury for a number of reasons stated on the record and further elaborated in this order. TT at 253.
As the court explained to the parties during trial, the jury instruction was inappropriate because the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that defendants relied on Welfare and Institutions Code in understanding the scope of their duties. [FN10] TT at 253. Defendants' testimony consistently demonstrated that defendants relied on California Welfare and Institutions Code § 305, which allows warrantless removal of a child when it is reasonable to believe the child is in "immediate danger of physical or sexual abuse." [FN11] Officer Henderson testified that she believed the standard in determining "whether children should be removed from their parents" was in "exigent circumstances," and that, "in this particular case it applied to sexual abuse, that [Crystal] had either been sexually abused or at risk of being subjected to sexual abuse." TT at 111-112. Henderson additionally stated that section 305 allowed for the warrantless removal of a child, when there was "reasonable cause to believe ... that she had suffered sexual abuse, and was at a substantial risk to incur sexual abuse." TT at 114-115. Praegitzer explained that he was concerned that Crystal was in imminent danger of physical harm based on "allegations in the report" and "past allegations of abuse." TT at 207-208. Finally, Officer Richard Leslie testified that the policy regarding welfare checks for children only referenced section 305. TT at 235, 247, 248.
*6 Although there was some testimony from defendants regarding Dennis Keller's potential concealment of Crystal, a permissible ground for removal under the penal code at issue, the evidence demonstrates that it was not a realistic threat. Henderson testified that the concealment of Crystal "could be an issue" because Crystal "was not found at the preschool where she was supposed to be," and because Dennis Keller "wasn't the custodial parent at the time as defined by court order." TT at 101, 117, 129. Likewise, Takeda testified that Henderson was concerned that they did not know where Crystal was, were unable to contact Dennis Keller, and thought he was concealing Crystal from her mother. TT at 181-182. Henderson, however, had no difficulty in finding Crystal at her caretaker's house and both Henderson and Tekada testified that they had no concerns about Crystal's physical condition or the competency of her caretaker, Debra Morie ("Morie"), and that Morie' s house was "in an appropriate condition for a child." TT at 125, 184. Henderson further testified that she was aware that another Stockton police officer decided Dennis Keller should care for Crystal while the allegations of sexual abuse against Crystal's mother were being investigated. TT at 121. The investigation report notes taken by Henderson also state that Crystal was taken into custody "due to the fact that [Crytal's mother] was allegedly molesting Crystal and Dennis' court visitation was not in effect." TT at 146:2-4. Such evidence undermines defendants' present assertions that they were concerned about Dennis Keller's intent to conceal his daughter when she was not returned to her mother pursuant to the joint custody order. [FN12]
Even though defendants assert in their reply brief and during oral argument that the court's refusal to provide the instruction resulted in error justifying a new trial, the evidence demonstrates that defendants removed Crystal based on the standards set forth in the Welfare and Institutions Code, not under the California Penal Code. Indeed, "[a] trial judge is given substantial latitude in tailoring the instructions so long as they fairly and adequately cover the issues presented" when "evaluated in the context of the whole trial." United States v. Marabelles, 724 F.2d 1374, 1382-83 (9th Cir.1984).. "A party is entitled to an instruction about his or her theory of the case if it is supported by law and has foundation in the evidence." Jones v. Williams, 297 F.3d 930, 934 (9th Cir.2002). Here, however, providing the penal code jury instruction was inappropriate since it has no "foundation in the evidence" and there were no facts to support that defendants were operating under the scope of Penal Code § 279.6. [FN13] Consequently, defendants' argument that this instruction would have either provided a defense or assisted the jury with assessing the reprehensibility of defendants' conduct must be rejected.
3. Jury Verdict Form
*7 Defendants further maintain that they are entitled to a new trial because the jury verdict form was misleading and denied Praegitzer and Henderson due process. Defs.' Mot. at 12. Assuming arguendo that the verdict does not support a new trial, the verdict form explained that if the jury found for the plaintiff "as to any one of the defendants" it had to answer two questions:
What amount of compensatory damages do you award?
What amount, if any, of punitive damages do you award?
Special Verdict, filed March 31, 2006; Defs.' Mot. at 7.
Defendants assert that the verdict form did not make it clear that punitive damages were only appropriate against Praegitzer and Henderson as individuals, and that punitive damages could not be awarded against the City. Defs.' Mot. at 8. As a result, defendants argue, the jury believed that it could impose punitive damages against the city, not the individual officers and, therefore, based the award on the City's ability to pay. Defs.' Mot. at 12.
In support of their argument, defendants tender the declarations of several jurors to demonstrate that the jury was confused and did not understand who punitive damages could be awarded against. Defs.' Mot. at 8, 13. These declarations are inadmissible under Rule 606(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence and will not be considered by the court. [FN14] As the Ninth Circuit has held, "[a]fter a verdict is returned a juror will not be heard to impeach the verdict when his testimony concerns his misunderstanding of the court's instructions." United States v. Stacey, 475 F.2d 1119, 1121 (9th Cir.1973). In addition, "it is improper and unethical for lawyers to interview jurors to discover what was the course of deliberation of a trial jury" and "neither a trial court nor an appellate court has the authority to inquire into the jury's decisional processes." Smith v. Cupp, 457 F.2d 1098, 1100 (9th Cir.1972). Only when there is an allegation of juror misconduct is juror testimony admissible regarding "extraneous influences on the deliberation process." Hard v. Burlington N. Railroad, 812 F.2d 482, 486 (9th Cir.1987); see also Economou v. Little, 850 F.Supp. 849, 852 (N.D.Cal.1994) ("The Ninth Circuit requires a post-verdict inquiry into juror deliberations only if the court learns of a possible incident of juror misconduct.").
Moreover, any objection to the verdict form was arguably waived. Defense counsel was given the form with the jury instructions but failed to object when asked on the record. [FN15] Even if defendants did not waive their objection, it is unlikely there was any juror confusion due to counsels' arguments to the jury. Plaintiffs' counsel explained during his opening argument that plaintiffs were "asking for punitive damages against the officers." TT at 30. He reiterated this point in his closing argument, stating that "[w]e've asked for punitive damages against the two individual defendants." TT at 398. Plaintiffs' counsel made explicit that "[t]hese damages are not available against the City of Stockton for legal reasons." TT at 398.
*8 Similarly, defense counsel clarified during their closing argument that "[p]laintiffs are asking for punitive damages against Ken Praegitzer and Kathryn Henderson." TT at 398. Any possibility of jury confusion was mitigated by both plaintiffs' and defendants' counsel's clarifications to the jury. Thus, any error committed by the court through the jury verdict form was harmless error. Where a motion for a new trial is based on allegations that the court committed error, the error must be harmful to warrant a new trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 61. A new trial is not justified if the error was harmless. Glanzman v. Uniroyal, Inc., 892 F.2d 58, 61 (9th Cir.1989)("If an error does 'not affect the substantial rights of the parties' it will be deemed 'harmless' and not grounds for reversal or appeal." This concept under Rule 61 applies at trial and on appeal) (citation omitted). In the case at bar, any error committed by the court was harmless. Defendants' motion for a new trial based on the jury verdict form must be denied.
C. MOTION FOR REMITTITUR
Defendants urge the court to remit the compensatory and punitive damages awarded to plaintiffs, contending that they are unsupported by the evidence. The court considers defendants' contentions below.
Where an award of damages is grossly excessive or monstrous, clearly not supported by the evidence, or only based on speculation or guesswork, and gives rise to an inference that "passion and prejudice" tainted the jury's finding of liability, a new trial may be in order. Snyder v. Freight, Constr., Gen. Drivers, Warehousemen & Helpers, Local No. 287, 175 F.3d 680, 689 (9th Cir.1999)(citing Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Comm'n v. National Football League, 791 F.2d 1356, 1360 (9th Cir.1986); Seymour v. Summa Vista Cinema, Inc., 809 F.2d 1385, 1387 (9th Cir.1987)). However, where there is no evidence that passion and prejudice affected the liability finding, remittitur of damages "which the court considers justified" is an appropriate method of reducing an excessive verdict. Snyder, 175 F.3d at 689; Seymour, 809 F.2d at 1387. When the court, after viewing the evidence concerning damages in a light most favorable to the prevailing party, determines that the damages award is excessive, it has two alternatives: (1) it may grant defendant's motion for a new trial; or (2) deny the motion conditional upon the prevailing party accepting a remittitur. Fenner v. Dependable Trucking Co., 716 F.2d 598, 603 (9th Cir.1983). The prevailing party is given the option of either submitting to a new trial or of accepting a reduced amount of damage which the court considers justified. Id. If the prevailing party does not consent to the reduced amount, a new trial must be granted. Id. The proper amount of a remittitur is the maximum amount sustainable by the evidence. D & S Redi-Mix v. Sierra Redi-Mix & Contracting Co., 692 F.2d 1245, 1249 (9th Cir.1982); see also, 11 Wright, Miller & Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure: Civil 2d § 2815 (stating the "maximum amount" theory of remittiturs "is the only theory that has any reasonable claim of being consistent with the Seventh Amendment).
2. Compensatory Damages
*9 In reviewing a jury's damages award, the court must uphold the jury's "finding of the amount of damages unless the amount is 'grossly excessive or monstrous,' clearly not supported by the evidence, or 'only based on speculation or guesswork.' " Handgards, Inc. v. Ethicon, Inc., 743 F.2d 1282, 1297 (9th Cir.1984) (quoting Blanton v. Mobil Oil Corp., 721 F.2d 1207, 1216 (9th Cir.1983), cert. denied, 471 U.S. 1007 (1985)), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 963 (1985). In § 1983 cases such as the one at bar, damages are meant to compensate persons for injuries that are caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights. Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 307 (1986) (citations omitted). Compensatory damages may include not only out-of-pocket loss and other monetary harms, but also such injuries as impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering. Id.
Defendants contend that the jury's compensatory awards of $100,000 to Dennis Keller and $500,000 to Crystal Keller were excessive and were so high "as to shock the judicial conscience and constitute a denial of justice." Defs.' Mot. at 9 (citations omitted). "[V]iewing the evidence concerning damages in a light most favorable to the prevailing party," as the court must, Fenner, 716 F.2d at 603, the jury's compensatory damages were supported by the evidence and not "grossly excessive or monstrous." Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Comm'n, 791 F.2d at 1360.
Defendants emphasize that the court limited Dennis Keller's compensatory awards to five days, see Jury Instruction No. 28, filed March 31, 2006, that he suffered "no physical injuries," and that "five days of distraction ... cannot be worth $100,000." Defs.' Mot. at 9-10. They make similar arguments with respect to Crystal Keller, explaining that Crystal suffered "no physical harm," that her fear of officers is due to other causes, and that she is now a well-adjusted child, "performing well at school, has lots of friends and plays well with others." [FN16] Defs.' Mot. at 10-11. Their attempts at minimizing the injury and thus the compensatory damages the jury found for plaintiffs are not successful. As noted above, compensatory damages for § 1983 cases may also include non-physical injuries such as impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering. See Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, supra.
As plaintiffs point out, the record is replete with testimony that defendants' actions affected the bond between Crystal and Dennis Keller and caused him mental anguish and emotional trauma. See, e.g., TT at 292 (Dennis Keller "couldn't concentrate" at work and in general, he had planned her fifth birthday and felt he had "somehow failed [his] daughter"); 257 (Dennis Keller "felt badly he couldn't protect her."). The record also reflects that defendants' actions affected Crystal's emotional well-being and her relationship with her father. See, e.g., TT at 54 (Crystal "worr[ie]s a lot ... about getting taken again ..." and is "scared and terrified" that "[she] would never see [her] dad again"); 55 (defendants' removal of Crystal affected her schoolwork and concentration," and she is scared that police will "come and swipe [her]."). Where, as here, the compensatory damages verdict for Dennis and Crystal Keller finds substantial support in the record and lie within the range sustainable by the proof, the court will not play "Monday morning quarterback" and "supplant the jury's evaluation of the complex and conflicting evidence with its own." Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Comm'n, 791 F.2d at 1366 (citations and internal quotations omitted). Defendants' request to remit plaintiffs' compensatory damages must be denied.
3. Punitive Damages
*10 The jury imposed $2 million in punitive damages against defendants Praegitzer and Henderson, $1 million for each plaintiff. Defendants contend that the jury's punitive damages are excessive and that it furthers "no legitimate purpose and constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of property." Defs.' Mot. at 13 (citation omitted). Defendants urge the court to order plaintiffs to remit a substantial portion of the punitive damages or face a new trial on punitive damages. Defs.' Mot. at 18. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, contend that the awards of punitive damages are not constitutionally excessive. The court will not upset the jury's finding that Crystal Keller is entitled to $1 million in punitive damages. The court concludes, however, that the jury's award of $1 million for Dennis Keller is excessive.
Both parties correctly point out that BMW of North Am., Inc. v. Gore, and State Farm Mut. Auto. Inc. Co. v. Campbell provide the standards governing the court's determination of punitive damages. Punitive damages can be imposed to further the interest of "punishing unlawful conduct and deterring its repetition." BMW of North Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 568 (1996); State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 416 (2003). But a punitive damages award that is "grossly excessive" can be in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Gore, 517 U.S. at 568. A grossly excessive award "furthers no legitimate purpose and constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of property." Campbell, 538 U.S. at 417 (citing Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 42 (O'Connor, J., dissenting)). They also violate "elementary notions of fairness" by not providing a person with fair notice "of the severity of the penalty that a State may impose." Campbell, 538 U.S. at 417.
Gore and Campbell provide three "guideposts" for determining whether a punitive damages award is unconstitutionally excessive:
(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages awarded; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded by the jury and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.
Campbell, 538 U.S. at 418 (citing Gore, 517 U.S. at 575). The court considers in turn these factors with respect to the instant case.
"The most important indicum of reasonableness of a punitive damages award is the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct." Gore, 517 U.S. at 575. The Court in Campbell instructed courts to determine reprehensibility by considering whether the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic; the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others; the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability; the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident; and the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.
*11 538 U.S. at 419 (citing Gore, 517 U.S. at 575); see also Bains LLC v. ARCO Prods. Co., 405 F.3d 764, 775 (9th Cir.2005)(explaining Campbell "enumerates the factors to be used when evaluating the reprehensibility of a defendant's conduct").
The existence of one factor in favor of a plaintiff does not in itself support a finding of reprehensibility and, ultimately, of a punitive damages award. Campbell, 538 U.S. at 419; see also Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, Inc. v. Am. Coalition of Life Activists, 422 F.3d 949, 959-960 (9th Cir.2005) (finding defendant's conduct "on the balance" was sufficiently reprehensible to warrant punitive damages).
The Ninth Circuit has noted that neither Gore or Campbell addressed the issue of reprehensible conduct by a public official. S. Union Co. v. Southwest Gas Corp., 415 F.3d 1001, 1011 (9th Cir.2005). [FN17] Nevertheless, given the facts of this particular case, the court finds that defendants' conduct constituted sufficient reprehensibility to warrant punitive damages.
The court firmly believes that the jury awarded punitive damages because defendants' actions "evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others" and that the conduct at issue most likely "involved repeated actions." In addition to the trial testimony cited on pages 5-7 of this order, see supra, Richard Leslie, a sergeant with the City of Stockton, testified that the Police Chief Edward J. Chavez provided a written policy on the removal of children from their home, which directs officers to interview the reporting party, victim, parents or guardians, the suspect, other persons who can contribute to the child or family, and paramedics/ambulance personnel before removing a child. TT at 238. Henderson failed to follow this department protocol and interviewed none of these individuals removing Crystal. TT at 105, 107, 110.
Leslie also testified that he believed an "officer has a duty to investigate surrounding circumstances to determine the reliability of allegations" regarding sexual abuse against a parent. TT at 243. The evidence at trial revealed that defendants failed to appropriately investigate the circumstances before removing Crystal. Henderson testified that she removed Crystal based on "information she had," on "some allegations against Dennis Keller in Officer Alverson' s report and based on CPS attachments," and that she did not independently determine the reliability of such allegations. TT at 108-111. The record also suggests that the reasons for removing Crystal were never clear to defendants, much less made clear to plaintiffs. According to Dennis Keller, Henderson stated to him on the phone at the time of his daughter's removal that the removal was prompted by his "breaking [his] court ordered visitation with the mother." TT at 291. Finally, Henderson testified that the "decision to remove Crystal" was ultimately made "at Debra Morie's house," suggesting that the decision was not thoroughly contemplated. Indeed, the court concludes that a jury could well conclude that the removal was an arbitrary exercise of power. Put directly, a reasonable jury could conclude that defendants' conduct constituted an unreasonable arrogation of power and that such actions demonstrated an indifference to the health and safety of plaintiffs. Multiple witnesses testified that plaintiffs were not made aware of the removal in advance and that defendants did little to ameliorate the difficult situation. Dennis Keller testified that he spoke to Crystal when defendants were at Debra Morie's house and that she "was begging me and crying and screaming not to let the police take her," and that she was "totally afraid that [defendants] were going to take her daddy away." TT at 290. Dennis Keller also testified that, as noted above, "all [he] was told" was that the removal was due to his "breaking [his] court ordered visitation with the mother," not that defendants believed Crystal was in danger of sexual abuse, as defendants testified to during trial. TT at 291. Debra Hamilton testified that Debra Morie, Crystal's babysitter at the time of her removal, was "hysterical," "screaming and crying into the phone" when Crystal was removed, and that at the time, Dennis Keller "[d] idn' t know what his rights were." TT at 256-257. Crystal Keller testified that she "didn't know what was going on" when defendants came to remove her, and that she was "scared and terrified" when Debra Morie told her she needed to go with defendants. TT at 52.
*12 Finally, defendants testified that a warrant has "never" been issued when the Stockton police department removed a child from his or her home. Such a policy involves "repeated actions," rather than an isolated incident. [FN18] Leslie testified that officers in Stockton were not "trained to get warrants in these types of cases," and that in his twenty-two years in the Department, defendants have "never" obtained a warrant to remove a child from a home. [FN19] TT at 239-240. Praegitzer similarly stated that he was not aware of any situation where an officer obtained a warrant to remove a child. TT at 220. In Praegitzer's experience, he had "never" obtained a warrant to remove a child. TT at 229. Henderson testified that at the time of Crystal's removal she "had no experience" with "any requirement that a police officer obtain a warrant to remove a child from the parents [sic] custody." TT at 113.
In sum, the record substantially supports that defendants' conduct was sufficiently reprehensible, "the most important indicum of reasonableness of a punitive damages award." Gore, 517 U.S. at 575.
The "most commonly cited" consideration of a punitive damages award is "its ratio to the actual harm inflicted on the plaintiff." Gore, 517 U.S. at 580. Punitive damages must bear a "reasonable relationship" to compensatory damages. Id. In the instant case, the punitive damages award for Crystal Keller bears a reasonable relationship to the compensatory damages awarded her. The punitive damages award for Dennis Keller, however, fails to satisfy due process and must, indeed, be remitted.
The Supreme Court has consistently refused to impose a "bright line ratio." Campbell, 538 U.S. at 425. Despite the High Court's unwillingness to establish any sort of calculable formula for lower courts to determine what ratios would be unacceptably high, the Court has explained that "single digit multipliers are more likely to comport with due process," and that "in practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages ... will satisfy due process." Id. And when "compensatory damages are substantial, then a lesser ratio, perhaps only equal to compensatory damages, can reach the outermost limit of the due process guarantee." Id.
In the case at bar, the jury awarded Crystal Keller $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 in punitive damages, a ratio of 2:1 overall, which is certainly within the Constitutional limits enunciated by the Supreme Court. [FN20] The court finds that this factor favors plaintiff Crystal Keller, and the court will not disturb the jury's punitive damages award based on this consideration.
In the case at bar, because the jury verdict form did not specify the amount for which each defendant is jointly and severally liable in compensatory and punitive damages, the court concludes that $500,000 is the amount for which defendants are jointly and severally liable to Crystal Keller in compensatory damages and that $1,000,000 is the amount for which defendants are jointly and severally liable in punitive damages. In like manner, $100,000 is the amount for which defendants are jointly and severally liable to Dennis Keller in compensatory damages and $1,000,000 is the amount for which defendants are liable to him in punitive damages. The damages ratio for Crystal Keller is 2:1 based on this analysis, and the damages ratio for Dennis Keller is 10:1.
The punitive damages ratio for Dennis Keller, however is 10:1 overall, which fails Constitutional muster. As the court explained to the parties during oral argument, the jury recognized the distinction between the father's loss and injury and the child's loss and injury when it awarded Crystal Keller $500,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 to Dennis Keller. That same judgment, however, was not reflected in the punitive damages award. Even considering all the inferences in favor of plaintiffs, it still appears to the court that the punitive damages award for Dennis Keller is excessive.
*13 If this court determines that the evidence supported liability for Dennis Keller, which this court does, but determines that the size of the award is excessive, the Ninth Circuit has held that the court's discretion is somewhat limited:
When the court, after viewing the evidence concerning damages in a light most favorable to the prevailing party, determines that the damages award is excessive, it has two alternatives. It may grant defendant's motion for a new trial or deny the motion conditional upon the prevailing party accepting an remittitur. The prevailing party is given the option of either submitting to a new trial or of accepting a reduced amount of damage which the court considers justified.
Fenner v. Dependable Trucking Co., 716 F.2d 598, 603 (9th Cir.1983)(citing Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers, 383 U.S. 53, 65- 66(1966); see also 6A James Wm. Moore, et al., Moore's Federal Practice 59.08  at 59:126-27 ("it may be appropriate, where the verdict is excessive, to order a new trial unless the claimant remits a certain sum"). The proper amount of remittitur is the maximum amount sustainable by the evidence. D & S Redi-Mix v. Sierra Redi-Mix & Contracting Co., 692 F.2d 1245, 1249 (9th Cir.1982).
Taking the evidence as a whole, the court deems $100,000 to be the appropriate amount of punitive damages for Dennis Keller. If he accepts the remittitur, the punitive damages for him will be reduced to $100,000. If he does not accept the remittitur, a new trial will be held limited to the question of a proper punitive damages award. [FN21]
Defendants' motion for remittitur is GRANTED IN PART, and DENIED IN PART as consistent with the order. All other motions are DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Slip Copy, 2006 WL 2051043 (E.D.Cal.)