343 F.3d 172 (2nd Cir. 2003), 02-7586, DiSorbo v. Hoy

Docket Nº:02-7586
Citation:343 F.3d 172
Party Name:DiSorbo v. Hoy
Case Date:August 29, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
 
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343 F.3d 172 (2nd Cir. 2003)

Rebecca DISORBO, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant,

Jessica DiSorbo, Plaintiff-Cross-Appellant,

v.

Matthew HOY and Kenneth Hill, Individually and as Agents, Servants and/or Employees and Police Officers of the City of Schenectady Police Department, Defendants-Cross-Appellees,

The City of Schenectady and Ronald Pedersen, Individually and as an Agent, Servant and/or Employee and Police Officer of the City of Schenectady and the City of Schenectady Police Department, Defendants-Appellants-Cross-Appellees.

Nos. 02-7586, 02-7922, 02-7956, 02-7988.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 29, 2003

Argued: June 19, 2003.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Nancy E. May-Skinner (James A. Resila, on the brief), Carter, Conboy, Case, Blackmore, Maloney & Laird, P.C., Albany,

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NY, for Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee The City of Schenectady.

Steve Coffey (Michael Koenig, on the brief), O'Connell and Aronowitz, Albany, NY, for Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee Ronald Pedersen.

Kevin A. Luibrand (Adrienne J. Kerwin, on the brief), Tobin and Dempf, LLP, Albany, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant Rebecca DiSorbo and Plaintiff-Cross-Appellant Jessica DiSorbo.

James B. Tuttle, The Tuttle Law Firm, Albany, NY, for Defendants-Cross-Appellees Matthew Hoy and Kenneth Hill.

Before: WALKER, Chief Judge, LEVAL, KATZMANN, Circuit Judges.

KATZMANN, Circuit Judge.

This case involves disturbing allegations of police brutality. In the early morning hours of December 27, 1998, while at the Union Inn Bar in Schenectady, New York, plaintiff-appellee-cross-appellant Rebecca DiSorbo was arrested by defendant-appellant-cross-appellee Ronald Pedersen, a Schenectady police officer. Rebecca DiSorbo claims she was arrested only because she rejected his personal advances. Rebecca DiSorbo's sister, plaintiff-cross-appellant Jessica DiSorbo, 1 was arrested shortly thereafter, and both sisters were transported to the police station where they allegedly were victims of heinous acts of police aggression committed by Pedersen and two of his colleagues, defendants-cross-appellees officers Matthew Hoy and Kenneth Hill. Rebecca DiSorbo alleges that she was choked, slammed against the wall, thrown to the ground, and struck while defenseless on the floor. Jessica DiSorbo contends that she was slammed into a door and was forcibly dragged through the station.

After three jury trials, judgment was entered by the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Kahn, J.,). Rebecca DiSorbo prevailed in her excessive force, battery, and abuse of process claims against Pedersen, and the jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages totaling $1.675 million, for which the court ordered defendant-appellant-cross-appellee City of Schenectady to indemnify Pedersen. The jury also found municipal liability for the City under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), upon concluding that Rebecca DiSorbo's constitutional rights were violated as a result of a City practice or custom.

In an order also filed this date, we uphold Pedersen's liability for excessive force, battery, and abuse of process, as well as the City's liability under Monell. Because we conclude that Pedersen and the City should be liable for the brutal attack suffered by Rebecca DiSorbo, we now address the District Court's rulings regarding damages.

This opinion considers whether the District Court improperly required the City to indemnify Pedersen and whether the punitive and compensatory damages awards were excessive. We conclude that a state court decision affirming the City's refusal to indemnify Pedersen for compensatory and punitive damages collaterally estops Pedersen from seeking indemnification here and therefore vacate the District Court's indemnification order. We note, however, that because the City is liable under Monell, the City is jointly and severally liable for the compensatory damages

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award, regardless of whether the City had an independent duty to indemnify Pedersen. With respect to the size of the damages awards, while we fully appreciate the gravity of the harm suffered by Rebecca DiSorbo and the justification for substantial compensatory and punitive damages in the face of such repulsive police misconduct, we are bound by precedent to compare the awards in this case with the awards in analogous cases. In so doing, we find that they were excessive. A new trial on damages therefore is necessary unless Rebecca DiSorbo chooses to accept a reduced damages award, a process referred to as remittitur. Accordingly, we remand for a new trial on damages, unless the plaintiff agrees to remit, resulting in $250,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.

BACKGROUND

I. Trial Testimony on the Events of December 27, 1998

The parties offer very different accounts of the events at the Union Inn Bar and subsequently at the police station. 2 The following summarizes the evidence adduced by the parties at the two trials concerning the individual officers' liabilities.

A. Plaintiffs' Version

The DiSorbo sisters present themselves as innocent victims of out-of-control police officers who resorted to deplorable acts of brutality to punish them for rebuking personal advances. Shortly after midnight during the early morning hours of December 27, 1998, Rebecca DiSorbo, Jessica DiSorbo, and another woman went to the Union Inn Bar, where they participated in typical bar behavior, including drinking, playing pool, and socializing with friends. Sometime between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., according to Rebecca DiSorbo, Pedersen approached her and made personal advances by asking, "So where's your boyfriend?", 3 to which she answered that her boyfriend was in Tennessee. When Pedersen inquired further about her boyfriend, Rebecca DiSorbo said he was a police officer, hoping this would discourage Pedersen. Pedersen then purportedly boasted that he too had a badge, but Rebecca DiSorbo told him that she was unimpressed and walked away. Rebecca DiSorbo resumed playing pool, had a drink with a friend, and danced for a little while. Pedersen soon approached her again, this time demanding to see her identification. Rebecca DiSorbo maintains that even though she willingly complied with Pedersen's request for identification, he aggressively grabbed her right arm, twisted it behind her back, and forced her out the door.

Once outside the bar, Rebecca DiSorbo was handcuffed and placed in a police vehicle Pedersen had summoned. Jessica DiSorbo left the bar after a friend informed her of what was happening to her sister. Jessica DiSorbo claims she accidentally dropped a beer glass as she asked the officers what they were doing to her sister. The officers then handcuffed Jessica DiSorbo as well and placed her in the vehicle

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next to her sister. With Hill driving and Hoy in the passenger seat, the women were brought to the police station. Contrary to the officers' contentions, Rebecca DiSorbo denies ever hitting her head against the vehicle's partition or window during the trip to the station. Pedersen traveled to the station in a separate vehicle.

Upon arriving at the station, the officers escorted the DiSorbo sisters, still handcuffed, through the garage area known as the "sallyport." Hoy first led Jessica DiSorbo toward the doorway entrance to the station. Jessica DiSorbo contends that, as Hoy walked her through the sallyport, he aggressively slammed her into the entry door. Hoy then brought Jessica DiSorbo into the booking room. As memorialized in a surveillance videotape, Hoy bent Jessica DiSorbo forward to move her along. Jessica DiSorbo claims that she was not offering resistance at this point, and alleges that, when she tried to stand up straight, Hoy threatened, "If you keep doin' that, I'm going to slam your head against the wall." He then pushed her to the floor, causing her left side to slam onto the ground.

Rebecca DiSorbo's allegations about what transpired at the station are even more serious. She claims that as she walked down the hall with Hill and Pedersen, she made a comment to Pedersen along the lines of, "I hope you're happy, this is basically all because of you." In response to this comment, she claims that Pedersen seized her from behind and pushed her against the wall to a blind spot out of view of the surveillance camera. Pedersen then allegedly grabbed her throat, slammed her body against the wall, and choked her with such force that she was unable to breathe and began to lose vision. When Pedersen stopped choking her, Rebecca DiSorbo kicked him out of anger. Rebecca DiSorbo claims that Pedersen then threw her onto the ground and struck her repeatedly as she lay face down and defenseless. After joining her sister in the holding cell, Rebecca DiSorbo was allowed to make a phone call to her mother. In that conversation, which was audiotaped, Rebecca DiSorbo cried and stated that "he beat the shit out of me" because she "would not go out on a date with this guy," referring to Pedersen.

B. Defendants Officers' Version

In stark contrast, Pedersen depicts himself as a conscientious police officer, dutifully doing his job even when off-duty. At about the time the DiSorbo sisters arrived at the Union Inn Bar, Pedersen was resting at home during his evening off. After awaking at approximately 2:30 a.m. and unable to fall back to sleep, Pedersen decided to go to the Union Inn Bar where his brother, Roy Pedersen, worked as a doorman. While socializing with a friend at the bar, Pedersen noticed Rebecca DiSorbo, who he says he suspected to be underage, stumble on a step in a manner that suggested intoxication. Following what he stated was his obligation to act whenever he witnesses a possible violation of the law, even if technically off-duty,...

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