45 F.3d 1383 (10th Cir. 1995), 93-4128, Sheets v. Salt Lake County

Docket Nº:93-4128, 93-4134.
Citation:45 F.3d 1383
Party Name:J. Gary SHEETS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. SALT LAKE COUNTY, a governmental subdivision of the State of Utah; and Michael George, individually and as Salt Lake County Investigator, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:January 10, 1995
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Page 1383

45 F.3d 1383 (10th Cir. 1995)

J. Gary SHEETS, Plaintiff-Appellee,


SALT LAKE COUNTY, a governmental subdivision of the State of

Utah; and Michael George, individually and as

Salt Lake County Investigator,


Nos. 93-4128, 93-4134.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

January 10, 1995

Page 1384

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Kent B. Linebaugh (Jennie B. Huggins with him on the brief), of Jardine, Linebaugh, Brown, & Dunn, Salt Lake City, UT, for plaintiff-appellee.

Patricia J. Marlowe, Deputy Salt Lake County Atty. (David E. Yocum, Salt Lake County Atty., with her on the brief), Salt Lake City, UT, for defendants-appellants.

Before KELLY, and HENRY, Circuit Judges, and VAN BEBBER, District Judge. d

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PAUL KELLY, Jr., Circuit Judge.

In No. 93-4134, Defendants-Appellants, Salt Lake County and Michael George, appeal a $650,000 judgment on a jury verdict and in No. 93-4128, they appeal a $77,896.93 judgment for attorney's fees entered against them. They contend that the district court erred by (1) refusing to hold Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 action time-barred under Utah Code Ann. Sec. 78-12-28(3), (2) denying Defendants' motion to dismiss and motion for judgment as a matter of law, (3) refusing to admit into evidence two books and newspaper articles, (4) denying Defendants' motion for remittitur, (5) denying Defendants' motion for new trial, and (6) granting the Plaintiff unreasonable attorney's fees. Our jurisdiction arises under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1291. We affirm.


On October 15, 1985, two bombs exploded in Salt Lake City. One killed Steve Christensen, a former employee and executive of Coordinated Financial Services ("CFS"). The other killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Gary Sheets, chairman of the board and president of CFS. These events generated a great deal of media interest.

A few weeks after Kathy Sheets' death, the police asked Gary Sheets for a copy of his wife's diary. According to Salt Lake City Detective Jim Bell, this was a common practice. Aplee.App. at 144. Gary Sheets read his wife's diary. Believing that the diary would remain confidential, Gary Sheets voluntarily turned the diary over to Detective Bell. Detective Bell testified that he could not recall whether he had assured Mr. Sheets the contents of the diary would remain confidential. Aplt.App. at 115. Salt Lake City Detective Ken Farnsworth testified, however, that he had told Mr. Sheets that the diary would remain confidential and communicated this message orally to those working on the case. Aplt.App. at 187; 193.

Copies of the diary were distributed to the investigators and detectives assigned to the case, one of whom was the Defendant, Salt Lake County Investigator Michael George. At trial, Mr. George testified that he reviewed the diary, photocopied certain excerpts, and made thorough notes of the diary's entries for his files.

In January 1987, Mark Hoffman pleaded guilty to the murders of Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets. Once Mr. Hoffman was sentenced to prison, the criminal investigation of the bombings ended. The investigative file, including the diary, was then archived, making it available for public inspection.

At that time, the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office had an unwritten policy that permitted its employees to speak to members of the press about their cases once an investigation closed, as long as the officers treated members of the press in an evenhanded fashion. Aplt.App. at 131. Pursuant to this policy, Mr. George met with three people who were writing books about the Hoffman murders, including his good friend Robert Lindsey. When he met with Mr. Lindsey, he allowed him to examine his file box of notes. Mr. George testified that this box may well have contained the photocopies and handwritten notes he had taken from the diary. By contrast, Mr. George did not provide the other authors with access to his files. Instead, those authors asked him questions and he responded, often referring to his notes. Mr. George destroyed his note files before the publication of Mr. Lindsey's book.

All three authors published books about the Hoffman murders. Mr. Lindsey's book was the only one, however, to contain direct quotations from Kathy Sheets' diary. On June 2, 1989, Mr. Sheets filed suit against Salt Lake County and various prosecutors and police officers asserting state and federal violations, including a claim for constitutional invasion of privacy. On December 4, 1990, Mr. Sheets amended his complaint to add a Sec. 1983 claim against the County, Mr. George, and Salt Lake County Attorney Theodore Cannon. Only Mr. George and the County remained as Defendants throughout the trial. At the close of the Plaintiff's case, Defendants moved to dismiss, in reality a motion for judgment as a matter of law, Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a), which the district court denied.

Defendants then put on their case, and sought to offer into evidence excerpts from

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the other authors' books as well as newspaper articles about Kathy and Gary Sheets. The Plaintiff objected to admission of these exhibits on grounds that they were irrelevant. The district court sustained the objection, but excluded the evidence on grounds of lack of foundation. At the close of all the evidence, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. Id.; Aplt.App. at 341.

The jury returned a verdict of $650,000 in favor of Mr. Sheets. Defendants then filed motions for judgment as a matter of law, Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), new trial, and remittitur. Aplt.App. at 81-82. The district court denied each of these post-trial motions.

Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion for attorney's fees and other costs. Defendants filed objections, and the district court entered an order awarding Mr. Sheets $77,896.93 in attorney's fees.


I. Statute of Limitations


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