Chestnut v. City of Lowell, 032902 FED1, 00-1840

Docket Nº:00-1840
Party Name:Chestnut v. City of Lowell
Case Date:March 29, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
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CRAIG CHESTNUT, Plaintiff, Appellee,

v.

CITY OF LOWELL, Defendant, Appellant.

No. 00-1840

No. 00-1996

United States Court of Appeals For the First Circuit

March 29, 2002

ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS

[Hon. Rya W. Zobel, U.S. District Judge]

Thomas E. Sweeney, City Solicitor, with whom Christine P. O'Connor, Assistant City Solicitor, City of Lowell Law Department, was on brief for appellant.

Daniel S. Sharp, with whom Elaine Whitfield Sharp and Whitfield Sharp & Sharp, were on brief for appellee.

Before Torruella, Circuit Judge, Cyr, Senior Circuit Judge, and Lipez, Circuit Judge.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

This case requires us to apply plain error review to an award of punitive damages against the City of Lowell pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Under City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247 (1981), punitive damages are not available in § 1983 actions against a municipality.

I.

Appellee Craig Chestnut brought this § 1983 action against the City of Lowell (City) and two of its police officers, Stephen Ciavola and Steven Coyle, alleging inter alia that (1) Ciavola used excessive force against him; (2) Coyle, after having taken Chestnut into police custody, failed to protect him; and (3) the City improperly hired and retained Ciavola -- who had an extensive criminal record, including two convictions for assault and battery -- as a police officer. Upon the conclusion of a six-day trial, the jury awarded Chestnut $750,000 in damages: $500,000 in punitive damages against the City, $40,000 in punitive damages against Ciavola, and $210,000 in compensatory damages against both of those defendants. (FN1) The City moved for a new trial (or alternatively to strike the punitive damages assessed against it) on grounds that punitive damages against a municipality are unavailable under § 1983. The district court denied this post-trial motion because of the City's repeated failure to raise this defense prior to the submission of the case to the jury. We affirm.

II. Based upon the evidence introduced at trial, the jury could have found the following facts. On the evening of February 7, 1997, Chestnut and his wife went to The Usual, a bar and lounge in Lowell, Massachusetts. Coyle and Ciavola were also present in the crowded lounge when a fight began near Chestnut and his wife. After a man pushing through the crowd knocked Chestnut's wife down, Chestnut verbally accosted him. As a result, the man punched Chestnut in the nose, prompting a return swing from Chestnut. Soon thereafter, Coyle arrested and handcuffed Chestnut and escorted him out of the bar. Once outside the bar, Ciavola struck Chestnut in the face, knocking him to the ground, and kicked him, still handcuffed, in the face. As a result of Ciavola's violent conduct, Chestnut required fourteen stitches around his right eye, which was damaged permanently. This eye injury has impaired Chestnut's long-range depth perception and precluded him from earning a living as a crane operator.

Ciavola had committed several assaults and batteries and a litany of other crimes (including shoplifting and being a minor in possession of alcohol) before the City hired him as a police officer. Moreover, at the time the City was conducting its pre-hiring background investigation of Ciavola, an active warrant was outstanding for Ciavola's arrest for failure to appear in court for violating his probation. Notwithstanding this extensive criminal history, the City hired Ciavola as a police officer.

As the trial drew to a close on May 22, 2000, the district court held a conference with the attorneys to discuss jury instructions and the verdict form, which included a question on punitive damages. The court raised with counsel the appropriateness of a punitive damages award against a city pursuant to § 1983. Chestnut's attorney said such an award was appropriate. Counsel for the City did not respond to the judge's inquiry, nor did it take issue with Chestnut's response.

During his closing argument later that day, Chestnut's counsel called the jury's attention to the final question on the verdict form regarding punitive damages. He vehemently urged the jurors to impose a sizable punitive damages award against the City, large enough to attract the attention of city officials, thereby prompting meaningful change in the City's policy on the hiring of police officers. The City's trial counsel did not object to this argument.

The district court then charged the jury on the § 1983 counts as well as state law negligence claims as to each defendant. It also gave an instruction, without objection, that authorized an award of punitive damages under § 1983 against each defendant, including the City. The court explained to the jury that punitive damages are "not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant" and should be considered only as to those defendants who are found to have "violated Mr. Chestnut's constitutional rights." The verdict form, distributed to the jury without objection, provided a blank space for punitive damages to be assessed against the City should it be found liable under § 1983.

The next day, May 23, 2000, the jury returned verdicts for Chestnut on both the negligence and § 1983 counts against Ciavola and the City of Lowell. As noted, the jury awarded Chestnut a total of $750,000 in damages: $500,000 in § 1983 punitive damages against the City of Lowell, $40,000 in § 1983 punitive damages against Ciavola, and $210,000 in compensatory damages against both defendants. (FN2) The district court entered judgment accordingly, without any objection from the City.

Finally aware of its large oversight, the City filed on May 25, 2000, a motion for a new trial or, in the alternative, a motion to strike the $500,000 award of punitive damages on the ground that, under City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247 (1981), punitive damages are not available in § 1983 actions against a municipality. At a motion hearing on July 12, 2000, the district court, ruling from the bench, denied the City's post-trial motion. (FN3) In doing so, it recognized that the punitive damages award against the City of Lowell was indeed error in light of City of Newport. Nevertheless, the court denied the City's motion because of its failure to pose a timely objection to a possible award of punitive damages:

While it was certainly an error to charge the jury on punitive damages, I do believe that the matter was waived by the defendant's failure to bring it to my attention initially during the pre-trial conference, when we discussed damages. Although, I must say I'm embarrassed to see that I did not include the issue of damages in the pre-trial order. It was discussed. . . . [T]he City was present through its counsel. And it was waived by the City's failure to bring it to my attention in connection with the questions which were given to counsel before the charge conference. It was waived when it was not raised after the charge conference when I outlined what I intended to tell the jury. And it was waived, yet again, after I did charge the jury on the issue and the jury returned -- that is, after I charged the jury and before the jury retired to deliberate. And it was waived the last time when the jury returned with the verdict that included punitive damages and it was not then brought to my attention until some months after that or some weeks after that. So for all of these reasons, I find that the issue was waived under Rule 51 and the motion is therefore denied.

The City now appeals, asking that we strike the punitive damages award entered against it.

III. The parties do not dispute that the $500,000 punitive damages award is improper under City of Newport, 453 U.S. at 271, in which the Supreme Court held that municipalities are immune from punitive damages in § 1983 actions. Instead, the dispute focuses on the City's contention that this error cannot survive plain error review.

A. Standard of Review

Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides in pertinent part that "[n]o party may assign as error the giving or the failure to give an instruction unless that party objects thereto before the jury retires to consider its verdict, stating distinctly the matter objected to and the grounds of the objection." (FN4) This rule applies to the form of the verdict, as well as the jury instructions. See Wilson v. Maritime Overseas Corp., 150 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 1998). In keeping with the "uncompromising...

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