Cunningham v. Balt. Cnty., No. 3461

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtOpinion by Graeff, J.
PartiesCOREY CUNNINGHAM, et al. v. BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al.
Decision Date01 July 2020
Docket NumberNo. 3461

COREY CUNNINGHAM, et al.
v.
BALTIMORE COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al.

No. 3461

COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS OF MARYLAND

September Term, 2018
July 1, 2020


COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL - FINAL JUDGMENT - SUPPRESSION RULING

Collateral estoppel bars the re-litigation of an issue decided in a prior adjudication if, in addition to other requirements, "there was a final judgment on the merits in the prior adjudication[,]" and "the party against whom the doctrine is asserted had a fair opportunity to be heard on the issue in the prior adjudication." Clark v. Prince George's County, 211 Md. App. 548, 581, cert. denied, 434 Md. 312 (2013).

In a prior criminal case against appellant, the circuit court denied his motion to suppress evidence on the basis that the entry into the home to serve an arrest warrant was lawful. Appellant was later acquitted of the criminal charges. In the subsequent civil litigation regarding the same entry, the court found that appellants were collaterally estopped from relitigating the constitutionality of the entry because the issue had been litigated and decided by the criminal court. Under these circumstances, however, when a defendant is acquitted of criminal charges and there is no ability to seek appellate review of a pretrial suppression ruling, there is no final judgment for collateral estoppel purposes. Accordingly, because appellant had no opportunity to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress in his criminal case, he was not collaterally estopped from challenging the entry in the civil case.

Additionally, the other appellants who were not parties to the criminal case did not have a full opportunity to be heard on the issue, and therefore, collateral estoppel did not preclude them from litigating the constitutionality of the initial entry either.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 - MARYLAND DECLARATION OF RIGHTS ARTICLE 26 - SEARCH AND SEIZURE - ENTRY INTO HOME TO SERVE ARREST WARRANT - REASONABLE BELIEF

Law enforcement may enter a private home to serve an arrest warrant only when (1) an officer has reason to believe that "the location is the defendant's residence"; and (2) the police have a reasonable belief that the subject of the warrant is inside the residence. United States v. Hill, 649 F.3d 258, 262 (4th Cir. 2011). In this context, the "reason to believe" standard does not rise to the level of probable cause, but instead is akin to reasonable suspicion.

Here, the officers had previously confirmed that the warrant subject was the lessee at that address on the warrant and that she had two small children. Police knocked on the door and heard noises indicating that someone was coming up to the door and moving things, a brief baby cry, and the sound of someone coughing inside. In the absence of information to the contrary, it was reasonable for the officers to believe that the warrant

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subject was inside the residence at the time under these circumstances. Accordingly, the entry was lawful.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 - MARYLAND DECLARATION OF RIGHTS ARTICLES 24 AND 26 - EXCESSIVE FORCE - QUALIFIED IMMUNITY - DISPUTES OF FACT

In determining whether a police officer has used excessive force in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, we look to "whether the officers' actions were 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989); Estate of Blair by Blair v. Austin, No. 35, Sept. Term, 2019, 2020 WL 2847516, at *8 (Md. June 2, 2020) (plurality opinion). When the issue of reasonableness of a police officer's action or the applicability of qualified immunity "turns upon which version of facts one accepts, the jury, not the judge, must determine liability." King v. State of California, 242 Cal. App. 4th 265, 289 (2015).

In this case, where there was a dispute of fact regarding what happened in the moments leading up to when the officer fired the fatal shot, it was for the jury to determine, based on the evidence, what occurred, and whether, in light of its finding, the officer acted reasonably. Because the jury decided that the officer's actions were not reasonable in this case, the circuit court erred in usurping the jury's finding and granting appellees' judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

APPEALBILITY - FINAL JUDGMENT - CONDITIONAL GRANT OF MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

On appellees' post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for a new trial and for remittitur of judgment, the circuit court granted judgment to appellees notwithstanding the verdict, and, should that decision not withstand appellate scrutiny, it conditionally granted a new trial because it found the verdict was inconsistent.

Under normal circumstances, "an order granting a new trial is not immediately appealable because it is an interlocutory order" that is not "ultimately reviewable" until "appeal is taken from the final judgment." Buck v. Cam's Broadloom Rugs, Inc., 328 Md. 51, 57 (1992). In contrast, when the order for a new trial is conditioned on the reversal of the grant of judgment notwithstanding the verdict, the judgment is appealable.

JURY VERDICTS - IRRECONCILABLY INCONSISENT VERDICT - MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

The circuit court conditionally granted appellees' motion for a new of trial on the basis that the verdict sheet was irreconcilably inconsistent because the jury did not apportion the damage award between the state law claims, which were subject to a damages

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cap pursuant to the Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA"), and the federal § 1983 claims, which were not subject to any damages cap. As a result, the court concluded that appellees were entitled to a new trial.

A jury verdict is irreconcilably inconsistent "[w]here the answer to one of the questions in a special verdict form would require a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and an answer to another would require a verdict in favor of the defendant[.]" S. Mgmt. Corp. v. Taha, 378 Md. 461, 488 (2003) (quoting S&R Inc. v. Nails, 85 Md. App. 570, 590 (1991)). Under these circumstances, the verdict sheet was not irreconcilably inconsistent, and circuit court abused its discretion in granting a conditional new trial on this basis.

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Circuit Court for Baltimore County
Case No. 03-C-16-009435

REPORTED

Meredith, Graeff, Eyler, James R. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Opinion by Graeff, J.

Chief Judge Matthew J. Fader did not participate in the Court's decision to designate this opinion for publication pursuant Md. Rule 8-605.1.

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On August 1, 2016, two Baltimore County police officers attempted to serve arrest warrants on Korryn Gaines and Kareem Courtney at Ms. Gaines' apartment. The warrant for Ms. Gaines was for failure to appear for a misdemeanor trial, and the warrant for Mr. Courtney was for second-degree assault. The officers testified that they repeatedly knocked on the door, and although they heard movement inside, no one opened the door. They ultimately kicked the door open, and when they entered the apartment, they saw Ms. Gaines siting on the floor with a pistol grip shotgun.

The officers retreated and called for back-up. This led to a six-hour stand-off between Ms. Gaines, positioned in the apartment with her five-year-old son Kodi, and multiple law enforcement officers stationed outside the apartment. Kareem Courtney, Ms. Gaines' fiancé and Karsyn Courtney, the daughter of Mr. Courtney and Ms. Gaines, left when the police arrived.

Corporal Royce Ruby testified that, after hours of requests for Ms. Gaines to put down the gun, she moved to the kitchen, raised her shotgun to firing position, and pointed it toward the officers positioned by the doorway. At that point, Corporal Ruby fired a shot that killed Ms. Gaines, and a bullet exited her body and injured Kodi.

A lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County ensued. Rhanda Dormeus (mother of Ms. Gaines), individually and as personal representative of Ms. Gaines' estate, Mr. Courtney, individually and on behalf of minor child Karsyn Courtney, Corey Cunningham (father of Kodi Gaines), on behalf of minor child Kodi Gaines, and Ryan Gaines (father of Ms. Gaines), appellants, sued Baltimore County, Corporal Ruby, and other law enforcement officers on numerous grounds related to Ms. Gaines' death. On

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January 29, 2018, the court granted a motion for summary judgment and dismissed the claims against all defendants except Baltimore County and Corporal Ruby, appellees.

On February 16, 2018, after a three-week trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of appellants, awarding more than $38 million in combined economic and non-economic damages. Appellees filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, for a New Trial and for Remittitur of Judgment. On February 14, 2019, the circuit court issued an Order and a 75-page Memorandum Opinion that, among other things, granted appellees' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In the alternative, the court granted the defendants' motion for a new trial on the ground that the verdict was defective because it "did not specify the apportionment, if any, of the total jury award between the [s]tate and [f]ederal [c]laims." The court further found that the non-economic damages awarded were "excessive and shocked the conscience," and "but for" the other rulings, it "would remit the [jury's] award."

On appeal, appellants present multiple questions for this Court's review,1 which we have consolidated and rephrased as follows:

1. Did the circuit court err in granting the motion for summary judgment on the ground that the initial entry into the apartment by the police officers was constitutional?

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2. Did the circuit court err in finding that appellees' post-trial motions were timely filed?

3. Did the circuit court err in granting appellees' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("JNOV") and vacating the damage awards for appellants on the basis that Corporal Ruby was entitled to qualified immunity?

4. Did the
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