Hollins v. Powell

Decision Date11 September 1985
Docket NumberNo. 84-1806,84-1806
Citation773 F.2d 191
Parties19 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 506 Margie P. HOLLINS, et al., Appellants, v. Robert Lee POWELL, et al., Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Robert Lee Powell, pro se.

Richard H. Edwards, St. Louis, Mo., for City of Wellston.

Frank Susman, St. Louis, Mo., for appellees.

Before HEANEY, Circuit Judge, FLOYD R. GIBSON, Senior Circuit Judge, and BOWMAN, Circuit Judge.

FLOYD R. GIBSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

The defendants, the City of Wellston and Robert Powell, appeal from a judgment entered by the district judge 1 upon a jury verdict finding them liable for violating the plaintiffs'--Margie Hollins', Mamie Wallace's, Annette McNeil's and Lloyd Brown's--constitutional rights. We affirm the liability verdict, but remand this case to the district court with orders to remit the compensatory damage award to $40,000.00, and to remit the punitive damage award against Powell to $2,000. If the plaintiffs decline to accept the remittitur, they may have a new trial on the issue of damages.

I. FACTS

The plaintiffs all were commissioners on the Land Clearance Authority and Housing Authority (LCRA/HA) for the City of Wellston (City). They were appointed to these volunteer posts by Powell's predecessor in the mayor's office. Powell was elected mayor of the City on November 17, 1982. Pursuant to Missouri law, the mayor of a city has the sole authority to appoint individuals to serve on a commission created by a city council. Mo.Rev.Stat. Sec. 99.050 (1978). After assuming office, Powell began to question the legality of the plaintiffs' appointments to the LCRA/HA. Under Missouri law, a certificate of appointment is to be filed with the city clerk after a commissioner has been appointed by a mayor. Mo.Rev.Stat. Sec. 99.380 (1978). Apparently, Powell was unable to locate the plaintiffs' certificate of appointment. He appointed his own commissioners to the LCRA/HA.

On December 8, 1982, the plaintiffs arrived at City Hall for a regularly scheduled meeting of the LCRA/HA. The LCRA/HA had rented a room on the second floor of the building, directly across from the Mayor's office. Shortly after the meeting was called to order, Powell interrupted the meeting. He asked the plaintiffs if they had received a letter from him which had questioned the legality of their appointments. The plaintiffs replied that they had, and that they were prepared to show him their letters of appointment. Powell, not wanting to see the letters, asked the plaintiffs to adjourn the meeting and to refrain from meeting until it was determined that their appointments were legal. The plaintiffs refused, reminding Powell that they had the right to occupy the room the LCRA/HA had rented and that there was a legal procedure for removing commissioners from office. See Mo.Rev.Stat. Sec. 99.070 (1978).

At some point, Powell left the room and called the police. The LCRA/HA's attorney and executive director also appeared at the meeting at some point. The police arrived and, after conferring briefly with Powell, asked the plaintiffs to adjourn the meeting. Upon advice of counsel, the plaintiffs refused. The police then arrested the plaintiffs, under charges of "unlawful assembly" and "failure to obey the command of a police officer," and took them to the police station. The plaintiffs were detained at the station between one--four hours, and were released on personal recognizance without charges being filed. Upon leaving the station, the plaintiffs were photographed by a member of the press. The story was given coverage by local and state media.

The plaintiffs filed a suit in federal district court against Powell, apparently in both his individual and official capacities, and against the City, claiming a violation of their constitutional rights in contravention of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 (1982). 2 At trial, each of the plaintiffs testified to having suffered embarrassment and public humiliation as a result of the incident. All the plaintiffs now have an arrest record, and none had one before the arrest in this case. One plaintiff testified to losing her job as a result of the incident, and another plaintiff testified to having had difficulty obtaining a job because of the arrest. Two of the plaintiffs testified to experiencing an aggravation of existing medical problems as a result of the incident.

The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, awarding them $300,000.00 against the City and Powell in compensatory damages, and awarding them $500,000.00 against Powell in punitive damages. On June 1, 1984, the district court awarded the plaintiffs $33,319.50 in attorney's fees and $1,712.55 in costs.

II. DISCUSSION

The City argues, first, that the district court erred in denying its motion for a new trial because the plaintiffs did not produce sufficient evidence to prove that Powell's acts constituted those of the City. We note that the City presented the defense for both Powell and itself in the district court. There is no evidence on the record to indicate that the City tendered, as part of its defense, evidence that Powell was acting solely in his individual capacity and not as Mayor of the City. It is only on appeal that the City has divorced itself from Powell.

As a threshold matter, we note that the City failed to move for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence. As a result, our review of the district court's denial of the City's motion for a new trial is strictly limited. A party's failure to move for a directed verdict at the close of all the evidence precludes appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence except for plain error. Ferren v. Richards Mfg. Co., 733 F.2d 526, 528 (8th Cir.1984); Krueger v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 707 F.2d 312, 313-14 (8th Cir.1983); Myers v. Norfolk Livestock Mkt., Inc., 696 F.2d 555, 559 (8th Cir.1982); Harris v. Zurich Ins. Co., 527 F.2d 528, 529-30, 530 n. 1 (8th Cir.1975); Lange v. Schultz, 627 F.2d 122, 128 (8th Cir.1980). However, the City appealed from the denial of the post-trial motion and designated the sufficiency of the evidence as an issue for appeal. As a result, we may determine whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion and whether, as a matter of law, the denial of the motion was erroneous because there is an absolute absence of evidence to support the jury's verdict. Krueger, 707 F.2d at 314-15; Lange, 627 F.2d at 128, 128 n. 5; Harris, 527 F.2d at 529-30, 530 n. 1.

In Monell v. Department of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), the United States Supreme Court overruled Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), and held that municipalities were no longer "wholly immune from suit under Sec. 1983." Monell, 436 U.S. at 663, 98 S.Ct. at 2022. However, the Court also held that a municipality could not be held liable, under a theory of respondeat superior, simply because it employs a tortfeasor. Id. at 691, 98 S.Ct. at 2036. "Instead, it is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under Sec. 1983." Id. at 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2037.

Particularly when dealing with municipal officials, other than a municipality's formal decision-making body, courts have struggled with the issue of when an official's "edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy * * *." See, e.g., Williams v. Butler, 746 F.2d 431, 434-39 (8th Cir.1984), vacated, 762 F.2d 73 (8th Cir.1985), (en banc) aff'g by an equally divided court, No. LR C 81 633, slip op. (E.D.Ark., Aug. 17, 1983) (unpublished); Wilson v. Taylor, 733 F.2d 1539, 1545-47 (11th Cir.1984); Bennett v. City of Slidell, 728 F.2d 762, 765-69 (5th Cir.1984) (en banc), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 3476, 87 L.Ed.2d 612 (1985); Wellington v. Daniels, 717 F.2d 932, 935-37 (4th Cir.1983); Rookard v. Health & Hosps. Corp., 710 F.2d 41, 45-46 (2d Cir.1983); McKinley v. City of Eloy, 705 F.2d 1110, 1116-17 (9th Cir.1983); Black v. Stephens, 662 F.2d 181, 191 (3d Cir.1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1008, 102 S.Ct. 1646, 71 L.Ed.2d 876 (1982). However, when the mayor of a city acts pursuant to authority that can fairly be said to have been granted under the type of government that the city operates, the mayor's actions or edicts "may fairly be said to represent official policy," Monell, 436 U.S. at 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2037, and thus fall squarely within the perimeters drawn in Monell.

Accordingly, when a mayor pursuant to the authority of his office violates a citizen's constitutional rights, a municipality is liable for damages under Sec. 1983. Thomas v. Sams, 734 F.2d 185, 192, 193 (5th Cir.1984), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 3476, 87 L.Ed.2d 612 (1985); Berdin v. Duggan, 701 F.2d 909, 913-14 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. 239, 78 L.Ed.2d 230 (1983). See generally Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 100 S.Ct. 1398, 63 L.Ed.2d 673 (1980). Further, a city's liability is not contingent upon repeated constitutional violations by the mayor or city council. See generally id.

The question of whether an isolated, unconstitutional violation will render a city liable under Sec. 1983 goes to the question of imputing liability to the City for the acts of a lower level city employee or official. In City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, --- U.S. ----, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985), the Supreme Court held that a city policy may not be inferred from the single unconstitutional act of a police officer. --- U.S. at ----, 105 S.Ct. at 2436. To allow such an inference would be to allow a:

Sec. 1983 plaintiff to establish municipal liability without submitting proof of a single action taken by a municipal policymaker. The * * * origins of Monell's "policy or...

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