Ojeda v. Metro. Transp. Auth.

Decision Date19 July 2022
Docket Number20-2768,August Term 2021
Citation41 F.4th 56
Parties Domingo OJEDA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Philip J. Dinhofer, Philip J. Dinhofer LLC, Rockville Centre, NY, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Beck S. Fineman, Ryan Ryan Deluca LLP, Bridgeport, CT, for Defendant-Appellant.

Before: Pooler, Wesley, and Menashi, Circuit Judges.

Menashi, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiff-Appellee Domingo Ojeda was employed as a police officer by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ("MTA"), the defendant-appellant in this case. While patrolling a railroad station, Ojeda witnessed an incident between a man and a woman in the station's parking lot. After intervening and discovering that the man had an open order of protection against him, Ojeda handcuffed the man. The arrestee fled, and Ojeda injured himself in pursuit.

Ojeda sued the MTA under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. § 51, alleging that the MTA's negligence—including its failure to provide him with a prisoner compartment in his patrol car—caused his injuries. A jury ruled in favor of Ojeda and awarded him damages. On appeal, the MTA argues that it is immune from liability pursuant to the governmental function defense and that, in any event, it cannot be held liable without expert testimony. The district court rejected these arguments when it denied the MTA's motion for judgment as a matter of law. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

The MTA was created under New York law as "a body corporate and politic constituting a public benefit corporation." N.Y. Pub. Auth. L. § 1263. Its purpose is "the continuance, further development and improvement of commuter transportation and other services related thereto within the metropolitan commuter transportation district." Id. § 1264. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company ("Metro-North") is a subsidiary of the MTA. N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 21, § 1085.1(a). Metro-North "operates and maintains the Hudson, Harlem, New Haven, Port Jervis and Pascack Valley commuter railroad lines." Id. § 1085.2(g).

The MTA is "authorized and empowered, to provide and maintain an authority police department and a uniformed authority police force." N.Y. Pub. Auth. L. § 1266-h. According to statute, "[e]ach member of such uniformed police force shall be a ‘police officer’ for the purposes of the criminal procedure law, with all of the powers of such police officers thereunder." Id. The MTA police may "enforce and prevent violation of all laws and ordinances" "in and about any or all of the facilities owned, occupied and/or operated by the [MTA] and its subsidiary corporations." Id.

In 2003, Ojeda joined the MTA police and attended the New York Police Department academy for six months for basic training. In the first part of his thirteen-year career as an MTA police officer, Ojeda worked in the patrol unit. He then joined the emergency services unit ("ESU"), a unit within the police department that, according to Ojeda, "responds to a higher problematic situation that is beyond the scope of the regular police officer." App'x 106-07. Such situations include "barricaded subjects," "emotionally disturbed persons," "extrication from vehicles," and "anything that uses specialized tools or is beyond the capacity of the police officer to handle." Id. at 107. To serve in the ESU, Ojeda had to undergo specialized training.

On a typical day, ESU officers are assigned to a particular region of the metro system and either make themselves available for a regular patrol officer's request for assistance or conduct patrol themselves. The standard vehicle provided to ESU officers is a truck with a utility body attached to it. The utility body's contents include medical emergency equipment, protective suits, vehicle extrication equipment, and rope rescue equipment. The truck is not equipped to transport people placed in custody. Instead, if an ESU officer makes an arrest, he must request assistance from another patrol unit to transport the arrestee.

Ojeda and his partner, Officer Gregg Cella, were assigned to patrol Harrison Station, a commuter rail stop on Metro-North's New Haven Line, on the night of October 2, 2013. About two hours into their patrol, they spotted a vehicle enter the station's parking lot with a female driver and a male passenger. Both occupants exited the car, and the man reentered the car to sit in the driver's seat. As the woman reached into the car on the passenger side—with the door open—the man drove the car in reverse. As Ojeda tells it, "[t]he door knock[ed] her down and the door literally [went] right over her head." Id. at 121.

Ojeda left his own vehicle to address the situation, and Cella followed him. Ojeda directed the driver to pull the car over to the curb, and Ojeda turned off the engine and removed the keys. He then brought the man to the rear of the car and began questioning him. He learned that the man and the woman had a child together. Ojeda also noticed that the woman was "up and screaming and yelling with" Cella and that she "was speaking in both Spanish and English." Id. at 123-24.

Because Ojeda spoke Spanish, he traded places with Cella and began questioning the woman. She claimed that there was an order of protection against the man. Ojeda told Cella what the woman said, which prompted Cella to search for any outstanding warrants or orders of protection using the man's driver's license. That review confirmed that there was an open order of protection, and Ojeda proceeded to place the man in handcuffs and arrest him. Ojeda secured the arrestee by holding onto the handcuffs while Cella communicated with dispatch.1

At that point, the woman began talking with the man. Ojeda told them to stop speaking with each other. The man asked Ojeda to loosen the handcuffs. Ojeda requested that the man call him "sir or officer" and said that "officer works," and the man began to refer to Ojeda as "Officer Works." App'x 130. Now suspecting that the man was under the influence, Ojeda turned to the woman and asked if he had a history of using drugs. The woman responded that he did.

Ojeda let go of the handcuffs to approach the woman and ask what drugs the man had been using. At that point, the man took off running. Ojeda pursued him on foot, but as he passed the ESU truck, he felt a "pop" in his leg and slowed down. Id. at 131. As the man disappeared, Ojeda encountered another police officer, who called backup to assist in a search. (The search was unsuccessful, but the following day the man turned himself in.)

After backup arrived, Ojeda remained at the scene for another three-and-a-half hours to search for his prisoner. Later that night, he drove himself to a hospital, where doctors determined that he may have torn his Achilles tendon. Because of his injury, Ojeda was placed on restricted duty. After nearly a year passed without a full recovery, Ojeda underwent surgery in September 2014. The following year, the MTA police chief marked Ojeda as "disabled" for pension purposes. Five months later, his employment with the MTA was terminated.

Ojeda filed a complaint against the MTA under the FELA, alleging that the MTA's negligence caused his injuries. Specifically, Ojeda alleged that the MTA negligently (1) failed "to provide the plaintiff with the necessary and proper tools and equipment with which to work," (2) failed "to provide [Ojeda] with an appropriate and timely backup," and (3) "provid[ed] plaintiff with a police partner who left plaintiff alone to manage with two persons." Am. Compl. ¶ 21, Ojeda v. MTA , 477 F. Supp. 3d 65 (S.D.N.Y. 2020) (No. 16-CV-3), ECF No. 29. In connection with his injuries, Ojeda sought $5 million in damages.

Before trial commenced, the MTA moved in limine to exclude evidence regarding the MTA's decision to assign the ESU vehicle to Ojeda and regarding Cella's alleged negligence. See Motions in Limine, Ojeda , 477 F. Supp. 3d 65, ECF Nos. 103, 104. According to the MTA, the governmental function defense protected it from liability based on its decisions to issue Ojeda equipment or to assign Cella as his partner. The MTA also argued that those claims would require expert evidence, which Ojeda failed to produce. The district court declined to decide whether the governmental function defense is available in a FELA case, but it granted the MTA's motion insofar as Ojeda was not allowed to "testify about the MTA's official policies and practices of assigning police officers to a specific patrol car" or to "state whether Officer Cella acted negligently during the encounter based on the MTA's official policies and practices of detaining an arrestee." App'x 83. However, Ojeda was permitted to "testify about his experience of being assigned to a patrol car as well as what he saw Officer Cella doing during the arrest so long as his testimony is based on his own observations and experiences." Id. at 83-84.

The case went to trial, and the only testimony came from Ojeda, Ojeda's treating orthopedist, and Cella. At trial, the parties stipulated that the MTA "does not study response time to requests for backup calls." Trial Transcript at 99, Ojeda , 477 F. Supp. 3d 65. Before the case was submitted to the jury, the MTA moved for a directed verdict and reiterated its arguments that Ojeda could not establish liability without expert testimony and that it was immune from liability pursuant to the governmental function defense. The district court denied the motion. Although the district court "agree[d] ... that there's not a wealth of evidence in this case on certain things," it decided "there's enough to go to the jury." App'x 152. As to the governmental function defense, the district court stated that "[w]hen looking at the case law, it is not clear that it even applies to a FELA case." Id. at 151.

The jury found that Ojeda had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the MTA "was negligent in failing to provide...

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