Ruiz v. Wing, 020421 FED11, 18-10912

Docket Nº18-10912
Opinion JudgeLAGOA, Circuit Judge
Party NameALBERTO RUIZ, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. OFFICER JENNIFER WING, #7741, OFFICER DANNY FALLS, #1833, Defendants - Appellees, UNKNOWN OFFICER, City of Miami Police, et al., Defendants.
Judge PanelBefore MARTIN, GRANT, and LAGOA, Circuit Judges.
Case DateFebruary 04, 2021
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

ALBERTO RUIZ, Plaintiff - Appellant,

v.

OFFICER JENNIFER WING, #7741, OFFICER DANNY FALLS, #1833, Defendants - Appellees,

UNKNOWN OFFICER, City of Miami Police, et al., Defendants.

No. 18-10912

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

February 4, 2021

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:15-cv-22618-UU

Before MARTIN, GRANT, and LAGOA, Circuit Judges.

LAGOA, Circuit Judge

This appeal asks us to determine whether a pro se motion for a new trial that is stricken because the movant is represented by counsel tolls the time for filing a notice of appeal of the judgment under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(4)(A). We conclude that it does.

Alberto Ruiz brought an action against Officers Jennifer Wing and Danny Fals1 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Officers used excessive force when apprehending him. Following a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict for the Officers, and, on January 11, 2018, the district court entered final judgment in favor of the Officers and against Ruiz. Although represented by counsel, Ruiz, acting pro se, filed a motion for new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 on January 26, 2018. The district court struck Ruiz's motion as an unauthorized pro se filing by a represented party on February 27, 2018, and subsequently denied a motion for reconsideration filed by Ruiz's counsel. Ruiz filed his notice of appeal on March 6, 2018, and now appeals the entry of final judgment against him and the district court's order striking his motion for a new trial. The Officers moved to dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that Ruiz's notice of appeal was untimely. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that Ruiz's Rule 59 motion for a new trial tolled the time for him to file a notice of appeal, that his notice of appeal was therefore timely, and that we have jurisdiction over Ruiz's appeal. But because none of Ruiz's claims have merit, we affirm.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On the morning of September 24, 2014, Ruiz stole a Sports Utility Vehicle ("SUV") from the valet area of a Miami hotel. During the carjacking, Ruiz scuffled with the valet staff and, in his attempt to drive away, crashed the SUV into parked cars and hotel employees, knocking over luggage carts and injuring many of the hotel employees in the valet area. Ruiz then fled the scene with the SUV. The hotel's security cameras captured all of Ruiz's actions on video (the "Hotel Video"). After stealing the SUV, Ruiz sold the personal property inside of the SUV, including valuable electronics, to a person known by Ruiz to purchase stolen goods.

Later that day, City of Miami police officers located Ruiz by tracking his cellphone to a motel, although his exact location within the motel was unknown. Officers Wing and Fals, members of a tactical City of Miami Police Department unit focused on robbery, were called to assist with the arrest. Although the Officers knew the nature of the crimes for which Ruiz was to be arrested-carjacking, attempted murder, and robbery-they had not viewed the Hotel Video prior to arriving at the motel.

Ruiz was eventually subdued and arrested in his motel room. By the end of the arrest, Ruiz suffered a broken jaw and fractured ribs. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office charged Ruiz with several felonies based on his theft of the SUV, and Ruiz ultimately pled guilty to those charges in state court and was sentenced to a twenty-year prison sentence.

Ruiz subsequently filed a pro se complaint in federal district court against the Officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Officers used excessive force when apprehending him. About six months before trial commenced, Ruiz obtained pro bono trial counsel through a volunteer program administered by the Southern District of Florida, and Ruiz's counsel filed a notice of appearance on behalf of Ruiz as "counsel of record."2 The notice of appearance did not reflect any understanding between Ruiz and his counsel that their attorney-client relationship would conclude immediately following the trial or that counsel's engagement was limited solely to the trial itself.

Prior to trial, Ruiz, through counsel, filed a motion in limine to exclude, among other things, certain facts relating to Ruiz's arrest. The motion in limine did not reference the Hotel Video or any specific facts or evidence, but instead sought to exclude all facts relating to Ruiz's crimes as irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial. [Id.] The district court denied the motion, finding that the information relating to Ruiz's underlying crimes would be relevant at trial to the severity of the crimes for which Ruiz was arrested, which is a factor when considering the reasonableness of the Officers' use of force during Ruiz's arrest. The district court further noted that, given the physical altercations during the commission of Ruiz's crimes, information surrounding the crimes would be relevant as to causation of Ruiz's injuries.

At a pretrial conference, Ruiz noted his intent to play the Hotel Video for the jury during his opening statement. Ruiz and the Officers later agreed to jointly play the Hotel Video to the jury as a court exhibit before opening statements. The case proceeded to trial, and, pursuant to the parties' agreement, the district court began the trial by playing the Hotel Video. Ruiz did not object to the presentation of the Hotel Video. Indeed, he referred to the Hotel Video throughout trial.

During trial, Ruiz and the Officers presented conflicting testimony regarding the events immediately prior to Ruiz's arrest. Ruiz testified that he was in his motel room when he heard a commotion outside of the door. He testified that he opened the door and complied with the Officers' demands to lay on the floor. Ruiz explained that, after he laid down, Officer Fals kicked him in the face and ribs and directed Officer Wing to taser Ruiz while both Officers interrogated him about the stolen property from the SUV. Ruiz further testified that he believed the Officers stole the money that he had received from selling the stolen property, along with Ruiz's gold chain. In contrast, Officer Fals testified that he spotted Ruiz in the motel courtyard, and that Ruiz attempted to flee. Officer Fals explained that he pursued Ruiz and tackled him into furniture as Ruiz tried to run into his motel room and shut the door. Similarly, Officer Wing testified that she saw Officer Fals chasing Ruiz through the motel courtyard to a motel room. She further testified when she arrived at the room, she saw Officer Fals wrestling with Ruiz on the ground as he resisted and fought back. Both Officers testified that Ruiz violently resisted arrest, which caused Officer Fals to strike Ruiz with closed fists and Officer Wing to use her taser on Ruiz.

Of relevance to this appeal, counsel for the Officers made certain comments and arguments during opening statement, closing argument, and direct examinations that Ruiz now characterizes as improper and based on facts outside of the evidence presented. These include comments (1) regarding how and when the police tracked Ruiz's phone, (2) implying that Ruiz's crimes were covered by the media, (3) implying that Ruiz had smoked crack cocaine on the day of his arrest and that a crack pipe was found in Ruiz's motel room, (4) discussing Ruiz's other crimes and his danger to the community, (5) bolstering the Officers' credibility, including calling them "heroes," and (6) using words and phrases that Ruiz contends are inflammatory or exaggerated. Ruiz, however, objected to only some of these statements. Additionally, following Ruiz's first objection, he stated that he "ha[d] a motion," but did not explicitly raise this "motion" as a motion for mistrial. After making a second objection, Ruiz asked to renew this "motion" later in the proceedings. But Ruiz again did not specify the nature of this "motion" nor ever raise the motion later in the proceedings.

Also of relevance to this appeal, the district court interrupted questioning during the examination of Ruiz to clarify and ensure responsive answers. For example, when Ruiz's counsel described the person who purchased Ruiz's stolen goods as a "pawn shop," the district court interjected to clarify that the person was a "fence" who deals in stolen goods and not a pawn shop. Throughout trial, the district court also directed Ruiz's counsel to refrain from argumentative questioning, to proceed expeditiously, and to not seek duplicative or otherwise improper testimony.

During the jury's deliberations, the jury requested to see the Hotel Video again. No party objected, and the district court allowed the jury to see the video. The jury then returned a verdict for the Officers. On January 11, 2018, the district court entered final judgment in favor of the Officers and against Ruiz.

On January 26, 2018, Ruiz-acting pro se-filed a motion for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. In that motion, Ruiz argued that the district court should not have allowed the Hotel Video to be presented to the jury during the trial. Ruiz attached to his motion a notice to the clerk advising that Ruiz's trial attorney "is believed that he will not be representing me on any other issues of the case." The Officers opposed Ruiz's motion for a new trial, arguing that the pro se filing should be stricken because Ruiz was represented by counsel. The Officers additionally argued that Ruiz waived any objection to admission of the Hotel Video and that admission of the Hotel Video was not erroneous or a basis for a new trial. Ruiz's trial counsel then filed a notice adopting Ruiz's pro se motion for...

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