The opinion of the court was delivered by: WALKER
Plaintiff Amanda Buritica brings this action alleging various torts and constitutional violations against the United States government, five United States Customs inspectors and several non-federal defendants. Buritica's claims arise out of an incident in which Customs agents detained her at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) because they suspected her of smuggling drugs into the country.
On December 22, 1997, the court issued a lengthy order addressing multiple cross-motions for summary judgment. While the court granted summary judgment for some defendants on certain claims, the court allowed Buritica to proceed to trial with (1) her claims against the government for tort damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief, (2) her claims against the five Customs inspectors for Bivens1 damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief and (3) her claims against the non-federal defendants for declaratory and injunctive relief. Pursuant to FRCP 42(b), the court bifurcated the action and indefinitely postponed the trial of Buritica's claims against the non-federal defendants.
Trial of Buritica's claims against the Customs inspectors and the government began on February 9, 1998. Buritica tried her claims for damages and declaratory relief against the Customs inspectors to a jury. At the same time, Buritica tried her claims for injunctive relief against the inspectors as well as all of her claims against the government to the court. After deliberating, the jury returned a unanimous verdict awarding Buritica a total of $ 451,002.00 in compensatory and punitive damages against four of the five Customs inspectors. Implicit in this verdict was the jury's finding that all of the inspectors save defendant Leslie Bianchi had violated Buritica's constitutional rights. Still pending before the court are Buritica's remaining claims as well as several post trial motions by the federal defendants and the government.
On March 13, 1998, the four Customs inspectors against whom the jury awarded damages (Kerri Murphy, Denise Quiroz, John Petrin and Daniel Vigna) moved for judgments as a matter of law claiming that (1) the evidence does not support the jury's verdict and (2) each inspector is entitled to qualified immunity. Defendants Quiroz and Vigna also moved in the alternative for remittitur and a new trial.
On April 17, 1998, the court held a hearing on these matters. Following the hearing, the court issued an order from the bench denying the motions for judgments as a matter of law. The court ruled that the evidence presented at trial was more than sufficient to support the verdicts and that none of the four Customs inspectors was entitled to qualified immunity.
The court also stated that it would deny the alternative motions by Quiroz and Vigna and detail its findings in a written order. In reviewing a defendant's alternative motions for remittitur or a new trial, the court must view the evidence concerning damages in a light most favorable to the prevailing party. See Fenner v. Dependable Trucking Co, Inc, 716 F.2d 598, 603 (9th Cir 1983). If, after applying this standard, the court concludes that the award was excessive, it can present the prevailing party with an option. The prevailing party can either agree to submit to a new trial or allow the court to set a reasonable amount of damages. See id.
Quiroz and Vigna argue that Buritica did not present sufficient evidence to justify the jury's $ 225,000 awards against them. Specifically, they contend that Buritica's lost wages and medical expenses only justified a fraction of these awards. Although Quiroz and Vigna candidly admit that there is no ready touchstone for determining the appropriate amount of emotional distress damages, they contend that the awards are simply too high to be considered "just and reasonable." See Quiroz Mem at 16-17; Vigna Mem at 17. In support of this argument, Quiroz and Vigna point to two other cases in which Customs officers unlawfully detained people who were suspected of internal drug smuggling. Those cases were tried without juries, and the damage awards were considerably smaller than the jury's award in the case at bar. See Velez v. United States, 693 F. Supp. 51, 58 (SDNY 1988); Reed v. United States, No C89-1109 VRW.
While Quiroz and Vigna's argument is far from groundless, there are several reasons why the court is not willing to overturn the jury's verdict. First, there is a heavy presumption in favor of this verdict. Second, the evidence clearly supports a finding that Buritica suffered emotional distress and trauma as the result of her detention. Quiroz and Vigna played a central role in this detention and were directly responsible for Buritica's most harrowing experiences. Third, the fact that this court and another court in New York have issued smaller awards in other cases is by no means conclusive. Those cases involved different circumstances and different plaintiffs. Without undue humility, the court suggests that a jury's verdict on the appropriate amount of emotional distress damages may be entitled to greater deference than a court-issued award.
The court therefore denies Quiroz and Vigna's alternative motions for remittitur and new trial.
Much as Quiroz and Vigna moved the court to reduce the damage awards against them, Petrin has moved for a judgment as a matter of law on the issue of punitive damages. Petrin claims that there was insufficient evidence presented at trial to support the jury's conclusion that Petrin acted either with malice or in reckless disregard of Buritica's rights. See Jur Instr at 14; see also Ninth Cir Civ Jur Instr 7.5 (1997).
While there may not have been reason for the jury to conclude that Petrin acted with malice, the court finds that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that Petrin recklessly disregarded Buritica's rights. At the time of Buritica's ordeal, Petrin was the chief inspector. He bore responsibility for the actions of his inspectors, and he had the authority to terminate Buritica's detention if it was no longer reasonable. Nonetheless, Petrin did not thoroughly review the circumstances surrounding Buritica's detention nor did he order her released. The jury could have reasonably concluded that Petrin's inaction constituted a reckless disregard for Buritica's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and detentions.
In addition, Buritica presented evidence at trial that Petrin had failed to train the inspectors properly. Especially when coupled with his inaction during Buritica's detention, this evidence also supports the award of punitive damages. The court declines the opportunity to tamper with the jury's verdict and will therefore deny Petrin's motion for a judgment as a matter of law.
Both the federal defendants and the government have moved for judgments as a matter of law on Buritica's claims for injunctive relief. These defendants claim that Buritica lacks standing to seek such relief. This is not the first time that the federal defendants and the government have raised this argument. Prior to trial, they made a motion for summary judgment on similar grounds. In response to that motion, the court noted that Buritica did indeed appear to lack standing. See Dec 22 Ord at 19. The court declined to rule, however, stating that it would reserve judgment until after trial because it was "conceivable that a full presentation of the facts [would] bring the case at bar within" a specific exception to the general standing principles governing claims for injunctive relief. Id at 20; see also LaDuke v. Nelson, 762 F.2d 1318, 1324 (9th Cir 1985) (setting forth the exception).
The government and the federal defendants have once again made a strong case that Buritica lacks standing to seek injunctive relief. The Supreme Court has established a stringent test to determine if a plaintiff has such standing. To establish that he is entitled to injunctive relief, a plaintiff must show (1) a pervasive pattern of past misconduct; (2) a causal linkage between the pattern and a policy of the named defendants; (3) the likelihood of immediate and irreparable harm; and (4) the inadequacy or unavailability of remedies at law. See City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 111, 75 L. Ed. 2d 675, 103 S. Ct. 1660 (1983).
As the court noted in its December 22 order, Buritica faces a high hurdle with regard to her claim for injunctive relief. That hurdle is the requirement that she demonstrate a likelihood of immediate and irreparable harm. In Lyons, for example, the plaintiff sought an injunction enjoining Los Angeles police officers from using an apparently dangerous form of choke hold. Although police officers had used this form of choke hold on the plaintiff himself, the court ruled that this incident alone was not enough to establish the likelihood that the police would use the choke hold on him again. See id at 105.
Despite the Supreme Court's apparently clear pronouncement, the Ninth Circuit has since ruled that plaintiffs seeking injunctive relief may not need to satisfy the four-part Lyons test to establish standing. See Nava v. City of Dublin, 121 F.3d 453, 456-57 (9th Cir 1997). The Nava court held that "the law of this circuit is that once a plaintiff establishes standing to seek damages, a court need not undertake a separate standing inquiry for equitable relief so long as the damages and equitable claims are predicated on the same operative facts and legal theories." Id at 456. There is clearly tension between Lyons and Nava. ...