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Anthony Lehr, et al v. City of Sacramento

August 15, 2011

ANTHONY LEHR, ET AL.,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF SACRAMENTO, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Morrison C. England, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Through this action, numerous homeless individuals certified as a class (collectively, "Plaintiffs") seek redress from the City of Sacramento ("the City" or "Defendant") for alleged violations of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.

A jury trial commenced on May 9, 2011. At the close of their case, Defendant moved for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)*fn1 concerning all claims asserted by the class representatives and class members.*fn2 The Court denied that Motion. On May 24, 2011, the jury rendered a verdict.

Through this motion, Defendant now moves for Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Rule 50(b). (Def.'s Mot. J. Matter of Law, 2:21-27, June 13, 2011, ECF No. 189.) Alternatively, Defendant requests that the Court order a new trial, pursuant to Rule 59(a). (Def.'s Mot., 3:2-9, ECF No. 189). Plaintiffs filed a timely opposition to Defendant's Motion. (Pls.' Opp'n, June 30, 2011, ECF No. 191.)

For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motions are denied.

BACKGROUND

This is a class-action lawsuit. The members of the class are individuals who were homeless in the City from August 2, 2005 to the present. The class is represented by Plaintiffs Connie Hopson and Linda McKinley. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant, through its police officers and other employees, had a custom of seizing and disposing of, or destroying, their personal property. Plaintiffs further allege that Defendant's police officers and other employees either personally seized and disposed of, or destroyed, their personal property, or directed or supervised others in doing so. Plaintiffs claim that Defendant's seizure and destruction of their property violated their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Specifically, Plaintiffs argue that Defendant violated their right to be free from unreasonable seizure of their property; their right to advance notice of the seizure; and their right to notice that their property could be reclaimed within ninety days if it was seized. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendant had a custom of treating Plaintiffs' personal property in a different and discriminatory manner, as compared to the found or abandoned personal property of non-homeless persons, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Defendant denies that it had a custom of seizing, disposing of, or destroying personal property of Plaintiffs Connie Hopson and Linda McKinley, or any of the class members. Defendant further denies that it treated the personal property of Plaintiffs, or homeless people in the class, differently from the personal property of non-homeless persons. Defendant also denies that Plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated.

At trial, seventeen homeless or formerly homeless witnesses, as well as three persons working with homeless people, testified in support of Plaintiffs' claims that their property had been wrongfully seized and destroyed by the City in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. An additional five homeless or formerly homeless individuals testified by deposition that their property had been wrongfully seized by Defendant's employees and agents. All twenty-two homeless witnesses testified that they saw their personal property thrown away into dumpsters, dump trucks, or trailers, or mixed with garbage and/or the property of others.

They testified that they never saw their property bagged or labeled such that it could later be booked and stored by the police. Several witnesses also testified that they visited the City's Sequoia Pacific storage facility and were told that their property had never been catalogued and stored.

Defendant called four witnesses on its behalf. First, Police Officer Mark Zoulas testified at trial that he was assigned to be the direct liaison with the homeless in 1997. He testified that when assigned, the only instruction he was given was to "end homelessness in Sacramento." He further stated that he was not told at the time of his assignment, or at any other time, that any departmental policies governed his work. Defendant Zoulas also testified that he routinely left a notice at homeless camps, warning that the camp must be vacated and that any property left behind would be considered abandoned and disposed of accordingly. Second, Officer Chargin testified at trial that he was assigned to work as Officer Zoulas' partner in late 2009. Officer Chargin testified that he followed Officer Zoulas' practice of posting a notice stating that property not moved would be disposed of. Officer Chargin also initiated the practice of booking and storing homeless property in accordance with the Department's General Order.

During the trial, both Officer Zoulas and the third defense witness, Officer Cooper, denied that they ever had intentionally thrown away property belonging to homeless people in the course of clean-ups of homeless camps.

The fourth and final defense witness, Captain Mathes, testified at trial that she was in charge of 160 personnel at the central command of the Sacramento Police Department, which included Officers Zoulas, Cooper, and Chargin. She testified that all officers were trained in departmental procedures for booking found property. These procedures were set forth in a General Order that was admitted into evidence. There was no testimony that any policies were issued regarding the implementation of the General Order specific to the seizure of homeless property.

Significantly, Defendant submitted no testimony, or documentary evidence from any storage facility, to establish that Officers Zoulas and Cooper had in fact booked property from 2005 to 2009, except on occasions when homeless individuals were taken into custody. Additionally, Officer Zoulas stated that homeless people had lost property as a result of clean-ups by public agencies, including the City of Sacramento. He testified that he had received complaints from over one hundred people about property loss over the course of his work.

On May 24, 2011, after four and one-half days of deliberations, the jury answered eight Special Questions on the Verdict Form. (ECF No. 187.) The jury answered Questions One, Four, and Six in the affirmative, and thus in favor of Plaintiffs. Question One asked: "Did employees or agents of the City of Sacramento (such as city police officers, park safety rangers, sanitation workers, and/or clean-up workers under the personal supervision of city employees) seize and then throw away or destroy the personal property of Connie Hopson, Linda McKinley and/or other homeless persons?" The jury answered "Yes."

Question Four asked: "Between August 2, 2005, and the present, did the City of Sacramento (acting through its employees) have a longstanding custom or practice of not giving adequate notice to homeless individuals concerning how they could retrieve their property, assuming their personal property was seized and stored?" The jury answered "Yes." Question Six asked: "Between August 2, 2005, and the present, did the City of Sacramento have a longstanding custom or practice of failing to implement appropriate policies concerning the booking or handling of homeless individuals' property?" The jury answered "Yes."

Defendant contends that the jury's answers to Questions Four and Six are contrary to all evidence presented during trial, and Defendant is therefore entitled to Judgment as a Matter of Law. In the alternative, Defendant argues that it is entitled to a new trial regarding the issues presented by Questions Four and Six. Defendant claim that the jury's answers to these Questions are against the clear weight of the evidence presented during trial, and failure to grant a new trial would result in a miscarriage of justice.

STANDARD

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Judgment as a matter of law is proper only if "the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to that of the jury." ...


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