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Willis v. City of Fresno

United States District Court, E.D. California

April 14, 2014

CHRIS WILLIS, MARY WILLIS, INDIVIDUALLY AND SUCCESSORS IN INTEREST TO STEPHEN WILLIS, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF FRESNO, OFFICER GREG CATTON, and OFFICER DANIEL ASTACIO, Defendants.

ORDER ON POST TRIAL MOTIONS: PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL (DOC. 259); DEFENDANTS' RENEWED MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW PURSUANT TO RULE 50(B) (DOC. 244, 245, 252, 265); DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR RELIEF FROM THE JUDGMENT OF THIS COURT PURSUANT TO RULE 60(B) (DOC. 244, 245, 252, 265); DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL (DOC. 265)

BARBARA A. McAULIFFE, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Several post-trial motions are currently before the Court. Plaintiffs Chris and Mary Willis, individually and as successors in interest to Stephen Willis, move for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. (Doc. 259.) Defendants City of Fresno, Officers Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio have filed three post-trial motions: (1) a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) (Doc. 244, 245, 252, 265); (2) a motion for relief from the judgment of this Court pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b) (Doc. 244, 245, 252, 265); and (3) a motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. (Doc. 265.)

The Court heard oral arguments on the above-noticed motions on April 2, 2014. (Doc. 290.) Counsel Walter Walker and Beau Burbidge appeared in person on behalf of Plaintiffs. Counsel James Weakley and Roy Santos appeared in person on behalf of Defendants. Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefs, oral arguments, and the entire record in this case, this Court issues the following Order.

II. BACKGROUND

A. The Trial

Trial was conducted over a ten day period. Numerous percipient and expert witnesses testified. Much, if not all, of the facts are disputed. To the extent that some facts are undisputed, the inferences to be drawn from those facts are disputed. The following summary of the trial is not intended to be a comprehensive statement of the evidence presented, but rather, is offered as context for Court's rulings on the parties' post-trial motions.[1]

On March 28, 2009, Stephen Willis was fatally shot by Defendants Greg Catton and Daniel Astacio, who were Officers with the Fresno Police Department. Stephen Willis's parents, Chris and Mary Willis ("Plaintiffs"), allege that Stephen's Fourth Amendment rights were violated as a result of the shooting. Plaintiffs further allege that Officer Catton and Officer Astacio were negligent in causing the death of Stephen Willis.[2]

The facts underlying Plaintiffs' claims are multi-faceted and heavily disputed. Late in the night of Stephen's death, Officers Catton and Astacio and several other City Police Department officers responded to a call regarding a possible gang disturbance near Stephen's apartment complex. While on the scene for this unrelated investigation, officers perceived what they believed was a vehicle colliding with the entrance gate to Stephen's apartment complex. Officers Catton and Astacio walked into the apartment complex to investigate.

Officers Catton and Astacio observed a person, later identified to be Stephen Willis, standing at the rear of his vehicle, which they believed was the car that had just hit the gate. Officers Catton and Astacio began to approach Stephen and shined their flashlights upon him. Officers Catton and Astacio testified they identified themselves as police officers. Plaintiffs dispute Officers Catton and Astacio ever identified themselves as police officers.

When Stephen turned to face Officers Catton and Astacio, he was holding a holstered.38 caliber revolver in his left hand, which he had just retrieved from the trunk of his car.[3] Officers Catton and Astacio testified they ordered Stephen to drop his weapon. Officers Catton and Astacio testified that Stephen then proceeded to draw his revolver from the holster, point and fire at them. At this time, Officers Catton and Astacio fired upon Stephen Willis.

Plaintiffs dispute Defendants' factual account of the initial shooting. Plaintiffs dispute Officers Catton and Astacio provided a warning before shooting. Plaintiffs dispute Stephen attempted to remove his revolver from its holster or fired upon Officers Catton and Astacio before the officers began to shoot him. Plaintiffs offered evidence, in light of the officers' testimony concerning how Stephen was holding the revolver, that Stephen did not remove his revolver from its holster. Plaintiffs also rely, in part, upon a statement Officer Catton provided to Officer Rafeal Villalvazo shortly after the shooting, where Officer Catton stated that by the time Stephen attempted to remove his revolver from its holster, Officers Catton and Astacio had already fired and proceeded to move. Plaintiffs also rely, in part, on the fact that Stephen's revolver was later found to be fully loaded, save for one empty chamber that was two chambers away from the firing pin. Plaintiffs also note that no bullet casing from Stephen's revolver was ever found at the scene.

After the initial shooting, Stephen retreated between his vehicle and a mini-van. Officer Catton moved in a westerly direction and assumed a firing position behind another vehicle. Officer Astacio moved in an easterly direction and took cover behind a different vehicle. Officer Catton testified Stephen was pointing his gun at him, so Officer Catton continued to shoot at Stephen. Officer Astacio testified that after the first burst of shots, he thought Stephen was hit and falling to the ground. Later, Officer Astacio testified he observed Stephen kneeling behind the mini-van and pointing his gun in a westerly direction.[4] Officer Astacio then proceeded to fire several rounds at Stephen. Both officers testified they observed "muzzle flashes" coming from Stephen's gun while Stephen was positioned behind the mini-van. During this main volley of gunfire, both officers fired a sufficient number of rounds such that they both were required to reload at least once.

Plaintiffs dispute Defendants' factual account of the main volley of gunfire. Plaintiffs surmise that when Officer Astacio initially shot Stephen, Stephen was seriously wounded and tried to crawl to protection from further gunfire. Plaintiffs also claim Stephen was neither pointing nor firing his gun at either officer. Plaintiffs again rely on the fact that Stephen's revolver was found to be fully loaded, save for one empty chamber that was away from the firing pin, and that no bullet casing from Stephen's revolver was ever found at the scene. Plaintiffs also introduced evidence that the firing positions assumed by Officers Catton and Astacio resulted in Stephen being caught in the middle of a cross-fire, whereby Officers Catton and Astacio were essentially firing at each other. This cross-fire, Plaintiffs argue, was the reason the officers continued to feel endangered and shoot Stephen, as opposed to any actions Stephen took.

The main volley of gunfire subsided when the officers perceived Stephen was on the ground. Officer Catton left his firing position to join Officer Astacio at his easterly position. Officer Astacio holstered his revolver and called for back-up. Officer Catton trained his weapon on Stephen, who was still on the ground on his left side in a propped up position. Officer Catton testified he observed Stephen attempt to get up and reach for his revolver. Officer Catton then fired one or two more shots into Stephen's back.

Plaintiffs dispute Defendants' factual account of Officer Catton's final shot(s). Plaintiffs cite the testimony of several officers who were on the scene either within the final moments of the main volley of gunfire or shortly thereafter. Plaintiffs also refer to the fact that before Officer Catton fired the final shot(s), Stephen had already been shot twelve to thirteen times, which Plaintiffs submit demonstrates Stephen was not moving when Officer Catton fired the final shot(s). As the evidence at trial showed, throughout the entirely of the encounter, Officers Catton and Astacio fired 41 shots at Stephen Willis, striking him 14 times.

B. The Jury's Verdict

After a ten-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that: Officer Catton used excessive force in violation of Stephen's Fourth Amendment rights; Officer Catton was negligent in causing Stephen's death. However, Officer Astacio was not liable on Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and negligence claims. The jury awarded funeral and burial expenses, and further awarded Plaintiffs one million, five hundred thousand dollars ($1, 500, 000.00). The jury also made a finding of comparative negligence and determined that Stephen Willis was eighty percent responsible for his injuries.

C. The Parties' Post-Trial Motions

Several post-trial motions are currently before the Court. Defendants renew their motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Defendants argue the Fourth Amendment violation could not have been predicated on Officer Catton's conduct before the final shot(s); otherwise, Officer Astacio would have been found liable as well. However, Defendants argue there can be no Fourth Amendment violation, or in the alternative, Officer Catton is entitled to qualified immunity, because the evidence demonstrates Stephen was reaching for his gun prior to the final shot(s). Defendants further contend the jury's findings on comparative negligence and punitive damages demonstrate the jury believed Stephen was reaching for his gun prior to the final shot(s).[5]

Defendants additionally move for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. In support of this motion, Defendants argue that the Court's failure to submit special interrogatories to the jury which would distill all the factual findings relevant to Defendants' qualified immunity defense was clear error. Defendants also argue the Court's post-trial qualified immunity determination constitutes an error of fact.

Plaintiffs also move for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59. First, Plaintiffs argue a new trial is warranted because the jury's verdict demonstrates Officer Astacio should have been found liable for Stephen's death. Plaintiffs argue that Officer Catton's liability was not limited to the final shot(s), but rather, the totality of his conduct throughout the entire incident. Plaintiffs conclude that because there was no meaningful distinction between the conduct of Officer Astacio and Officer Catton prior to the final shot(s), Officer Astacio also should have been found liable.

Next, Plaintiffs argue a new trial is warranted because there is no factual basis for the jury's 80% comparative negligence finding against Stephen. Specifically, Plaintiffs argue that, even assuming Officer Catton's liability was limited to the final shot(s), because the jury necessarily determined Stephen's conduct did not warrant the use of deadly force, he could not have been negligent.

Finally, Plaintiffs argue a new trial is warranted due to two errors committed by the Court: (1) the Court erred in permitting Defendants to introduce evidence of Stephen's alcohol and marijuana use; and (2) there were errors in the juror selection process.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Evaluating the Jury's Verdict

As seen above, the parties dispute the basis for the jury's verdict. Thus, as a preliminary matter, the Court must attempt to interpret the jury's verdict in order to analyze the parties' post-trial motions.

1. Legal Standard for Evaluating the Jury's Verdict

In harmonizing verdicts, the trial court "must search for a reasonable way to read the verdicts as expressing a coherent view of the case." El-Hakem v. BJY, Inc., 415 F.3d 1068, 1073 (9th Cir. 2005), cert. denied at 547 U.S. 1004 (2006) (citing Toner ex rel. Toner v. Lederle Labs., 828 F.2d 510, 512 (9th Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 485 U.S. 942 (1988). A Court has a duty "to reconcile the jury's special verdict responses on any reasonable theory consistent with the evidence." Guy v. City of San Diego, 608 F.3d 582, 586 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing, Pierce v. S. Pacific Transp. Co., 823 F.2d 1366, 1370 (9th Cir.1987)); see also, Atl. & Gulf Stevedores, Inc. v. Ellerman Lines, Ltd., 369 U.S. 355, 364, 82 S.Ct. 780, 7 L.Ed.2d 798 (1962) (Emphasizing this duty to reconcile the jury's responses when possible, the Supreme Court has held: "Where there is a view of the case that makes the jury's answers to special interrogatories consistent, they must be resolved that way.")

A Court is permitted to "dr[aw] inferences from the verdicts to determine the issues that the presumptively rational jurors must have determined, and then use those implicit findings of fact as the basis for judgment as to certain issues." Westinghouse Elec. Corp., v. General Circuit Breaker & Elec. Supply. Inc., 106 F.3d 894, 901 (9th Cir. 1997), cert. denied at 522 U.S. 857 (1997); See also, Zhang v. Am. Gem Seafoods, Inc., 339 F.3d 1020, 1038 (9th Cir. 2003), cert. denied at 541 U.S. 902 (2004) (In deciding whether verdicts are inconsistent, the court must accept "any reasonable interpretation of the jury's actions, reconciling the jury's findings by exegesis if necessary") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where "it is possible to examine the pattern of jury verdicts and logically determine what facts a rational juror must have found in order to reach those verdicts, " the Court "must assume the jury found certain facts...." Westinghouse, 106 F.3d at 901-902.

2. The Court's Interpretation of the Jury's Verdict

Based upon the verdict and the evidence, this Court concludes the jury made three factual determinations: (1) Officer Catton's and Officer Astacio's use of deadly force was objectively reasonable when they initially fired upon Stephen Willis; (2) Officer Catton's and Officer Astacio's use of deadly force was objectively reasonable during the main volley of gunfire; and (3) Officer Catton's use of deadly force was not objectively reasonable when he fired the final shot(s). These findings of fact were necessarily determined by the jury and essential to their judgment. See, Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 106 F.3d at 902-03. The Court "can infer that the jury made this finding by viewing the jury's verdict in light of the jury instructions" and the evidence. A.D. v. California Highway Patrol, 712 F.3d 446, 457 fn. 5 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied at 134 S.Ct. 531 (2013).

Plaintiffs' interpretation of the jury's verdict - Officer Catton's liability may have been predicated on conduct other than the final shot(s) - cannot be squared with the jury's verdict. Prior to Officer Catton's final shot(s), the actions and conduct of Officer Astacio and Officer Catton were virtually indistinguishable for Fourth Amendment and negligence purposes. Plaintiffs offered circumstantial evidence that both officers failed to identify themselves, while Officers Catton and Astacio testified they did identify themselves. However, identification by either officer would be sufficient to alert Stephen Willis to their presence; whereas a complete failure to identify themselves would apply to both officers equally. Whether a warning was provided or not, both officers fired upon Stephen Willis moments after Stephen Willis turned around with a holstered revolver in his left hand. Indeed, the evidence showed that Officer Astacio fired first. Both officers fired multiple shots at Stephen Willis such that both officers were required to reload at least once. Both officers assumed firing positions where neither knew where the other officer was, and both officers were firing shots that generally were in the other officer's direction. The only time the conduct of Officer Catton and Officer Astacio was qualitatively different was when Officer Catton moved to Officer Astacio's firing position, Officer Astacio holstered his weapon to call for back up, and Officer Catton subsequently fired one or two more shots at Stephen Willis. If the jury had determined Officer Catton's conduct prior to the final shot(s) violated Stephen Willis's Fourth Amendment rights, there is no logical basis for the jury's countenance of Officer Astacio's conduct.

If the jury had found a Fourth Amendment violation prior to the final shot(s), the Fourth Amendment violation would apply to Officers Catton and Astacio equally. Thus, if the jury had found a Fourth Amendment violation prior to the final shot(s), the jury would have had to find Officer Astacio used excessive force. However, the jury did not find Officer Astacio used excessive force. The jury's finding on the negligence claim is consistent with its finding on the Fourth Amendment violation. See, Guy v. City of San Diego, 608 F.3d 582, 586 (9th Cir. 2010) (Court has a duty to reconcile the jury's verdict responses on any reasonable theory consistent with the evidence). To interpret the jury's verdict in a way that finds a Fourth Amendment violation prior to the final shot(s) would be inconsistent with the only reasonable interpretation of the jury's verdict in light of the evidence and the jury instructions.[6]

B. Defendants' Renewed Motion for Judgment As A Matter of Law

1. Legal Standard Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b)

In ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence, and should view all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149-50, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000); See also, Pavao v. Pagay, 307 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 2002) (A renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law is properly granted "if the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict"); Costa v. Desert Palace, 299 F.3d 838, 859 (9th Cir. 2002), aff'd at 539 U.S. 90 (2003) (In ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the trial court must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe). The jury's verdict must be upheld if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to have found in the non-moving party's favor. Johnson v. Paradise Valley Unified Sch. Dist., 251 F.3d 1222, 1227 (9th Cir. 2001), cert. denied at 534 U.S. 1055 (2001).

A party seeking judgment as a matter of law has a "very high" standard to meet. Costa, 299 F.3d at 859. The Ninth Circuit has held that parties seeking judgment as a matter of law must meet this high burden because courts generally should not impinge upon the province of the jury. Id. ("This high hurdle recognizes that credibility, inferences, and fact finding are the province of the jury, not this court.") The "jury's verdict must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence, which is evidence adequate to support the jury's conclusion, even if it is also possible to draw a contrary conclusion." Pavao, 307 F.3d at 918. The court may grant Defendants' renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law if "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the" Plaintiffs. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)-(b).

Defendants argue they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law primarily for two reasons: (1) the evidence does not permit a finding that Officer Catton committed a Fourth Amendment violation; and (2) Officer Catton is entitled to qualified immunity.[7]

2. The Fourth Amendment Violation

The Court examines allegations of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable seizures. Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 823 (9th Cir. 2010). The Court inquires "whether the officers' actions are objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them." Id. (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989)). The Court "must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); s ee also Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272, 1280 (9th Cir. 2001), cert. denied at 536 U.S. 958. "Stated another way, [the Court] must balance the amount of force applied against the need for that force." Bryan, 630 F.3d at 823-24 (quoting Meredith v. Erath, 342 F.3d 1057, 1061 (9th Cir. 2003)). "This balance must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.'" Boyd v. Benton Cnty., 374 F.3d 773, 779 (9th Cir. 2004) (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865).

Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, and disregarding all evidence favorable to the Defendants that the jury was not required to believe, this Court finds that there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that Officer Catton's final shot(s) at Stephen were "objectively [un]reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting [him]." Bryan, 630 F.3d at 823. Evidence was presented at trial that Stephen Willis did not present a threat to officers or others just prior to the final shot(s). The other officer involved in the shooting, Officer Astacio, testified that he believed the threat had "diminished" and that "the immediate threat [was] not there because he's [sic] on the ground." Trial Tr., Dec. 5, 2013, Doc. 276, 397: 17-18; 426: 5-6. Officer Cerda testified that he saw Stephen Willis's body prior to the final shots, and Stephen Willis was on the ground, not moving, not reaching for a weapon, and twitching. Trial Tr., Dec. 11, 2013, Doc. 280, 1528: 6-1530: 7. A reasonable juror may have received this testimony to support a conclusion that Stephen Willis was not moving, not reaching for a weapon, or otherwise imposing a dangerous threat when Officer Catton fired the final shot(s).

Officer Jacobo testified that, after the final shot(s), he heard Officer Catton shout "I can see the gun. I can see the gun." Trial Tr., Dec. 6, 2013, Doc. 277, 575: 15-21. Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs indicates that Officer Catton did not, in fact, see Stephen Willis reaching for the gun before the final shot(s). Officer Jacobo also testified that, after the final shot(s), he heard Officer Catton exclaim in a "raised, " "excited" voice, that he put a bullet hole in Stephen's back. Trial Tr., Dec. 6, 2013, Doc. 277, 575: 8-15. Officer Reyes testified that Officer Catton was "smirking" after the shooting. Trial Tr., Dec. 5, 2013, Doc. 276, 289: 16-17. Viewing this evidence ...


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