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Weaver v. City of Santa Clara

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

November 14, 2014

JAMES WEAVER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF SANTA CLARA, et al., Defendants

For James Weaver, Plaintiff: John L. Burris, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of John L. Burris, Oakland, CA; Adante Pointer, DeWitt Marcellus Lacy, Law Offices of John L. Burris, Oakland, CA; Pamela Yvette Price, Price And Associates, Oakland, CA.

For City of Santa Clara, a municipal corporation, Chief of Police Kevin R. Kyle, individually and in his capacity as Chief of Police for the City of Santa Clara Police Department, Defendants: David John Stock, Jon Allen Heaberlin, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Rankin Landsness Lahde Serverian & Stock, San Jose, CA.

For County of Santa Clara, Interested Party: Michael L. Rossi, Office of the County Counsel, San Jose, CA.

ORDER RE: POST-TRIAL MOTIONS (Re: Docket Nos. 115, 118, 125)

PAUL S. GREWAL, United States Magistrate Judge.

Early one morning, Plaintiff James Weaver slept quietly in a yard off a street in Santa Clara, California. He was homeless. Weaver bothered no one, and no one bothered him. But without much warning, Weaver was suddenly rousted from his quiet sleep to what can only be described as a horror--a police dog named Jax biting him as he lay defenseless. Jax and his handler, a Santa Clara police officer, thought they had found the felon who just a short while earlier had fled from a routine traffic stop. Sadly, Weaver had nothing to do with the parolee, something the officer and others involved quickly realized and acknowledged.

After several days of trial, a jury of nine rendered a verdict that Weaver had suffered excessive force and coercion in violation of California's Bane Act.[1] The jury also awarded Weaver $12, 000 in damages.[2] Weaver now seeks additional civil penalties, trebling and attorney's fees.[3] Defendant Kevin Kyle, in his official capacity as Santa Clara Police Chief, challenges Weaver's penalty and trebling claims, disputes the amount of his requested fees and argues that Weaver's damages are irreconcilable with the proof introduced at trial.[4]

The parties submitted extensive briefs on these issues and appeared for a hearing.[5] After considering both their written and oral submissions, the court finds that only certain fees, and no penalties or trebling, are warranted, as is a reduction in the damages reflected in the judgment.

I.

A judgment following a jury verdict is not necessarily the final word about who owes what in a federal lawsuit. Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) authorizes a court to alter or amend a judgment " (1) . . . to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment rests; (2) . . . [to address] newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence; (3) . . . to prevent manifest injustice; or (4) if the amendment is justified by an intervening change in controlling law." [6]

" A court considering a Rule 59(e) motion is not limited merely to these four situations, however." [7] For example, in cases involving claims for medical expenses, a court may alter the judgment to assure recovery of damages only for medical expenses that the plaintiff already incurred.[8] And for certain claims under the Bane Act, [9] a court may alter the judgment to assess a civil penalty of $25, 000 as proscribed by California Civil Code § 52(b)(2), [10] as well as a trebling of damages and liability for multiple offenses pursuant to Cal. Civ. Code § 52(a).[11]

Where authorized, the court also may award attorney's fees. The Bane Act provides for an award of reasonable attorney's fees for the prevailing party, both to assure vigilance in the vindication of constitutional rights and to ease their vindication.[12] A lodestar-adjustment method determines the amount of reasonable attorney fees, calculated by multiplying the number of hours reasonably spent by each billing professional with the reasonable hourly rate for each biller.[13] A party seeking fees " bears the burden of establishing entitlement to an award and documenting the appropriate hours expended and hourly rates, " [14] " to prove and establish the reasonableness of each dollar, each hour, above zero." [15] There is no required relationship between the amount of fees awarded and the amount of damages awarded to a plaintiff, [16] but a number of factors may further adjust the attorney's fee determination up or down.[17]

On September 24, 2011, Kevin Kyle served as Police Chief of the City of Santa Clara. Early in the morning hours that day, James Weaver, a homeless man, was sleeping in the front yard of an abandoned house located at 1575 Pomeroy Way. Weaver heard no sirens, but was awakened by the sound of several police officers screaming at him. Weaver was groggy, but as he came to he confronted Jax, a police dog brought to the scene by Officer Nathan Crescini, his canine handler. Crescini and a number of other Santa Clara police officers were engaged in a manhunt for a parolee who had fled from a car stopped in the area a short while earlier.

Jax bit Weaver on the right elbow and held onto it for a few seconds. Weaver did not resist the dog (or officers) in any way, but Jax then repeatedly bit Weaver on his back as Weaver crouched in defense. Eventually an officer standing in front of Weaver told the other officers to lift Weaver up. They lifted him to his knees and shined a flashlight in his face. The officer with the flashlight asked an officer who had just arrived on the scene whether Weaver fit the description of a suspect the police had been pursuing, and the officer said no. The officers brought Weaver, handcuffed, off the property and sat him on the curb. The officers then took the handcuffs off and asked Weaver if he wanted medical treatment. After Weaver declined, he was allowed to leave the scene.

Weaver filed this suit, alleging a variety of civil rights violations. After various pretrial motions, only one claim remained for trial--a Bane Act claim against Kyle in his official capacity as Police Chief. Before deliberations, the jury was instructed to consider: whether there was an unlawful detention of Weaver; if the officers used excessive force during the detention; if there was coercion separate from the use of excessive force and whether the officer's conduct was a substantial factor in causing Weaver harm.[18] Witnesses disputed how many times Jax bit Weaver, and the jury came to no specific conclusion on the matter.[19] The jury nevertheless found the involved officers used force excessively in violation of the Bane Act, and that Kyle's actions included coercion separate from and in addition to the excessive use of force.[20] The jury awarded Weaver $3, 000 dollars for medical expenses and $9, 000 for pain and suffering for a total of $12, 000 in compensatory damages.[21]

Kyle now requests that the court reduce the jury's finding of $3, 000 for medical expenses to $1, 030, based on what the evidence showed Weaver was charged.[22] Weaver in turn requests that the court add a civil penalty of $25, 000, [23] and then a trebling of that amount[24] to $111, 000, to be applied to each of between eight to ten bites Weaver sustained--yielding roughly $999, 000.[25] Weaver further requests attorney's fees through trial in the amount of $151, 025.75, $9, 134.81 in non-statutory costs incurred in connection with ...


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