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Percelle v. Pearson

United States District Court, N.D. California

March 14, 2017

STEVEN DALE PERCELLE, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN PEARSON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING DEFENDANTS' POST-TRIAL MOTION FOR A NEW TRIAL, REMITTITUR, OR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

          THELTON E. HENDERSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter came before the Court on Defendants' motion for a new trial, remittitur, or judgment as a matter of law. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the Court found oral argument unnecessary and vacated the hearing set for March 13, 2017. After carefully considering the parties' written arguments and the trial transcript in this case, the Court DENIES Defendants' motion for the reasons discussed below.

         BACKGROUND

         As the parties are familiar with the factual background of this case, the Court provides only a brief summary of the facts. Plaintiff Steven Dale Percelle (“Percelle” or “Plaintiff”) was incarcerated at the Correctional Training Facility (“CTF”) in Soledad, California from June 16, 2003 to March 16, 2013. For the first eight and a half years, Plaintiff was housed in general population and was earning good time and work time credits. After receiving allegedly negligent medical care, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) and obtained an entry of default with potential damages assessed at $500, 000. Plaintiff claims that Defendants Steven Pearson, Derek Arredondo, Michael Williams and Dylan Fletcher (“Defendants”), who were correctional officers and members of the Institutional Gang Investigation task force at CTF, retaliated against him for his litigation activities by taking actions that led to his validation as a gang member and placement in administrative segregation (“ad-seg”). Plaintiff spent the last fourteen months of his sentence in ad-seg, where he developed symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

         An eight-day jury trial was held starting December 6, 2016. Defendants testified at trial that the actions they took, which included searching Percelle's cell, confiscating his address book, taking a copy of a prison book, and requesting information from an officer at another prison that “would seal the deal” on Percelle's gang validation, were part of their job duties as Institutional Gang Investigators (“IGIs”). They claimed that they began investigating Percelle because of a tip that they had received about him. Plaintiff presented evidence that Defendants knew of the entry of default in his case, that they acted with a retaliatory motive and without a legitimate penological goal, and that he suffered harm.

         At the close of evidence, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a). ECF No. 399. While the motion was under submission, the jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff. The jury unanimously found that all four Defendants had retaliated against Percelle in violation of the First Amendment. They awarded Percelle $335, 000 in compensatory damages, and $50, 000 against each Defendant in punitive damages. On December 21, 2016, the Court denied Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law. ECF No. 409. Judgment was entered on January 3, 2017, and Defendants filed their motion for new trial on January 31, 2017. ECF Nos. 413, 419.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         I. New Trial

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 59 provides that after a jury trial, “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial . . . for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court . . . ” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 59(a). “Historically recognized grounds include, but are not limited to, claims ‘that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving.” Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940).

         When the movant claims that a verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence at trial, a new trial should be granted “[i]f, having given full respect to the jury's findings, the judge . . . is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Landes Const. Co., Inc. v. Royal Bank of Can., 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987) (quoting 11 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2806, at 48-49 (1973)). A “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 possible to draw a contrary conclusion.” Pavao v. Pagay, 307 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 2007).

         In making this determination, the court “must view all evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, draw all reasonable inferences in the favor of the non-mover, and disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Harper v. City of Los Angeles, 533 F.3d 1020, 1021 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). “The test applied is whether the evidence permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to the jury's verdict.Josephs v. Pac. Bell, 443 F.3d 1050, 1062 (9th Cir. 2006). A court may not order a new trial simply because were it sitting as the trier of fact it would have come to a different decision to than did the jury. Wilhelm v. Associated Container Trans. Ltd., 648 F.2d 1197, 1198 (9th Cir. 1981).

         II. Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 governs motions for judgment as a matter of law. Once a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial, the court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against the non-moving party only if “there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a); Ritchie v. United States, 451 F.3d 1019, 1022-23 (9th Cir. 2006). In deciding a motion under Rule 50(a), the Court once again draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         DISCUSSION

         Defendants move alternatively for (1) a new trial, (2) remittitur on punitive damages, [1] or (3) judgment as a matter of law. The Court reviews Defendants' arguments for each remedy sought.

         I. A New Trial Is Not Warranted On The Basis That The Verdict Is Against the Clear Weight of Evidence.

         Defendants contend that a new trial is needed because the clear weight of evidence established that Defendants did not validate Plaintiff and never had the authority to do so. Mot. at 3. They claim that Plaintiff's harm stems from his validation and placement in ad-seg, and thus absent authority to make the final determination on ...


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