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Monica v. Williams

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

May 31, 2017

BRYAN WILLIAMS, et al., Defendants.


          BETH LABSON FREEMAN United States District Judge

         Civil rights cases are among the most important matters to come before the Court. Ordinary people have the opportunity to vindicate their constitutional rights before a jury. In these difficult cases, confidence in the fairness of the judicial system is paramount for both the winner and the loser of the case in order to sustain the integrity of the judicial system. It is with these principles in mind that the Court considers Plaintiff's motion for new trial.[1]

         In this case, Plaintiff Martin Monica seeks a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a), claiming that the undersigned was biased against him. Mot. for New Trial (“Mot.”), ECF 85. Plaintiff's motion is based on claims related to the Court's ruling on summary judgment, including the Court's comments at the hearing; the Court's repeated reference to a portion of Plaintiff's deposition testimony that the Court identified as unfavorable to Plaintiff; the Court's rulings on trial objections; the Court's handling of a sidebar discussion and subsequent ruling; and the undersigned's tone of voice and facial expressions at trial. Plaintiff supports this motion with counsel's declaration recounting his recollection of the comments made by the Court. No trial transcripts have been submitted.

         Defendants, City of Santa Clara Police Officers Bryan Williams and Luke Erickson, respond that Plaintiff received a fair trial and that there was no actual bias at any stage of the proceedings. Defendants point to rulings made that were favorable to Plaintiff and unfavorable to Defendants throughout the litigation. Defendants further argue that Plaintiff never made a contemporaneous record at the time counsel formed these perceptions of bias so as to allow the Court and defense counsel to respond and correct Plaintiff's counsel's impressions. Defendants contend that Plaintiff's counsel's impressions of bias are speculative and without foundation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Monica brought this civil rights case against the City of Santa Clara and several of its officers after he was stopped for purportedly not having a front license plate. The incident escalated to the point where the officers took Mr. Monica out of his car and handcuffed him after he informed the officers that he was a retired police officer and police chief, but did not have such identification with him that night. Mr. Monica claimed that he was unlawfully detained, arrested, handcuffed, and injured by police. As a result of the incident, Mr. Monica sued for violation of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Compl., ECF 1. Defendants denied all claims and asserted that they were entitled to qualified immunity. Answer, ECF 11. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment that was denied on virtually all grounds. The Court granted summary judgment only on the constitutionality of the initial Terry stop. The Court ruled that all other issues would proceed to trial. See Order Granting in Part & Denying in Part Mot. Summ. J. (“Summ. J. Order”), ECF 41. The case did proceed to jury trial over four days, resulting in a defense verdict on all counts. Jury Verdict, ECF 77. Plaintiff timely filed this motion for new trial.


         A. Motion for a New Trial

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1), a court “may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). A court may grant a new trial “if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A judge should only grant a new trial if she “is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Landes Constr. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987) (internal citations omitted)). The court is not required to view the trial evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict when it considers a Rule 59(a) motion. Experience Hendrix L.L.C. v. Ltd., 762 F.3d 829, 842 (9th Cir. 2014). Instead, “the district court can weigh the evidence and assess the credibility of the witnesses.” Id. (citation omitted). “Ultimately, the district court can grant a new trial under Rule 59 on any ground necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice.” Id. (citing Murphy v. City of Long Beach, 914 F.2d 183, 187 (9th Cir. 1990)).

         B. Judicial Bias

         “The Due Process clause ‘requires a fair trial in a fair tribunal before a judge with no actual bias against [any party] or interest in the outcome of [the] particular case.'” Smith v. Mahoney, 611 F.3d 978, 997 (9th Cir. 2010) (quoting Bracy v. Gramley, 520 U.S. 899, 904-05 (1997)); see also Tracey v. Palmateer, 341 F.3d 1037, 1048 (9th Cir. 2003) (“A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.” (citation and quotation marks omitted)). However, “‘[o]nly in the most extreme of cases would disqualification on the basis of judge bias be constitutionally required.'” Id. (alteration omitted) (quoting Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813, 821 (1986)). “A judge's conduct justifies a new trial if the record shows actual bias or leaves an abiding impression that the jury perceived an appearance of advocacy or partiality.” United States v. Marks, 530 F.3d 799, 806 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). The Ninth Circuit has recognized that there are three general circumstances in which an appearance of bias violates due process: (1) a judge who “has a direct, personal, substantial pecuniary interest in reaching a conclusion against one of the litigants;” (2) a judge who “becomes embroiled in a running, bitter controversy with one of the litigants;” and (3) a judge who “acts as part of the accusatory process.” Crater v. Galaza, 491 F.3d 1119, 1130 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).

         Under 28 U.S.C. §§ 144 and 455, judges must remove themselves from cases if they have a personal bias.[2] See generally United States v. Sibla, 624 F.2d 864 (9th Cir. 1980); United States v. Azhocar, 581 F.2d 735, 738 (9th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 440 U.S. 907 (1980).

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 455, a judge must disqualify himself, inter alia: (1) “in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned, ” id. § 455(a); (2) “[w]here he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, ” id. § 455(b)(1); or (3) where “[h]e knows that he . . . has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding, ” id. § 455(b)(4). Bias under section 455 must derive from extrajudicial sources. In re Beverly Hills Bancorp (Commercial Paper Holders v. R.W. Hine), 752 F.2d 1334, 1341 (9th Cir. 1984).

         Section 455(a) covers circumstances that appear to create a conflict of interest, whether or not there is actual bias. Davis v. Xerox, 811 F.2d 1293, 1295 (9th Cir. 1987). Section 455(b) covers situations in which an actual conflict of interest exists, even if there is no appearance of one. Id. Section 455(b) also describes situations that create an apparent conflict, because it provides examples of situations in which a judge's “impartiality might reasonably be questioned” pursuant to section 455(a). See United States v. Conforte, 624 F.2d 869, 880-81 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1012 (1980) (citation omitted). Actual bias is a per se ground for disqualification. Davis, 811 F.2d at 1295. The Ninth Circuit has defined bias to consist of “an attitude or state of mind that belies an aversion or hostility of a kind or degree that a fair-minded person could not entirely set aside when judging certain persons or causes.” Conforte, 624 F.2d at 881. The test for creation of apparent bias sufficient to require dismissal under sections 455(a) and 455(b) is an objective one: “whether a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts would conclude that the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” United States v. Nelson, 718 F.2d 315, 321 (9th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted).

         In order to prevail on a claim of judicial bias, a litigant must overcome a “strong presumption that a judge is not biased or prejudiced.” Sivak v. Hardison, 658 F.3d 898, 924 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Rhoades v. Henry, 598 F.3d 511, 519 (9th Cir. 2010)). “A new trial based on judicial misconduct is warranted only if, from the record, a judge's action ‘shows actual bias or leaves an abiding impression that the jury perceived an appearance of advocacy or partiality.'” Closson v. Bank of Am., NA, 600 Fed.Appx. 575, 576 (9th Cir. 2015) (citing and quoting United States v. Laurins, 857 F.2d 529, 537 (9th Cir. 1988)); see also see Shad v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 799 F.2d 525, 531 (9th Cir.1986) (holding that trial judge's conduct was not improper when judge questioned witness, criticized counsel, and managed the pace of the trial).


         In reviewing the record in this case, the Court has considered all of its rulings and summarizes them here. The Court conducted a case management conference early in the litigation and set the case schedule on February 18, 2016. ECF 17. The parties managed the case throughout discovery without requesting Court intervention. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in accordance with the scheduling order and Plaintiff requested a modification of the scheduling order to extend the date for his response and to postpone the hearing date in order to complete discovery, which was granted without opposition. ECF 29. The Court ruled on Defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that Defendants had not demonstrated entitlement to qualified immunity on the de facto arrest or excessive force claims and granted summary judgment as to the City of Santa Clara and Officer Estes, without objection. See generally Summ. J. Order. The Court also granted summary judgment as to the initial Terry stop and detention, finding that the officers had reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop. Id. Thus, the case proceeded to trial.

         The Court conducted its final pretrial conference, ruling on in limine motions. As to Plaintiff's two motions, the Court granted in part the motion to exclude Defendants' police practices expert, excluding all of the opinions identified by Plaintiff as improper regarding legal conclusions and credibility determinations, and cautioning defense counsel that his questions must be properly stated to avoid further exclusion. Order re Mots. in Lim. (“Order re MILs”) 2-3, ECF 63. Plaintiff had argued that the evidence was irrelevant and highly prejudicial. Id. at 3. The Court deferred ruling on the second motion to exclude evidence of Plaintiff's prior political activities, lawsuits, and his reason for being in the area of the incident. Id. At trial, the Court granted the exclusion motion over Defendants' objections. As to the defense motions in limine, the Court granted two motions that Plaintiff did not oppose and denied the third. See generally Id. The Court thereafter conducted an in-chambers, unreported jury instruction conference. With the collaboration of counsel and the Court's determination of the disputed issues, a complete set of jury instructions and verdict form were developed in advance of trial. There are no objections to the jury instructions or verdict form at issue in this motion.

         The case proceeded to trial over four days. At the close of the evidence, the Court deferred ruling on Defendants' Rule 50(a) motion and allowed the case to go to the jury. The jury returned a verdict for Defendants.

         Plaintiff identifies a number of rulings or other conduct by the Court in support of his motion. The ...

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