United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL
[Re: ECF 85]
LABSON FREEMAN United States District Judge
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.
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
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.
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
Motion for a New Trial
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. Hendrixlicensing.com 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
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)).
28 U.S.C. §§ 144 and 455, judges must remove
themselves from cases if they have a personal
bias. 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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
identifies a number of rulings or other conduct by the Court
in support of his motion. The ...