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Akey v. Placer County

United States District Court, E.D. California

October 10, 2019

RACHAEL AKEY, et al., Plaintiffs,
PLACER COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


         The parties' post-trial motions are before the court. Plaintiffs move for attorney's fees after a partially favorable jury verdict, Mot. for Fees, ECF No. 229; defendants move to amend the judgment, for a new trial and to stay the judgment pending resolution of these post-trial motions, Post-Trial Mot., ECF No. 233-1. On July 12, 2019, the court heard oral argument on the motions. After consideration of the parties' briefing and arguments at hearing, and good cause showing, the court GRANTS defendants' motion in part. The jury verdict, and corresponding judgment, are VACATED and the court will set this matter for retrial of all issues, if the case does not settle following the court's holding of a settlement conference as agreed to by the parties.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Detailed facts of this case are set forth in the court's summary judgment order. See MSJ Order, ECF No. 155. The court summarizes key facts here as relevant for context, citing to the summary judgment order for efficiency's sake, to the extent the summary judgment record is consistent with the evidence elicited at trial.

         This case involves a custody battle over minor plaintiff, N.D., who at all relevant times, was a three-year-old boy living with his mother, plaintiff Rachael Akey, and his stepfather Ryan Cornacchioli. MSJ Order at 2. On September 12, 2013, N.D.'s school reported to Placer County Child Protective Services (“CPS”) an alleged choking incident that N.D. reported one day prior. Id. CPS Officer Gloria Sutton was first to investigate. Id. After her investigation, Officer Sutton produced a report concluding the choking allegations were “substantiated.” Id. at 4. In the interim, prior to releasing her report, and aware of the tumultuous child custody proceedings surrounding N.D., Sutton devised a “safety plan, ” which temporarily modified a recently issued custody order and provided for N.D. to stay with his father, Cameron Dupree, during the pendency of a full investigation. Id. Sutton phoned Akey seeking her consent to the plan, but Akey refused. Id. Sutton's supervisor, Scott Myers, also spoke with Akey attempting to obtain her consent to the safety plan. Id. The parties disputed whether Akey, at some point, affirmatively consented to the safety plan, and this issue was tried to the jury. Myers and Sutton, believing Akey had given her consent, abstained from creating a formal, written “exigency” determination, a formality required when removing a child without parental consent. Id.

         With N.D. in his care under the safety plan, Dupree filed an ex parte application in family court to obtain sole custody during the pendency of the investigation. Id. at 5. On September 20, 2013, the family court granted Dupree's application and temporarily awarded him sole custody. Id. On October 2, 2013, the family court conducted a full evidentiary hearing, and, in March 2014, that court issued its final determination that “no abuse” had occurred. Id. The family court then reinstated the prior custody arrangement under which Akey had primary custody over N.D. Id.

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs' operative fourth amended complaint made out twenty-six claims against defendants.[1] See generally Compl., ECF No. 109. On August 14, 2018, the court denied plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, but and granted defendants' motion in part while also denying it in part, leaving the following six claims based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to proceed to trial: claims 1 and 7 (Monell claims), and claims 3, 5, 9 and 11 (procedural due process claims). MSJ Order at 25; see also Final Pretrial Order, ECF No. 174, at 7-8.

         After a ten-day jury trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in plaintiffs' favor on five of the six claims. Verdict, ECF No. 221. The jury awarded Akey $145, 000 in compensatory damages on her Monell claim, $1.00 in nominal damages on her procedural due process claim against Sutton and $500 on her procedural due process claim against Myers. Id. at 2, 6, 8. As to N.D., the jury awarded $50, 000 in compensatory damages and $500, 000 in punitive damages on his Monell claim, as well as $500 in compensatory damages on his procedural due process claim against Myers. Id. at 4-5, 12. The court entered judgment accordingly. ECF No. 224.

         On May 21, 2019, plaintiffs moved for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b) in light of the favorable verdict. Mot. for Fees at 3-11. Defendants oppose the motion, Fees Opp'n, ECF No. 240, and plaintiffs have replied, Fees Reply, ECF No. 242.

         On May 31, 2019, defendants moved to amend the judgment, arguing it was manifest error for the court allow punitive damages on N.D.'s Monell claim. Post-Trial Mot. at 3-5. Defendants also move for a new trial based on the purported error, which they argue produced an inconsistent verdict. Id. at 5-6. Finally, defendants ask the court to stay the judgment pending resolution of the underlying motions and any forthcoming appeal. Id. at 6-7. Plaintiffs have opposed, Post-Trial Opp'n, ECF No. 239, and defendants have replied, Post-Trial Reply, ECF No. 243. Given the need for retrial, the court need only address the motions to the extent they require such a result.


         A. Defendants' Motion to Amend the Judgment

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e), a party may move to alter or amend a judgment within 28 days after entry of judgment. Because the language of Rule 59(e) is sparse, the Ninth Circuit has taken this to mean “the district court enjoys considerable discretion in granting or denying the motion.” Allstate Ins. Co. v. Herron, 634 F.3d 1101, 1111 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting McDowell v. Calderon, 197 F.3d 1253, 1255 n.1 (9th Cir. 1999) (en banc) (per curiam)). However, ...

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