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Martinez v. Valdez

United States District Court, D. Colorado

August 27, 2015

DANIEL MARTINEZ, JR.; NATHAN MARTINEZ; DANIEL MARTINEZ III; and JONATHAN MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
JASON VALDEZ, ROBERT MARTINEZ, ROBERT MOTYKA, and BRYCE JACKSON, Defendants

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          For Daniel Martinez, Jr., Nathan Martinez, Daniel Martinez, III, Jonathan Martinez, Plaintiffs: David Arthur Lane, LEAD ATTORNEY, Danielle C. Jefferis, Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP, Denver, CO; Kathryn J. Stimson, Kathryn J. Stimson, Attorney at Law, Denver, CO.

         For Jason (I) Valdez, in his individual capacity, Jason Valdez, in his official capacity, Robert (I) Martinez, in his individual capacity, Robert Martinez, in his official capacity, Robert (I) Motyka, in his individual capacity, Robert Motyka, in his official capacity, Bryce (I) Jackson, in his individual capacity, Bryce Jackson, in his official capacity, Defendants: Stuart L. Shapiro, LEAD ATTORNEY, Denver City and County Attorney's Office, Denver, CO; David Charles Cooperstein, Wendy J. Shea, Denver City Attorney's Office, Denver, CO.

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         OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL AND GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR ATTORNEY FEES

         Honorable Marcia S. Krieger, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to the Plaintiffs' Motion for Prejudgment Interest (# 140), and the Defendants' response (# 147); the Defendants' Motion for New Trial or Remittitur (# 145, as amended # 146), the Plaintiffs' response (# 148), and the Defendants' reply (# 153); and the Plaintiffs' Motion for Attorney Fees and Costs (# 156), the Defendants' response (# 172), and the Plaintiffs' reply (# 175, as supplemented # 176).

         FACTS

         The Court assumes the reader's familiarity with the proceedings to date. Thus, it offers only a limited factual summary here and elaborates as necessary in the analysis.

         This action arises from an incident that occurred on January 9, 2009. On that date, the Defendants, Denver Police Officers, went to the Plaintiffs' residence, ostensibly to conduct a " knock and talk," inquiring about possible criminal activity occurring in the neighborhood. The parties sharply disputed the ensuing events, but it is sufficient to note that the Defendants entered the residence and a physical altercation ensued between the Plaintiffs and Defendants inside the house. The Defendants eventually subdued the Plaintiffs and placed them under arrest. The Defendants were charged with various forms of criminal assault, supported primarily by the testimony of the Defendants. Plaintiffs Nathan Martinez (" Nathan" ) and Daniel Martinez III (" Daniel III" ) proceeded to trial on those criminal charges and were acquitted by a jury; the charges against the remaining Defendants were thereafter dropped.

         The Plaintiffs commenced this civil action against the Defendants, raising various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arising from the Defendants' entry into the residence, the altercation, the arrests, and the ensuing criminal prosecution. The case proceeded to a jury trial in September 2014. The jury entered the following verdict:

Claim 1 - Unlawful entry: Verdict for the Plaintiffs as against Defendants Martinez and Valdez; verdict in favor of Defendant Motyka.

Claim 2 -- Use of Excessive Force: Verdict for all four Defendants, based on a finding by the jury that the amount of force used by the Defendants was not excessive.

Claim 3 -- False Arrest: Verdict for the Plaintiffs as against the individual officer effecting each of their arrests.[1]

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Claim 4 -- Malicious Prosecution: Verdicts in favor of the Defendants as against all Plaintiffs.[2]

Claim 4a -- Continued Malicious Prosecution: Verdict in favor of Plaintiff Jonathan Martinez against Defendant Valdez.

         Based on these verdicts, the jury awarded the following damages against the following Defendants:

Plaintiff

Type of

Defendant

Defendant

Defendant

Defendant

Damages

Martinez

Motyka

Jackson

Valdez

Daniel Jr.

Actual

$60,000

$0

$0

$40,000

Daniel Jr.

Punitive

$100,000

$62,500

$0

$100,000

Daniel Jr.

Total

$160,000

$62,500

$0

$140,000

Nathan

Actual

$25,000

$75,000

$0

$25,000

Nathan

Punitive

$100,000

$62,500

$0

$100,000

Nathan

Total

$125,000

$137,500

$0

$125,000

Daniel III

Actual

$25,000

$0

$40,000

$25,000

Daniel III

Punitive

$100,000

$62,500

$0

$100,000

Daniel III

Total

$125,000

$62,500

$40,000

$125,000

Johnathan

Actual

$25,000

$0

$0

$200,000

Johnathan

Punitive

$100,000

$62,500

$0

$300,000

Johnathan

Total

$125,000

$62,500

$0

$500,00

         The parties then filed the instant post-verdict motions. The Plaintiffs moved for an award of prejudgment interest (# 140), suggesting that the Court apply the statutory 9% interest rate of C.R.S. § 13-21-101, resulting in a total award of approximately $340,000 in prejudgment interest. The Defendants moved for a new trial and for remittitur (# 145, as amended # 146), arguing that: (i) a new trial should be granted because the jury's verdict is inconsistent and irreconcilable, (ii) the total of $1.25 million in punitive damages is excessive and arbitrary, (iii) new trial or remittitur is warranted with regard to the actual damage awards by the jury because such awards are excessive and inconsistent with the evidence at trial. The Plaintiffs also moved for an award of attorney fees and costs (# 156), seeking

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a total of approximately $478,000 in attorney fees (plus an unspecified multiplier due to the difficulty of the case) and approximately $18,000 in costs.[3]

         ANALYSIS

         A. Motion for New Trial

         Because the Plaintiffs' motions presuppose the verdict standing (in whole or part), it is appropriate to first consider the Defendants' motion seeking either a new trial or remittitur.

         1. Internal inconsistency in the verdict

         The Defendants first argue that the verdict should be set aside and a new trial granted because the jury's verdict is inherently inconsistent and irreconcilable in three different respects: (i) the finding that all of the Defendants lacked probable cause to arrest (Claim 3) is inconsistent with the finding that Defendants Motyka and Jackson had probable cause for the statements they made later during the prosecution of Daniel Jr. and Nathan Martinez, such that they were not liable for malicious prosecution (Claim 4); (ii) the finding that Defendant Motyka's entry into the residence was justified by exigent circumstances (Claim 1) is inconsistent with the finding that no probable cause existed to arrest the Plaintiffs (Claim 4), as Defendant Motyka testified that he entered the residence to protect Defendant Valdez from being assaulted; and (iii) the finding that Defendant Valdez engaged in malicious prosecution by continuing the prosecution of Plaintiff Jonathan Martinez (Claim 4a) is inconsistent with the finding that Defendant Valdez did not engage in the malicious prosecution of Jonathan initially (Claim 4). The Defendants argue that the jury's failure to follow an instruction on the verdict form is further evidence of jury " confusion."

          Courts may set aside jury verdicts that are fundamentally inconsistent, but they must do so with great reluctance and considerable deference to the jury's factfinding. Johnson v. Ablt Trucking Co., 412 F.3d 1138, 1143-44 (10th Cir. 2005). A new trial is warranted only where " the essential controlling findings are in conflict" and there is no " plausible theory that supports the verdict." Id. The mere fact that it may be difficult to reconcile apparently conflicting verdicts is not, of itself, grounds for granting a new trial. Id. Relief is appropriate only when it is impossible to reconcile the verdicts. Id.

         a. Failure to submit a trial transcript

         Before turning to the merits of the Defendants' argument, the Court must first address two preliminary issues. First, the Court notes that an attack on a jury verdict because it is inherently inconsistent is a factually-intensive matter, requiring careful examination of the trial record to ascertain precisely what evidence was presented in support of each claim and what factual theories counsel presented in closing arguments. Especially in cases such as this, where the operative facts were highly disputed and the key evidence was testimonial rather than documentary, it is nearly impossible to present such a challenge without supplying a trial transcript. It is not sufficient for counsel to present such a motion relying entirely on counsel's recollections and characterizations of the testimony, rather than by means of specific citations to and quotations from the trial record; such recollections

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and characterizations are often mistaken about the precise content of the testimony, skewed, conflated with statements made by witnesses outside of trial, or otherwise unreliable in a host of ways.[4] Moreover, the failure to supply a transcript prevents a party from specifically citing the Court to the particular location in the record where the evidence may be found; general references to " witnesses testified that . . ." or even " witness X testified that . . . " require the Court to canvass the record and speculate about which particular statements by a witness the party is relying upon. This improperly requires the Court to adopt the role of advocate.

         Accordingly, a party seeking to set aside a verdict on the grounds of inconsistency will almost always be required to supply the Court with a transcript of the pertinent portions of the record (as will a party opposing such a motion). Because the Defendants here did not file a transcript of the trial and have relied solely upon their own recollections and characterizations of the trial testimony, the Court denies the Defendants' motion for that reason alone. (Nevertheless, for purposes of completeness, the Court will proceed to discuss the Defendants' motion in light of the record as reflected in the unofficial rough transcript prepared by the Court Reporter during trial.)

         b. Failure to timely object to verdict

         The second threshold issue concerns the Plaintiffs' contention that the Defendants have waived any ability to seek a new trial based on an inconsistent verdict because they failed to object to the verdict on that ground prior to the Court discharging the jury. In Johnson, the 10th Circuit explained that " a party waives the right to object to inconsistencies in a general verdict with special interrogatories if it does not object on that ground before the jury is discharged," requiring the court to conduct only a plain error review of the verdict. Id. at 1141. It went on to note that " [w]hen the jury returns a special verdict, however, a party is not required to object to inconsistencies in the verdict before the jury is discharged in order to preserve the issue." Id. Thus, the parties' first point of dispute is whether the Court requested the jury to return a " general verdict with special interrogatories" or a " special verdict."

          A " general verdict" is one that " requires the jury to announce the ultimate legal result of each claim" ; a " special verdict" is one which " presents the jury with specific questions of fact such that after the jury returns its verdict, the court applies the law to the facts found by the jury and enters judgment accordingly." Id. at 1142. The verdict form used by this Court is unambiguously a special verdict form, requiring the jury to make specific factual determinations; the Court then enters judgment on the various claims consistent with the jury's factual findings. At no time is the jury asked to make findings of legal liability or to announce the legal rights of a party. Indeed, the verdict on Claim 4 demonstrates the point. The jury made factual findings that, for example, Defendants Jackson and Motyka's statements during the Plaintiffs' prosecution were not without probable cause. The legal effect of such a finding is that it defeats a malicious prosecution claim because a lack of probable cause is an essential element of such a claim. But the jury was not asked to go on and affirmatively state that it was finding a verdict for those Defendants as a result of its factual findings. Put differently, applying

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the law to the jury's findings is a role that this Court assumes when entering judgment. The Plaintiffs' response to the motion contends that " it is clear . . . that the Court submitted a general verdict form with special interrogatories," but beyond stating that proposition, the Plaintiffs do not elaborate on this argument, perhaps because it is fundamentally untenable.

         Thus, because it is apparent that the verdict form used here was a special verdict, not a general verdict with interrogatories, the Defendants' failure to object to the alleged inconsistency prior to the jury's discharge does not preclude the instant request for a new trial.

         c. Merits

         The Court then turns to the particular inconsistencies asserted by the Defendants.

          (i). False arrest vs. Malicious Prosecution

         To avoid double negatives (and admittedly misrepresenting the burden of proof in the process) the Court restates the jury's findings with regard to Claim 3 and Claim 4. On Claim 3, knew the jury found that each Plaintiff proved that he was arrested for assaulting a police officer without probable cause (that is, without the officer having an objectively-reasonable basis to believe that the Plaintiff had committed a crime); this resulted in a verdict against each individual Defendant. However, the jury also found on Claim 4 that the Plaintiffs did not prove that Defendants Motyka and Jackson made statements the criminal proceedings against the Plaintiffs without probable cause (that is, without the officer having a subjectively-reasonable basis to believe that the testimony was truthful and accurate); this resulted in a judgment for Defendants Motyka and Jackson. Thus, the Defendants argue that there is an inherent inconsistency between the jury finding that Defendant Motyka and Jackson had probable cause to make statements supporting the criminal prosecution of the Plaintiffs for assault on a police officer, but did not have probable cause to arrest the Plaintiffs for assault on a police officer in the first place.

         Based on the limited evidentiary record regarding these Defendants' involvement in the prosecution of the Plaintiffs, the Court disagrees. The Court will assume, for purposes of this motion, that the jury's verdict on the False Arrest claim was properly supported by the record -- i.e. that the Defendants lacked probable cause to arrest the Plaintiffs for assault. (The Defendants do not argue that such a verdict is contrary to the evidence.) Then the Court turns to the factual record regarding the precise statements Defendants Motyka and Jackson made during the Plantiffs' criminal prosecution. That record is fairly skeletal. Only two admitted exhibits relate to any of the Plaintiffs' criminal prosecutions, Exhibits 163 and 164. Exhibit 163 consists of a two-page Criminal Summons and Complaint, charging Daniel III with 3d Degree Assault on a Police Officer. (The remainder of the exhibit consists of the docket sheet for that criminal prosecution.) The Summons page is apparently signed by Police Officer James Medina, a non-party to this case.[5] The second page of the document contains a narrative statement, apparently given by

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Defendant Valdez as the Complainant and recorded and signed by Defendant Martinez as the receiving officer. Exhibit 164 is a similar document, asserting the same charge against Nathan Martinez. Once again, it appears that Officer Medina signed the Summons page. The second page of this exhibit is similar to Exhibit 163 -- a narrative statement given by Defendant Valdez and recorded by Defendant Martinez, signed by Defendant Martinez. Thus, the record does not reflect the contents of any written statements[6] by Defendants Motyka and Jackson, much less demonstrate that such statements precipitated the initiation of criminal charges against the Plaintiffs.

         The Court then turns to the oral testimony regarding the criminal prosecution and the role played by Defendants Motyka and Jackson in it. Considering Defendant Motyka first, he testified here that he gave testimony in " their criminal trial" -- apparently the joint trial of Daniel III and Nathan -- on or about January 4, 2010. Defendant Motyka was not asked about, and did not generally describe, the testimony he gave at the trial. However, there is some indirect testimony that revealed certain details about the contents of Defendant Motyka's 2010 testimony. On one occasion, the Plaintiffs' counsel here sought to impeach Defendant Motyka's testimony with the transcript of his 2010 trial testimony,[7] on an issue concerning the sequence in which the Defendants entered the residence. Defendant Motyka admitted that the testimony he had given at this trial and the testimony given at the 2010 criminal trial were inconsistent, and he attributed that disparity to a mistaken present recollection. On another occasion, the Plaintiffs' counsel sought to impeach Defendant Motyka's testimony here with his apparently inconsistent 2010 trial testimony concerning when he heard yelling from inside the residence. Defendant Motyka's response was to thank Plaintiffs' counsel for " refreshing my memory." On a third occasion, Defendant Motyka was confronted with testimony he gave at the 2010 trial in which he apparently stated that the situation inside the residence was " cordial" at one point in time, and Defendant Motyka explained here that that testimony was specifically addressing relations between another officer and one of the Plaintiffs. On yet another occasion, counsel used the 2010 testimony transcript to refresh Defendant Motyka's recollection of whether Defendant Valdez made it all the way into the living room.

         The record appears to reflect that Defendant Motyka also testified on or about August 13, 2009 (or possibly August 7, 2009), at a " pretrial motions hearing" in Daniel III and Nathan's criminal case. As with the 2010 criminal trial, the testimony Defendant Motyka gave at the motions hearing was transcribed and used to impeach Defendant Motyka's testimony in this trial. But, like the trial transcript, the transcript from the motions hearing was not offered as an exhibit and thus, the record here contains only indirect references as to what Defendant Motyka's 2009 testimony may have been. Defendant Motyka appeared to agree with the Plaintiffs' counsel here that the transcript from the motions hearing referenced Defendant Motyka testifying that he punched Nathan

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Martinez in the jaw and that he saw all four Plaintiffs punching Defendant Valdez about the head and shoulders.

         From this record, it is clear that the jury's response to Question 7 on the verdict form --finding that Defendant Motyka made statements that caused the criminal prosecution of Daniel III and Nathan to proceed[8] -- was supported by the evidence. Although the record does not indicate that Defendant Motyka caused the criminal prosecution of the Plaintiffs to be initiated, malicious prosecution claims may be brought against persons who were not involved with the initiation of criminal charges. A witness who gives testimony, unsupported by probable cause, may be liable for malicious prosecution if that witness' testimony causes the prosecution to continue. Pierce v. Gilchrist, 359 F.3d 1279, 1291-92 (10th Cir. 2004). Here, the record reflects that Defendant Motyka made one or more statements that furthered the prosecution of Daniel III and Nathan, possibly including: (i) that the officers entered the residence in a particular sequence; (ii) that Defendant Motyka heard yelling from inside the residence at a particular point in time; (iii) that the communications between one of the ...


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