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Sallitt v. Stankus

May 26, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court for disposition is the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the plaintiff's motion for attorney fees and costs. The motions have been fully briefed, and they are ripe for disposition. Background

Plaintiff Norman Sallitt, Jr. was a deputy sheriff for Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He filed suit asserting that Defendant Barry Stankus, Luzerne County's elected sheriff, and his chief deputy, Defendant George Kamage, Jr., retaliated against him for supporting Stankus's political opponent in the election for sheriff. (See Doc. 1-2, Complaint). As part of the retaliation plaintiff asserts that he was suspended from his position for nine (9) months. Plaintiff asserts that because of the suspension he lost opportunities to obtain higher paying employment with the Pennsylvania State Police and the United States Marshals Service.

The defendants eventually allowed plaintiff to return to work. Ultimately, however, they terminated his employment. Plaintiff thus initiated the instant civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He asserts that defendants' actions in suspending and terminating him violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

A jury trial on this matter commenced on March 17, 2009 and the jury returned its verdict on March 25, 2009. (Doc. 89, Verdict). The jury found that defendants Luzerne County and Barry Stankus had violated plaintiff's due process rights in connection with his suspension. (Id.) The jury awarded past economic damages $25,000.00, future economic damages of $100,000.00, non-economic damages of $100,000.00 and punitive damages against Defendant Stankus in the amount of $155,000.00. (Id.)*fn1

The jury found no liability on the part of Defendant Kamage. The jury further found for the defendants on plaintiff's First Amendment freedom association claim involving both plaintiff's suspension and termination. (Doc. 89, Verdict at ¶¶ 3, 5, 7). After the trial, the defendants filed the instant motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure. Additionally, the plaintiff moved for an award of attorney's fees and costs. The motions have been briefed, and they are ripe for disposition.


Plaintiff filed his complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations. We thus have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.").

Two motions are before the court. We will address them separately.

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law Standard of Review

Defendants seek judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 on several grounds. "Under Rule 50, a court should render judgment as a matter of law when 'a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue.'" Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 149 (2000) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1)). The court grants this motion "only if 'viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could find liability.'" Buskirk v. Apollo Metals, 307 F.3d 160, 166 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993)). Courts apply the same standard to motions made before the jury verdict pursuant to Rule 50(a) and after the jury verdict made pursuant to Rule 50(b). See McDaniels v. Flick, 59 F.3d 446, 453 (3d Cir. 1995).


The defendants raise several issues that we will discuss separately.

I. Punitive Damages

As noted above, the jury awarded plaintiff $155,000.00 in punitive damages against Defendant Barry Stankus. The defendants' first argument is that the imposition of punitive damages against Defendant Stankus is an error of law. Defendants raise the following arguments with regard to the punitive damages: 1) punitive damages are inappropriate against Defendant Stankus because plaintiff sued him, and he acted in, his official capacity; 2) no evidence was presented to the jury to determine the amount of punitive damages and the punitive damages award is against the weight of the evidence; and 3) the punitive damages are too high based on recent Supreme Court decisions. We will address these issues in seriatim.

a. Official Capacity

Defendants first argue that Defendant Stankus cannot properly be found liable for punitive damages. Defendants argue as follows: Plaintiff sued Stankus in Stankus's official capacity only. Suing Stankus in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Luzerne County is equivalent to suing Luzerne County. Luzerne County cannot be held liable for punitive damages. Therefore, Stankus cannot be found liable for punitive damages. We are unconvinced by defendants' argument.

Initially, we find that the defendants have waived this issue. A party cannot raise an issue after a trial if it did not raise that issue preverdict. Wilson v. Vt. Castings, Inc., 170 F.3d 391, 395 (3d Cir. 1999); Williams v. Runyon, 130 F.3d 568, 571-72 (3d Cir. 1997); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 50 cmt. (2006) ("[T]he Rule 50(b) motion . . . can be granted only on grounds advanced in the preverdict motion"). In the instant case, the defendants never raised this issue until its post-verdict motions. Before the verdict, the defendants did not seek to dismiss the punitive damages claim on the basis that the individual defendants were sued in their official capacity and as such punitive damages were inappropriate. The defendants have thus waived this issue, and it will be denied.

If defendants had raised the issue prior to the verdict, it would have been dealt with simply. It is evident from the course of proceedings that the plaintiff sued Defendant Stankus in his individual capacity. In fact, if this was not the plaintiff's intent, the presence of Stankus as a defendant would have been wholly unnecessary and redundant. See Carver v. Foerster, 102 F.3d 96, 97 n.1 (3d Cir. 1996) (explaining that claims against a county employee in his official capactiy "are in fact claims against the County"). In other words, the mere presence of Stankus as a defendant indicates the plaintiff's intention to sue him in his individual capacity. Defendants never moved to dismiss Stankus on the basis that he was sued only in his official capacity, indicating that they also treated him as having been sued in his individual rather than official capacity. Additionally, the verdict form contained a punitive damages question applicable to Defendant Barry Stankus but not applicable to Luzerne County. (Doc. 89, Verdict at ¶ 11). The fact that the verdict form did not contain a question regarding punitive damages and Luzerne County indicates that the parties knew which parties could be held liable for punitive damages -- defendants sued in their individual capacities -- and which could not -- the county or defendants sued in their official capacities.

Moreover, defendants argue that the individual defendants only acted in their official capacities in dealing with the plaintiff and therefore could not be held liable in an individual capacity. Defendants argue apparently that Defendant Stankus's suspension of the plaintiff was an action taken in his official capacity as the sheriff. Therefore, he cannot be held liable in his individual capacity. This assertion is not an accurate statement of the law. State officials may in fact be held liable in their individual capacities for actions they take in their official capacities. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 27 (1991).

b. Evidence to Determine Amount of Punitive Damages

Next, the defendants argue that the punitive damages verdict must be dismissed because the jury had no evidence upon which it could determine an appropriate amount to punish Defendant Stankus.

Defendants argue that the court should have allowed a separate hearing to determine the net worth of Defendant Stankus so the jury could take that in consideration in determining the punitive damages award. We are unconvinced by the defendants' argument.

Defendants cite no authority for the proposition that the plaintiff must present evidence of net worth in order to allow punitive damages. They also present no authority that requires the court to hold a separate hearing on punitive damages. The court did not limit the defendants' ability to present evidence in the trial regarding Defendant Stankus's net worth or any other factor affecting punitive damages. We will not dismiss the award of punitive damages merely because the defendants failed to present the evidence it wanted jury to have.

In a related argument, the defendants argue that the award of punitive damages violates Defendant Stankus's due process rights. Defendants argue that the award is grossly disproportionate to Stankus's conduct. In support of this position, the defendants cite Willow Inn, Inc. v. Public Serice Mut. Ins. Co., 339 F.3d 224 (3d Cir. 2005).

The law provides that punitive damages cannot be awarded in a section 1983 case unless there is more than a mere violation of a right justifying compensatory damage. The defendant must have acted with a certain state of mind, that is reckless or callous disregard for the rights of others. Keenan v. City of Philadelphia, 983 F.2d 459, 469-70 (3d Cir. 1992). Keenan explains as follows:

Punitive damages in § 1983 cases are available where the defendants have acted with a "reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights and safety of others." Bennis v. Gable, 823 F.2d 723, 734 (3d Cir.1987) (quoting Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56, 103 S.Ct. 1625, 1640, 75 L.Ed.2d 632 (1983)). However, "punitive damages in general represent a limited remedy, to be reserved for special circumstances." Savarese v. Agriss, 883 F.2d 1194, 1205 (3d Cir.1989) (citing Cochetti v.

Desmond, 572 F.2d 102, 105-06 (3d Cir.1978)). "[D]espite its utility as a deterrent, the punitive damage remedy must be reserved, we think, for cases in which the defendant's conduct amounts to something more than a bare violation justifying compensatory damages or injunctive relief." Cochetti, 572 F.2d at 106.

In order to pass constitutional muster, punitive damages "must not be disproportionately excessive to the degree of the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct and the harm ...

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