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Watley v. Felsman

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 9, 2019

JOSEPH J. WATLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL FELSMAN, DANIEL NILON, and JAMES SOHNS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          A. Richard Caputo, United States District Judge

         Presently before me is a Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment (Doc. 104) filed by Defendants Michael Felsman (“Corporal Felsman”) and Daniel Nilon (“Corporal Nilon”) (together, “Corporals” or “Defendants”) and Plaintiff Joseph Watley's Motion to Strike (Doc. 118) and Motion for Attorney's Fees and Costs (Doc. 98). For the reasons below, all three motions will be denied.

         I. Background

         As the parties have already been through trial, only a brief summary of the facts will be provided.

         This is a civil rights action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 stemming from a series of encounters between Watley and the Corporals following a traffic stop on May 11, 2016. On May 11, 2016, Corporal Felsman pulled Watley over on Interstate 84 in Blooming Grove Township for impeding the flow of traffic, tinted windows, and a broken tail light. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 25-29, 138; Trial Tr. Oct. 16, 2018, at 99). Prior to the traffic stop, Watley was driving home to Connecticut after purchasing a black Chevrolet Monte Carlo in Indiana. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 67-68). Corporal Felsman was unable to pull up information on the license plate of the Monte Carlo driven by Watley and approached the vehicle on the passenger side. (Id. at 145-48, 151, 155). After repeatedly asking Watley to lower his windows because he could not see through the tint, Corporal Felsman called for backup. (Id. at 85, 156-58). In the meantime, Watley held up a sign saying “I remain silent. No. searches. I want my lawyer. Place any tickets under the wiper blade.” (Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 44).

         Eventually, after other police officers arrived on the scene, Watley lowered his window slightly, just enough to hand over his driver's license and vehicle registration. (Id. at 45-47). Corporal Felsman returned to his patrol vehicle to run the license and registration and learned both that Watley had a criminal history and that the Monte Carlo was registered to Cheyenna Blake Lawson. (Id. at 48, 54; Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 53). Trooper Schochin then tried to approach the vehicle to see if the photo on the license looked like driver of the car. (Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 51). As Watley still had not exited the vehicle, the police officers on the scene contacted a supervisor, Corporal Romanchick, who told them he would come to the scene to assist them. (Id. at 68).

         Once Corporal Romanchick, along with Sergeant Kennedy, arrived at the scene, the officers tried to maneuver their cars around the Monte Carlo to prevent Watley from fleeing. (Id. at 69, 73). Corporal Romanchick ordered Watley to exit the Monte Carlo, which he failed to do. (Id. at 74). Simultaneously, Corporal Felsman took out his department-issued baton and told Trooper Stanco to take out his gun in the event Watley was armed, and Corporal Nilon drew his department-issued taser. (Id. at 74-75). Shortly thereafter, Watley opened the door to his vehicle and was handcuffed. (Id. at 75-76). Watley was arrested because the officers at the time believed he would not return to Pennsylvania to face the traffic citations. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 44, 61). Corporal Felsman then put leg shackles on Watley and placed him in the front seat of his vehicle to take him to the magistrate judge. (Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 83, 87). During this time, Corporal Nilon and Trooper Sohns performed a search of Watley's vehicle, purportedly for valuables, before the car was taken to the lot at Lords Valley Towing. (Id. at 99, 146-150). The officers claimed they did not find any valuables in the vehicle apart from Watley's camera phone, which was given to Corporal Felsman. (Id. at 87, 161).

         Later that day, Corporal Felsman brought Watley before Magistrate Judge Cooper. Watley requested a lawyer and Magistrate Judge Cooper informed Watley he could not get a lawyer at that time. (Id. at 91). When Watley refused to plead guilty or not guilty, Magistrate Judge Cooper told Corporal Felsman to take Watley to Pike County Prison in lieu of collateral and issued a commitment order. (Id. at 92-93). Corporal Felsman then drove Watley to Pike County Prison in the same restraints as before. (Id. at 94).

         The next morning, Corporal Felsman, along with Sergeant Kennedy, arrived at the prison and drove Watley, who was once again placed in restrains, to appear before Magistrate Judge Cooper. (Id. at 96-97; Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018 1 at 34). Early in the proceeding, Magistrate Judge Cooper noted that the summary trial should have been brought before Magistrate Judge Muir rather than himself because the traffic stop occurred in Blooming Grove Township. (Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 99). Magistrate Judge Cooper released Watley on his own recognizance and instructed Corporal Felsman to drive Watley to the tow lot. (Id. at 99-101, 134; Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 50).

         Corporal Felsman informed Watley that he was no longer in custody at this time and that if he wanted to be driven to the tow lot, he would need to be placed in restraints. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 36, 78; Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 11, 101). Watley did not respond to Corporal Felsman and walked toward Corporal Felsman's patrol vehicle and got in. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 80; Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 11, 101). Corporal Felsman handcuffed Watley tightly and shackled his legs with his personal leg restraints that were not the property of the state police. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 35, 77-78). Upon arriving at the tow lot, Corporal Felsman removed the restraints and told Watley he was free to go. (Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 101). Watley then went over to speak with the owner of the lot and eventually headed back home. (Trial Tr., Oct. 17, 2018, at 17).

         On October 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint in connection with the above events. (Doc. 1). On October 25, 2017, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint alleging unlawful search and seizure, excessive force, First Amendment retaliation, assault and battery, false arrest/false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and abuse of process against Defendants. (See Doc. 23 generally). The parties then filed cross motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 28; Doc. 40). On March 29, 2018, I granted summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff as to liability for his seizure on May 12, 2016 (Count I, in part) and in favor of Defendants on the following claims: seizure and search of Watley's person by Trooper Felsman on May 11, 2016 (Count I, in part); excessive force as to the events of May 11, 2016 (Count II, in part); First Amendment retaliation (Count III); assault and battery as to the events of May 11, 2016; false arrest/false imprisonment (Count V), malicious prosecution (Count VI), abuse of process (Count II); the search and seizure of Watley by Trooper Nilon on May 11, 2016 (Count VIII). (Doc. 48). Trial began on October 15, 2018 and concluded on October 17, 2018.

         At trial, after the presentation of Plaintiff's case-in-chief and again prior to Plaintiff's rebuttal, Defendants moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) for judgment as a matter of law, arguing judgment should be entered on behalf of Defendants on the search, assault and battery, excessive force, and seizure claims[1]because Watley did not meet his burden and the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 107-17; Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 166-173). I denied this motion on both occasions. (Trial Tr., Oct. 15, 2018, at 116-17; Trial Tr., Oct. 16, 2018, at 172-73). Ultimately, the jury found that Corporal Nilon violated Watley's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and that Corporal Felsman violated Watley's Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force, but that Watley did not suffer injuries from these violations or the seizure on May 12, 2016. (Doc. 95). As such, the jury awarded Watley $3.00 in nominal damages.

         Both parties have filed post-trial motions. Plaintiff has filed a Motion for Attorney Fees and a Motion to Strike. (Doc. 98; Doc. 118). Defendants Felsman and Nilon have filed a Motion to Alter Judgment. (Doc. 104). All three (3) motions are ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) and 50(b)

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) authorizes the entry of judgment as a matter of law. A motion for relief under this Rule may be made at any time before the case is submitted to the jury. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). Where, as here, a court denies a party's Rule 50(a) motion, “the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the courts later deciding the legal questions raised by the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In the event an adverse judgment is entered, the movant may renew the motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50(b), which provides:

If the court does not grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law made under Rule 50(a), the court is considered to have submitted the action to the jury subject to the court's later deciding the legal questions raised by the motions. No. later than 28 days after the entry of judgment . . . the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59.

Id. To prevail, the moving party “must show that the jury's findings, presumed or expressed, are not supported by substantial evidence, or if they (are), that the legal conclusions implied (by) the jury's verdict cannot in law be supported by those findings.” LifeScan, Inc. v. Home Diagnostics, Inc., 103 F.Supp.2d 345, 350 (D. Del.2000); see also Valenti v. Allstate Ins. Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 221, 223 (M.D. Pa. 2003).

In considering whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to sustain the jury's verdict, the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of facts for the jury's version. Although judgment as a matter of law should not be granted liberally, a mere scintilla of evidence is insufficient to sustain a verdict of liability. The Court is not to ask whether there is literally no evidence supporting the verdict, but instead, whether there is evidence upon which the jury could properly find a verdict for the prevailing party. Accordingly, if the evidence of record is insufficient to support the jury's verdict, then motion for judgment of law should be granted.

Moore v. Susquehanna Area Reg'l Airport Auth., No. Civ A. 1:02-CV-0535, 2005 WL 2430790, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2005) (citations omitted).

         A motion for judgment as a matter of law should be granted if, “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving every advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find liability.” Ambrose v. Twp. of Robinson, 303 F.3d 488, 492 (3d Cir. 2002); see also Toledo Mack Sales & Serv., Inc. v. Mack Trucks, Inc., 530 F.3d 204, 209 (3d Cir. 2008).

         B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e)

         Rule 59(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to move to alter or amend a judgment within twenty-eight days of its entry. A judgment may be altered or amended if the party seeking reconsideration establishes at least one of the following grounds: “(1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court granted the motion []; or (3) the need to correct a clear error of law or fact or to prevent manifest injustice.” Max's Seafood Café, by Lou-Ann, Inc. v. Quinteros, 176 F.3d 669, 677 (3d Cir. 1999). “A motion for reconsideration is not to be used as a means to reargue matters already argued and disposed of.” Odgen v. Keystone Residence, 226 F.Supp.2d 588, 606 (M.D. Pa. 2002). “[R]econsideration motions may not be used to raise new arguments or present evidence that could have been raised prior to the entry of judgment.” Hill v. Tammac Corp., Civ. A. No. 05-1148, 2006 WL 529044, at *2 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 3, 2006). The reconsideration of a judgment is an extraordinary remedy, and such motions should be granted sparingly. D'Angio v. Borough of Nescopeck, 56 F.Supp.2d 502, 504 (M.D. Pa. 1999).

         C. Attorney's Fees

         Congress has provided that “[i]n any action or proceeding to enforce a provision of section[] . . . 1983, . . . of this title, . . . the court, in its discretion, may allow the prevailing party, other than the United States, a reasonable attorney's fee as part of the costs.” 42 U.S.C. § 1988. “[T]o qualify as a prevailing party, a civil rights plaintiff must obtain at least some relief on the merits of his claim and [t]he plaintiff must obtain an enforceable judgment against the defendant for whom fees are sought. . .[.]” Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111, 113 S.Ct. 566 (1992) (citing Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760, 107 S.Ct. 2672, 2675 (1987)).

         III. Discussion A. Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment

         Pursuant to Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendants move to alter or amend the October 17, 2018 judgment on the seizure and excessive force claims based on the drive back to the tow lot against Corporal Felsman and the unreasonable search claim against Corporal Nilon based on the May 11, 2016 search of Watley's vehicle. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion will be denied.

         1. Unreasonable Seizure

         Corporal Felsman asserts the unreasonable seizure finding against him was improper and raises three (3) arguments in support of his motion to alter or amend this portion of the judgment: (1) my summary judgment finding that Watley was seized on May 12, 2016 on the ride to the tow lot was improper; (2) the facts presented at trial do not support a finding that a seizure occurred in this incident; and (3) Corporal Felsman is entitled to qualified immunity on this issue. Despite framing the first two arguments in the alternative of the other, Corporal Felsman appears to challenge my summary ...


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