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Newman v. Vagnini

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

April 3, 2017

WILLIE JAMES NEWMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL VAGNINI, JEFFREY CLINE, and PAUL MARTINEZ, Defendants.

          ORDER

          J.P. Stadtmueller U.S. District Judge

         1. INTRODUCTION

         On November 23, 2016, the jury returned its verdict in this matter in favor of Plaintiff Willie James Newman (“Newman”). (Docket #62). On January 11, 2017, pursuant to the briefing schedule established by the Court, Defendants Michael Vagnini (“Vagnini”), Jeffrey Cline, and Paul Martinez (“Martinez”) (collectively, “Defendants”) filed a motion to vacate the jury's verdict. (Docket #92). The motion is now fully briefed, and for the reasons explained below, it will be granted in part and denied in part.

         2. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 59 permits a party to seek a new trial “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). In clearer terms, this means that “[a] new trial is appropriate if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or if the trial was in some way unfair to the moving party.” Venson v. Altamirano, 749 F.3d 641, 656 (7th Cir. 2014). FRCP 60 allows the Court to vacate a judgment based on, inter alia, a mistake, newly discovered evidence, fraud by a party, satisfaction of the judgment, or “any other reason that justifies relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b). Relief under FRCP 60 is an “extraordinary remedy and is granted only in exceptional circumstances.” Wickens v. Shell Oil Co., 620 F.3d 747, 759 (7th Cir. 2010). Under both rules, the Court's determination is constrained only by its sound discretion. Venson, 749 F.3d at 651, 656.

         3.ANALYSIS

         Defendants offer two primary arguments in favor of vacating the jury's verdict. First, they claim that a juror's conduct tainted the jury's verdict, denying them a fair trial. Second, they contend that even if the verdict stands, both the compensatory and punitive damages awards are excessive and must be reduced. The Court addresses these arguments in turn.

         3.1 Juror Misconduct

         Defendants challenge the verdict based on alleged juror misconduct, namely that a juror, who will be identified as Juror Number One, conducted internet research during the trial which influenced the jury's deliberations. On December 8, 2016, Defendants filed a motion requesting that the Court question that juror. (Docket #67). The Court referred the motion and evidentiary hearing to Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin, who granted the motion to question the juror and issued a report on his evidentiary findings after holding a sealed hearing (the “Report”). (Docket #81). The Court will first address the Report and then moves on to the substance of the parties' arguments on the misconduct issue.

         3.1.1 Magistrate Duffin's Report

         Defendants filed their motion to question Juror Number One in light of information found by their attorneys on the juror's publicly available Facebook postings. Id. at 2. After receiving the verdict, Defendants' counsel directed their staff to conduct internet research on the jurors. Id. This included viewing Juror Number One's public Facebook postings. Id. On November 26, 2016, three days after jury's verdict was received, Juror Number One posted a link to a local television station's report on the verdict. Id. at 3-4. The next day, a person commented on that post, stating:

Why don't you become a judge? If you can sit through that ish [sic] and not lose your ish- you should just be the judge. You researched the payouts of similar cases. You have a psychology background and can tell when people are b.s.ing. You could do a lot of good everyday. What if you made it to the supreme court?

(Docket #69-1 at 21). Juror Number One replied to the comment, “Maybe some day!” Id.

         Given the content of the Facebook post, Defendants requested that Juror Number One be questioned to determine “whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to [the jury's] attention.” (Docket #67 at 1). Magistrate Duffin issued the Report on December 19, 2016, and Newman submitted objections thereto on January 3, 2017. (Docket #90 and #91). The Report is subject to de novo review. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         Newman presents two objections. First, he suggests that Magistrate Duffin erred in determining that Defendants' Facebook research was appropriate. The Court agrees with Magistrate Duffin. General Local Rule 47(c) prohibits parties or their agents from “approach[ing], interview[ing], or communicat[ing] with a venire member or juror, before, during or after trial, except on leave of Court granted upon notice to opposing counsel and upon good cause shown.” Gen. L. R. 47(c). There is no evidence that Defendants or their counsel communicated with any juror in conducting their research. Further, Defendants accessed only what information the jurors themselves made available by posting it to the public portion of their Facebook profile. While the Court recognizes Newman's concern regarding overly intrusive post-verdict investigations, that simply did not occur here. The undeniable fact that the internet makes so much information so readily available does not render accessing such information improper.[1]

         Newman's second objection is to Magistrate Duffin's finding on the witnesses' credibility. Magistrate Duffin conducted a sealed evidentiary hearing wherein he questioned Juror Number One as well as the jury's foreperson. (Docket #81 at 5-6). In light of the strong policy reasons against intruding on a jury's deliberations, Tanner v. U.S., 483 U.S. 107, 117-28 (1987), Magistrate Duffin limited his questioning to the issue of “whether any matter not presented as evidence at trial was nonetheless improperly presented to the jury, . . . avoid[ing] any questions about what role any such outside information played in the jury's deliberations[.]” (Docket #81 at 4). Magistrate Duffin found as follows:

The court questioned Juror Number One. Juror Number One authenticated the posts contained in ECF Nos. 69-1 and 69-2 as coming from her Facebook page. She testified that she did not conduct any outside research during the trial. However, she testified she is a “researcher by nature” and, therefore, immediately following the completion of the trial on November 23, 2016, she researched what victims of police misconduct, including victims of unlawful strip searches, received in other cases. It was this research that the commenter on her post, whom she characterized as her best friend, was referring to on Facebook. When asked if she shared with other jurors anything that she learned from any outside research, she said she did not. She denied having any knowledge of the actors in this case prior to trial or conducting any research regarding any of them during the trial.
The court then questioned the jury foreperson. The foreperson denied that any juror provided the jury information as to what compensation persons in similar cases received. However, the foreperson testified that, on the second day of deliberations, Juror Number One asked if the jury would like to know what she learned by doing research about awards in other civil actions. The jury members agreed they would and Juror Number One provided information as to what she learned in her research. The foreperson did not have a specific recollection of what information Juror Number One provided but did recall that the cases were not related to police misconduct; they might have been employment discrimination cases. The foreperson did not know when Juror Number One undertook such research and did not know Juror Number One's source, although the foreperson suspected it was the internet. It was the foreperson's belief that Juror Number One was not providing information based upon her personal experience.
The court finds that the testimony of the two witnesses to be in conflict. Based upon the court's observations of the witnesses during the hearing, the testimony of the witnesses, and evidence presented with the defendants' motion, the court finds that the greater weight of the credible evidence supports the finding that Juror Number One did do research on payouts in other civil actions during the trial and before the jury rendered its verdict. The court finds the foreperson's testimony more credible to the extent that it conflicts with that of Juror Number One.

Id. at 5-6.

         Newman contends that Magistrate Duffin's finding of conflict between the two jurors' testimony is erroneous. Juror Number One testified that she did not do any research during the trial nor did she share that information with her fellow jurors. (Docket #91 at 3-8). Defendants counter that this testimony is contrary to that of the foreperson, as noted by Magistrate Duffin. (Docket #94 at 4-8). In essence, according to Defendants, Magistrate Duffin concluded that Juror Number One's testimony was untruthful. Id. at 6.

         Newman's objection on this point is overruled to the extent that he asserts that there was no conflict between the testimony of the witnesses. The Court has reviewed the transcript of the sealed hearing and agrees with Magistrate Duffin that the conflict is apparent. Juror Number One testified that she did not share any of her research with her fellow jurors, while the foreperson testified that she in fact volunteered such information. (Docket #88 at 8-9, 13-14).

         However, there remains the issue of the timing of Juror Number One's research. This raises several interrelated questions. Did Juror Number One do any research on research on “the payouts of similar cases”? Yes, and the juror confirmed as much, though as both witnesses testified, the word “similar” meant other civil cases generally, not strip search cases in particular. Id. at 6-10, 12-13. Specifically, the foreperson testified that the cases “may have been an employer/employee sexual misconduct-type case, and they were not in Wisconsin; it was like Florida or, you know, someplace else entirely[.]” Id. at 13. Next, did Juror Number One do research on Defendants at any time prior to the jury's verdict? No; Juror Number One testified that she did not and the foreperson confirmed that such research was never discussed in the jury's deliberations. Id.

         The final question, then, is whether Juror Number One conducted research on “similar cases” during the trial (hereinafter, this is the “research” the Court references). Magistrate Duffin says yes, finding that “the greater weight of the credible evidence supports the finding that Juror Number One did do research on payouts in other civil actions during the trial and before the jury rendered its verdict.” (Docket #81 at 6). This Court finds that on the record before it, Magistrate Duffin's conclusion was mistaken. Juror Number One testified at various points that she did not do any research during the trial:

THE COURT: Okay. Let me ask you, specifically during the time period from when the trial started, so beginning on or about 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning --
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: Uh-huh.
THE COURT: November 21st --
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: Uh-huh.
THE COURT: -- and you guys reached a verdict, were done by roughly noon on Wednesday --
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: Correct.
THE COURT: -- during that time period, so from the beginning of the trial to when the jury came back with its verdict, did you do any research, investigation or search relating to what compensation people received or should receive after being subjected to illegal strip searches or other cases of police misconduct?
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: No.
. . .
THE COURT: Okay. I think you probably -- this is probably encompassed within what you've already said, but did you during the trial -- so between the beginning of the trial and the reaching of a verdict, did you do any research in any way whether it's internet research or otherwise related to any person involved in the case?
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: No.
. . .
THE COURT: So when [the Facebook post commenter] was talking about the research she did -- that you did, you're talking -- she's referencing what you told her about the research that you did after the case was over?
[JUROR NUMBER ONE]: Well, she knows that I research everything; but also I twice took the LSAT prep course, which I did not complete; and so she knows that I'm already ...

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