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Blackmon v. Sutton

United States District Court, D. Kansas

January 12, 2015

MARLA SUTTON, et al., Defendants.


MONTI L. BELOT, District Judge.

This case comes before the court on plaintiff's motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). (Doc. 419). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for decision. (Docs. 420, 421, 422). Plaintiff's motion is denied for the reasons herein.

I. Background

Plaintiff brought section 1983 claims alleging Eighth Amendment violations which occurred during his detention at the Juvenile Detention Facility (JDF) in Wichita, Kansas from January 31, 1997 to May 7, 1997. This case was tried to a jury in mid-October 2014.

During the two week trial, the jury heard evidence from twenty-four expert and lay witnesses. The jury learned that plaintiff, as an eleven-year old boy, was detained at JDF after being charged with rape. During his detention, defendants, Marla Sutton, Natasha Tyson-Martin, Keith Gutierrez, John Hittle, Kirk Taylor and Joan Fitzjarrald, all JDF employees, utilized physical restraints and a restraint chair when plaintiff threatened or exhibited signs of self harm. Plaintiff contended that the restraints were used as punishment and not for a legitimate penological purpose. Defendants testified that they utilized the restraints to keep plaintiff from harming himself. Plaintiff further claimed that Sutton, Taylor and Fitzjarrald were deliberately indifferent to his mental health needs.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants finding that defendants did not violate plaintiff's constitutional rights. Plaintiff moves for a new trial on four grounds: 1) the court erred in dismissing defendant Masterson in its January 17, 2007 order (Doc. 113); 2) the court erred in entering summary judgment in favor of defendant Sedgwick County (Doc. 318); 3) the court erred in allowing evidence of plaintiff's rape adjudication and 4) the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.[1]

II. Analysis

A. Masterson

Plaintiff contends that the court erred in dismissing Masterson in January 2007 and that this error "becomes obvious in light of Masterson's testimony at trial that he was responsible for supervision of the JDF mental health staff until February 18, 1997)." (Doc. 420 at 1).[2] Plaintiff's motion as to Masterson (and the county) is actually a motion to alter or amend judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e).

The purpose of a Rule 59(e) motion is to "correct manifest errors of law or to present newly discovered evidence." Webber v. Mefford, 43 F.3d 1340, 1345 (10th Cir. 1994). "Grounds for granting a Rule 59(e) motion include (1) an intervening change in the controlling law, (2) new evidence previously unavailable, and (3) the need to correct clear error or prevent manifest injustice." Somerlott v. Cherokee Nation Distributors, Inc., 686 F.3d 1144, 1153 (10th Cir. 2012).

Plaintiff's motion essentially argues that the court's order must be set aside due to clear error and newly discovered evidence. Plaintiff argues that the court erred in dismissing Masterson because plaintiff did allege specific facts against Masterson in his amended complaint. The court disagrees. As noted in its 2007 order, the only specific allegation concerning Masterson was his involvement in the decision to place plaintiff at JDF. The court held that those allegations were not sufficient to state a claim.[3] The remaining allegations concerning Masteron's involvement in the use of restraints were conclusory and non-specific. Plaintiff alleged that "defendants acquiesced in, approved, or tolerated JDF staff's failure to exercise professional judgment in the continuing confinement of a child of Brandon's age using behavior management techniques that were inappropriate under the circumstances and which led to Brandon's deteriorating mental state." (Doc. 87, ¶ 92). Plaintiff never alleged how Masterson acquiesced in or approved of the actions of his employees. With respect to Sutton, who assumed Masterson's position, however, plaintiff made specific allegations, including the fact that Sutton authorized the use of restraints on multiple occasions. Id. at ¶ 94. Therefore, plaintiff has failed to establish that this court's decision was in error.

Plaintiff further contends that Masterson's testimony at trial uncovered evidence of his personal participation in the constitutional violations, i.e. that Masterson was the director of JDF during part of plaintiff's detention. That evidence, however, is not newly discovered. To support a Rule 59(e) motion, the moving party must show "(1) that the evidence is newly discovered, or (2) if the evidence was available at the time summary judgment was granted, that counsel made a diligent yet unsuccessful attempt to discover the evidence." Webber, 43 F.3d at 1345. Masterson's deposition was taken in 2010 and 2011. Masterson's deposition testimony discussed his role at supervisor at JDF and the dates involved. (Doc. 279, exh. 4 at 63-65). The deposition testimony also covered his purchase of the restraint chair and his development of JDF policies. (Id. at 62-65, 135-137). Therefore, plaintiff had knowledge of Masterson's role in 2010 and 2011 and failed to move for reconsideration or to amend his complaint. Plaintiff cannot seek relief from the judgment on the basis that trial evidence of Masterson's involvement is newly discovered evidence.

Plaintiff's motion to alter or amend the judgment on this basis is denied.

B. Sedgwick County

Plaintiff moves to alter or amend this court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Sedgwick County on the basis that the court erred in holding that plaintiff failed to establish that Sedgwick County acquiesced in the constitutional violations. (Doc. 420 at 7). Plaintiff's motion fails to cite any authority in support of his position. Nevertheless, the court must deny plaintiff's motion to alter or amend the judgment as a result of the jury's verdict. The Tenth Circuit has repeatedly held that a "municipality cannot be liable under § 1983 for its employees' actions (here, excessive force) if a jury finds that the municipal employee committed no constitutional violation." See Trigalet v. City of Tulsa, Okla., 239 F.3d 1150, 1154 (10th Cir. 2001).[4]

C. Underlying Crime

Plaintiff moves for a new trial on the basis that the admission of his juvenile rape adjudication constituted prejudicial error. "[A] new trial may be granted if the district court concludes the claimed error substantially and adversely' affected the party's rights." Henning v. Union Pacific R. Co., 530 F.3d 1206, 1217 (10th Cir. 2008). A district court may not grant a new trial without a finding of prejudicial error or substantial injustice. Stewart v. South Kansas and Okla. R.R., Inc., 36 F.Supp.2d 919, 920 (D. Kan. 1999) ("Neither an error in the admission or exclusion of evidence nor an error in a ruling or order of the court, nor anything done or omitted by the court, can be grounds for granting a new trial unless the error or defect affects the substantial rights of the parties.") When determining whether a trial error is prejudicial, the court should "ignore errors that do not affect the essential fairness of the trial" or the substantial rights of the parties. McDonough Power Equip., Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548, 553 (1984); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 61 ("The court at every stage of the proceeding must disregard any error or defect in the proceeding which does not affect the substantial rights ...

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