2d Circuit upholds $196,500 damages award in false arrest/excessive force case (Dancy v. McGinley Part II)
This is Part II of my discussion of Dancy v. McGinley, a recent decision from the Second Circuit that upheld a false arrest judgment in favor of the plaintiff, whose case was sufficiently clear-cut that the trial court ruled in his favor mid-trial, taking the case away from the jury entirely. Part I of my discussion is at this link. In the interests of full disclosure and to dispel any suspicion that this post was written by the Russians, I co-litigated this case with Christopher Watkins, Esq.
Elting did not just allege that Police Officer McGinley had falsely arrested him. He also said that McGinley had caused him to suffer physical injuries. So we have an excessive force claim, as well. When the trial court ruled as a matter of law that McGinley had falsely arrested Elting, she ruled that any injuries sustained by Elting as a result of the arrest were unjustified as a matter of law. Here is Elting's evidence of the physical injuries:
Elting testified that, after McGinley stopped them and said that he suspected Dancy of criminal activity, Elting took out his phone to call his mother -- a local corrections officer. McGinley told him to put his "fucking phone away." McGinley then grabbed Elting by his left arm and spun him around to the ground. Elting landed on his shoulder and his face hit the ground. McGinley twisted Elting's left arm behind his back, and pressed his knee into Elting's back. At the time, McGinley weighed between 205 and 220 pounds while Elting weighed 140 pounds. Other officers arrived and began punching Elting in the back while he was on the ground. Dancy testified that he saw McGinley punch Elting in the ribs while Elting was held to the ground. Another officer punched Elting in the face, causing his head to hit the pavement. He was then handcuffed and lifted up, at which point he saw another officer pointing a gun toward him.
At the police station, Elting was interrogated about the robbery and detained for about eighteen hours. After his mother bailed him out, Elting went to the emergency room. "He was in pain and had bruises and abrasions on his head, face, and torso. There was swelling on the right side of his head and left side of his face. The hospital conducted a CAT scan and chest x-ray, which revealed no fractures. The emergency room medical records confirm the bruising to the right side of head, face, and torso, with the recommendation to allow for natural healing and to take Advil to relieve pain. Its physical assessment documented the following: left eye pain, head pain, bruising on cheeks, elbow, back, swelling of his head and temporal area, tender upper and lower back, and abrasions to his nose and hand." Soon afterwards, "Elting began complaining of pain while urinating, and his mother took him to see his regular physician. Elting reported the same injuries as well as long-lasting migraine headaches and soreness. He reported back pain over his right kidney. His physical injuries healed after two to three weeks."
Elting missed a week of school as a result of the incident, and he sought counseling. The experience "changed [his] outlook on a lot of things," and that he lost "trust [in] the police" and his mother's coworkers in law enforcement. "At the time of trial, he continued to seek counseling as a result of the incident because he 'always expect[s] the worst to happen,'" and he became a withdrawn young man who underwent a personality change, according to Elting's mother.
The jury awarded Elting $115,000 for the false arrest and $100,000 for the excessive force. The trial court reduced the excessive force damages to $81,500. The Court of Appeals (Chin, Livingston and Carney) upholds the $81,500/$115,000 damages award. The general rule is that we defer to the jury's views on damages unless the award "shocks the conscience." We also defer to the trial court's damages assessment in reducing the award. Appellate courts will look to comparable cases in determining whether the damages are too high.
Elting's damages award falls in line with comparable cases, the Second Circuit holds, even if no two cases are alike. Judge Chin notes in particular that Elting suffered "substantial" damages from the false arrest, particularly because of his age -- 17 years old -- and Second Circuit authority that recognizes that "an event such as he experienced here has a deeper and lasting impact on a seventeen-year old than an adult." The Court notes that Elting has lost trust in law enforcement even though his mother is a law enforcement officer. This prompts the Court to draw from Justice Sotomayor's dissenting opinion in a recent Fourth Amendment decision: ""For generations, black and brown parents have given their children 'the talk' -- instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger -- all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them."
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Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.