FRIZZELL v. SZABO (July 27, 2011)

Thomas Frizzell was on his way to work one November afternoon in Springfield, Illinois when Sangamon County Sheriff’s Deputy Carl Szabo noticed (he asserts) that Frizzell was not wearing a seatbelt. Szabo followed Frizzell for several minutes, until Frizzell arrived in the parking lot of his place of employment. Their accounts of what happened next differ substantially. Deputy Szabo testified that Frizzell ignored his instructions to return to his car, ran toward the door of the building, and attempted to enter the building. Frizzell asserts that he was in a hurry because he was late for work, that he did not originally realize that Szabo was talking to him, and that he wanted to clock in before talking so as not to be late. In any event, Szabo used his taser on Frizzell. When Frizzell continued to ignore orders to stay down, Szabo tased him several more times. Finally, Szabo used pepper spray and physically subdued Frizzell. Frizzell lost his job and claims that he felt weak and tired for several weeks following the incident. He did not, however, seek medical treatment. Frizzell brought suit against Szabo pursuant to §§ 1983 and 1988 for excessive force and false arrest. Szabo brought a counterclaim for battery, seeking $75,000. After trial, Judge Scott (C.D. Ill.) refused to give a nominal damages instruction. She changed her mind and gave such an instruction, however, after the jury sent back a note asking if they had to award damages if they found in plaintiff's favor. The jury found against Frizzell on the false arrest claim, found against Szabo on the counterclaim, and found in Frizzell's favor on the excessive force claim but awarded nominal damages. Chief Judge McCuskey (C.D. Ill.) denied a motion to alter the award and also denied attorney's fees. Frizzell appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Kanne and Evans and District Judge Clevert affirmed. The Court noted that a nominal damages instruction can be appropriate where: a) an officer uses both justifiable and excessive force but any injury relates to the justifiable force, b) where a jury might conclude that the evidence of injury is not credible, or c) where the degree of the injury itself does not support greater damages. The Court found two of those situations in this case. First, the jury could have concluded that the use of the taser was justifiable but the pepper spray afterwards was not -- but that Frizzell's injuries related only to the use of the taser. Second, Frizzell produced very little evidence of injury related to the pepper spray. The district court did not err in giving the instruction or in denying the motion to alter the judgment. The Court turned to the motion for attorney's fees. On that issue, the district court properly considered the difference between the amount plaintiffs sought and the actual award, the significance of the legal issue at stake, and the litigation's public purpose. The Court agreed that those factors weighed against any award of fees. First, although Frizzell never requested a specific award at trial, he did refer to Szabo's $75,000 counterclaim request as a starting point. The difference between $1.00 and anything near $75,000 is significant. Second, Szabo did not prevail on his false arrest claim and prevailed without measurable damages on his excessive force claim. He cannot claim that he prevailed on any significant legal issue. Finally, there was no public purpose served by the litigation. It was simply a private injury.