DURAN v. TOWN OF CICERO (August 9, 2011)

Alejandro and Maria Duran threw a party at their Cicero, Illinois home to celebrate their daughter’s baptism. Close to 100 people attended. The Cicero police received two telephone complaints from neighbors. Shortly after the Cicero police responded to the second complaint, the party guests and the police exchanged heated words. Once the police actually entered the property, ostensibly to make an arrest, the verbal melee became a physical one. Seventy-eight guests claim they were physically injured and several police officers required medical treatment. The police made seven arrests but there were no convictions. The 78 injured guests brought suit against 17 police officers and the Town of Cicero pursuant to § 1983 and Illinois law. They also asserted a spoliation of evidence claim based on the police's confiscation of two video cameras, one that was returned but that did not contain any footage of the physical confrontation and one that was not returned that did contain footage of the confrontation. Before trial, Cicero stipulated to his liability under § 1983 and to its vicarious liability on the state law claims. The jury returned verdicts in favor of 23 plaintiffs, on which the court entered judgment. The court then tried to spoliation case. It excluded from that case the issue of the returned video camera, rejecting plaintiffs' theory that preventing the creation of evidence amounts to spoliation. Cicero filed a Rule 59 motion to amend the judgments pursuant because they appeared to list separate awards against both the individual defendants and Cicero for the same injuries. Judge Grady (N.D. Ill.) denied the motion. Cicero appeals the denial of the Rule 59 motion. The plaintiffs cross-appeal.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Ripple, Manion, and Sykes vacated and remanded in part and affirmed in part. The Court first addressed Cicero's appeal. It noted the fundamental principle that a plaintiff is only entitled to one recovery for his injuries. Here, Cicero had stipulated to its liability and that issue should not have been submitted to the jury. It was -- and they were obviously confused. In addition, instructions and special verdict forms asked damages to be assessed by defendant or by claim and not for a particular injury to a particular plaintiff. A Rule 59(e) motion is a proper way to correct a manifest error of law such as this. The Court concluded that it was reasonably clear what the jury was trying to do and remanded for an amended judgment to eliminate any possibility of double recovery. The plaintiffs raise three issues on appeal: the exclusion of the videotape, the exclusion of misconduct complaints against one defendant, and the exclusion of a civil rights conviction against another defendant. First, the Court agreed with the district court that the evidence regarding the returned video camera was properly excluded. Spoliation occurs only when one fails to preserve existing evidence. Here, plaintiffs argue that the videographer would have continued recording the physical melee, creating valuable evidence for trial. That does not amount to actionable spoliation in Illinois. Second, the Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding four misconduct complaints accusing one of the defendants of verbally abusing minorities. The Court noted the substantial leeway a district court has in ruling on an issue like this that requires a balancing of the evidence’s probative value with its prejudicial effect. Third, the plaintiffs sought to introduce a criminal conviction on a civil rights charge against another officer. They argued admissibility under either Rule 609(a)(1) or 609(a)(2). The Court concluded that plaintiffs forfeited their (a)(1) argument because they did not renew it at trial after the court's conditional pretrial ruling excluding it. With respect to (a)(2), the Court concluded that, although there was some evidence of an attempted cover-up, the crime with which the officer was charged and convicted did not involve dishonesty.