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Burgess v. Baltimore Police Department

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 9, 2018

SABEIN BURGESS, Plaintiff,
v.
BALTIMORE POLICE DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Sabein Burgess filed suit against, inter alia, Defendant Gerald Goldstein and other individual officers of the Baltimore Police Department ("BPD") alleging various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Human Rights, and Maryland common law. (ECF Nos. 1, 141.) Ultimately, as a result of either Orders of this Court or by agreement between the parties as to some Defendants, only four claims against one Defendant, Mr. Goldstein, proceeded to the jury. (See ECF Nos. 56, 311, 312, 320, 333, 356.) On November 21, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiffs favor on all claims and awarded him $15, 000, 000. (ECF No. 364.)

         Presently pending are two post-trial motions: the Renewed Motion of Defendant Gerald Goldstein Under Federal Rule 50 (ECF No. 376) for Judgment as a Matter of Law and his Motion for New Trial and/or to Alter or Amend Judgment Under Federal Rule 59 (ECF Nos. 374, 411[1]). The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons set forth below, the Defendant's Renewed Motion Under Rule 50 (ECF No. 376) is DENIED, and the Defendant's Motion Under Rule 59 (ECF No. 411) is also DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         Michelle Dyson was murdered on October 5, 1994. The BPD investigated the crime, and Mr. Burgess, Dyson's boyfriend at the time, was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City on June 13, 1995. At trial, Laura Brokaw (f/k/a Laura Shach) prosecuted the case as an Assistant State's Attorney for Baltimore City, and Gordon Tayback represented Mr. Burgess. The trial court sentenced Mr. Burgess to life in prison plus 20 years. While incarcerated, Mr. Burgess was sentenced to five years for rioting. (Def.'s Rule 59 Mot. Ex. M, ECF No. 411-16.) To this day, Mr. Burgess, has maintained his innocence as to Michelle Dyson's murder.

         In February 2014, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granted Mr. Burgess' Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence, which the State of Maryland had not opposed, and Mr. Burgess was released after having served almost twenty years in prison. (11/17/2017 Trial Tr. at 305-306.)

         Mr. Burgess filed this federal action against, inter alia, Defendant Gerald Goldstein and other individual officers of the Baltimore Police Department on March 23, 2015. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff alleges various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Human Rights, and Maryland common law. (Id.) This case proceeded through discovery and motions practice. As a result of Orders of this Court or by agreement between the parties, only five claims proceeded to trial against two individual Defendants: Gerald Goldstein and Steven Lehman. (See ECF Nos. 56, 311, 312, 320, 332, 333.) Plaintiffs claims for trial included (1) violations of the principles of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) in the suppression of evidence favorable to Mr. Burgess, (2) fabrication of evidence, (3) malicious prosecution, (4) failure to intervene, and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress. (Final Pretrial Order, ECF No. 332.)

         At the close of the Plaintiffs case, this Court granted in part the Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. Specifically, this Court dismissed all claims against Defendant Lehman, the failure to intervene claim against Defendant Goldstein, and any claim based on Defendant Goldstein's alleged fabrication of a gas tank test. (ECF No. 356.) This Court ruled that the following claims would be submitted to the jury:

1. Plaintiffs Brady-based claim that Defendant Goldstein withheld (a) evidence that Brain Rainey was an exculpatory witness and (b) other exculpatory information provided by the FBI as recited in Plaintiffs Trial Exhibits 121 and 122;
2. Plaintiffs due process claim that Defendant Goldstein fabricated a police report;
3. Plaintiffs claim that Defendant Goldstein maliciously prosecuted Plaintiff through the suppression and/or fabrication of evidence other than the gas tank test; and
4. Plaintiffs intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

(Id.) During the Conference on Jury Instructions, this Court adjusted the description of the first claim to include a reference to Plaintiffs Trial Exhibit 372. (11/21/2017 Trial Tr. at 11, 179.)

         On November 21, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiffs favor on all four claims and awarded Mr. Burgess $15, 000, 000. (ECF No. 364.) Additional relevant facts regarding the trial are discussed below.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, judgment as a matter of law should be granted against a party when that party "has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Coryn Grp. II, LLC v. O.C Seacrets, Inc., 868 F.Supp.2d 468, 483 (D. Md. 2012) (citation omitted). Rule 50 permits a litigant to renew its motion for judgment as a matter of law even after judgment has been entered. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In considering a motion under Rule 50, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, Gregg v. Ham, 678 F.3d 333, 341 (4th Or. 2012), gives that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences from the evidence, Whalen v. Roanoke Cnty. Bd. of Supervisors, 769 F.2d 221, 224 (4th Cir. 1985), and asks whether there is "substantial evidence in the record to support the jury's findings, " Anderson v. Russell, 247 F.3d 125, 129 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). However, "the court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing, 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)).

         A litigant may also challenge a jury verdict and/or judgment under Rule 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, but it is an "extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly." See Pacific Ins. Co. v. American Nat. Fire Ins. Co., 148 F.3d 396, 403 (4th Cir. 1998). First, under Rule 59(a)(1)(A), a court may grant a new trial on all or some issues "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. In the Fourth Circuit, a court "must set aside the verdict and grant a new trial[ ] if ... (1) the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence, or (2) is based upon evidence which is false, or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict." Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 639 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). Unlike a motion under Rule 50, when considering a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, "a trial judge may weigh the evidence and consider the credibility of the witnesses." Poynter by Poynter v. Ratcliff, 874 F.2d 219, 223 (4th Cir. 1989); see also McCollum v. McDaniel, 136 F.Supp.2d 472, 475 (D. Md. 2001).[2]

         Second, under Rule 59(e), a litigant may seek to alter or amend a judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. While Rule 59(e) does not provide a standard itself, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has recognized "three grounds for amending an earlier judgment: (1) to accommodate an intervening change in controlling law; (2) to account for new evidence not available at trial; or (3) to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." Pac. Ins. Co., 148 F.3d at 403. To be clearly erroneous, the earlier decision cannot be "just maybe or probably wrong; it must. . . strike [the Court] as wrong with the force of a five-week old, unrefrigerated dead fish." TFWS, Inc. v. Franchot, 572 F.3d 186, 194 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bellsouth Telesensor v. Info. Sys. & Networks Corp., Nos. 92-2355, 92-2437, 1995 WL 520978 at *5 n.6 (4th Cir. Sept. 5, 1995)). Whether to alter or amend a judgment under Rule 59(e) is within the sound discretion of the district court. See, e.g., Bogart v. Chapell, 396 F.3d 548, 555 (4th Cir. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Rule 50 Motion

         Under Rule 50, the Defendant asks this Court to grant judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the jury's findings on each claim were not supported by "substantial evidence in the record." Anderson, 247 F.3d at 129.

         A. Brady-based Withholding

         Defendant asserts that this Court should grant judgment notwithstanding the verdict "as to Burgess' Brady-based claims related to Brian Rainey" and "as to Mr. Burgess's Brady-based claims related to communications with the FBI." (Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. 5, 15.) A Brady-based withholding claim against a police officer requires that the plaintiff show that "(1) the evidence at issue was favorable to him; (2) the Officers suppressed the evidence in bad faith; and (3) prejudice ensued." Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office, 767 F.3d 379, 396-97(4th Cir. 2014). A police officer generally "suppresses" evidence by not disclosing it to the prosecutor, id. at 396, but suppression does not occur when a criminal defendant is already aware of the exculpatory information. See Barnes v. Thompson, 58 F.3d 971, 675-76 (4th Cir. 1995); Stockton v. Murray, 41 F.3d 920, 927 (4th Cir. 1994).

         In Owens, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals adopted the "bad faith" requirement as espoused in Judge Wilkinson's concurring opinion in Jean v. Collins, 221 F.3d 656, 660 (4th Cir. 2000) (Wilkinson, C.J., concurring). Owens, 767 F.3d at 396 n.6. According to Judge Wilkinson, "bad faith" means that the police officer(s) "intentionally withheld the evidence for the purpose of depriving the plaintiff of the use of that evidence during his criminal trial." Jean, 221 F.3d at 663. Relevant considerations include: (a) the officer's actual knowledge of "the significance of the withheld evidence"; (b) the "nature of the withheld material, that would negate any negligent or innocent explanation for the actions on the part of the police"; and (c) the "concealment, doctoring, or destruction" of evidence. Id. at 662-663.[3]

         Notwithstanding Defendant's separate requests for judgment on specific pieces of withheld evidence, the jury evaluated a single, unified withholding claim.[4] This Court therefore need not decide whether the evidence of every piece of allegedly withheld evidence was independently sufficient under Rule 50. Rather, the Defendant's withholding of one piece of evidence may support a Brady claim as long as there is "substantial evidence" to satisfy the elements of the cause of the action. Anderson, 247 F.3d at 129.

         1. Rainey's Eyewitness Account

         Brian Rainey, Michelle Dyson's son, testified at trial that he had seen his mother arguing with two men in the entryway of his home shortly before his mother was shot. He was interviewed by police on the night of his mother's murder, and when asked if his mother's boyfriend was involved, Rainey testified that he told police officers that Mr: Burgess was not involved. (11/17/17 Trial Tr. at 229-232.)

         The Defendant asserts that "there is no evidence" that Mr. Goldstein was ever made aware of Brian Rainey's exculpatory eyewitness account. (Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. 6-8.) This argument is without merit. First, Defendant Goldstein, the lead detective on the Dyson homicide investigation, [5] admitted that he would have seen the children had they been there while he was on the scene. (11/15/17 Trial Tr. at 95-96.) Second, Goldstein testified that he arrived on the scene at 10:45 p.m. (11/13/17 p.m. Trial Tr. at 15.) Third, Officer John Skinner testified that the children left the scene at 11:23 p.m. (11/17/17 Trial Tr. at 174-175.) Fourth, Officer Robert Patton testified that a lead detective would normally "talk to the children that were present in a home on the night of a murder." (See 11/8/17 Trial Tr. at 125-126.) These four pieces of evidence support a reasonable inference to be drawn by the jury that - despite his denials - Goldstein interviewed Brian Rainey himself. Alternatively, Goldstein testified that if any other officer on the scene had interviewed Rainey, the officer would have shared that information with him. (11/13/17 p.m. Trial Tr. at 20.) Additionally, Defendant Goldstein does not deny having possession of Detective Lehmann's note indicating "Child Bryan ? a witne[ss]." (Pl.'s Trial Ex. 372) Again, the evidence supports a reasonable inference that, even if Goldstein did not interview Rainey himself, he would have been made aware that Brian Rainey was a witness with exculpatory information.

         The Defendant next asserts that there is "no evidence" that the information in the "Child Bryan" note was withheld from the Office of the State's Attorney or from defense counsel Gordon Tayback. (Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. 9-13.) Defendant Goldstein points to his own testimony about his file-sharing practices, the parties' stipulation that "the complete contents of the Prosecutorial File are unknown" (Joint Trial Ex. 503), and to Laura Brokaw's notes saying, "brother - back room by himself. . . Sabein - told mother to go to basement" (Def s Ex. 99). The Defendant therefore contends that "no party can establish, in total, what was ever in the possession of [the prosecution]." (Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. 10.) The Defendant misses the mark for several reasons. First, Defendant's logic assumes that documents are the only method of proof available to the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff, however, elicited testimony from Ms. Brokaw that Brian Rainey's name means nothing to her and that she doesn't remember the Dyson children having anything to do with the murder trial. (11/16/17 Trial Tr. at 215-216.) She also testified that Mr. Tayback was a good, diligent attorney who would have followed up on any exculpatory lead disclosed to him. (Id. at 196-198.) Second, Brokaw's note indicating that a "brother" may have heard "Sabein - [tell] mother to go to basement" is inculpatory, not exculpatory. Given that the evidence supports a reasonable inference that Defendant Goldstein knew Brian Rainey's account was exculpatory, the inculpatory nature of the Brokaw note actually supports an inference that Defendant Goldstein withheld the true content of Rainey's eyewitness account from both Ms. Brokaw and Mr. Tayback.

         Defendant's final argument regarding the Rainey evidence is that there is "no evidence" that any withholding was done in bad faith. (Def.'s Rule 50 Mem. 13.) In response, Plaintiff notes that bad faith may be established by "the nature of the withheld material that would negate any negligent or innocent explanation for the actions of the part of the police." Jean, 221 F.3d at 663. Beyond the clearly exculpatory nature of Rainey's eyewitness account, Plaintiff argues that ten additional pieces of evidence support an inference of bad faith.[6] Defendant responds by challenging Plaintiffs characterization of testimony, but he also asks this Court to weigh "contradictory" evidence when considering the evidence identified by the Plaintiff. (Reply 25-32.)

         As the jury was instructed (11/21/17 Trial Tr. at 180), "bad faith" simply means that the police officer(s) "intentionally withheld the evidence for the purpose of depriving the plaintiff of the use of that evidence during his criminal trial." Jean, 221 F.3d at 663. In this case, there was substantial evidence from which the jury could conclude that Defendant Goldstein withheld the explicitly exculpatory testimony of Brain Rainey, the victim's son. The nature of this evidence negates any innocent explanation for the Defendant's withholding. Jean, 221 F.3d at 663. Furthermore, the Defendant's statement that the Dyson murder "wasn't a whodunnit" (11/13/17 p.m. Trial Tr. at 63-65) and his apparent failure to investigate Detective Patton's information about Howard Rice's confession to killing Ms. Dyson (see 11/8/17 Trial Tr. at 146-47) also support a reasonable inference that he was intentionally depriving Mr. Burgess of material exculpatory information in seeking - and later protecting - Mr. Burgess' conviction. The evidence related to Brian Rainey's eyewitness account, by itself, was sufficient to support the jury's verdict on the Brady-based withholding claim.[7]

         2. FBI Communications

         The jury's verdict on the withholding claim was also supported by evidence of FBI communications before Mr. Burgess' criminal trial. (See Pl.'s Exhibits G, H, Plaintiffs Trial Exhibits 121 and 122, respectively.) The first memo indicates that, according to the FBI's sources, "[t]hree subjects were involved in the murder of Michelle Dyson, " two black males and black female, and "Dyson was killed because of drug related problems. She may have blown a package or drugs and/or a money package." (Pl.'s Trial Ex. 121.) The first memo further provides that "Dyson's babysitter [redacted] knows the details of the motives for the murder and preceding threats, " and a name-redacted barber at Hair Dimension, Sinclair Lane Shopping Center, who fathered children with the victim is a "drug underworld player" and "knows a lot about the background of Dyson's killers." (Id.) The first FBI memo states that the information above was "furnished to Det. [Redacted] and Det. [Redacted] of the BPD-Homicide Unit (410) 396-2116. Det. [Redacted] is die case detective and he advised that the information appeared to be accurate and resulted in leads on the case." (Id.) The second FBI memo states, "[Redacted] was a babysitter for Michelle Dyson. [Redacted] witnessed numerous events and heard numerous conversations between the victim and others, which directly relate to the motive for the victim's murder." (Pl.'s Trial Ex. 122.) The second FBI memo concludes, "On 11/8/94, after 2130 hours, det. [Redacted], the case detective BPD Homicide Unit (410) 396-2116 was provided with the above-stated information." (Id.)

         The Defendant argues that (a) Mr. Goldstein never received this FBI information; (b) there is "no evidence" that the information contained in these FBI documents was withheld from the prosecutor or from Mr. Tayback; and (c) there is "no evidence" of bad faith. On each point, there is ample evidence for the jury to conclude otherwise. The fact that Goldstein was the lead detective on the Dyson case (11/13/17 a.m. Trial Tr. at 7-8; 11/16/17 Trial Tr. at 105-108) gives rise to a reasonable inference that he was the "case detective" who assessed the information in the memo, which focuses entirely on Michelle Dyson's murder. His status as the lead detective would also mean that even if another officer received this information (e.g., even if Goldstein could not be directly reached at (410) 396-2116), that officer would have shared it with Goldstein. (See 11/8/17 Trial Tr. at 146-47.)

         Additionally, Goldstein's own notes closely track information in the FBI memos, such as die identity of Troy Williams as an "old boyfriend" who "works at 'Hair Dimension' Sinclair Lane Shopping Center" and the reference to a "babysitter" for Michelle Dyson. (See Pl.'s Trial Ex. 10 at BPD 002674; Pl.'s Trial Exhibits 121 and 122; Resp. 21.) The Defendant's argument that his notes contain more information [i.e., last names, addresses, and phone numbers) than the memo ignores that the memo memorializes the. prior furnishing of information, not of the memo itself. ...


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