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Rodriguez v. Cooper

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 12, 2018

Melissa Rodriguez, et al.
v.
Larry Cooper, et al.

          Argument: December 5, 2017

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-06-004331

          Barbera, C.J. Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Getty Harrell, Glenn T., Jr., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

          OPINION

          McDonald, J.

         The doctrine of sovereign immunity, "[g]rounded in ancient common law, … bars individuals from bringing actions against the State, thus protecting it from interference with governmental functions and preserving its control over its agencies and funds."[1] Under that doctrine, the State and its agencies may not be sued for a money judgment unless the Legislature has waived that immunity and enabled State agencies to obtain the funds necessary to satisfy such a judgment.[2] In the Maryland Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"), [3] the General Assembly has done so with respect to the negligent actions or omissions of State personnel within the scope of their public duties. Pertinent to this case, that waiver of sovereign immunity has two key provisos: (1) the waiver does not extend to actions or omissions of State personnel that are grossly negligent; and (2) a judgment against the State is capped at an amount set by statute.

         Separately, without specific reference to actions against the State or State personnel, the Legislature has also established a cap on noneconomic damages in all personal injury and wrongful death actions. Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJ"), §11-108. Noneconomic damages include, for example, damages for mental anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship or consortium. That cap is calculated according to a statutory formula based on when the cause of action arose and the number of claimants.

         This case arises out of the murder of a State prisoner, Philip E. Parker, Jr., by a fellow prisoner while they were both in State custody on a prison transport bus. Mr. Parker's estate and parents (Melissa Rodriguez and Philip E. Parker, Sr.) - the Petitioners in this appeal - brought suit against the State and various State officials and employees in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. After a jury trial, and various post-trial and appellate proceedings, they obtained a judgment against the State, based on the jury's finding that certain correctional officers were negligent, and a judgment against one correctional officer, Respondent Sgt. Larry Cooper, based on the jury's finding that he was grossly negligent. The Circuit Court limited the judgment against the State pursuant to the statutory cap under the MTCA, and limited the judgment against Sgt. Cooper pursuant to the cap on noneconomic damages in CJ §11-108. The court declined to include the State in the judgment against Sgt. Cooper because the waiver of the State's sovereign immunity in the MTCA does not extend to actions or omissions that are grossly negligent.

         In this appeal, Petitioners seek to avoid the application of the caps in the MTCA and CJ §11-108, as well as the doctrine of sovereign immunity, making a number of creative arguments. We agree with the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals that those arguments are without merit.

         I

         Background

         Mr. Parker was murdered by a fellow inmate on February 2, 2005, while they were both on a prison transport bus destined for a maximum security State correctional facility in Baltimore City known as "Supermax." The circumstances of the murder were described in detail in this Court's previous opinion in this case. Cooper v. Rodriguez, 443 Md. 680, 688-703 (2015). There is no need to repeat those facts here. Because the questions before us in this appeal relate to the post-trial decisions of the Circuit Court that affected the judgments rendered as a result of the jury verdict, we recount the procedural path of this case in some detail.

         Complaint

         In May 2006, the Petitioners filed this action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the State, several officials of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services ("DPSCS"), and various correctional officers. Sgt. Cooper was one of the defendant correctional officers. The suit alleged claims under both State and federal law relating to Mr. Parker's murder.

         Removal and Return

         The defendants, all represented by the Attorney General's Office, removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland and sought dismissal of the suit. The federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the federal claims and remanded the remaining State law claims to the Circuit Court - a decision affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Parker v. Maryland, 413 Fed.Appx. 634 (4th Cir. 2011).

         Jury Verdict

         The case was tried in the Circuit Court before a jury during October 11 - 24, 2011. During the trial, the Petitioners dismissed their claims against one DPSCS official and the Circuit Court dismissed the claims against two others on the basis of public official immunity. The jury returned a verdict in favor of one of the correctional officers and verdicts in favor of the Petitioners against the State and the four remaining correctional officers. The jury found that three of the officers were negligent and that one - Sgt. Cooper - was grossly negligent. The jury also found that the correctional officers' negligence was a proximate cause of Mr. Parker's death. The jury awarded $10 million in noneconomic damages to the estate, $1 million in noneconomic damages to Mr. Parker's father, $7.5 million in noneconomic damages to Mr. Parker's mother, and $15, 000 in funeral expenses.

         Post-Trial Motions

         The defendants filed various post-trial motions. In particular, the defendants asked the Circuit Court to enter judgment in their favor notwithstanding the verdict ("judgment NOV") and submitted two motions for remittitur of the jury's verdict. The motion for judgment NOV asked the court to enter judgment in favor of the correctional officers on the basis of common law public official immunity and statutory immunity under the MTCA. With respect to Sgt. Cooper in particular, that motion asked the court to strike the finding of gross negligence. One motion for remittitur asked the court to limit the damages award to be entered against the State as a result of the negligence verdict to the statutory cap - $200, 000 - then established in the MTCA. The second motion for remittitur asked that, if the Circuit Court did not grant the motion for judgment NOV with respect to the finding of gross negligence against Sgt. Cooper, it apply the general cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ §11-108 to limit the judgment against Sgt. Cooper to $645, 000.

         In response to the defendants' post-trial motions, the Circuit Court struck the jury's finding that Sgt. Cooper had been grossly negligent. With respect to all of the correctional officers, the Circuit Court held that they were immune from liability on the basis of public official immunity as well as the immunity provision of the MTCA. Accordingly, it entered judgment NOV as to each officer, struck the damages awards against the individual officers, and entered judgment against the State. In computing the amount of that judgment, the court ruled that there were three claimants for purposes of the judgment against the State and capped the compensatory damages owing to each claimant under the MTCA at $200, 000. As a result of its various rulings, the court entered judgment against the State in a total amount of $600, 000. The court did not rule on the second motion for remittitur based on CJ §11-108 as to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper, presumably because it had granted judgment NOV in favor of Sgt. Cooper and there was no judgment against which such a remittitur could be applied.

         The First Appeal

         The Petitioners and the State both appealed. The Court of Special Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding of gross negligence as to Sgt. Cooper and, for that reason, Sgt. Cooper was not entitled to statutory immunity under the MTCA. Rodriguez v. State, 218 Md.App. 573, 598-615 (2014). It also held that common law public official immunity did not apply under the circumstances of the case. 218 Md.App. at 615-29. Accordingly, it reversed the judgment NOV that the Circuit Court had granted in Sgt. Cooper's favor. It remanded the case for entry of judgment against Sgt. Cooper "subject, however, to any rights of remittitur that may remain unaddressed by the trial court." Id. at 629 & n.8. The intermediate appellate court also held that the Circuit Court had calculated the damage limitation under the MTCA incorrectly and held that the statute capped the cumulative judgment against the State at $200, 000. Id. at 632-39.

         Sgt. Cooper then filed another motion for remittitur in the Circuit Court, reiterating the contention made in the earlier motion that the cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ §11-108 applied to the verdict against him.[4] The Circuit Court stayed proceedings concerning the motion for remittitur while Sgt. Cooper sought further review in this Court of the intermediate appellate court's decision to reinstate the verdict against him. We granted Sgt. Cooper's request for a writ of certiorari, but affirmed the decision of the Court of Special Appeals, although on somewhat different reasoning. Cooper v. Rodriguez, 443 Md. 680 (2015).[5] The case then returned to the Circuit Court.

         Remand after First Appeal

         On remand, the Circuit Court granted Sgt. Cooper's motion for remittitur - the motion that had been stayed while the case was under consideration by this Court in the first appeal - and, based on CJ §11-108, reduced the award of noneconomic damages against him to $645, 000. After Petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration, the Circuit Court corrected the calculation of the remittitur as to Sgt. Cooper and entered judgment in the amount of $1, 625, 000.[6] The Circuit Court rejected Petitioners' request to include the State in that judgment.

         The Circuit Court's order applying the remittitur initially indicated a judgment of $1, 625, 000 against "the defendants." In response to a defense motion under Maryland Rules 2-534 and 2-535, the Circuit Court revised its order to make it consistent with its ruling on the post-trial motions and clarified that the judgment was against "Mr. Cooper ONLY."[7]

         Second Appeal

         The Petitioners again appealed, challenging (1) the Circuit Court's application of CJ §11-108 to reduce the judgment against Sgt. Cooper and (2) the Circuit Court's rejection of their request to enter that judgment against the State as well as Sgt. Cooper. The Court of Special Appeals rejected Petitioners' contention that Sgt. Cooper had waived application of CJ §11-108 and held that the Circuit Court had correctly applied that statute in limiting the judgment against him. The intermediate appellate court also held that the Circuit Court had correctly declined to enter that judgment against the State because the State had not waived sovereign immunity under the circumstances of this case.

         Petitioners then sought a writ of certiorari on the same two issues, which we granted.

         II

         Discussion

         Petitioners seek to overturn two decisions of the Circuit Court: (1) its decision to grant a remittitur of the judgment against Sgt. Cooper pursuant to CJ §11-108; and (2) its rejection of their request that it hold the State liable for the judgment against Sgt. Cooper.

         A. Standard of Review

         With respect to the first question, as indicated above, the Circuit Court capped the judgment against Sgt. Cooper under CJ §11-108 in response to a defense motion for a remittitur. It is often said that a trial court's decision to grant or deny a remittitur is discretionary with the trial court and is thus reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard. E.g., State v. Walker, 230 Md. 133, 137 (1962). However, this standard of review likely derives from the fact a motion for, or order of, remittitur generally relates to a trial court's evaluation of the amount of the jury's verdict in relation to the evidence the jury heard - that is, whether the verdict is "grossly excessive, " or "shocks the conscience" of the trial judge.[8] See, e.g., Conklin v. Schillinger, 255 Md. 50, 69-70 (1969); Safeway Trails, Inc. v. Smith, 222 Md. 206, 223 (1960).

         In this case, the issue is not the trial court's evaluation of the verdict in relation to the evidence, but rather its application of a statute to that verdict. The Circuit Court was not so much exercising discretion as applying the mandate of CJ §11-108 ("the court shall ... reduce …"). The Circuit Court's decision was based on a conclusion of law - i.e., that CJ §11-108 applies to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper. We review a Circuit Court's decision on a question of law without deference - sometimes referred to as a de novo standard of review - rather than under an abuse of discretion standard of review.[9] That is what we shall do here.

         The second question under review is whether the Circuit Court correctly declined to include the State in the judgment entered against Sgt. Cooper. Technically, that decision was the result of (1) the Circuit Court's denial of Petitioners' motion for reconsideration of the court's decision not to enter judgment against the State in excess of the $200, 000 cap under the MTCA and (2) the Circuit Court's grant of a subsequent defense motion under Maryland Rules 2-534 and 2-535 to correct an apparent clerical error in an order resulting from that denial. Such decisions will not be reversed by an appellate court unless the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error of law. See, e.g., Morton v. Schlotzhauer, 449 Md. 217, 231-34 (2016).

         In this case, it is evident from the Circuit Court's memorandum opinion on the Petitioners' motion for reconsideration that the court was of the view that it was legally constrained from granting a motion to include the State in the judgment against Sgt. Cooper. In particular, the Circuit Court held that the MTCA and other State law precluded it from entering judgment against the State in excess of $200, 000. It is that legal decision that Petitioners are challenging.

         The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the Circuit Court's resolution of the legal issues as to both questions before us. The bottom line as to both questions is that we will consider the legal conclusions reached by the Circuit Court (as well as the Court of Special Appeals) without deference to those courts.

         B. Whether the Circuit Court Properly Applied CJ §11-108 to Limit the Judgment

         Petitioners assert that the cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ §11-108 should not have been applied to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper in this case and offer three alternative rationales for that assertion:

(1) That, for various reasons, the statutory cap was waived;
(2) That the cap does not apply when a defendant is found to be grossly negligent;
(3) That the cap does not apply to the State or its employees.

         Largely for the same reasons articulated by the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals, we reject those arguments and hold that the Circuit Court appropriately applied the cap on noneconomic damages in CJ §11-108 to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper.

         1. Waiver

         Petitioners assert that Sgt. Cooper waived the application of CJ §11-108 because he did not press the Circuit Court for an "alternative" ruling when that court granted judgment NOV in his favor in 2011 and did not raise the cap during the previous appeal in this case.[10]

         As an initial matter, it is not at all clear that a litigant has the ability to waive the cap on noneconomic damages established by CJ §11-108. Notably, the statute states that an award of noneconomic damages "may not exceed" the cap and directs that a trial court "shall reduce" an award in excess of the cap, without requiring any particular action by the party against whom the judgment is rendered. CJ §11-108(b), (d). In a prior case assessing the constitutionality of the statute, this Court observed that, when the General Assembly enacted CJ §11-108, it "abrogated any cause of action for noneconomic tort damages in excess of [the cap]; it removed the issue from the judicial arena." Murphy v. Edmonds, 325 Md. 342, 373 (1992). It seems unlikely that the General Assembly contemplated that the courts would re-introduce the issue into the judicial arena through the concept of a waiver by one of the litigants.

         In any event, even if it were possible for a particular litigant to waive the statutory cap with respect to a judgment against that litigant, there is no basis for finding such a waiver in this case. As recounted above, the defense specifically relied on CJ §11-108 in the post-trial motion for remittitur with respect to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper - a motion made on the contingency that the Circuit Court would not grant a judgment NOV in favor of Sgt. Cooper. When the Circuit Court in fact granted judgment NOV in favor of Sgt. Cooper, there was no longer a judgment against him and no need to address the motion for remittitur as to a judgment that did not exist. Unsurprisingly, the Circuit Court did not do so. When the judgment NOV as to Sgt. Cooper was later reversed by the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court alluded to the unresolved motion for remittitur, [11] the defense reiterated that motion in the Circuit Court, and the application of CJ §11-108 was appropriately addressed at that time.

         The defense was not required to insist that the Circuit Court render an advisory opinion - "a long forbidden practice"[12] - on the application of CJ §11-108 in the event that the judgment was reversed on appeal. Such a rule, if adopted, would result in litigants having to imagine every possible permutation of how the case might be resolved on appeal, before an appeal was even noted, and asking trial courts to render advisory opinions on the consequences of those various permutations. The trial courts have too much to do to be required to foretell and to react to possible future appellate court rulings.

         Nor was there any obligation for the defense to raise the issue of the cap on noneconomic damages in defending the Circuit Court's judgment in the first appeal.[13] The Circuit Court had granted a judgment NOV with respect to the jury's verdict of gross negligence as to Sgt. Cooper and, pursuant to the MTCA, as to the money judgment against him and the other correctional officers. As a result, Sgt. Cooper had essentially prevailed in the Circuit Court, as there was no judgment entered against him - or any of the other correctional officers. There was no obligation for the defense to raise on appeal what was an academic issue at that juncture. Indeed, Sgt. Cooper could not have done so, had he wanted to. A "basic rule of appellate jurisprudence" is that "[a] party may not ...


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