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Spencer v. Peters

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

May 28, 2014

JAMES M. PETERS, et al., Defendants.


BENJAMIN H. SETTLE, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on Defendants Michael Davidson ("Davidson") and Sharon Krause's ("Krause") motion for judgment as a matter of law and, in the alternative, motion for a new trial. Dkt. 290. The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motion and the remainder of the file and hereby denies the motion in part and requests additional briefing for the reasons stated herein.


The Court finds it unnecessary to recite the full procedural history of this case, as most of it can be found in prior orders on Defendants' motions for summary judgment. See, e.g., Dkts. 180 and 187. As to the relevant and immediate procedural history leading up to this motion, the Court will summarize that.

Prior to trial the Court granted in large part Defendants' summary judgment motions and dismissed many of Plaintiff Clyde Ray Spencer's ("Spencer") claims, as well as many of the originally named defendants. See, e.g., Dkts. 91, 93, 97, 98, 174, 179, 180, 182, 186, and 187. However, the Court denied summary judgment on Davidson's and Krause's affirmative defense of qualified immunity from Spencer's claim of deliberate fabrication of evidence. Dkts. 180 at 26-27 and 187 at 12.

In January and February 2014, the Court held a 17-day jury trial, including two days of jury deliberation. During trial, on January 24, 2013, Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a). Dkt. 258. On January 28, 2014, the Court denied that motion. Dkt. 268. On February 3, 2014, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Spencer, finding Krause liable for fabrication of evidence and Davidson liable for the same under the theory of supervisory liability. The conduct of both was found to be in violation of Spencer's right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Dkt. 275. The jury awarded Spencer damages in the amount of nine million dollars. Id.

On March 3, 3014, Krause and Davidson filed the instant motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) and, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Dkt. 290. On March 17, 2014, Spencer responded in opposition. Dkt. 293. On March 21, 2014, Krause and Davidson replied. Dkt. 299.


The Court finds unnecessary a full factual recitation of the evidence presented at trial. In the paragraphs that follow, the Court will discuss only the evidence which pertains to the instant motion.


Defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the deliberate fabrication claim because Spencer failed to produce sufficient evidence to enable a reasonable jury to conclude that they knew or should have known that Spencer was innocent of any or all the crimes charged. Dkt. 290. Additionally, they argue that a new trial is warranted because the Court failed to exclude evidence of previously dismissed claims and committed harmful error by improperly instructing the jury with instructions 21 and 22, relating to causation and culpability. Id. at 7-18.[1]

Spencer argues that the Defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law should be denied because he established a legally sufficient basis to support the jury's verdict. Dkt. 293. As argued in their brief in response to Defendants' Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) motion, which Spencer incorporates by reference, he maintains that there was sufficient evidence to provide the jury a legal basis for finding that Defendants knew or should have known he was innocent. See id. at 2-3. Additionally, Spencer argues that Defendants are not entitled to a new trial based upon the admission of evidence pertaining to Krause's interview techniques, the withheld medical reports and videotape, and Davidson's visits to the jail. Id. at 11-14. Nor, Spencer argues, are Defendants entitled to a new trial based on jury instructions 21 and 22. Id. at 14-20.

A. Judgment as a Matter of Law

A jury's verdict must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence. Wallace v. City of San Diego, 479 F.3d 616, 624 (9th Cir. 2007). Evidence is substantial if it is adequate to support the jury's conclusions even if drawing a contrary conclusion from the evidence is possible. Id. In ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Winarto v. Toshiba Am. Elecs. Components, Inc., 274 F.3d 1276, 1283 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court must draw all inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury was not required to believe. Id. The Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Id. It may grant judgment as a matter of law only when the evidence, appropriately viewed, permits only one reasonable conclusion, which runs contrary to the jury's verdict. Wallace, 479 F.3d at 624.

In this case, the elements of the cause of action must be clearly defined before the Court, or any party, may appropriately view the evidence. Unfortunately, the law is less than clear in general and less than clear on the element of Defendants' actual or constructive knowledge of Spencer's innocence. In Devereaux v. Abbey, 263 F.3d 1070, 1077 (9th Cir. 2001), the majority established two ways in which a plaintiff may establish a "deliberate-fabrication-of-evidence claim, " which are as follows:

[a plaintiff] must, at a minimum, point to evidence that supports at least one of the following two propositions: (1) Defendants continued their investigation of Devereaux despite the fact that they knew or should have known that he was innocent; or (2) Defendants used investigative techniques that were so coercive and abusive that they knew or should have known that those techniques would yield false information.

Id. at 1076. Although the majority set forth two types or ways to prove such a claim, they "conclude[d] that if Devereaux's brief is intended to raise a deliberate-fabrication-of-evidence claim, it is not based on any allegation that Defendants knew or should have known that he was innocent." Id. at 1078. Thus, the majority established a type of constitutional violation that arguably was not based on the facts of the case.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Fernandez parted ways with majority on the issue of the continued investigation type of Devereaux claim. Specifically, Judge Fernandez declined to "join the discussion regarding knowing fabrication of evidence because [he did] not believe that Devereaux ever properly raised or developed that issue before the district court." Id. at 1082 (Fernandez, J., concurring). Although Judge Fernandez expressed his opinion on the abhorrent nature of such conduct, he declined to join the majority based on the facts before the court:

I express no opinion on whether the mere development of evidence (even knowingly false evidence) or the bringing of charges (even knowingly false ones) can by itself constitute a procedural or substantive due process violation within the meaning of the United States Constitution. That kind of conduct would surely be reprehensible, and only a rapscallion in official raiment would do such a thing. However, I would not establish (or refine) a possibly far reaching principle of constitutional law based on the record and presentation in this case.

Id. The establishment and refinement of such a constitutional claim raises many questions:

For example, when does the violation accrue? Is it at the first evil interview, at the first presentation to the prosecutor, at the time charges are filed, at arraignment on those charges, or at some earlier or later point? All of those issues remain to be decided. And when should an officer have had such positive knowledge that the defendant was truly innocent that the further conduct of the investigation, or presentation to the prosecutor, violated the defendant's constitutional rights?

Id. at 1082-1083. Unfortunately, based on the record, the briefs, and the Court's independent research, these important questions, as well as others, have not been answered in this circuit.[2] This may be so because the great majority of published cases in this circuit address the other type of Devereaux claim, which is based on allegations of aggressive interview tactics. See, e.g., Gantt v. City of Los Angeles, 717 F.3d 702, 707 (9th Cir. 2013) ("Plaintiffs adduced no evidence to support the first theory, so they only could be relying on the second Devereaux basis."). Thus, the right and corresponding standard to implement in evaluating evidence supporting the continued investigation type of claim appears to be unrefined. The Court finds that at least two unresolved ...

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