$3 Million Civil Rights Award Invalidated

A $3 million jury award to parents whose children two San Jose police officers wrongly removed from the family home for six days was too high, a federal appeals court has ruled.

An eventual 17-month legal separation followed and would have happened anyway, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.  The appeals court did allow a $210,000 award for civil rights violations from a second trial.

In May 2005, a school teacher reported to a family services agency that she suspected sexual abuse of the eight-year-old daughter of Tracy Watson and Rene Stalker, identified only as “O” by the court.

A social worker was assigned to the case but nothing was done for more than a month.  By June a second social worker, who took over, faxed the San Jose Police Department detailing the allegations but adding that the agency could not reach O’s parents.

Seven police officers went to the family home but did not find them.  When contacted later by phone, Watson disagreed about where officers could interview O, so officers removed O’s two brothers, ages three and one, without a warrant.

Watson and O went to the police station where O denied any sexual abuse.

Family services petitioned the juvenile court in July 2005 to remove all three children and the court agreed.  The children were not returned until November 2006, roughly 17 months later.

The couple sued the police and the city of San Jose.  They did not dispute the legality of the 17-month removal but claimed the initial six-day removal of their two sons was unconstitutional.

During a 2011 trial, a jury sided with the family and awarded $3.25 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The officers and city moved for a new trial based on “inadequate guidance to the jury” regarding damages.

A second trial in 2012 resulted in a $210,000 compensatory award and no punitive damages.  The family appealed.

The 9th Circuit agreed with the district court that the $3 million original award was unjustified.

The court concluded that the $3 million award represented more than the damages caused by the failure to obtain a warrant or court order.

“The jury likely awarded damages based on its sympathies toward the children and the emotional distress arising from the separation of the family while the state investigated and resolved the allegations of sexual abuse,” Judge Richard Clifton wrote.

Clifton noted U.S. Supreme Court precedent gives plaintiffs damages for procedural abuses, such as police removal of O’s brothers without a warrant, but the guiding case requires the family to prove distress caused by the actual procedural violation.  Clifton said Watson and Stalker failed to make the case.

In other words, while the circuit court agreed with Watson and Stalker that the police action was unconstitutional, the court presumed that the lawful 17-month separation was a far greater source of pain than the unlawful six-day one — that the six days were not worth $3 million.

Even where lower courts abuse discretion higher courts do not reverse the lower court decisions where it would give plaintiffs a windfall to do so, Clifton reasoned.

The circuit court found no abuse of discretion, affirmed the district court’s order granting the second trial, and affirmed the second trial’s judgment, granting the family a total of $210,002 in damages.

Judge Clifton was joined by Judges Margaret McKeown and William Fletcher.

Case: Watson v. City of San Jose, No. 13-15019


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