Latiolais v. Cravins, 574 F. App’x 429 (5th Cir. 2014)
Appeal from the United States District Court
for the Western District of Louisiana
USDC No. 6:09-cv-00018
JUN 30, 2014 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: AUG 12, 2021
“…an appellate court will mandate reassignment when the facts “might reasonably cause an objective observer to question the original judge’s impartiality.””
Before SMITH, WIENER, and PRADO, Circuit Judges. PER CURIAM:
Who is the Outlaw Chief Judge at the Fifth Circuit who is going down for crimes against the elderly? https://t.co/ZopwvRMgMC@CivilRights @TheJusticeDept @600camp @JudgeDillard @USMarshalsHQ @Telegraph @wolfblitzer @FoxNews @FOX26Houston @fox7austin @HoustonChron @Law360 #txlege pic.twitter.com/U5HXcOkxHI
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) August 4, 2021
Prior to trial, Latiolais and Griffith reached a settlement. The matter proceeded to trial before a jury in August 2013. In an oral ruling, the district court granted in part and denied in part Latiolais’s motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence of her settlement with Griffith. After the close of Latiolais’s evidence, again ruling from the bench, the district court granted Cravins’s motion for a JMOL and dismissed him from the case.
After several days of testimony, the jury deliberated, then returned a verdict in favor of Latiolais and against Griffith and Gallow. The jury found that Griffith and Gallow had entered into agreements to violate Latiolais’s constitutional rights in violation of Section 1983 and to commit an illegal or tortious act under Louisiana law.
The jury awarded Latiolais $10,647 in damages for the state violation, but nothing for the Section 1983 violation, checking “NO” in response to this question, found under the heading “Constitutional Claims“: “Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant Roylis Gallow was acting under the authority of state law when he entered into the aforesaid agreement?” The jury also checked “NO” in response to a similar question, found under the heading “State Law Claims“:
Do you find by a preponderance of the evidence that while acting within his discretionary power as a police officer, Defendant Roylis Gallow engaged in state law tortious conduct which was either not reasonably related to the legitimate governmental objective for which his discretionary power existed, or which constituted criminal, fraudulent, malicious, intentional, willful, outrageous, reckless, or flagrant misconduct such that the City of Opelousas is vicariously liable for the conduct?
The court entered judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict, imposing a half share of the damages, or $5,323.50, on Claudette Gallow as surviving spouse of Officer Gallow. The district court denied Latiolais’s motions seeking a partial new trial and amendment of the judgment. She timely filed a notice of appeal.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
We review de novo a motion for JMOL, applying the same standard as the district court.
“If the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of one party that the Court believes that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary verdict, granting of the motion is proper.”
But “if reasonable persons could differ in their interpretations of the evidence,” a determination of the issue is for the jury. The facts are viewed, and inferences made, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.
“Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.”
In other words, “the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.”
We review a district court’s evidentiary ruling for abuse of discretion.”If an abuse of discretion is found, the harmless error doctrine is applied. Thus, evidentiary rulings are affirmed unless the district court abused its discretion and a substantial right of the complaining party was affected.”
A. Judgment as a Matter of Law in favor of Cravins
Latiolais insists that the district court erred in granting the JMOL in favor of Cravins. She had alleged that Cravins conspired with Griffith by agreeing to commit an illegal act in furtherance of Griffith’s efforts to deprive Latiolais of custody of Cole. She had alleged further that Cravins tampered with a witness when he called Deputy Montgomery while he was in charge of investigating Latiolais for child abuse, in an effort to influence the officer’s testimony at the custody hearing. Latiolais points out that, earlier in this federal case, the original district judge had denied Cravins’s motion for summary judgment on this precise issue.
The relevant facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Latiolais, are these: Cravins admitted to several conversations with Griffith, and to the $1,000 contribution to his campaign fund from Griffith. Cravins also admitted making the call to Deputy Montgomery after the deputy’s investigation was complete but before he testified in the custody proceeding. According to Deputy Montgomery’s 2008 testimony, Cravins asked him to “help [Griffith] out,” which angered Montgomery because, he testified, he is always fair, no matter whom he is investigating.
Viewed in the light most favorable to Latiolais, and against the background of Griffith’s extensive conspiratorial activities targeting her, these facts and the reasonable inferences from them constitute substantial evidence that would have supported a jury’s verdict against Cravins. Stated differently, reasonable persons could differ over whether these facts implicate Cravins in a conspiracy. The district court erred reversibly when it denied the jury the opportunity to address this issue.
To be sure, the record also contains arguably substantial evidence that would have supported a jury’s verdict in favor of Cravins, including Deputy Montgomery’s affidavit and trial testimony indicating that Cravins only asked him to be fair, and Cravins’s somewhat similar testimony. Had it been given the opportunity to consider all this evidence, however, the jury would not have been required to credit it—especially in light of Montgomery’s admitted head injury and memory problems beginning in 2012 and the putatively self-serving nature of Cravins’s testimony. More to the point, the existence of substantial evidence on both sides of an issue is a quintessential hallmark of a question for the jury. The district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law was error. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment dismissing Cravins and remand Latiolais’s action against him for a new trial.
B. Admission of Content of Settlement Agreement
As Latiolais had settled with Griffith prior to trial, she filed a motion in limine to exclude all evidence of the settlement. The district court, yet again ruling extemporaneously from the bench, denied the motion in part.
The court decided to allow testimony regarding the fact of settlement, but not the dollar amount, for the stated purpose of reducing jury confusion as to why Griffith was no longer in the case.
Counsel for Cravins then expressed concern that “the jury may infer that [Griffith] settled because he thought he was at fault,” and asked the court to allow “a very simple one question, did you admit fault or did you settle just to get this over with.”
Latiolais’s counsel objected that the question would go to the nature and terms of the settlement, after which this colloquy occurred:
Latiolais’s Counsel: Your Honor, they have the right to ask [Griffith] questions about what he did and didn’t do, get to that issue through his direct testimony . . . were you part of the conspiracy, all those sorts of things. They don’t need to ask, as part of the settlement negotiations, what did you or did you not agree to.
The Court: I’m going to allow that question. I may regret that later on, but I’m going to allow it. Only for the completeness of the record and the resolution.
I would walk very gingerly with that. It may not be necessary that we take a chance of getting reversed because of that issue. I would be very careful. I don’t think it’s necessary, but, you know, we may end up trying this case again because of that.
But I – for the completeness of the record, I think that’s fair, and I’m going to allow it.
Latiolais’s counsel then renewed his objection for the record.
When Griffith then testified, counsel for Cravins did in fact ask him: “And isn’t it also true that, in connection with your settlement of this case, you did not make any admission of wrongdoing?” Griffith answered: “That’s correct.”
The content of Latiolais’s agreement with Griffith was also the referent of somewhat more oblique remarks made during closing argument by counsel for the City of Opelousas:
Importantly, the evidence also shows that Brad Griffith, who was the hub, the center of what the plaintiff refers to as her nightmare, is no longer in the suit. Yet, the City remains, and that’s just wrong.
Rule 408 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states, in pertinent part, that “[e]vidence of [a settlement] is not admissible . . . either to prove or disprove the validity . . . of a disputed claim. . . .” The district court does have discretion to admit evidence of a settlement for other purposes. Pertinent here, we have affirmed a district court’s decision to admit the fact or existence of a settlement so as to reduce jury confusion regarding an absent defendant.
We have found “reversible error,” however, when a district court has admitted the content of a settlement agreement for the jury’s consideration.
On appeal, Latiolais insists, as she did in limine before the district court, that the content of the settlement agreement was inadmissible by the plain text of Rule 408 because no exception applied. For its part, the City of Opelousas mentions the admission of the content of the settlement agreement only in passing, focusing its remarks on the fact that the amount that Griffith paid Latiolais in settlement was not disclosed and on the danger of jury confusion. The other Defendants-Appellees fail to address this issue in any way.
The district court abused its discretion by allowing counsel to question Griffith as to the content or substance of the settlement agreement. The exception to Rule 408 that supports disclosure of the fact of settlement, namely avoiding jury confusion, does not similarly support disclosure of Griffith’s failure to admit wrongdoing. The only conceivable relevance of the fact that Griffith did not admit wrongdoing was its tendency to reflect badly on the merits of Latiolais’s conspiracy claims, which, of course, is impermissible. Defendants presumably declined to press this point on appeal because they could not invent a non-frivolous argument to support the district court’s decision. Furthermore, the defendants do not—and indeed could not—dispute that this violation of Rule 408 affected Latiolais’s substantial rights. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment on this issue, and instruct that, on remand, the trial court exclude all evidence of the content of the settlement agreement from the new trial on Latiolais’s claims.
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) August 12, 2021
C. Reassignment to a new district judge
We have the power, on remand, to require that a case be reassigned to a different judge. This “extraordinary” power is, however, “rarely invoked.” We have observed that other circuits have employed two different tests to determine whether a case should be reassigned to a different judge on remand. We have, however, “declined to decide which test we will use, and instead ha[ve] employed both tests.”
The first and more stringent test provides:
Absent evidence of personal bias by the trial judge, appellate courts consider three factors in deciding whether to remand a case to a different judge:
(1) whether the original judge would reasonably be expected upon remand to have substantial difficulty in putting out of his or her mind previously-expressed views or findings determined to be erroneous or based on evidence that must be rejected,
(2) whether reassignment is advisable to preserve the appearance of justice,
(3) whether reassignment would entail waste and duplication out of proportion to any gain in preserving the appearance of fairness.
Under the second and more lenient test, an appellate court will mandate reassignment when the facts “might reasonably cause an objective observer to question [the original judge’s] impartiality.”
Both tests are satisfied here.
The presiding judge’s comments demonstrate that it would be exceedingly difficult for him to put aside the views he expressed about the evidence against Cravins that we deem substantial.
For example, in addition to the judge’s comments quoted above, he expressed the intemperate view that
“There is no way on God’s green earth that there has been any testimony that should hold Donald Cravins into this case. There was none. It was—it is not there. It’s not there. It’s clearly not there. I heard no evidence, whatsoever. . . .”
We are satisfied that this reassignment is necessary to preserve the appearance of justice and will not entail waste and duplication out of proportion to the improved appearance of fairness.
Indeed, regrettably, the waste incident to the tainted first trial is already on the balance sheet.
Latiolais deserves a new trial with every reasonable assurance that no further waste of time or assets, and no appearance of bias, will be allowed or countenanced.
We vacate the district court’s judgment in its entirety, including its dismissal of Defendant-Appellee Cravins from the case. We also reverse the court’s denial of Latiolais’s motion in limine that admitted some of the content of Latiolais’s settlement agreement with Griffith into evidence. Finally, we remand the case for a new trial, and we direct the Chief Judge of the Western District of Louisiana to reassign this case to a different district judge. Judgment VACATED and REMANDED for a new trial after being REASSIGNED.