Where the district court lacked insight into why the jury deadlocked on an excessive force claim brought by a detainee against a prison official, but awarded the detainee damages for his retaliation claim, it erred by assuming the two decisions were in conflict and ordering a new trial.
Jason R. Jordan, a detainee in Red Onion State Prison, brought claims for excessive force and retaliation against T. Large, an officer in that prison. Jordan testified that, during a search of Jordan’s cell for contraband, Large broke Jordan’s radio and headphones. Jordan also testified that Large kicked him in the testicles while Large transported Jordan to a different cell after the search, causing Jordan significant pain and injury. Large denied that he broke Jordan’s property, that he even knew about Jordan’s complaints or that he kicked Jordan at all.
The jury deadlocked on Jordan’s excessive force claim but found for Jordan on his retaliation claim. Following the jury verdict, Large moved to set aside the verdict and for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, claiming that the finding against him on the retaliation claim was irreconcilably inconsistent with the jury’s deadlock on the excessive force claim. Jordan moved for attorneys’ fees.
In response to Large’s motion, Jordan moved for conditional voluntary dismissal of his excessive force claim. In that motion, Jordan argued that, assuming the jury verdict on retaliation stands, he did not seek another trial on excessive force and instead requested a final judgment upholding his retaliation claim.
The district court concluded that “the jury’s verdict on Jordan’s retaliation claim is irreconcilably inconsistent with its failure to reach a verdict on his excessive force claim.” The court reasoned, by finding for Jordan on the retaliation claim, the jury must have found that Large kicked Jordan in the testicles which caused physical injury because, absent physical injury, Jordan could only recover nominal damages.
And since the jury awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages, according to the district court, the jury necessarily found that Large applied more than a trivial use of force against Jordan. But the court determined that kicking Jordan in the groin in a manner involving more than trivial force would necessarily qualify as excessive force, necessitating a verdict for Jordan on that count. So the court concluded the jury’s deadlock on the excessive force count could not be squared with its verdict on the retaliation count. Thus, it set aside the jury’s verdict on the retaliation claim and ordered a new trial.
A second trial followed. This time, the jury reached a verdict for Large on both counts.
The strict court erred on a threshold issue—whether a hung jury is even a finding that a court can use to conduct an inconsistent verdict analysis. A trial court cannot reach negative inferences from a jury’s failure to reach a verdict. That approach makes sense. The court does not know what any juror was thinking, much less the jury as a whole. It should not guess what happened inside the closed quarters of the jury room.
Yet that is exactly what the district court did. The jury was given a general verdict form, found Large liable on one count and awarded Jordan $25,000 in damages. But the district court invalidated that verdict based on a jury deadlock for a different count, reasoning that the deadlock on excessive force was irreconcilable with a verdict on retaliation. The nature of a hung jury prohibits such reasoning. The motion for new trial should have been denied. And by extension, the second trial should have never happened.
The court reverses the district court’s order granting a new trial, reinstates the jury verdict which found Large liable for $25,000 based on Jordan’s retaliation claim, vacates the district court’s final judgment based on the second trial and vacates the district court’s order denying Jordan’s motion for attorneys’ fees.
Reversed, vacated and remanded with instructions.
Jordan v. Large (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-042-22, 7 pp.) (A. Marvin Quattlebaum Jr., J.) Case No. 19-7855. March 4, 2022. From W.D. Va. at Roanoke (Pamela Meade Sargent, S.J.) Elaine Duross McCafferty for Appellant. Lucas W.E. Croslow for Appellee. 4th Cir.