TIMOTHY A. DENAULT; JENNIFER TESTA, Plaintiffs, Appellants/Cross-Appellees,
TODD AHERN, individually and in his official capacity; CRAIG WALSH, individually and in his official capacity; TOWN OF CHELMSFORD, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Defendants/Third Party Plaintiffs, Appellees/Cross-Appellants, OTHER POLICE OFFICERS PRESENTLY UNKNOWN, Defendants,
CHRISTOPHER'S EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT AND TOWING, INC., f/d/b/a Christopher's Towing Service, Third Party Defendant.
FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF
MASSACHUSETTS [Hon. William G. Young, U.S. District Judge]
M. Fischer, with whom Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman LLC
was on brief, for appellants/cross-appellees.
Silverfine, with whom Deidre Brennan Regan and Brody,
Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLP were on brief, for
Kayatta, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, [*] and Selya, Circuit
KAYATTA, Circuit Judge.
Chelmsford, Massachusetts police officers seized Timothy
Denault's car to search it for evidence, to no avail.
Denault nevertheless ended up losing the car, and his
ex-girlfriend's possessions in the car, because
accumulated towing and storage fees owed to the city's
towing vendor exceeded the value of the seized property.
Denault and his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Testa, sued, blaming
the loss on the police officers' failure to return the
car promptly upon completing the search. A series of rulings
before and after trial eliminated all federal and state civil
rights claims, including the potential for shifting
attorneys' fees in favor of the prevailing party. Left
standing at the end was a judgment on a common law conversion
claim against one officer, Todd Ahern, in favor of Denault
and Testa in the amounts of $2200 and $25, respectively.
Denault and Testa appeal in an effort to revive a civil
rights claim that might serve as a basis for an award of
attorneys' fees. Ahern, in turn, asks us to reverse or
vacate the judgment against him on the common law conversion
claim. For the following reasons, and on an admittedly
confusing record, we leave matters as they now stand.
the plaintiffs arguing that the district court erred in
dismissing some claims as a matter of law, and with the
defendants arguing that the district court should have
dismissed all claims, we review the evidence presented at
trial and the inferences supported by that evidence in the
light most favorable to the plaintiffs. See White v. N.H.
Dep't of Corr., 221 F.3d 254, 259 (1st Cir. 2000).
This means, among other things, that where the testimony at
trial was conflicting, we must assume that the jurors
believed the plaintiffs' version unless it was
unreasonable to do so.
October 21, 2013, officers of the Chelmsford Police
Department ("CPD") located a 2000 Nissan Maxima
parked in the driveway of a Lowell, Massachusetts home. The
car belonged to Denault, the suspect in a crime they were
investigating. The home belonged to Testa, Denault's
ex-girlfriend and the mother of his three children.
officers, including Ahern and Craig Walsh, encountered Testa
at her home. They tried to question her about Denault, who
was then in custody. During the exchange, Testa confirmed
that she had possession of Denault's car, the Nissan
Maxima. The officers told Testa that they needed to take the
car and asked her for the keys. Testa responded that she was
running late for a meeting and did not have time to find the
Testa drove away in a different car, the officers had
Denault's car towed to the stationhouse by
Christopher's Towing. They impounded the car and secured
a warrant to search it. Two days after seizing the car, they
executed the warrant with assistance from state forensic
scientists. The forensic scientists examined the car for
evidence and inventoried its contents, which included one
booster seat. A few days later, when the officers determined
that the car did not contain evidence pertinent to their
investigation, they released it to Christopher's Towing.
CPD officers had no contact with Denault, the registered
owner of the car, about either the seizure or the release.
When CPD released the car to Christopher's Towing, CPD
officers did not supply, and Christopher's Towing did not
request, contact information for Denault, who had been in
custody since before the car was towed. Accordingly,
Christopher's Towing sent no notice to Denault at the
time, and Denault was unaware that CPD had released his car
to Christopher's Towing.
on the date the car was towed, and repeatedly thereafter,
Testa tried to recover the car and her belongings inside it.
She was especially keen to retrieve two children's
booster seats she claimed she had left in the rear of the
car.According to Testa, the CPD officers with
whom she spoke refused to discuss returning the car or its
contents unless Testa agreed to be questioned in connection
with the criminal investigation into Denault. Because Testa
"didn't have anything that [she] could tell [the
officers] about what happened to [Denault], " she never
went to the stationhouse and eventually stopped calling CPD.
When Testa was subpoenaed in connection with the criminal
investigation several weeks later in November 2013, she
reminded the CPD officers that she still needed her
belongings. The officers responded that they had not returned
her property because she had declined to speak with them
about Denault. The officers never returned Testa's
property, and--according to Testa--they never informed her
that they had released the car to Christopher's Towing.
learned that Christopher's Towing had possession of the
car over three months later, when Denault's mother showed
her a Notice of Abandoned Vehicle sent to Denault's last
known address. The notice, dated February 24, 2014, indicated
a lien on the car in the amount of $4797.82 for towing fees,
storage costs, and processing services. Testa told Denault,
who remained incarcerated, about the notice. Neither Testa
nor Denault was able to afford the sum listed on the notice.
Accordingly, neither paid it.
on September 23, 2014, Denault and Testa filed this action
against the Town of Chelmsford as well as Walsh and Ahern in
their individual and official capacities. The operative
complaint seeks recovery under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for
violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to
the United States Constitution (count I) as well as the
Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12,
§ 11I (count II). It further alleges a common law claim
that the defendants converted the plaintiffs' property
(count III). The complaint also asserts municipal liability
(count VI) with respect to the alleged federal constitutional
violations as well as conspiracy (count IV) and aiding and
abetting (count V). The complaint seeks compensatory and
punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
the district court denied the defendants' motion to
dismiss the complaint, the defendants answered and filed a
third-party complaint against Christopher's Towing. The
district court ordered the original parties to proceed to
trial in June 2015 and scheduled the third-party trial to
follow in January 2016. In advance of the first trial, the
defendants moved for summary judgment and the plaintiffs
cross-moved for partial summary judgment. The district court
denied the plaintiffs' motion and granted the
defendants' motion in part, dismissing claims related to
the initial seizure of the car because the seizure "was
lawful under the automobile exception to the Fourth
Amendment, or if not, the officers enjoy qualified
immunity." During the ensuing trial, the district court
granted a motion for directed verdict dismissing all claims
against Walsh and the Town of Chelmsford, leaving Ahern as
the only defendant. The district court also granted a second
motion for directed verdict as to all "substantive and
due process claims." The jury ultimately returned a
verdict sheet stating only that "[w]e find for" the
plaintiffs, in the amounts of $2200 and $25.
plaintiffs promptly moved for entry of judgment on the
verdict. The district court granted that motion, entering
judgment for the plaintiffs on counts I and III of the
operative complaint, i.e., a federal constitutional claim and
a state law conversion claim for each plaintiff. The
plaintiffs then moved for attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1988(b) based on their having prevailed on a federal
constitutional claim actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The defendants opposed that motion and filed a motion for
judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or to alter and amend
the judgment, or for a new trial.
district court denied the defendants' tripartite motion
"save that the judgment shall be amended to reflect that
the jury verdict entered solely on the conversion count,
" which was count III of the operative complaint. Having
thus excised count I (the federal claims), the court denied
the plaintiffs' motion for attorneys' fees because
the remaining common law conversion claim furnished no basis
for an award of fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The
district court also entered a separate judgment on the
adjudicated claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
54(b) to facilitate an immediate appeal without waiting for
trial of the third-party claims.
timely appeals followed. During their pendency, a stipulation
of dismissal resolved the third-party ...