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Denault v. Ahern

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

May 16, 2017

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.


          Andrew M. Fischer, with whom Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman LLC was on brief, for appellants/cross-appellees.

          Jeremy Silverfine, with whom Deidre Brennan Regan and Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, LLP were on brief, for appellees/cross-appellants.

          Before Kayatta, Circuit Judge, Souter, Associate Justice, [*] and Selya, Circuit Judge.

          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.


         With 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.


         On 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.

         The 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 keys.

         After 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.

         Starting 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.[1]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.

         Testa 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.

         Instead, 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.


         After 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.

         The 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.

         The 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.

          These timely appeals followed. During their pendency, a stipulation of dismissal resolved the third-party ...

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