Split Seventh Circuit Panel Upholds Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b) Order of New Trial That Lifted $80,000 Civil-Rights Verdict to $22 Million

In Fields v. City of Chicago, No 17-3079 (7th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020), a split panel holds that the district court did not abuse its discretion by reopening a case under Rule 60(b) based on new evidence, and holding a retrial resulting in a massively larger judgment: from $80,000 to $22 million.

Plaintiff Fields was convicted of murder in Illinois state court in 1984. Twelve years later, the conviction unraveled on post-conviction review, based on evidence that the trial judge corruptly accepted bribes (and that the defense lawyer had unsuccessfully tried to bribe the judge in this case). Fields was retried and acquitted in 2009.  He sued the detectives in his case, and the City of Chicago, for (among other things) “violat[ing] his constitutional rights in connection with his criminal trials by fabricating evidence, engaging in suggestive identification procedures, and withholding exculpatory evidence.” One of the key contentions was that the police maintained what were known as “street files,” where they secreted exonerating evidence so it would not be turned over to the accused.

“The case proceeded to trial in March 2014, but after seven days of trial, the court declared a mistrial when the defendants introduced prejudicial testimony that the court had excluded in a pretrial in limine ruling. The second trial commenced in April 2014, and at the close of the month-long trial the jury found in favor of Fields on his due process claim against defendant [Detective] O’Callaghan, and in favor of the defendants on the remaining claims. The jury awarded Fields $80,000 on his due process claim against O’Callaghan. All parties filed post-trial motions.”

But the case was not over yet. Post-judgment, the judge granted another trial under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b). This was based on the revelation that a key defense witness, a federal prisoner named Hawkins, may have lied at the retrial. Hawkins testified that, despite a plea deal for his trial testimony, he would “remain imprisoned until 2027 at the age of 72, and . . . . was receiving no [sentence reduction] in return for his testimony at the civil trial.” Defense counsel repeated that theme in closing arguments. Mere months after the trial, though, Hawkins won immediate release on parole – significantly, with support of two of the defendants and associated counsel. The judge concluded that evidence of the accelerated release was material and might have changed the result if the jury had heard it.

At the third trial “the jury awarded Fields $22 million in compensatory damages” against the defendants, this time including the city, plus punitive damages of $30,000 and $10,000 against the detectives personally.

In an appeal that presented myriad claims of trial error, the lynchpin issue was whether it was error for the district court judge to grant the third trial. The panel majority holds that the district court did not err, affirming on two alternative grounds.

First, under Fed. R. Civ. P 60(b)(2), the evidence of the consequences of the plea deal constituted “newly discovered evidence that, with reasonable diligence, could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b).” While this rule does not warrant relief if the newly-discovered evidence is merely impeachment, “here the evidence is not merely impeaching because it demonstrated misrepresentation and fraud in the case. The newly discovered evidence does not merely cast doubt on the credibility of a witness, but rebuts the substantive evidence introduced into the record by the defendants, and exposes the misrepresentations as to Hawkins’s sentence that were part of discovery, the trial, and closing arguments. Such evidence implicates the integrity of the fact-finding process.” Not only was the trial testimony misleading itself, but the defense lawyers “expanded on that theme at closing arguments, mocking Fields’s claim that Hawkins had received deals for his cooperation by stating that Hawkins ‘will be in the penitentiary until 2028 or 26’ and that he would be locked up for ‘most of his life.’”

This evidence could not have been discovered with due diligence, owing the repeated false representations by the defense. “The [district] court detailed that Fields’s attorney was told at the deposition that Hawkins would be imprisoned until 2027, was given a letter from the federal prosecutor that said the same, and defense counsel advanced the same view in questioning Hawkins at trial and arguing the case to the jury . . . . Finally, the court held that the evidence that Hawkins’s trial testimony would lead to his near-immediate release would have ‘cut at the heart of the defendants’ case’ given ‘the critical role Hawkins played in the underlying events and as a witness at trial,’ and held that it was reasonably probable that such evidence would have produced a different result in the present case.”

Second, alternatively, the grant of a new trial was supported by Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(3), “fraud (whether previously called intrinsic or extrinsic), misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party.” The panel holds that “throughout the case the defendants and defense counsel misrepresented Hawkins’s sentence and whether Hawkins’s testimony in the civil trial could impact the amount of time he would serve. In fact, the misrepresentations were so comprehensive that the court held that Fields’s attorney would have no basis to even question those statements.”

Dissenting, Judge Sykes would have ordered entry of the smaller judgment from the second trial, concluding that plaintiff’s counsel forfeited grounds for a new trial. The dissent concludes that the new evidence only had impeachment value, thus rejecting Rule 60(b)(2), and that plaintiff did not preserve grounds under Rule 60(b)(3). “Fields did not argue fraud as an alternative basis for his request for relief under Rule 60(b)(2), and he never sought relief under Rule 60(b)(3). He neither cited the rule nor developed an argument under it.” Judge Sykes further contends that the argument for fraud was not argued on appeal, thus “any argument about fraud under either rule has been doubly waived.”

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