District Court Has No Discretion to Vacate a Partial Verdict Because It Is Supposedly “Irreconcilably Inconsistent” With A Hung Jury on Another Count, Holds Fourth Circuit

In Jordan v. Large, No. 19-7855 (4th Cir. Mar. 4, 2022), the Fourth Circuit holds that the district court erred when it vacated a partial verdict in favor of a prisoner-plaintiff because it was supposedly “irreconcilably inconsistent” with the jury’s inability to reach a verdict on another count.

Plaintiff, “a prisoner in Red Onion State Prison, brought claims for excessive force and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against T. Large, an officer in that prison.” The claim included an assertion that the officer kicked the prisoner in the groin area while transferring him to another cell.

At trial, “[t]he jury deadlocked on Jordan’s excessive force claim but found for Jordan on his retaliation claim. The jury awarded Jordan $25,000 in compensatory damages.” Thereafter, the district court granted the defendant a new trial on the claim the plaintiff won under Fed. R. Civ. P 59. “[T]he 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.’” At the second trial, the jury entered a defense verdict.

The Fourth Circuit reverses, holding that the district court had no power to vacate the first verdict and order a second trial because of the hung jury.

“To resolve Jordan’s appeal, we need not determine whether it would be possible to harmonize contrary jury findings on Jordan’s retaliation and excessive force claims . . . .  Instead, we conclude that the district 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.” This district court may not “reach negative inferences from a jury’s failure to reach a verdict.” This is because a hung jury is not a jury finding at all – indeed, it is just the opposite.

“There is no way to know why a jury deadlocked. Maybe a juror with strong opinions about what criminals deserve in prison refused to compromise. Maybe a juror who had experienced significant pain in his or her life thought kicking someone in the testicles does not constitute ‘excessive’ force. Or maybe after finding Large liable for retaliation and awarding damages, some members of the jury grew weary over the continued debate on excessive force and just wanted a hamburger or a beer. The point is, we do not know what any juror was thinking, much less the jury as a whole. We should not guess what happened inside the closed quarters of the jury room.”

The panel thus reinstated the original verdict and remanded the case for further proceedings, including the award of attorney’s fees.

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