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W.S. v. Daniels

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Anderson/Greenwood Division

October 24, 2019

W.S., Plaintiff,
v.
Cassandra Daniels, Ursula Best, South Carolina Department of Social Services Defendants.

          DONALD C. COGGINS, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or to alter or amend the judgment, Plaintiff's motion pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988, and Plaintiff's motion pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(c)(2). ECF Nos. 255, 266, 271.[1]

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff brought this action alleging violations of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 and gross negligence pursuant to the South Carolina Tort Claims Act, among other claims that concluded prior to trial. This matter was tried before a jury on March 18, 2019, through March 22, 2019. After due deliberations, the jury found for Plaintiff and awarded him $400, 000.00 in actual damages from Defendant South Carolina Department of Social Services (“SCDSS”); $74, 000.00 in actual and punitive damages from Defendant Ursula Best; and $60, 000.00 in actual and punitive damages from Defendant Cassandra Daniels, for a total of $534, 000.00. On March 27, 2019, the Clerk entered judgment in favor of Plaintiff pursuant to the jury verdict.

         DISCUSSION

         Defendants' Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or to Alter or Amend The Judgment

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to relief because the Court erred in failing to grant Defendants' motion for directed verdict, the Defendants are entitled to have the South Carolina set-off rule apply to this case, and the Court erred in submitting the number of “occurrences” to the jury.[2]

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, “[i]f a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial” and moves for judgment as a matter of law, the court may grant that motion if it “finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2). If the court does not rule on a motion for judgment as a matter of law during the trial, “the movant may file a renewed motion . . . and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59” within twenty-eight days after the entry of judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In deciding upon a Rule 50 Motion, the court must consider “whether a jury, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to [the non-movant], could have properly reached the conclusion reached by this jury, ” and will reverse only “if a reasonable jury could only rule in favor of the movant.” Dennis v. Columbia Colleton Med. Ctr., Inc., 290 F.3d 639, 644- 45 (4th Cir. 2002). “[I]f reasonable minds could differ, [the court] must affirm.” Id.; see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986) (finding that courts should grant judgment as a matter of law only if “there can be but one reasonable conclusion as to the verdict”).

         Directed Verdict Motion

         With respect to Defendants' argument that their directed verdict motion should have been granted as to Plaintiff's claim for gross negligence, they argue that Plaintiff's expert acknowledged that Plaintiff's case workers provided slight care. Accordingly, they assert, the question of whether SCDSS was grossly negligent should not have been submitted to the jury. The Court disagrees.

         As to gross negligence, Plaintiff's expert Susan O'Toole was asked,

And on a scale of zero to ten, with zero being no care and ten being excellent care, what type of care did these-this case worker and this case worker supervisor use in providing services and case management to William?

         She responded, “Very minimal. So, one or two.” Following Plaintiff's directed verdict motion, the Court found that the statement regarding slight care was made in reference to the caseworker and the caseworker supervisor-not SCDSS. The Court determined that there has been sufficient testimony at trial from which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of Plaintiff with respect to gross negligence by SCDSS. Upon review of the testimony and evidence presented at trial, the Court denies Defendants' motion with respect to this claim.

         With respect to Defendants' argument that their directed verdict motion should have been granted as to Plaintiff's claim for deliberate indifference, they argue that the record reflects that action was taken by Plaintiff's caseworkers when they were aware of danger to Plaintiff. Defendants also argue that Best and Daniels were entitled to qualified immunity[3] regarding any incident that took place prior to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision in Doe ex. Re. Johnson v. South Carolina Department of Social Services, 597 F.3d 163 (4th Cir. 2010). The Court agrees that qualified immunity applies to pre-Johnson claims and so instructed the jury. However, the Court cannot agree as to the remaining argument on deliberate indifference.

         At trial, there was evidence produced with respect to written reports of Plaintiff's and other children's sexual behavior at Boys Home of the South (“BHOTS”) and Plaintiff's disclosures regarding past sexual abuse. Moreover, there was evidence produced that Daniels and Best delayed ordering or, in some cases, never ordered mental health services and medical services for W.S. upon learning of this behavior and W.S.'s disclosures. There was sufficient evidence produced at trial that Daniels and Best knew of and disregarded a substantial risk of harm to Plaintiff so as to survive a motion for directed verdict.

         Defendants also argue that Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Due Process claims were barred because he had an adequate post-deprivation remedy in state law. The Court disagrees. See Johnson, 597 F.3d at 172, 175-76 (4th Cir. 2010) (finding that “a child who has been involuntarily removed from her home by state officials for abuse or neglect, placed in the legal custody of the SCDSS, and transferred to state-approved foster care by SCDSS officials can state a substantive due process claim against a state social worker for violations of her fundamental right to personal safety and security”); Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 125-26 (1990) (holding that the existence of overlapping state remedies may be relevant where a plaintiff's § 1983 claim is based on procedural due process).

         Number of Occurrences

         Defendants also argue that the Court erred in submitting the number of occurrences to the jury. Defendants contend that there was a single occurrence when Plaintiff was placed at BHOTS-which would provide a cap on the monetary liability for SCDSS of $300, 000.00. They assert that the jury should not have been required to find the number of occurrences. The Court disagrees.

         The Court finds the Honorable Cameron McGowan Currie's discussion of the relevant South Carolina law on occurrences in Knox v. United States, No. 0:17-cv-36-CMC, 2018 WL 3241931 (D.S.C. July 3, 2018), is applicable here. Judge Currie thoroughly discussed the holdings in Chastain v. AnMed Health Foundation, 694 S.E.2d 541 (S.C. 2010), and Boiter v. South Carolina Department of Transportation, 712 S.E.2d 401 (S.C. 2011). She determined that, “[i]f Plaintiff presents evidence at trial to support more than one act of negligence, the jury will be instructed on the definition of occurrence and asked to determine whether Plaintiff has proven more than one occurrence.” Here, the Court determined that there was evidence to support a finding that there had been more than one occurrence; accordingly, the jury was instructed on the definition of occurrence and asked to determine how many occurrences Plaintiff had proved. Defendants have failed to demonstrate that this procedure was flawed sufficient to grant the relief requested in this motion.

         Thus, viewing the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court simply cannot conclude that “a reasonable jury could only rule in favor of” Defendants. Dennis, 290 F.3d at 644. At the very least, reasonable minds could differ on the outcome, meaning that the Court must affirm the jury's decision.

         Set-off

         Section 1983 does not contain any provision regarding offsetting an actual damages award because of settlement. Because § 1983 and federal law does not provide substantive law on the matter, the Court must apply state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1988; Big Elk v. Bd of Cty. Comm'rs of Osage Cty,3 Fed.Appx. 802, 808-09 (10th Cir. 2001); see also C.B. v. City of ...


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