“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Chad Readler ordered a district court to cut an award of punitive damages against a police officer who was found guilty of using excessive force by at least $150,000. The September 2020 ruling was in Kidis v. Reid.
Nikos Kidis was driving recklessly on his way home from a Labor Day event, sideswiped another vehicle, and got out and ran, including from police who attempted to arrest him. He later gave up running and surrendered to police. He lay face down on the ground with his hands out over his head and offered no resistance. Nevertheless, Officer John Moran “thrust his knee into Kidis and started to choke him.” Moran continued to “punch and strangle Kidis” and, while he was on top of Kidis, yelled “we’re going to teach you for running motherf—ker. We’re going to get you.” Moran also shouted that “he was going to kick [Kidis’s] ass because he was angry that [Kidis] ran.”
Kidis pleaded guilty to minor offenses and then filed suit against Moran for using excessive force against him. A jury found that Moran had in fact improperly used excess force against Kidis. Although the jury verdict included a minimal $1 award of compensatory damages because it did not find that the excess force had yet caused significant harm or medical bills, it awarded $200,000 in punitive damages against Moran for his improper and excessive use of force. The trial judge carefully considered the punitive damages award and denied a post-trial motion by Moran claiming it was excessive. Moran appealed.
Trump judge Chad Readler wrote a 2-1 decision reversing the district court and ordering it to cut the punitive damages award so that it is “no more than $50,000.” Readler relied on the 2003 Supreme Court case of State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell in which the Court, despite dissents by both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia, ruled that the Constitution’s due process clause authorizes courts to cut punitive damages awards that are clearly excessive. Although Readler conceded that “there was no conceivable need for Moran to knee[,] strike, choke, and punch Kidis once Moran was on top of Kidis while Kidis was making no effort to resist arrest,” he maintained that the punitive damages judgment was far out of proportion to the compensatory damages of $1. This “eye-popping ratio,” Readler maintained, was excessive and the amount should be significantly reduced.
Judge Richard Griffin, who was nominated by President George W. Bush, dissented. He also relied on the factors discussed in State Farm and later cases, pointing in particular to “the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct.” Griffin recited the facts as discussed above and concluded that Moran “acted with intentional malice” and was “indifferent to Kidis’s safety.” He pointed out that the courts have ruled that the ratio of compensatory to punitive damages is of “limited relevance” in cases like this one, which concern “reprehensible “conduct by an officer like Moran who has abused a “position of public trust.” Based on a review of past punitive damages awards against police in such cases, Griffin agreed with the district court’s conclusion that Moran had “fair notice that his conduct might result in a $200,000 award.” Even Readler had conceded that the $200,000 award “finds some support” in the case law, Griffin went on, and the majority had “arbitrarily reduce[d]” the award to $50,000.
Judge Griffin concluded that the “jury’s role as the factfinder and its verdict regarding the reasonable amount of punitive damages necessary to punish and deter police brutality deserve greater respect.” As a result of Readler’s decision, however, that did not happen in this case.