NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued March 18, 2013
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-3786-07.
Raymond J. Seigler argued the cause for appellants (Chasan Leyner & Lamparello, attorneys; Mr. Seigler, of counsel and on the brief; Cindy Nan Vogelman, on the brief)
Ravinder S. Bhalla argued the cause for respondent (Law Offices of Bhalla & Cho, L.L.C., attorneys Mr. Bhalla, on the brief)
Before Judges Ashrafi and Guadagno
Defendant-appellants, two police officers employed by the City of Bayonne, appeal from post-trial orders dated December 12, 2011, and July 2, 2012, by which the court awarded $106, 945.52 in attorney's fees and related expenses of plaintiff in this civil rights action. Defendants contend that the jury verdict of one dollar in nominal damages, awarded to only one of the two plaintiffs, did not justify such an award. Having reviewed the record and the arguments on appeal, we affirm in part and reverse in part. Although the trial court did not err in determining that plaintiff was entitled to recover attorney's fees and expenses under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1988, we remand for further consideration of the appropriate amount.
Plaintiffs Eliezer Mota, Sr., and Eliezer Mota, Jr., filed a five-count complaint against police officers Raymond Lynch and Joseph Stiles, the City of Bayonne, and the Bayonne Police Department. They alleged that the officers used excessive force and injured plaintiffs when they mistakenly responded to their residence to investigate a 911 call that originated in another residence.
In a prior unpublished opinion from the appeal of a summary judgment order in this case, Mota v. City of Bayonne, No. A-5118-08 (App. Div. Nov. 15, 2010), we recited the relevant facts as alleged by plaintiffs:
On February 23, 2006, the City of Bayonne Police Department received a "hang up" 911 call from an apartment on the second floor of a residence located on West 45th Street. Officers Raymond Lynch and Joseph Stiles responded to the first floor of the residence, where plaintiffs resided. Mota Sr. answered the officers' call at the door, denied the 911 call was made from his apartment, and refused them entry. Lynch pushed Mota Sr. aside, told him he was arrested, entered the residence, and proceeded to the kitchen where Mota Sr.'s wife, Jacqueline Mota (Mrs. Mota), was emerging.
Mrs. Mota, who only spoke Spanish, repeatedly asked the officers, "que pasa?" Lynch then placed his hand on Mrs. Mota's arm, and twisted it as if to place her on the floor, prompting the woman to respond in Spanish, "Oh, my God. I didn't do anything. Oh, my God. Please stop." When Mota Jr. tried to intervene, Lynch grabbed him by the arm saying "oh, you want to be a F'ing hero?" The officer then grabbed Mota Jr.'s arm and then by the neck with both hands, slammed him into the wall, repeatedly "kneed" him in his groin area, took him to the kitchen, slammed him into the kitchen sink, and then slammed him face first onto the floor and said, "this is what happens when you become a hero." Lynch placed his knee on Mota Jr.'s neck, moved it between the young man's shoulder blades and handcuffed him. As Mota Jr. lay handcuffed on the floor, Lynch kicked him in the abdominal area. Lynch then pulled Mota Jr. up by the handcuffs, took him outside, and slammed his chest and stomach into a patrol vehicle. The officer placed the young man into the patrol vehicle and took him to police headquarters. Mota Jr. never resisted arrest.
When Mota Sr. also attempted to intervene, Stiles grabbed him, said, "don't make things worse than what it is[, ]" and handcuffed him. Mota Sr. begged Stiles to stop Lynch by stating, "[Lynch is] going to kill my son."
Mota Sr. admits that no police officer physically assaulted him, and that he sustained no injuries as a result of the arrest. On the other hand, Mota Jr. sustained injuries to his abdominal area, collarbone, left arm, wrists and lip, for which he sought medical ...