Gregg v. Ham, No. 10-1738

Decided:  April 30, 2012

Defendant bail bondsman, Jon Ham, appealed jury verdict and damages awards in favor of Plaintiff, Shirley Gregg, in a case that stemmed from Ham’s efforts to apprehend a fugitive in, and around, Gregg’s home in Florence, South Carolina.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of Ham’s motion filed under Rules 50 and 59 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial, and alteration or amendment of the judgment.

Ham, through his company Quick Silver Bail Bonds, LLC (“Quick Silver”), posted a $20,000 bond for Tyis Rose.  Pursuant to the court’s issuance of a fugitive warrant for Rose’s arrest upon his failure to appear in court, Ham commenced a search for Rose and concentrated his search in a community in Sumter County, South Carolina where both Rose’s parents and Gregg lived.  Ultimately, Ham’s search led him to chase Rose until Rose parked his car on Gregg’s property and fled into nearby woods.  After observing Rose enter Gregg’s house one evening, Ham returned to Gregg’s property two days later, along with Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Yelton, to search Gregg’s house without a search warrant.  After their search failed to locate Rose, the two men left Gregg’s house, at which time Gregg called 911 to complain about the entry and search.  As a result of this encounter, Gregg felt anxious and insecure and sought counseling from a psychologist who concluded that Gregg suffered from depression and anxiety and diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gregg sued Ham, Quick Silver, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department, and Yelton in the Court of Common Pleas in Sumter County, South Carolina.  She alleged (1) gross negligence and recklessness, (2) constitutional violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under § 1983, (3) trespass, (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (5) assault.  Defendants removed the case to federal court based on Gregg’s § 1983 claim, and Gregg settled her claims against the Sheriff’s Department and Yelton.  The district court granted the remaining defendants’, Ham and Quick Silver, motion for directed verdict on the intentional inflict of emotional distress claim.  On the other claims, the jury returned a verdict for Gregg, awarding nominal damages on her § 1983 and trespass claims, along with $50,000 in compensatory damages on her assault claim.  Additionally, the jury awarded Gregg a total of $50,000 in punitive damages for her § 1983, trespass, and assault claims.  After the district court denied Ham’s motion under Rules 50 and 59, Ham appealed the district court’s decision, contending that (1) the district court erred by submitting the issue of qualified immunity to the jury, (2) he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the § 1983 and assault claims, and (3) the damages awards on the various claims were inconsistent, unsupported by the facts, and excessive.

With respect to Ham’s claim that the district court erred by submitting the issue of qualified immunity to the jury, the Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s decision for plain error because Ham did not object to the jury instruction at trial.  Ham relied on the rule announced by the Fourth Circuit in Willingham v. Crooke to support his argument that the jury instruction constituted plain error because it required the jury to answer the legal question of qualified immunity.  See 412 F.3d 553, 560 (4th Cir. 2005).  The Fourth Circuit found Ham’s argument unpersuasive, concluding that it did not need to address Ham’s claim because “even assuming the instruction was improper, there was no error because Ham was not entitled to a qualified immunity defense.”  It found that a private party is “not necessarily entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense” and applied the test articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Richardson v. McKnight to determine whether Ham, as a private party acting under color of state law, was entitled to qualified immunity.  See 521 U.S. 399, 404 (1997).  Applying theRichardson test, the Court concluded that “the history and policy behind the qualified immunity defense do not support extending it to bail bondsmen.”  Therefore, the Court found that Ham was “unable to show error, plain or otherwise, based on the district court’s instruction on a defense to which he was not entitled.”

Next, the Court considered Ham’s claim that, because Gregg consented to the search of her home, there was insufficient evidence to support her § 1983 claim that Ham violated her constitutional rights by entering and searching her home.  The Court acknowledged that valid consent is a “well-recognized exception to the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches,” but applied a totality of the circumstances analysis to find that under the circumstances of the case, there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Gregg’s consent was involuntary.  It therefore affirmed the jury’s verdict on Gregg’s § 1983 claim.  Likewise, the Court rejected Ham’s claim that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the assault claim.  Applying South Carolina law governing assault, the Court concluded that based Gregg’s account of the incident, there was a sufficient basis to support the jury’s conclusion that Gregg was in reasonable fear of bodily harm.

Finally, the Court addressed Ham’s contention that the § 1983 and assault claims were based on the same conduct, and therefore the jury awards were inconsistent and the district court erred by denying his Rule 59 motion for a new trial or remittitur on damages.  It reviewed the district court’s decision for abuse of discretion.  The Court found that the claims related to separate conduct, and the jury could reasonably have determined that Ham committed both violations and that the claim for actual damages stemmed solely from the assault claim.  The Court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying Ham’s motion for a new trial.  The Court also rejected Ham’s argument that Gregg’s medical expenses did not justify the $50,000 in actual damages on the assault claim and affirmed the district court’s denial of Ham’s remittitur.  Likewise, the Court found no abuse of discretion with respect to the district court’s decision not to reduce the jury’s punitive damages awards on the § 1983, assault, and trespass claims.  In doing so, the Court applied South Carolina law governing punitive damages because there was no constitutional challenge to these awards.

Full Opinion

– Allison Hite

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