Hyman v. Devlin

Hyman v. Devlin

Public Justice was co‐counsel in this Third Circuit appeal, which raises issues related to qualified immunity and on punitive damages in the civil rights context. A repossession company tried to take Angela Hyman’s car from her driveway while her wife was sitting in it. It is clearly established that the Constitution forbids police from helping a debt collector take someone’s property without a court order. Nonetheless, the police did exactly that: Corporal Bryan Devlin threatened to break the car window, drag out Angela’s wife, and arrest her if she did not comply. Although Devlin testified falsely on several of these issues in his deposition, the truth was conclusively established because some of the key aspects of his conduct were recorded.

A jury found that by using the threat of arrest to enable a private citizen to take her property, Devlin had violated Ms. Hyman’s constitutional rights, and awarded her $5,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The district court denied Devlin qualified immunity on the basis that it was clearly established that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a police officer from assisting in a civil repossession. The district court, however, also reduced the jury’s punitive damages award from $500,000 to $30,000. The parties cross‐appealed, Devlin urging the Third Circuit to reverse the ruling on qualified immunity and Hyman arguing that the jury’s punitive damages award should be reinstated.

The Third Circuit affirmed on both issues, rejecting Devlin’s argument for qualified immunity and preserving the reduced damages award.

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