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A judge’s decision to throw out a civil rights suit alleging that police threw a burglary suspect out of a third-story window was justified under a rare exception to the rule that courts may not assess the credibility of witnesses at the summary judgment stage, the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. Jeffreys v. The City of New York, No. 03-257. The court said that Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York had the authority to dismiss the case brought against police officers and the city of New York, even though judges are normally not allowed to weigh the evidence or witness credibility in deciding a motion for summary judgment. The key to the exception, Judge Jose Cabranes wrote on behalf of the 2d Circuit panel, was that the plaintiff’s testimony was “largely unsubstantiated” by any other testimony. Scheindlin had found plaintiff Percy Jeffreys’ testimony “so replete with inconsistencies and improbabilities” that, in the words of Cabranes, “no juror would undertake the suspension of disbelief necessary to credit the allegations made in the plaintiff’s complaint.” Jeffreys broke into Public School 40 in the Bronx, N.Y., in the early morning hours of Feb. 10, 1998. Discovered in a classroom by a police officer, Jeffreys claimed the officer shone a flashlight in his face and hit him several times with it. The officer was allegedly joined by several other officers in the attack. Jeffreys lost consciousness, he claimed, only to awake on the ground outside the school, directly below an open third-floor window, with searing pain in his leg. The police officer, Emmanuel Rossi, said that when Jeffreys was discovered, he dropped some stolen items and jumped out of the window. According to Cabranes, Jeffreys had severe credibility problems because on at least three occasions he confessed to having jumped out of the third-story window at the school. Jeffreys also signed a written statement confessing to 12 burglaries, “but this confession contained no reference to any police mistreatment.” Scheindlin granted summary judgment for the city because “permitting Jeffreys to present such incredulous testimony at trial would be a terrible waste of judicial resources and a fraud on the court,” she said. On appeal, Jeffreys argued that Scheindlin erred because the assessment of witness credibility is a function strictly reserved for the jury. Summary judgment is only warranted under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) if “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” In applying this standard, a judge is obligated to construe the evidence in favor of the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in his or her favor. According to Cabranes, however, the 2d Circuit has ruled that at the summary judgment stage, a nonmoving party “must offer some hard evidence showing that its version of events is not wholly fanciful. “While it is undoubtedly the duty of district courts not to weigh the credibility of the parties at the summary judgment stage, in the rare circumstances where the plaintiff relies almost exclusively on his own testimony, much of which is contradictory and incomplete, it will be impossible for a district court to determine whether the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff, and thus whether there are any ‘genuine’ issues of material fact, without making some assessment of the plaintiff’s account,” he said. It would be one thing if there were plausible explanations for discrepancies in Jeffreys’ testimony, he said, but the statements he made “clearly conveyed a simple message: that Jeffreys thrust himself out of the window.”

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