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More than 20 years after a police confrontation with the radical group MOVE caused a fire that consumed a block of West Philadelphia row houses, a federal judge has upheld a jury’s verdict in favor of a group of residents who said the city reneged on its repeated promises to fix chronic problems in their rebuilt homes, but slashed its award from $12.8 million to $6 million. In his 16-page opinion in Chainey v. City of Philadelphia, Senior U.S. District Judge John P. Fullam found that some of the jury’s compensatory awards to the 24 sets of plaintiffs were “duplicative” and that all of its punitive damage awards must be set aside. As a result, Fullam ruled that the awards of $534,583 to each set of plaintiffs must be reduced to $250,000 each. Lawyers for the city urged Fullam to grant a new trial, arguing that the trial judge — the late Judge Clarence C. Newcomer — had shown a bias against the city when he personally questioned Mayor John Street. The effect of Newcomer’s questions, the city said, was to impugn Street’s veracity and improperly influence the jury. Fullam found that Newcomer’s questions “can be interpreted as expressing surprise that the mayor said he was unable to recall certain important occurrences, and can also be interpreted as suggesting that the mayor should have been more solicitous of the welfare of his constituents.” But Fullam said that there was no need to grant a new trial because Newcomer immediately issued a curative instruction to the jury. “I believe the error was promptly cured,” Fullam wrote. “If any harm was done, it may have influenced the jury’s award of punitive damages and, since punitive damages are not being allowed, the error has become harmless.” But Fullam found that the jury’s award was excessive and needed to be molded to eliminate duplicative elements. After analyzing each of the plaintiffs’ claims, Fullam held that only one claim — breach of contract — was valid, and that awards for civil conspiracy and illegal “taking” must be set aside. In its verdict, the jury awarded each set of plaintiffs $250,000 on the breach of contract claim — $150,000 for “expectation damages” and $100,000 for “emotional distress.” Fullam upheld that award but set aside every other aspect of the jury’s awards. On the civil conspiracy claim, the jury had awarded a total of $960,000 — $40,000 per house — as compensatory damages, and also awarded $300,000 in punitive damages ($100,000 against the city and $200,000 against Street.) On a substantive due process claim, the jury had awarded each set of plaintiffs $100,000 in compensatory damages – allocating $720,000 as the city’s share, and $1.68 million as Street’s share. On that same count, the jury also awarded $1.25 million in punitive damages against Street. Finally, the jury awarded each set of plaintiffs $80,000 on the “takings” count. Fullam concluded that none of the punitive damage awards could be sustained. “Obviously, the city itself is immune from punitive damages,” Fullam wrote. Turning to the compensatory damage awards, Fullam found there was “adequate evidentiary support” for the jury’s breach of contract award of $150,000 to each set of plaintiffs for “expectation” damages — the standard measure of contract damages, putting plaintiffs in as good a position as they would have been in had the breach not occurred. Fullam also concluded that the plaintiffs were entitled to recover for “emotional distress.” But Fullam found there was an “unacceptable overlap” between the $100,000 emotional distress awards and the identical amount awarded for substantive due process violations. Finally, Fullam found that the awards to the plaintiffs on their Takings Clause claims must be set aside because the theory of their case was fatally flawed. “The evidence clearly established that the defendants threatened to ‘take’ plaintiffs’ property through eminent domain. If they had actually done so, plaintiffs would have been entitled to pursue remedies under the state eminent domain statute, and thus recover the market value of their properties at the time of the taking,” Fullam wrote. But the evidence, Fullam said, “makes clear that the city did not carry out its threat to condemn the properties. Plaintiffs are still the owners of their houses, and have continued to reside in them. The verdict in favor of plaintiffs on the ‘takings’ claim must be set aside.”

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