Date of Verdict: August 30.
Court and Case No.:C.P. Philadelphia No. 110401523.
Judge:Annette M. Rizzo.
Type of Action: Malicious prosecution.
Injuries: False arrest.
Plaintiffs Attorneys:Jonathan J. James, James Schwartz & Associates, Philadelphia.
Defense Counsel: Margaret M. Fenert y, City of Philadelphia Law Department, Philadelphia.
Comment: Joyce Combs was awarded $151,000 in a lawsuit against a city detective who arrested her for kidnapping two children who didn’t exist.
Combs sued Detective Linda Blowes in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, bringing a claim of malicious prosecution. A jury returned a verdict August 30 for $150,000 in compensatory damages and, a day later, awarded Combs an additional $1,000 in punitive damages.
According to Combs’ pretrial memorandum, she was at work in her role as a teacher’s aide to handicapped children in the Philadelphia School District on February 29, 2009, when she was called into the principal’s office and arrested. Her arrest was based on an affidavit signed by Blowes and a warrant issued 10 months earlier in April 2008.
Combs said in her court filings that Blowes received a report April 14, 2008, from one of Combs’ daughters that Combs had taken the daughter’s two-month-old twins and refused to return them until the twins’ father took a drug test.
According to Blowes’ court filings, Philadelphia police first received a report from Danielle Morales and Lamar Beamer, the alleged parents of the twins, on April 10, 2008. The parents then filed a missing persons report for their twins April 14, 2008. They claimed Combs took the twins to Delaware. Blowes went to interview the parents and was shown a color photograph of the infants, she said. Blowes said in the court filings that she was told Combs would not return the twins.
Blowes said in her filings that there was probable cause to believe Combs was interfering with the custody of children and concealing their whereabouts.
In May 2008, Blowes contacted Beamer and he said Combs still refused to return the twins. When contacted by another detective in October 2008, Beamer made the same accusations. He again reiterated the same story in February 2009 when Combs was arrested. According to Blowes’ pretrial memorandum, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office received a letter from Combs’ daughter, Morales, in May 2009 stating her claims against her mother were untrue. The criminal prosecution of Combs was discontinued.
Combs said in court filings that upon her arrest she was charged with two counts of conspiracy for allegedly conspiring with an aunt to take the children. She was also charged with unlawful restraint, interference with the custody of a child, false imprisonment, concealing the whereabouts of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.
Combs spent about 24 hours in custody before being arraigned and released on bond. According to her court filings, Combs was not allowed to use the bathroom while in custody and urinated on herself. At the March 5, 2009, preliminary hearing, the state requested a continuance and did so again in May. The case was withdrawn June 19, 2009, Combs said.
She alleged in her pretrial memorandum that the twins in question do not exist.
Combs’ attorney, Jonathan James, said it was unclear why it took 10 months for an arrest and why little was done on the case in the interim. He said Combs was never interviewed, nor was her second daughter, who Morales said was the one who passed the alleged kids on to Combs.
According to James, Combs and Morales did not have a close relationship. James said Morales apparently made up the existence of the children to keep Beamer in a relationship with her and when Beamer kept pressing to see the kids, she had to come up with a reason as to why he couldn’t. That was when she alleged her mother took the kids, James said.
According to James, Blowes argued at trial that she was duped by Morales, and that if Combs wanted to be mad at anyone, it should be her daughter. James said he responded that it is a detective’s job to detect lies and ferret out the truth.
“I don’t think [Blowes] really believed it, because if she really believed it there would have been an Amber Alert, there would have been so many things she would have done,” James said.
Blowes said in court papers that, based on the reports from the alleged parents, there was probable cause for her actions. She argued Combs could not prevail on a malicious prosecution claim because Combs would have to prove the underlying proceedings were terminated in Combs’ favor, that Blowes caused those proceedings to be instituted without probable cause and that Blowes did so with malice.
Blowes argued in her court filings that there was no question of fact that Morales and Beamer reported the children missing on several instances in April 2008, creating probable cause for an arrest warrant. Blowes further argued that there was no proof she acted with malice.
As an alternative argument, Blowes had argued she was entitled to the defense of immunity given to state actors absent willful misconduct.
Margaret M. Fenerty of the civil rights unit of the City Law Department represented Blowes. Craig Straw, chief deputy of the civil rights unit, said the unit filed post-trial motions because it believes the facts presented to the jury weren’t sufficient to establish a malicious prosecution claim, or, in the alternative, weren’t sufficient to pierce the tort immunity exception that deals with willful misconduct.
“If anything, the evidence would have suggested gross negligence and that wasn’t sufficient,” he said.
Oral arguments on the post-trial motions are scheduled for November 1.
Combs’ demand heading into trial was $150,000.
James said the 12-member jury, which was unanimous in its result, deliberated on the compensatory damages for about an hour.
“I thought for sure it was a defense verdict,” James said, given the short amount of time for deliberation. He said the jury didn’t know about the punitive phase, which was bifurcated, so he thinks they gave the bulk of the damages they were going to award in the compensatory stage. He said he was happy with the $150,000 because Combs could only show actual damages of $11,500 from lost wages after she was fired. She subsequently got her job back, he said.
— Gina Passarella of the Law Weekly