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Eighth Circuit Affirms Post-Verdict Nominal Damages Request

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's denial of a post-verdict request to instruct the jury to award nominal damages and a motion to alter or amend the judgment to include nominal damages.

Clayton Miller was seen visibly intoxicated, taking photographs of children on a St. Louis, Missouri school yard. When he refused requests to leave, school officials called police. Miller left before police arrived, but a neighbor directed officers to his home. Officers Mark Albright and Patrick Cobb entered Miller's home and found him asleep in a bedroom. When he awoke, Miller fought with police and was arrested, but the charges were subsequently dismissed.

Miller brought federal suit against Albright and Cobb for unlawful entry, excessive force and unlawful arrest. The case proceeded to trial and Miller proposed jury instructions for both compensatory and punitive damages. He did not request a nominal damage instruction.

The jury ruled in Miller's favor on the unlawful entry claim but did not award compensatory or punitive damages. Miller then requested that the court direct the jury to award nominal damages. When the court denied his request, Miller filed a motion under FRCP 59(e), to alter or amend the judgment to include an award of nominal damages. The court denied the motion.

Miller appealed, arguing that both nominal damage decisions were an abuse of discretion. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, holding that the lower court did not commit plain error "because Miller simply failed to timely request a nominal damages instruction and, indeed, was the one who proffered the instructions and verdict form that were ultimately given to the jury."

"Miller could have proposed a nominal damages instruction solely for his unlawful entry claim and sought only actual damages on his excessive force claim." As such, the court declined Miller's invitation to "adopt an exception to Rule 51 that would permit a plaintiff to request nominal damages after the verdict has been read but before the jury is discharged." See: Miller v. Albright, 657 F.3d 733 (8th Cir. 2011).

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Related legal case

Miller v. Albright