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Soltesz v. Rushmore Plaza Civic Center

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

February 7, 2017

Kyle Soltesz, doing business as Top Dog Enterprises Plaintiff- Appellee
v.
Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, a political subdivision of the City of Rapid City; City of Rapid City, a political subdivision of the State of South Dakota Defendants-Appellants

          Submitted: October 20, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Rapid City

          Before MURPHY, GRUENDER, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          SHEPHERD, Circuit Judge.

         Kyle Soltesz ran a concession stand in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. He sued the Civic Center and the City after his lease was terminated-supposedly without due process-and his property seized. At trial, Soltesz alleged municipal liability premised on the decision of a final policymaker. See Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 482-83 (1986). The district court failed to identify the final policymaker as a matter of state law. Because the Supreme Court demands a district court make such an identification, we reverse and remand.

         I. Background

         Kyle Soltesz operated as a food vendor in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center under a five-year lease agreement. The Civic Center could terminate the agreement at any time with 45 days notice. Soltesz ran his concession stand-Top Dog Pizza-for two years until a video surveillance camera captured him assaulting one of his employees. The video was later viewed by the Civic Center's General Manager, Brian Maliske.

         Maliske then took a series of steps to end the business relationship between Soltesz and the Civic Center. Maliske first called Soltesz into a meeting and confronted him with the video. Maliske next issued Soltesz a "no trespass" warning and then had security escort him out of the building. Soltesz understood the warning to mean that he would be arrested if he returned to the Civic Center. Several days later, the Civic Center's Board of Directors met. The record reveals no evidence whatsoever of what the Board did or did not discuss at its meeting. But shortly after the meeting ended, Soltesz's attorney received a letter signed by Maliske terminating the lease agreement immediately.

         Over the next few months, Soltesz unsuccessfully sought to retrieve his property from the Civic Center and transfer his lease to another food vendor. But the "no trespass" warning remained in effect-he could not return to his concession stand to retrieve any of his property. Eventually two employees were allowed into the Civic Center; by that time, much of the food had spoiled. Soltesz also arranged to sell his business to another pizza vendor, so long as the Civic Center would transfer the lease from Soltesz to the new vendor. The Board rejected this request and shortly thereafter leased out Soltesz's old space.

         Soltesz sued the Civic Center and the City of Rapid City-a municipality and a political subdivision of the State of South Dakota that owns and operates the Civic Center-under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The suit alleged violations of federal and state law. Under federal law, Soltesz claimed a deprivation of his constitutional rights by the municipality. Specifically, he alleged that terminating the lease without the mandated 45 days notice violated the due process protections of the Fourteenth Amendment and that keeping his property locked in the concession stand was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Under state law, Soltesz claimed breach of the lease, conversion, and tortious interference with business relationships. The Civic Center counter-claimed for breach of contract, failure to restore premises, fraud and deceit, and rescission.

         Soltesz brought his federal claims under the Pembaur theory of municipal liability: a decision of an official responsible for establishing final policy attaches liability to the municipality. See Pembaur, 475 U.S. at 483. The case was tried to a jury. After Soltesz presented his case, the Civic Center moved for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), arguing that Soltesz had failed to establish the identity of the final policymaker for the municipality in regards to his lease. The district court denied the motion and allowed the case to proceed. At the close of the Civic Center's case, the Civic Center again moved for JMOL, asserting that "the issue of who the final policy decision-maker is is a legal issue for the Court [to determine]." The district court again denied the motion, stating, "It's a fact issue, not a legal one. And I am not going to instruct the jury on who the person acting under color of law is." Indeed, the district court did not instruct the jury as to the identity of the official responsible for establishing final policy for the municipality. The jury ultimately found in favor of Soltesz on all of his claims.

         The Civic Center raised the final-policymaker issue a third time in its renewed motion for JMOL following entry of judgment. The Center argued that state law designated the Board as the final policymaker and that Soltesz had failed to present evidence showing the Board had violated his constitutional rights. The district court once again denied the motion. In its order, the court ruled that sufficient evidence was presented at "trial from which the jury could conclude that Mr. Maliske was the final policymaker for the Rushmore Civic Center." The court also suggested that the Civic Center's Board of Directors both ratified Maliske's decisions and delegated authority to him. In a footnote, the court alternatively held that, as a matter of law, "Maliske was the final decision-maker for the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and the City of Rapid City with regard to their relationship with Mr. Soltesz." In a separate order, the district court granted Soltesz's motion for attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988(b). The Civic Center appeals the district court's denial of its renewed motion for JMOL and the award of attorneys' fees.

         II. Discussion

         "We review the denial of a motion for a judgment as a matter of law de novo, and we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict." Bonenberger v. St. Louis Metro. Police Dep't, 810 F.3d 1103, 1107 (8th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). JMOL "is appropriate when 'a party has been fully heard on an issue during a jury trial and the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.'" Duban v. Waverly Sales Co., 760 F.3d 832, 835 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1)). "[I]n reviewing a jury verdict, we draw every ...


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