Fourth Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict, Denies Qualified Immunity, in Bivens Action Against United States Park Police Officers

On March 29, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a $730,000 jury verdict in favor of Nathaniel Hicks, a Black Secret Service agent who was illegally seized on the side of the road by two United States Park Police officers while he was at work and on protective duty. The panel affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny the officers’ qualified immunity defense, found that the Bivens claim remained cognizable, and upheld the jury’s compensatory and punitive damages award.

Relman Colfax represents Nathaniel Hicks, who sued U.S. Park Police Officers Gerald Ferreyra and Brian Phillips for violations of his clearly established Fourth Amendment rights. On the morning of July 11, 2015, Ferreyra and Phillips seized Hicks while he waited to assume his position in a Secret Service motorcade. The officers continued to detain Hicks without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, cursed and taunted him, and prevented him from joining the motorcade. Hicks was eventually released from the scene but was detained a second time by Phillips minutes after he drove away. Hicks brought a claims against Ferreyra and Phillips as federal law enforcement officers as authorized by Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971).

On July 9, 2021, a federal jury found that Ferreyra and Phillips had violated Agent Hicks’ constitutional rights and returned a fully favorable verdict for Agent Hicks. It awarded Hicks $80,000 in compensatory damages against Ferreyra and $125,000 in compensatory damages against Phillips. It also awarded $225,000 in punitive damages against Ferreyra and $300,000 in punitive damages against Phillips. Ferreyra and Phillips filed post-trial motions, but on January 28, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Paul W. Grimm denied their motions. Ferreyra and Phillips then appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Barbara Milano Keenan affirmed the district court’s decision in its entirety. The Court found that Ferreyra and Phillips were not entitled to qualified immunity. Pointing to the jury’s special interrogatories, which included a finding that the totality of Ferrerya and Phillips’s actions during the seizures were unreasonable, the Court held that the officers violated Hicks’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Court also found that these rights were clearly established when the seizures occurred. It held that it was clearly established that, “after a lawfully initiated traffic stop, an officer could continue to detain an individual . . . after the officer's suspicion of a possible crime had been resolved in the detainee's favor and the officer lacked any new basis to justify the detention.”

The Court also held that Hicks’s claim did not present a “new Bivens context” because, like in Bivens, Hicks suffered a Fourth Amendment violation involving a warrantless seizure by line-level officers performing routine actions. It rejected the officers’ arguments that the facts departed from Bivens, including that the case involved an inter-agency dispute and that the detention occurred in a car and not a home. It concluded, “the present case involves not an extension of Bivens so much as a replay.”

Finally, the Court upheld the jury’s $730,000 compensatory and punitive damages verdict. It noted that Hicks experienced enormous emotional distress during and following the two seizures, particularly “being a solitary Black male confronted by White officers and not knowing what might happen during the encounter.” The Court found that the punitive damages award was not constitutionally excessive, explaining that the district court found that the officers detained Hicks “unnecessarily and deliberately” and demonstrated “spiteful, harassing behavior.”

Yiyang Wu argued the appeal before the Fourth Circuit. The Relman team for the appeal also included Gemma Donofrio and paralegal Mariana Boully Perez. Click here to review the Fourth Circuit opinion. Coverage of the case by the Washington Post can be found here.

Case Caption

Hicks v. Ferreyra, No. 8:16-cv-2521 (D. Md.)

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