A Nanty Glo woman was awarded $500,000 in punitive damages last week when a jury found that a state trooper who allegedly used intimidation and threats of arrest to help a private company repossess her car without a court order had violated her rights.
A federal jury in Johnstown awarded the money to plaintiff Angela Hyman on Friday after concluding that the conduct of the defendant, Trooper Bryan Devlin, “involved a reckless, malicious or callous violation” of Hyman’s constitutional rights, court documents indicate.
The jury also awarded Hyman $5,000 in compensatory damages after finding that Devlin “affirmatively” aided or played “a principal or active role in the repossession.”
“This is an important case, not just for Pennsylvanians, but (also) for folks all over the country, and for it to come out of Johnstown is something that’s really special,” Hyman’s lead attorney, Andrew M. Milz, of the Philadelphia-area firm Flitter Milz, P.C., told The Tribune-Democrat on Monday.
In a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Hyman’s attorneys claimed that Devlin “unlawfully assisted” a private repossession company’s seizure of Hyman’s 2014 Toyota Corolla by threatening to break the car’s window, physically remove Hyman’s partner from the car and arrest her for disorderly conduct.
Hyman’s attorneys wrote in the complaint that, “under settled Third Circuit decisions, a uniformed police officer may not assist a private party’s civil repossession absent an order issued by a court.”
“This case exemplifies a custom of the Pennsylvania State Police unlawfully taking the side of the secured party in private civil repossessions effected without a court order,” they wrote. “While our police are expected to keep the peace, they may not sit judgment in their own ‘curbside courtroom’ and aid a bank to effect a non-judicial, self-help repossession.”
Milz argued that “the police overstep their role in our society” when they take sides in a civil dispute.
“They’re there to keep the peace, not to intervene or take sides on one party’s behalf,” he said.
Milz also said he’s looking for the Pennsylvania State Police to change its policies related to civil disputes in the wake of Friday’s verdict. In Hyman’s complaint, her attorneys argued that state troopers “regularly provide assistance to repossession agencies and secured parties” during private, civil, self-help repossessions.
“I think the jury sent a clear message with this verdict that police departments better change their ways,” Milz said.
“I think that these 12 folks from Cambria County and the surrounding counties didn’t look at Ms. Hyman’s differences, but really saw her as an American just like themselves. The rights in the Constitution protect all Americans, and when those rights are violated, the violator must be held accountable.”
The attorney listed in court documents as Devlin’s lead attorney, J. Eric Barchiesi, of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, did not return a call seeking comment Monday. Ryan Tarkowski, communications director for the state police, declined to comment.
Hyman had originally sued a number of defendants in addition to Devlin, including Capital One Auto Finance, which financed the purchase of Hyman’s car; Commonwealth Recovery Group, the repossession company; the Pennsylvania State Police and Col. Tyree C. Blocker, who was its commissioner at the time of the repossession of Hyman’s car; and Trooper Michael Morris and 10 other “John Doe” troopers.
Commonwealth Recovery Group and Capital One Auto Finance settled with Hyman in May 2018, court documents indicate. U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson had previously dismissed Hyman’s claims against the Pennsylvania State Police and against Blocker and the “John Doe” troopers in their individual capacities, and Hyman dropped her claim against Morris in August, court documents indicate.
After Hyman was hospitalized due to an illness in September 2016, she asked Capital One Auto Finance for a deferment on her car payments, according to her complaint. The company took the request into consideration, but then ordered Commonwealth Recovery Group to repossess the car, allegedly without notifying Hyman.
On Oct. 5, 2016, Hyman and her partner, Shyree Johnson, heard a truck pulling up outside their Nanty Glo home and “looked out the window to see a repo man attempting to repossess the Toyota vehicle from Ms. Hyman’s driveway,” according to the complaint. Hyman then went out onto her lawn and told the repo man to get off her property, and Johnson got into the car and closed the door behind her.
The repo man then called the state police, and a number of troopers, including Devlin and Morris, arrived at Hyman’s home.
Hyman’s attorneys maintained that the troopers “knew at the time that neither the lender nor the repo man had a court order or writ for the repossession of the vehicle” – but “rather than instruct the repo man to leave Ms. Hyman’s property … the troopers, state actors all, assisted the repo man in his illegal repossession,” the attorneys wrote.
According to the complaint, Devlin advised Hyman that the repo man had the right to repossess the vehicle – a statement that Hyman’s attorneys characterized as “false and misleading.” The attorneys further said Devlin “used the false statement that the repo man had a right to repossess as a means of intimidating Ms. Hyman into turning over the vehicle.”
After Hyman called her daughter, Makiba, a law student, for help, Devlin told Makiba that he would break the car’s window and arrest Johnson if Johnson didn’t get out of the car, according to the complaint.
“Here’s what(’s) going (to) happen, okay. If she (Johnson) doesn’t get out, we are going to break the window,” Devlin said, according to a transcript of a cellphone video of the conversation included in Hyman’s complaint. “I’m tell(ing) you what’s going to happen. She is going to be removed, she (is) going to be arrested for disorderly conduct and the car is still going to get taken.”
Eventually, Johnson got out of the car, which the repo man then towed away, according to the complaint.