Second Circuit Affirms Black Man’s Claim in ‘Sidewalk Rage’ Case

Below is a copy of an article written by Nick Rummel for Courthouse News Service.

NICK RUMMEL April 17, 2018

MANHATTAN (CN) — In a case of “sidewalk rage” from — where else? Midtown Manhattan — the Second Circuit affirmed that video surveillance showed a woman lied when she told police that a man assaulted her as they walked on a busy sidewalk.

Initially a case of “he said, she said,” video footage showed an angry woman attacked a man while the two navigated crowded Manhattan sidewalks on the way to work — not the other way around, as she had told police, the Second Circuit ruled last Friday.

The sidewalk rage case sprang from the November 2013 arrest of Scott Wright, who was charged with assaulting Jacqueline Musanti as they both walked to work in Midtown.

Musanti — described in court documents as a “medium-sized woman” — told police that Wright —a “slightly built man” — had cut in front of her during rush hour.

But video footage shown at the trial showed Musanti kicking at Wright’s legs and blocking the path to his office on West 39th Street after he had accidentally stepped on her heel.

According to Wright, he asked her: “Did you really just kick me?” to which Musanti said yes and threatened to do so again.

Wright then lightly pushed Musanti out of his way and she began kicking, hitting and scratching him, eventually pinning him against the building, court documents state.

Wright then grabbed her collar and pulled her to the ground, and a nearby security officer separated the two. Wright left the scene and entered his building, though Musanti again tried to block his path, the footage showed.

By 9:15 that morning police officers arrived and after questioning Musanti and bystanders they arrested Wright. They escorted him out of his office in handcuffs and through the building’s lobby.

Musanti pressed charges against Wright, claiming she had felt under attack after he cut in front of her on the sidewalk.

Wright was charged with two counts of assault, one count of harassment and other charges, though the charges were dismissed after Musanti repeatedly failed to appear as a witness. Musanti has since moved to Tennessee.

In 2014 Wright sued Musanti and the arresting officer, claiming Musanti lied about the incident and that police had reflexively believed her because she is white and he is black.

The truth emerged when the surveillance footage showed that Musanti had started the fight and attacked Wright.

A federal judge dismissed the claim against the police officer, but let stand state claims of false arrest, assault and battery against Musanti. The false arrest claim eventually was dismissed too, for lack of evidence on how the arrest was initiated.

During the bench trial, however, the judge revisited the false arrest claim, finding after cross-examination of Musanti that she was “excitable, impulsive and defensive,” while Wright was calm and credible.

And the court found that the surveillance video contracted Musanti’s account

Wright was awarded $15,001 in compensatory and punitive damages, including $1 for the assault and battery charges.

Musanti appealed, claiming that the federal court did not have jurisdiction since it had dismissed the federal claim, leaving only state claims, and that the court erred when it backtracked on its initial ruling dismissing the false arrest claim.

She also said the court wrongfully failed to allow her to call a witness via Skype or telephone, or to hire a lawyer per diem to take the witness’s deposition.

But the Second Circuit panel found Musanti gave police false information by failing to tell them she had started the fight, and induced police to arrest Wright: supporting the false arrest claims and the $10,000 in punitive damages.

“Once the court found that Musanti had deliberately battered a stranger and then made false statements to the police, resulting in said stranger’s arrest — findings that were sufficiently supported by the evidence — it was well within the court’s discretion to find that conduct amply egregious to merit punitive damages,” Second Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the unanimous panel.

Musanti, who represented herself at trial, had not properly preserved or objected to various claims, nor had she filed a motion for a new trial, the panel found.

It also found that Musanti presented no reason to allow Skype or telephonic testimony, and never sought to depose the witness.

The panel found that New York City was the proper venue, even though Musanti has moved to Tennessee, because both parties were citizens of New York during the altercation and when the complaint was filed. And it would be a waste of state resources to require Wright to refile his complaint in state court.

Steven Warshawsky, who represents Wright, said his client is “very satisfied” with the ruling.

Musanti could not be reached for comment.

Can a black man just walk to work in peace?

Everyone who lives in New York City knows to expect a fast-paced, crowded, and stressful commute in Manhattan.  It is the cost of living in New York City. Here a stressful commute is as common as pizza parlors, packed subway cars, and hearing sirens all day and night. Walking down the streets of Manhattan during rush hour you need the agility of a dancer to gracefully weave through the crowd and must expect to get bumped, pushed, or have someone abruptly cross your path. If you don’t believe me try to navigate through Penn Station during rush hour.

I can recall the morning of November 21, 2013 like it was yesterday. That day replays in my head over and over like a weird dream. It was a cool crisp autumn day and it was just starting to get really cold in the mornings. I awoke that day in a good mood as it was my brother’s birthday and I was looking forward to speaking to him later in the day.  Also, Thanksgiving was a week away and I always get excited because I get to spend time with family and actually have a chance for a home cooked meal. I got dressed in a pair of gray slacks, plaid shirt, casual shoes, and looked like any other man going to work in an office in Manhattan.

On that morning, I was walking to my job in Midtown Manhattan during the rush hour, when I unintentionally walked in front of a woman. She was of average height and she was wearing blue jeans, green jacket, shades, and boots. She had dark brown stringy hair and I estimate her to be in her 30s. Now had I known that I mistakenly walked in front of this woman, I would have apologized immediately. However, I never got a chance to apologize because her immediate response was to begin kicking me in my legs. In shock, I turned around and asked her “Did you really just kick me?”. She responded that she did and that she would f****ing do it again. Not interested in engaging in a verbal argument, I walked away as the entrance to my office building was only a few feet away. This woman continued to spew expletives at me and maneuvered herself to block my path into my office building by standing in the doorway. Lightly, I pushed passed her so I could enter into the building and it was evident that she was not going to move. At this point, I simply wanted to go to work and get away from this insanity.

The woman then goes ballistic and began hitting, kicking, and scratching me in my face, legs, and groin. Once again, I am not interested in putting my hands on anyone especially a woman, I sought to defuse the situation by grabbing the collar of her green jacket and bringing her to the ground. Besides, her attack was surprisingly sudden and she had me pinned against the building. I felt this was the best maneuver to ensure she does not get hurt and allows me to get away from her hitting me. The security officer, John, from my office building who is much larger than me came out and placed me in a bear hug I assume in attempt to separate us. While my arms pinned to my side because I was in a bear hug, she jumps back up and continues kicking, hitting, and scratching me while I was unable to defend myself because John had me in a bear hug. I told him, “I am not interested in fighting” and he responded, “I know.” So, this is what bystanders see… a middle-aged black man being held by a security guard, and a distraught woman attempting to rip his eyes out from his face. Did I mention I was right in front of my job? Obviously, she did not care, but the last thing I want is to get into an altercation with anyone right out front of my job and jeopardize my employment. Finally, John releases me and I looked around and knew that I had to get to safety because there was a crowd of faces, unlike the color of mine, looking as if they wanted to lynch me on the spot.

I entered my office building to get away from the situation and to get to the safety of my office. I get upstairs to the 6th floor and go straight to the bathroom to clean off the blood on my face from her scratching me. I walked into my office and panicky related to my co-worker what just transpired. Within minutes, seven to nine New York City Police Officers from the Midtown South Precinct entered the office to arrest me in front of my co-worker. Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to be arrested in your office at your desk?  As the officer was placing handcuffs on me, I asked him several times can I press charges against her and was repeatedly told that I cannot press charges against her. Each time I asked why, dismissively their response was “because you can’t.” They seemed to care less about what I had to say about the situation. Please note, the whole time I was speaking with the officers I was respectful, measured, and calm because being disrespectful and excitable would not help my situation. One of the officers finally asked did she hit me, and I responded that she did. He responded condescendingly that he gets hit on the job all the time as to imply it was okay for her to hit me. The officers then proceeded to parade me through the lobby in front of my co-workers, colleagues, and clients all while tourists passing by are taking pictures of me in handcuffs as if the officers just arrested some notorious gangster.

I had to sit in a patrol car for forty-five minutes, with my hands handcuffed behind my back, while they conducted their investigation. From the car window, I can see the officers talking with the “victim” as if they were all old friends. It still sickens me today to think about it. Afterwards, I was driven to the Midtown South Precinct where I was placed in a cell for several hours. Sitting there alone in the cell, I was dazed and confused as I did not understand why I am in a cell and this woman was free to go about her day. Retrospectively, in my unprofessional legal opinion this was an example of selective prosecution. The officers felt this woman’s words held more validity than mine. It did not matter that I volunteered for the USO, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, Fortune Society, Special Olympics, and other volunteer organizations in the past. It did not matter that I served in the Marine Corps during the Gulf War. It did not matter that I graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Finance. All they saw was a black man who had to be guilty, why? Because this woman cried that she was attacked by this evil 5”7’ 160 lbs. man in grey slacks, shirt tucked in, and dress shoes. After being finger printed and processed, I was released on my own recognizance and issued a DAT (Desk Appearance Ticket).

A month and a half later after the incident, on the date of my first court appearance, I came alone because once again I did not want to worry anyone. During the proceedings, I was ordered to sign an order of protection requested by the woman to protect her from me. I refused to sign the document because I knew I never did anything wrong. In my mind, signing that document was akin to admitting guilt. The judge was enraged and vowed to have me arrested and thrown in jail if I ever get in trouble again. At this point, I knew I was going to fight these charges no matter what. Little did I know, at that time, what this would entail.

I looked on the internet for a criminal attorney to represent me but all of them wanted me to plead guilty, for monetary/selfish reasons and then move on to the next case. I knew that if I plead guilty to an assault charge I would never be able to recover. Finally, I confided my situation to my neighbor who is a lawyer herself. She told me that she could not represent me because of her current position within the court system but was able to point me in the right direction and introduced me to a criminal attorney named Royce Russell. Royce immediately understood and agreed that I should fight these charges. He was not trying to convince me to plead guilty but was truly interested in justice for me unlike other criminal attorneys.

The next several months, he and I went back and forth to court. Now, because the woman never showed up in court as scheduled my court dates kept getting pushed back. This was especially problematic because during this time I lost my job and was unable to get another job with pending assault charges. In fact, I lost several job offers due to these pending assault charges. What company wants to hire someone facing time for assault? This caused significant strain on my finances. I started to deal with depression, anger, loneliness, distrust, and fear of crowds which persist to this day. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid crowds. I take lunch every day at 11:30 a.m. in the morning to avoid the lunch hour rush. I rarely attend large outdoor concerts that I use to love so much because fear that something similar will transpire. I strongly believe that if I so much as touch, let alone bump, into a Caucasian person and their rage warrants a call to the police, I will be arrested immediately. Sounds crazy, but not so crazy when it has happened in your past.

My criminal lawyer and I were able to subpoena a video from one of the cameras on the street that shows her kicking me and clearly being the aggressor in the case. I truly thought once we submitted this to the ADA (Assistant District Attorney) she would drop the charges against me and charge the woman with battery, assault, and false arrest. To my amazement, the results were the ADA still wanted me to plead guilty but would reduce the penalty if I took a plea. Is this what justice looks like? Is the DA’s office more interested in winning a case than seeking justice? Is this why the Central Park Five, Kalief Browder, and hundreds of others lesser known cases never receive justice? Once again, I felt the system was more than willing to prosecute me on just her words but was willing to look the other way when presented with evidence that she falsely accused me when I was, in fact, the victim in this case, in more ways than one. Once again, another example of selective prosecution. For me, going back and forth to criminal court I felt like I was in the bowels of a slave ship because all I saw were black and brown somber faces enduring the system. The few white faces that appeared in court were treated differently. I can recall one white woman appearing before the judge started crying in court and I watched the court officers quickly walk over to console her with tissues.

Finally, the ADA had to drop the charges after several months of going back and forth because the woman would never show up to court. Later, she stated the ADA told her she did not have to show up for court. Now that I was somewhat cleared in criminal court (arrest remains on file in NYC), I now began the next stage in my journey to clear my name. I decided that I was going to sue her, not for monetary gain, but to have her conduct documented. I was concerned that she would do this to someone else who was not able to fight back against the legal system, and by doing this she could no longer get away if the case is won. I could not stop thinking what if her next victim is a 21-year-old kid who recently graduated college and was looking forward to making a positive impact on our country but had it all ruined because she feels that she should have him/her arrested for whatever offended her. I cannot allow this to happen, not on my watch.

I was blessed to be introduced to Messrs. Steven Warshawsky and Tomasz Piotrowski by a mutual friend. They are more than just attorneys, they are good friends who are concerned about the welfare and well-being of their clients and the community overall.  In the civil case, the woman revealed that she told the police that I savagely attacked her. That I pulled her hair out from the roots, caused her to bang her head on the concrete, and other injuries that caused her to bleed. Please note, on the day of the altercation, there was no visible evidence she had any bumps, bruises, cuts, abrasions, scrapes, or bleeding from any parts on her body. There are no reports of her requiring or requesting medical attention from the police officers on the scene despite this alleged vicious attack. She informed the police that I initiated the confrontation and that she only acted in self-defense. However, she failed to inform the police officers that she was the aggressor and kicked me.

During the trial, she tried to imply that she was incapable of violence because she suffers from vasovagal syncope where one can faint simply from the sight of blood. During the trial, my attorney, Steven Warshawsky, asked her how come she did not pass out when she saw the blood from the savage beating she claimed she endured. She responded that since she was able to cover the blood up with her hand she was able to prevent herself from fainting. I do not have medical background, but I do not think that is possible if she actually does have the disorder which is questionable.

Although it was agreed in a pre-trial meeting with the judge that my past was irrelevant, the first thing she tried to mention during the trial was my past from 27 years ago when I got in trouble with the law for larceny. I don’t hide from my past and take full responsibility for my actions, but I have no record of ever committing a violent act against anyone. Also, it was not relevant in this case. She wanted so badly to paint me in a negative light so she can justify her attacking me.

Long story shortened and almost with a ‘happier’ ending, the woman was found liable in federal court of assault, battery, and false arrest. She appealed the decision (once again she failed to show up for court) but lost the appeal, as well. Basically, four federally appointed judges agreed that she was guilty of the aforementioned charges.  Currently, we are waiting to see if she will pay the judgement. She is currently unemployed and lives with her husband who is a music industry executive.

The reason I am sharing my story is that I want to demonstrate the inequities of our judicial system. One day I am a middle-aged man simply walking to work, and the next I am being attacked and falsely accused of a heinous crime. In our past, white women falsely claiming black men of attacking them has had fatal consequences. Examples are Tulsa Race Riots (300 killed), Scottsboro Boys (Nine young men unjustly prosecuted), Rosewood Massacre (8 killed) and Emmet Till (Brutally murdered) to name a few. I take this woman’s dishonest claims very seriously which could have led to dangerous consequences for me. It is my responsibility to take action to ensure she does not repeat this behavior.  Please note, I am in no way, shape, or form trying to compare my situation to any of the aforementioned events.

It has been five years, and I have spent $20,000 in cash, lost job opportunities, lost a sense of safety, and lost several friends in the process. Proverbs 22:1 reads “a good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Although fighting back against the system may seem to be costly, it really was worth it because I value my name. Whenever you can, fight back against an unjust system. Whenever you can, standup for others when you see injustice. Whenever you can, and however you can support those who are fighting for what is right. There are many of us who cannot afford to fight back against the system. They need people like you to standup and say “I got your back”. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Where are you going to stand during time of great moral conflict? I urge and encourage you to share this story. If it benefits at least one person then my mission is complete.

Please see the following links for more detailed information regarding the actual trial: