Arrestee overcomes summary judgment on excessive force, assault claims

Bradley v. Town of Cheektowaga et al., 2011 WL 2713486 (WDNY July 13, 2011):

Following his arrest (during which plaintiff claimed he was beaten by the arresting officers, handcuffed, and subjected to pepper spray), plaintiff sued individual police officers and the Town of Cheektowaga, alleging excessive force, denial of medical treatment, malicious prosecution, false arrest, assault, and negligence.  Plaintiff defeated summary judgment on the issues of excessive force, assault, and qualified immunity; his remaining claims were rejected.

As to plaintiff’s excessive force claim (based on the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against “unreasonable … seizures”), the substantial differences between plaintiff’s and the officers’ accounts of the altercation ensuing from plaintiff’s arrest raised summary judgment-defeating questions of fact.  Plaintiff argued that he was “tackled to the ground, kicked and punched throughout his body, and pepper-sprayed without provocation”.  This was supported by objective medical evidence, including a diagnosis of a broken rib one day after the incident, surgery eight days after the incident, and continued complaints of pain and restrictive movement.

Plaintiff’s account of the incident – that each of the involved officers kicked, punched, and beat him – could have been credited by a reasonable jury, thus preserving his state-law assault claim for trial.  This was notwithstanding several officers’ contention that the use of force was justified by N.Y. Penal Law 35.30 and another’s that no force was used at all.

The court rejected plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim against the town because he failed to present any evidence of a “single municipal policy or custom that caused his injuries” or that the town “failed to train its officers adequately.”

Plaintiff’s denial of medical care claim likewise failed.  First, no reasonable jury could find that defendants “knew of and disregarded an excessive risk” (emphasis in original) to plaintiff’s safety or health; plaintiff was taken to the hospital a few hours after being placed in custody where he was “examined and released without a diagnosis of any serious injury.”  Second, plaintiff could not say which, if any, of the defendants were “deliberately indifferent” to his alleged complaints, having admitted that he did not know if there was a guard near his cell where he allegedly requested medical treatment.  Third, plaintiff failed to identify “any policy or custom that resulted in the denial of adequate medical care”, dooming his claims against the town and the police department.

Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim failed in light of his acceptance of a plea deal (thus negating the “termination in plaintiff’s favor” element of that claim); his false arrest claim was precluded by his conviction (which operates as “conclusive evidence that probable cause existed for arrest”); and his negligence claim failed in light of his election to proceed on an intentional tort (assault) theory.

Finally, the court held that defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.  “Freedom from the use of excessive force is a clearly established right”, and unresolved issues of material fact existed regarding the objective reasonableness of defendants’ belief that their conduct did not violate Plaintiff’s rights.

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