SDNY: no qualified immunity for police officer who picked up and threw non-threatening plaintiff to the ground

Gomez v. Village of Sleepy Hollow, 2011 WL 2652439 (SDNY July 6, 2011):

Facts / Procedure

After allegedly seeing her husband being assaulted by several members of the police and repeated, unsuccessful attempts to seek police help, plaintiff grabbed the arm of one officer (Quinoy) and demanded that he stop.  In response, Quinoy “picked her up and threw her against her car and to the ground”.  After returning to the police station from the hospital Quinoy arrested plaintiff.

Plaintiff sued, alleging various constitutional torts against several individual defendants (including Quinoy) in their individual and official capacities, including excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.  Plaintiff also asserted Monell claims against the Village of Sleepy Hollow for failure to train, conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, assault and negligence.

The court, having converted the individual defendants’ FRCP 12(c) motion (based on qualified immunity) to one for summary judgment, granted each defendant’s motion, except for Quinoy’s.

Qualified Immunity

The court explained the doctrine of qualified immunity as follows:

[Q]ualified immunity shields officials from civil damages liability as long as their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated. … [It] is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; therefore, it protects officials from the burdens of litigation for the choices that they make in the course of their duties.  … [T]he defense of qualified immunity is available only to an official sued in his individual or personal capacity, and not to an official sued in his official capacity.

A court required to rule upon the qualified immunity issue must consider . . . this threshold question:  Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right?  … [I]f a violation could be established on a favorable view of the parties’ submissions, the next step is to ask whether the right was clearly established.  … A government actor performing a discretionary task will be entitled to qualified immunity if either (a) his action did not violate clearly established law, or (b) it was objectively reasonable for him to believe that his action did not violate such law.

Fourth Amendment – Excessive Force

The court held that Officer Quinoy was not entitled to qualified immunity.  The rights at issue derived from the Fourth Amendment, which

prohibits the use of excessive force by a police officer in the course of effecting an arrest. … Because the Fourth Amendment test for excessive force is a test of reasonableness, the inquiry is necessarily case and fact specific and requires balancing the nature and quality of the intrusion on the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. …

In conducting that balancing, the Court must consider at least three factors: (1) the nature and severity of the crime leading to the arrest; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others; and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. …

The Court must evaluate the record from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and must make allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.  … The relevant inquiry for the excessive force claim is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. … As the Supreme Court has stated, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.

Officers enjoy qualified immunity on a false arrest claim if it was objectively reasonable for [them] to believe that probable cause existed or if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable cause test was met.

Applying this standard and balancing the above 3 factors, the court held that “any reasonable officer placed in Officer Quinoy’s shoes would have recognized that Officer Quinoy’s actions were unlawful”:

Although the plaintiff admits to holding Officer Quinoy’s arm while trying to convince him to stop his hitting her husband, picking up the plaintiff and throwing her was unjustified and unreasonable. There is no indication from the facts presented that [plaintiff] posed any threat to officer safety, nor is there any justification for her arrest. Under objective standards of reasonableness, this Court finds that Officer Quinoy’s use of force was excessive, it was objectively unreasonable to believe that probable cause existed for the plaintiff’s arrest, and that he violated clearly established law.

Supervisory Liability

Plaintiff’s “supervisory liability” claim against the police chief failed, because plaintiff could not demonstrate his “personal involvement” in the alleged constitutional deprivation.  In particular she did not show that (1) he personally participated in the alleged constitutional violation, (2) he was grossly negligent in supervising subordinates who committed the wrongful acts, or (3) he exhibited deliberate indifference to the rights of the plaintiff by failing to act on information indicating that unconstitutional acts were occurring.  In addition, plaintiff acknowledged that he was not present during the incident and did not touch either her or her husband.

Police Failure to Intercede

Plaintiff’s “failure to intercede” claim against another police member who allegedly ignored her were also dismissed on qualified immunity grounds.  The law:

To obtain summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds in connection with a claim of failure to intercede, a defendant must show that the only result a fair jury could reach is that reasonably competent police officers, faced with the information available to the non-intervening officer at the time of the arrest, could disagree about the legality of the arrest.

Here, “reasonable officers in [his] position could disagree about the legality of the actions of the other officers.”  He was not present when plaintiff’s husband was being assaulted, and the only information he had regarding the assault came from plaintiff when she allegedly sought help inside the police station.  There was no evidence that he was “aware of the events leading up to [plaintiff’s husband’s] arrest or the specifics of what was happening outside the police station”.  In addition, plaintiff admitted that she did not know this defendant and had never heard of him.  It was, therefore, “not objectively unreasonable for [him] to refuse to intercede”, given that he “had no way of knowing whether his fellow officers were violating [plaintiff’s husband’s] constitutional rights”.  Thus, his “refusal to answer the plaintiff’s requests for help do not amount to a violation of her constitutional rights, so he is entitled to qualified immunity.”

Inadequate Police Report

A third police defendant, accused of violating plaintiff’s rights by creating an “inadequate report” of the incident, was likewise entitled to qualified immunity.  Plaintiff admitted that she did not know him, that he never touched her, and that she was advised by her attorney not to speak with him about the investigation.

Police Failure to Intercede – Probable Cause

Plaintiff’s “failure to intercede” claim against two additional officers also failed, since reasonably competent officers, faced with the information available to them at the time of plaintiff’s husband’s arrest, could disagree about the legality of the arrest.  In particular, probable cause to arrest plaintiff’s husband was established by plaintiff’s deposition statements detailing her husband’s resistance to (holding onto and wrestling with Officer Quinoy) and her interference with (holding Officer Quinoy’s shirt) the arrest, which justified the officers’ refusal to intervene.  Plaintiff’s claims that these officers used a taser on her husband were insufficient, as she admitted that they never touched her and was based only on the “emotional impact that the events of that night have had on her”.

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