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Brown v. City of Birmingham

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

September 26, 2017

ALEX BROWN, Plaintiff,
CITY OF BIRMINGHAM, a Municipal Corporation, et al., Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Alex Brown, originally filed this matter in the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, asserting claims under both federal and state law against the defendants, Officer Marchello Henry and the City of Birmingham, as well as fictitious parties. (Doc. 1-1). On July 29, 2015, the defendants removed to this court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441 and 1443. (Doc. 1). The parties have unanimously consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (Doc. 6). Presently pending is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 13). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for adjudication. (See Docs. 14-17). For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. FACTS

         Henry has been a police officer with the City of Birmingham for over eight years. (Doc. 14 at 3). Brown is a Birmingham resident. (Id.). This lawsuit arises from events surrounding Henry's apprehension and arrest of Brown on July 20, 2013. (Id. at 4). Henry and his partner were on patrol when Henry noticed the driver of a silver minivan drinking a beer. (Id.). Henry saw passengers in the van, including a man sitting directly behind the driver. (Id.). Henry attempted to perform a traffic stop, but the minivan fled. (Id.). Due to safety concerns, Henry was unable to pursue the minivan directly by cutting across traffic; instead, he turned onto a side street. (Id. at 4-5).

         Henry lost visual contact with the van and drove through the area searching for approximately five minutes. (Doc. 14-2 at 33-34). As Henry continued his search, he saw Brown walking on a sidewalk; Henry thought Brown looked like the passenger who had been sitting behind the driver of the silver minivan. (Doc. 14 at 4-5). Henry attempted to speak with Brown to determine whether he was the occupant of the minivan, but Brown fled on foot. (Id. at 5). Henry turned on his lights and siren, called for back-up, and drove his vehicle in pursuit of Brown. (Id.).

         The chase proceeded down a narrow alley with a width of approximately eight to ten feet. (Doc. 14 at 5; Doc. 14-2 at 45-46). Henry pursued in his vehicle at speeds of between five and fifteen miles per hour until Brown fell down, injuring his left leg. (Doc. 14 at 21; Doc. 14-2 at 45-47). At the location where Brown fell, the width of the alley was further constricted by the presence of a telephone pole. (Doc. 14-2 at 45-46). Henry apprehended, handcuffed, and arrested Brown for disorderly conduct. (Doc. 14 at 5). Paramedics responded to the scene and treated abrasions to Brown's left leg; Henry also transported Brown in his patrol vehicle to a nearby hospital, where Brown refused treatment. (Id. at 5-6). Henry then took Brown to the City Jail; he was released on bond after approximately two to three hours. (Doc. 14-1 at 48). On the evening of his release, Brown sought hospital treatment for his left leg injury. (Id.). Brown was subsequently charged with and, after a jury trial, convicted of disorderly conduct in City of Birmingham v. Alex Deon Brown, No. 2014-002966.00 (Jefferson Cty. Cir. Ct. entered March 23, 2016). (Doc. 14 at 6; Doc. 14-11). Brown did not appeal the conviction.

         There are three principal factual disputes concerning the events leading to Brown's arrest. First, Brown contends that during their initial encounter, Henry was attempting to draw his firearm. (Doc. 16 at 4). Henry denies this. (Doc. 17 at 2). Next, Brown contends the chase ended when Henry hit him with his patrol vehicle and ran over his left leg. (Doc. 16 at 4). Henry denies that his vehicle made any contact with Brown. (Doc. 17 at 2). Finally, Henry contends Brown ran across a busy street and disrupted traffic while attempting to flee. (Doc. 14 at 5). This was the basis of the disorderly conduct charge, but Brown contends Henry charged him with disorderly conduct in order to justify his aggressive tactics, as well as hitting him and running over his leg. (Doc. 16 at 4).

         Based on these facts, Brown asserts claims for negligence and negligent supervision under Alabama law, as well as claims under federal law for excessive force and false arrest, false imprisonment, and unlawful detention. (Doc. 1-1 at 2-4). The complaint names Henry and the City as defendants; Henry is named in both his individual and official capacity.[1] (Doc. 1-1 at 1).


         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To demonstrate there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite "to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). When considering a summary judgment motion, the court must view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Hill v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 510 F.App'x 810, 813 (11th Cir. 2013). "The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3).


         As noted above, Brown asserts claims under both federal and state law against the City and Henry. The claims against each defendant will be addressed in turn. As explained below, the excessive force claim against Henry in his personal capacity will survive summary judgment; all other claims will be dismissed as a matter of law.

         A. Officer Henry

         As to Henry, Brown asserts federal claims for excessive force and false arrest, imprisonment, and detention, as well a state law claim for negligence.[2] The federal claims-and the applicable qualified immunity defenses-will be addressed first, followed by an analysis of the negligence claim and state law immunities. As explained below, under the summary judgment standard: (1) the false arrest claim is barred by qualified immunity; (2) qualified immunity does not preclude the personal capacity claim for excessive force; and (3) Henry is immune from liability on Brown's negligence claim.

         Before turning to the individual claims, it must be noted that Brown's claims naming Henry do so in both his personal and official capacities. "Personal-capacity claims seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions taken under color of state law." Graham v. Kentucky, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985). Meanwhile, official capacity claims "generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Id. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit has recognized that an official capacity suit is in reality a suit against the entity. Id.; Owens v. Fulton County, 877 F.2d 947, 951 n.5 (11th Cir. 1989) ("For liability purposes, a suit against a public official in his official capacity is considered a suit against the local government entity he represents."). Where the complaint names a local government entity as a defendant, the court should dismiss as redundant the official capacity claims against the individual defendant. Busby v. City of Orlando, 931 F.2d 764, 776 (11th Cir. 1991).

         Here, the official capacity claims against Henry are duplicative of the claims against the City. Accordingly, the claims against Henry in his official capacity will be dismissed; only the personal capacity claims against Henry will be considered.

         1. Federal Claims and Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials- including municipal officers-sued in their individual capacities if their conduct "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); see Busby, 931 F.2d at 770. To defeat a qualified immunity defense on summary judgment, a plaintiff must satisfy two requirements: (1) the facts taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff must establish a constitutional violation; and (2) the constitutional violation must infringe on a "clearly established" right. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); see Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002). A plaintiff must satisfy both requirements to defeat an official's assertion of qualified immunity. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). The Supreme Court has held "that government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person should have known." Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818.

         Here, it is undisputed that investigation, pursuit, apprehension, and arrest of criminal suspects are among a municipal police officer's discretionary functions. Brown v. City of Huntsville, 608 F.3d 724, 741 (11th Cir. 2010). Therefore, the court will analyze whether Brown's federal claims against Henry are barred by qualified immunity.

         a. False Arrest, Imprisonment, and Detention

         Brown's claim for false arrest, imprisonment, and detention hinges on his contention that Henry manufactured the disorderly conduct charge to excuse the aggressive tactics he employed to apprehend Brown. Therefore, the central inquiry is whether, at the time of Brown's arrest, Henry had arguable probable cause to believe Brown had committed the offense of disorderly conduct. See Von Stein v. Brescher, 904 F.2d 572, 579 (11th Cir. 1990). Arguable probable cause is present where "a reasonable officer in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as the officer in question could have reasonably believed that probable cause existed in the light of well-established law." Eubanks v. Gerwen, 40 F.3d 1157, 1160 (11th Cir. 1994). The Eleventh Circuit has repeatedly held that arguable probable cause is distinct from actual probable cause. See, e.g., Post v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 7 F.3d 1552, 1559 (11th Cir.1993).

         Alabama law defines disorderly conduct-a Class C misdemeanor-as including the obstruction of "vehicular or pedestrian traffic." Ala. Code. § 13A-11-7(a)(5), (b). Brown contends that, because Henry admits Brown was not subject to arrest when he initially attempted to conduct the investigatory interview, Brown's subsequent apprehension and arrest constitute a false arrest. (Doc. 16 at 12-14). Henry acknowledges that, at the time he first encountered Brown and attempted to speak to him-to investigate the drinking driver of the silver minivan-Brown was not subject to arrest. (Doc. 14-2 at 39-42). However, Henry contends Brown committed the crime of disorderly conduct when he fled across a busy street, causing vehicles to brake and swerve to avoid hitting him. (Id. at 42). Brown's opposition does not explicitly refute Henry's contention that he obstructed traffic when he ran across the road. Accordingly, even accepting the facts in the light most favorable to Brown, it is undisputed that he impeded traffic while fleeing, constituting disorderly conduct under Alabama law. As such, Henry had arguable probable cause to arrest him for that offense. See Brown, 608 F.3d at 735; Gold v. City of Miami, 121 F.3d 1442, 1445-46 (11th Cir. 1997).

         Even if Brown had explicitly contradicted Henry's testimony that he impeded traffic, Brown's subsequent conviction would preclude reconsideration of this factual issue. Brown was convicted of disorderly conduct following a jury trial in Jefferson County Circuit Court. The jury verdict noted Brown was guilty "of Disorderly Conduct as charged in the complaint." (See Doc. 14-11). The complaint, in turn, alleged Brown impeded "the flow of traffic by running in the street. Cars swerved to prevent from hitting" him, in violation of section 13A-11-7 of the Alabama Code. (See Doc. 14-12). Accordingly, the doctrine of issue preclusion limits this court from reconsidering whether Brown committed disorderly conduct and, by extension, whether Henry had arguable probable cause to arrest him for the offense. See Willingham v. Loughnan, 321 F.3d 1299, 1301 (11th Cir. 2003). Specifically, the summary judgment standard notwithstanding, issue preclusion would prevent the court from accepting any assertion that Brown did not impede traffic while fleeing from Henry.

         For the foregoing reasons, Brown had arguable probable cause to arrest Henry for disorderly conduct. Therefore, Brown is entitled to qualified immunity on the claim for false arrest, imprisonment, and detention. See Gold, 121 F.3d at 1445-46; Brown, 608 F.3d at 735.

         b. Ex ...

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