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Simmons v. Bradshaw

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

January 10, 2018

EVETT L. SIMMONS, in her capacity as Guardian of the Property of Dontrell Stephens, Interested Party - Appellant Cross Appellee,
v.
RIC BRADSHAW, Sheriff of Palm Beach County, Florida, ADAMS LIN, Deputy Sheriff, individually, Defendants-Appellees Cross Appellants, DONTRELL STEPHENS, Plaintiff - Appellant Cross Appellee, PALM BEACH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, Defendant.

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 9:14-cv-80425-BSS

          Before TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, [*] District Judge.

          ROBRENO, District Judge:

         Dontrell Stephens was shot four times by Deputy Sheriff Adams Lin during an encounter in West Palm Beach, Florida, on September 13, 2013. As a result, Stephens now suffers from permanent paralysis.

         In an action brought against Deputy Lin as an individual and Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in his official capacity as the sheriff of Palm Beach County, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sheriff Bradshaw on the claim against him for Monell liability. Following a trial that lasted from January 25, 2016, until February 4, 2016, a jury awarded Stephens damages totaling $23, 148, 100.

         The parties have cross appealed the district court's rulings on various motions decided both before and after the trial. We affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Sheriff Bradshaw on the Monell claim brought against him, but we remand for a new trial upon finding that an erroneous jury instruction deprived Deputy Lin of the opportunity to have his claimed defense of qualified immunity considered by the district court.

         I.

         Most of the facts giving rise to this case are hotly disputed. The parties agree that, on September 13, 2013, shortly after 8:00 a.m., Deputy Lin, who was on police duty monitoring traffic during school bus pickups, observed Stephens, who was then twenty years old, riding his bike on the wrong side of a road in Palm Beach County, Florida. Deputy Lin then decided to stop Stephens, for reasons that the parties dispute. Stephens claims that, prior to this stop, he was holding a cellphone to his ear while riding his bicycle. Deputy Lin claims that he never saw the cellphone, and believed instead that Stephens' hands were empty.

         Upon hearing the sirens of Deputy Lin's patrol car, Stephens dismounted from his bicycle. Deputy Lin then instructed Stephens to walk toward him while showing his hands. According to Deputy Lin, Stephens turned away from Deputy Lin as he began walking toward him. As soon as Stephens turned away, Deputy Lin shot him four times. Stephens was rendered a paraplegic by his injuries.

         Stephens' lawsuit against Deputy Lin and Sheriff Bradshaw arrived at the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida in the spring of 2014 after removal from state court.[1] Stephens' six-count amended complaint in federal court alleged various violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, including an excessive force claim against Deputy Lin and a Monell liability claim against Sheriff Bradshaw.

         After discovery was complete, Stephens and each defendant filed separate motions for summary judgment. The district court heard oral argument on all three summary judgment motions, and at that hearing, Stephens agreed to dismiss two of his state law claims against Sheriff Bradshaw. The district court then granted summary judgment in favor of Deputy Lin as to the constitutionality of the stop, and additionally granted summary judgment in favor of Sheriff Bradshaw as to the entire Monell claim against him. The summary judgment motions were denied in all other respects. See Simmons v. Bradshaw, No. 14-80425, 2014 WL 11456548, at *1 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 31, 2014).

         Following the district court's denial of summary judgment on grounds of qualified immunity, Deputy Lin filed a timely notice of interlocutory appeal. A panel of this Court affirmed, agreeing with the district court that a reasonable jury could find that Deputy Lin violated Stephens' clearly established constitutional rights by employing excessive force, and further that the allegedly violated right was clearly established by governing case law. See Stephens v. Lin, 612 Fed.Appx. 581, 582 (11th Cir. 2015) (per curiam).

         On remand, Stephens sought reconsideration of the interlocutory Monell ruling. In support of his motion for reconsideration, Stephens attached as evidence deposition testimony and expert reports from several other excessive force lawsuits brought against the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office ("PBSO") and its officers. Although the district court held a lengthy hearing on the motion for reconsideration, it ultimately denied the motion without written explanation.

         On January 25, 2016, the matter proceeded to trial on the two counts that remained: a § 1983 excessive force claim against Deputy Lin, and a state law battery claim against Sheriff Bradshaw.[2] On February 3, 2016, the jury returned its verdict, finding that "Adams Lin's intentional use of force against Dontrell Stephens was excessive or unreasonable." The jury also found that Stephens suffered severe and permanent injuries as a result of Deputy Lin's use of force, and it awarded damages totaling $23, 148, 100.

         Pursuant to the jury's verdict, the Court entered final judgment for Stephens and against Deputy Lin and Sheriff Bradshaw, jointly and severally, in the amount of $22, 431, 892.05. Each of the parties timely filed a notice of appeal. Stephens challenges the pre-trial grant of summary judgment dismissing Stephens' multifaceted Monell claim against Sheriff Bradshaw. Deputy Lin challenges the post-trial denial of his motion for a new trial based on two particular jury instructions he contends were erroneous, including one pertaining to his claimed defense of qualified immunity.[3]

         II.

         Rule 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a court to grant a new trial "on all or some of the issues." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a). A motion for a new trial may be brought on "various grounds, including[] erroneous jury instructions." Tierney v. Black Bros. Co., 852 F.Supp. 994, 1003 (M.D. Fla. 1994) (citing Stuckey v. N. Propane Gas Co., 874 F.2d 1563, 1571 (11th Cir. 1989)).

         "Motions for new trial on the basis of erroneous and prejudicial jury instructions are within the district court's discretion and are reviewed for abuse of discretion." Gowski v. Peake, 682 F.3d 1299, 1310 (11th Cir. 2012) (citing Pate v. Seaboard R.R., Inc., 819 F.2d 1074, 1077 (11th Cir. 1987)). To determine whether the court below abused its discretion, "we examine the challenged instructions as part of the entire charge, in light of the allegations of the complaint, the evidence presented, and the arguments of counsel, to determine whether the jury was misled and whether the jury understood the issues." Pate, 819 F.2d at 1077.

         In conducting this examination, we review jury instructions de novo "to determine whether they misstate the law or mislead the jury." Conroy v. Abraham Chevrolet-Tampa, Inc., 375 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2004) (quoting Palmer v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 208 F.3d 969, 973 (11th Cir. 2000)). If the instructions do not accurately reflect the law and "do not correctly instruct the jury so that we are 'left with a substantial and ineradicable doubt as to whether the jury was properly guided in its deliberations, '" then "we will reverse and order a new trial." Broaddus v. Fla. Power Corp., 145 F.3d 1283, 1288 (11th Cir. 1998) (quoting Carter v. DecisionOne Corp., 122 F.3d 997, 1005 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the court below. See Southern Waste Sys., LLC v. City of Delray Beach, 420 F.3d 1288, 1290 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing Pennington v. City of Huntsville, 261 F.3d 1262, 1265 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         III.

         A government official faced with a civil rights claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is entitled to raise the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity generally shields government officials from liability for civil damages "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Recognition of qualified immunity "reflect[s] an attempt to balance competing values: not only the importance of a damages remedy to protect the rights of citizens, but also 'the need to protect officials who are required to exercise their discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority.'" Id. at 807 (citation omitted) (quoting Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 506 (1978)).

         Qualified immunity is "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; and like an absolute immunity, it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985); Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991) (per curiam) ("Immunity ordinarily should be decided by the court long before trial."); see also Johnson v. Breeden, 280 F.3d 1308, 1317 (11th Cir. 2002) ("Because of the purpose served by the doctrine of qualified immunity, a valid defense based upon it must be recognized as soon as possible, preferably at the motion to dismiss or summary judgment stage of the litigation."). It "follows from the recognition that qualified immunity is in part an entitlement not to be forced to litigate the consequences of official conduct" that this defense is "conceptually distinct from the merits of the plaintiff's claim that his rights have been violated." Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 527-28.

         Entitlement to qualified immunity is for the court to decide as a matter of law. Specifically, a court considering a defendant's claim of qualified immunity must address the following question of law:

[W]hether the legal norms allegedly violated by the defendant were clearly established at the time of the challenged actions or, in cases where the district court has denied summary judgment for the defendant on the ground that even under the defendant's version of the facts the defendant's conduct violated clearly established law, whether the law clearly proscribed the actions the defendant claims he took.

Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 528; see also Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818 ("[T]he judge appropriately may determine, not only the currently applicable law, but whether that law was clearly established at the time an action occurred."); Cottrell v. Caldwell, 85 F.3d 1480, 1488 (11th Cir. 1996) ("Qualified immunity is a legal issue to be decided by the court . . . ."); Stone v. Peacock, 968 F.2d 1163, 1166 (11th Cir. 1992) ("The law is now clear . . . that the defense of qualified immunity should be decided by the court, and should not be submitted for decision by the jury."); Hudgins v. City of Ashburn, 890 F.2d 396, 403 (11th Cir. 1989) ("[T]he availability of qualified immunity necessarily is a question of law.").

         Though entitlement to qualified immunity presents a question of law, resolution of this question can sometimes turn on issues of fact. We have previously explained why and under what circumstances a defendant's entitlement to qualified immunity may remain unresolved even into the trial phase of litigation:

Where it is not evident from the allegations of the complaint alone that the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, the case will proceed to the summary judgment stage, the most typical juncture at which defendants entitled to qualified immunity are released from the threat of liability and the burden of further litigation. Even at the summary judgment stage, not all defendants entitled to the protection of the qualified immunity defense will get it. The ones who should be given that protection at the summary judgment stage are those who establish that there is no genuine issue of material fact preventing them from being entitled to qualified immunity. And that will include defendants in a case where there is some dispute about the facts, but even viewing the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff the law applicable to that set of facts was not already clearly enough settled to make the defendants' conduct clearly unlawful. But if the evidence at the summary judgment stage, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, shows there are facts that are inconsistent with qualified immunity being granted, the case and the qualified immunity issue along with it will proceed to trial.

Johnson, 280 F.3d at 1317 (emphasis added) (citation omitted); see also Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1333 (11th Cir. 2003) ("But [the defendant] is not foreclosed from asserting a qualified immunity defense at trial. If the jury were to accept [the defendant's] version of the facts, the qualified immunity analysis would be changed.").

         If a government official moves for summary judgment asserting entitlement to qualified immunity, then the relevant facts are construed in the light most favorable to the non-movant-i.e., the plaintiff-and the court should decide the issue based on those facts. See Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526 ("Even if the plaintiff's complaint adequately alleges the commission of acts that violated clearly established law, the defendant is entitled to summary judgment if discovery fails to uncover evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue as to whether the defendant in fact committed those acts.").

         If the official's motion does not succeed, however, then his qualified immunity defense remains intact and proceeds to trial. The facts as viewed for summary judgment purposes are no longer binding, and the jury proceeds to find the relevant facts bearing on qualified immunity. See id. at 527 ("At trial, the plaintiff may not succeed in proving his version of the facts, and the defendant may thus escape liability."); Johnson, 280 F.3d at 1318 ("When the case goes to trial, the jury itself decides the issues of historical fact that are determinative of the qualified immunity defense . . . ."); Cottrell, 85 F.3d at 1487 ("[A] defendant who does not win summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds may yet prevail on those grounds at or after trial on a motion for a judgment as a matter of law." (alteration in original) (quoting Kelly v. Curtis, 21 F.3d 1544, 1546 (11th Cir. 1994))).

         At trial, the court uses the jury's factual findings to render its ultimate legal determination as to whether it would be evident to a reasonable officer, in light of clearly established law, that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted:

Officers can have reasonable, but mistaken, beliefs as to the facts establishing the existence of probable cause or exigent circumstances, for example, and in those situations courts will not hold that they have violated the Constitution. Yet, even if a court were to hold that the officer violated the [Constitution] . . ., [Supreme Court precedent] still operates to grant officers immunity for reasonable mistakes as to the legality of their actions.

Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 206 (2001). In other words, the question of what circumstances existed at the time of the encounter is a question of fact for the jury-but the question of whether the officer's perceptions and attendant actions were objectively reasonable under those circumstances is a question of law for the court. See id.; see also Harris v. Coweta Cty., 21 F.3d 388, 390 (11th Cir. 1994) (questions of "whether the law allegedly violated was clearly established at the time of the complained-about conduct" and "whether the official's conduct was objectively reasonable in light of the information known to the official at the time" are "objective, albeit fact-specific, inquiries which we undertake as questions of law" (citation omitted) (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987), and Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526-28 & n.9)).

         "Where the defendant's pretrial motions are denied because there are genuine issues of fact that are determinative of the qualified immunity issue, special jury interrogatories may be used to resolve those factual issues." Cottrell, 85 F.3d at 1487. As we have said before:

Because a public official who is put to trial is entitled to have the true facts underlying his qualified immunity defense decided, a timely request for jury interrogatories directed toward such factual issues should be granted. Denial of such a request would be error, because it would deprive the defendant who is forced to trial of his right to have the factual issues underlying his defense decided by the jury.
We do not mean to imply, of course, that district courts should submit the issue of whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity to the jury. Qualified immunity is a legal issue to be decided by the court, and the jury interrogatories should not even mention the term. Instead, the jury interrogatories ...

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