EVETT L. SIMMONS, in her capacity as Guardian of the Property of Dontrell Stephens, Interested Party - Appellant Cross Appellee,
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.
from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 9:14-cv-80425-BSS
TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, [*] District Judge.
ROBRENO, District Judge:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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)
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
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. 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.
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
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)).
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.
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)).
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)).
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)).
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.
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.").
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
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
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.").
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.
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 &
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
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 ...