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Fuqua v. Hess

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

February 5, 2019

CHRISTOPHER FUQUA, Plaintiff
v.
R. MARSHALL HESS, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HERMAN N. JOHNSON, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This action proceeds on Defendant R Marshall Hess's Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff Christopher Fuqua's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 unlawful seizure, false arrest, and excessive force claims pursuant to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and state law claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, and assault and battery. Hess prevails on Fuqua's Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure and false arrest claims, yet genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Furthermore, state-agent immunity bars Fuqua's false arrest and false imprisonment claims, yet genuine issues of material fact regarding the assault and battery claim preclude summary judgment.

         Therefore, for the reasons set out herein the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendant Hess's motion.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         "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. Rule 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)).

         If the movant sustains its burden, a non-moving party demonstrates a genuine issue of material fact by producing evidence by which a reasonable fact-finder could return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). The non-movant sustains this burden by demonstrating "that the record in fact contains supporting evidence, sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion." Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993). In the alternative, the non-movant may "come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency." Id. at 1116-17; see also Doe v. Drummond Co., 782 F.3d 576, 603-04 (11th Cir. 2015), cert, denied, 136 S.Ct. 1168 (2016).

         The "court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc, 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000) (citations omitted). "'Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.'" Id. (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). "Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Reeves, 530 U.S. at 151 (citation omitted). "That is, the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that 'evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses.'" Id. (citation omitted).

         Rule 56 "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "In such a situation, there can be 'no genuine issue as to any material fact,' since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial." Id. at 322-23. In addition, a movant may prevail on summary judgment by submitting evidence "negating [an] opponent's claim," that is, by producing materials disproving an essential element of a non-movant's claim or defense. Id. at 323 (emphasis in original).

         There exists no issue for trial unless the nonmoving party submits evidence sufficient to merit a jury verdict in its favor, if the evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, the court may grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. That is, the movant merits summary judgment if the governing law on the claims or defenses commands one reasonable conclusion, but the court should deny summary judgment if reasonable jurors could "differ as to the import of the evidence." Id. at 250.

         FACTS[1]

         On the afternoon of September 13, 2014, Plaintiff Christopher Fuqua and his pregnant girlfriend, Luphelia McDade, hosted a football-watching party at their residence in Sheffield, Alabama. (Doc. 43-1, FuquaDep. ("Fuqua Dep."), at 42; Doc. 45-2, McDade Dep. ("McDade Dep."), at 32-33).[2] Fuqua's sister, Tiffany Fuqua, attended the party with three children: two teenaged daughters, approximately 15 and 16 years old at the time, and a five-year-old offspring. (Doc. 45-3, T. FuquaDep. ("T. Fuqua Dep."), at 10-13). At some point, McDade left and returned home with groceries, and Fuqua and the guests assisted in taking the groceries inside the home. (McDade Dep. at 34-35, 36, 38, 40, 172; Fuqua Dep. at 55, 61; T. FuquaDep. at 17-18, 20-21).

         Contemporaneously with the foregoing events, Fuqua's neighbor approximately 404 feet away, Dustin Tyler Roberts, observed and heard from his front porch what he interpreted as an altercation at Fuqua's home.[3] (Doc. 43-5, Roberts Decl.). He described a vehicle with approximately three African-American women arrive at the home, and then the women proceeded inside. (Id., ¶ 3). Subsequently, he perceived the women exit the home and apparently engage in an argument with Fuqua and McDade. Roberts heard shouting, and the close proximity of the people to each other contributed to his belief a fight occurred. (Id., ¶ 4). Roberts called 911 and reported a domestic dispute involving a pregnant woman at a house with a black Chevrolet truck and a Chrysler Pacifica parked outside. (Id., ¶ 5). Roberts's description matched Fuqua's home. (Doc. 43-4, Hess Decl. (Hess Deck"), ¶ 3; Doc. 43-3, Cantrell Dep. ("Cantrell Dep."), at 14-15).

         During or shortly after Roberts's 911 call, Fuqua went to his truck to retrieve some cigarettes. (Fuqua Dep. at 55, 61-62, 91, 101). City of Sheffield Officers R. Marshall Hess and Regina Cantrell received the 911 dispatch call and proceeded to Fuqua's residence. (Doc. 43-2, Hess Dep. ("Hess Dep.), at 12, 14; Hess Deck, ¶ 2; Cantrell Dep. at 7-8). They encountered Fuqua next to his truck with a door open. (Hess Dep. at 22; Hess Decl., ¶3; Cantrell Dep. at 10-11; Fuqua Dep. at 100-01, 114).

         The officers informed Fuqua about the 911 call regarding the supposed altercation.[4] (Hess Dep. at 25; Cantrell Dep. at 15; Fuqua Dep. at 91-92, 170). Fuqua denied any knowledge of a confrontation.[5] (Hess Dep. at 25, 78, 127; Cantrell Dep. at 21; Fuqua Dep. at 92, 120, 199, 207). Hess then asked Fuqua for his name and identification. (Cantrell Dep. at 22). Fuqua gave his name[6] and informed the officers his identification was in his home. (Fuqua Dep. at 90, 92, 93, 99, 193; Cantrell Dep. at 27, 101). As he turned and walked towards his home, Fuqua again denied any knowledge about an altercation[7] (Cantrell Dep. at 21; Fuqua Dep. at 168). Fuqua admits that during these events, he was angry, he raised his voice, and he used profanity, yet he denies cursing specifically at Hess or that he was aggressive or threatening. (FuquaDep. at 94, 95, 106, 120-21, 155, 156, 171-72, 179-80).

         At some point, at either Fuqua's request or the children's behest, McDade and Tiffany came onto the home's porch to observe the encounter. (Fuqua Dep. at 6, 91, 94, 103, 104, 107, 180-81; McDade Dep. at 49, 60; T. FuquaDep. at 21-22). Tiffany observed Fuqua walking toward the home with Hess close behind or at his side. (T. Fuqua Dep. at 23, 25, 27, 58). She recounted Fuqua stating repeatedly he had not done anything. (T. FuquaDep. at 23-24, 25). Tiffany does not recall Hess responding. (T. Fuqua Dep. at 25). McDade described a confused look on Fuqua's face rather than anger. (McDade Dep. at 64-65, 82, 155-56). McDade recalls Fuqua possibly expressing his belief he was going to jail, although Hess had not informed him he was under arrest. (McDade Dep. at 76; Hess Dep. at 61, 100). Fuqua testified he believed he was going to jail and told McDade so, though, again, Hess had made no specific statement to that effect. (Fuqua Dep. at 94, 104, 105, 106, 116, 117, 119, 170).

         At some point, Hess grasped Fuqua on the shoulder and instructed him to stop walking. (Hess Dep. at 40; Fuqua Dep. at 94, 95-96, 100, 103). Fuqua stopped when Hess placed his hand on his shoulder, and he then turned and talked to Hess, without aggression or clenched fists.[8] (Fuqua Dep. at 100, 114, 115, 116, 121-22, 123, 179). Fuqua instructed Tiffany to record the encounter, prompting Tiffany to return inside the home and retrieve her mobile telephone to record the events. (Fuqua Dep. at 100, 107, 117, 125; T. Fuqua Dep. at 26; McDade Dep. at 83, 167). Upon the door closing behind her, Hess deployed his taser against Fuqua, without warning and without first asking Fuqua to place his hands behind his back. (Fuqua Dep. at 100, 118, 119-20, 125, 171; McDade Dep. at 77). Neither Tiffany nor McDade recall Hess saying anything, such as a directive, warning, etc., before he tased Fuqua the first time.[9] (T. FuquaDep. at 25; McDade Dep. at 93-94). The taser struck Fuqua on the side of his chest, and he dropped to his knees. (Fuqua Dep. at 125, 127, 135; McDade Dep. at 77, 82, 84, 121, 160, 166; Doc. 43-9 at 20, 22).

         Tiffany returned and captured two recordings of the incident, both of which chronicled events after the afore-mentioned tasing.[10] The first recording establishes Fuqua's repeated use of profanity in a raised voice.[11] The audio recording also establishes Hess and Cantrell commanded Fuqua to roll over several times. Tiffany also recalled hearing the officers instruct Fuqua to roll over. (T. Fuqua Dep. at 50). Fuqua objected to rolling over onto the taser barbs, which remained lodged in his chest.[12] (Fuqua Dep. at 125, 135, 172, 173). Hess then tased Fuqua a second time.[13] Fuqua ended on his stomach, with his hands behind his back for handcuffing.[14](FuquaDep. at 126, 135; Hess Dep. at 70, 94, 98, 117).

         Hess then pulled Fuqua to his feet and escorted him to a patrol car. Fuqua testified the tasings rendered his gait wobbly. (Fuqua Dep. at 126). Hess pulled out a stun gun to tase Fuqua a third time due to perceived noncompliance in walking, but Fuqua told him there was no need to use it because he would comply with Hess's instructions. (Fuqua Dep. at 127, 128-29). Tiffany and McDade testified Hess deployed the taser a third time in an effort to compel Fuqua to walk correctly as they proceeded to the patrol car. (T. FuquaDep. at 52-53, 54, 65, 69;McDade Dep. at 127, 128, 129-30, 168-69, 176, 177, 180, 182). However, the taser did not deliver a charge.[15](T. Fuqua Dep. at 52-53, 54, 65, 70, 71; McDade Dep. at 127, 182). Fuqua testified Hess tased him only twice during the entire incident. (Fuqua Dep. at 23, 134).

         In subsequent judicial proceedings, the Sheffield municipal court convicted Fuqua of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest on January 7, 2015. (Doc. 43-6 at 8; Doc. 43-7 at 8). Fuqua appealed to the Colbert County Circuit Court, which dismissed the charges on the City of Sheffield's motion on June 8, 2015. (Doc. 43-6 at 26; Doc. 43-7 at 18).

         Fuqua testified that he encountered Hess approximately two months before the incident in question, at a convenience store. Hess approached Fuqua about leaving a child in a car outside the store and gave him a warning. Fuqua claimed Hess told him to stay out of Sheffield. (Fuqua Dep. at 71-74). Hess recalled talking to Fuqua at a convenience store and giving him a verbal warning about illegally parking in an alleyway. (Hess Dep. at 33-34, 36).

         ANALYSIS

         As stated previously, Fuqua claims Hess violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizures, false arrests, and excessive force. Hess argues he deserves qualified immunity from Fuqua's claims. As the following analyses portray, Hess gamers qualified immunity on the unlawful seizure and false arrest claims, yet genuine, disputable issues of material fact preclude summary judgment on Fuqua's excessive force claim.

         Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions in their individual capacity from civil suit and liability "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Hill v. Cundiff, 797 F.3d 948, 978 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). "When a court concludes the defendant was engaged in a discretionary function, '"the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity."' Hill, 797 F.3d at 978 (citation omitted). There exists no dispute Hess performed discretionary functions in these circumstances, so Fuqua bears the burden of persuasion on the balance of the qualified immunity inquiry: Hess violated a constitutional right, and the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Id. (citation omitted). Courts retain discretion to adjudicate one prong without addressing the other. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).

         The court will first determine whether Hess violated any of Fuqua's constitutional rights. Examining whether Hess violated a constitutional right rests upon the standards applicable to the substantive doctrine at issue. In assessing qualified immunity, a court may not resolve genuine disputes of fact in favor of the party seeking summary judgment.

         Applying the foregoing concepts demonstrates Fuqua may proceed under § 1983 only as to his excessive force claim.

         I. Hess Possessed Reasonable Suspicion to Initially Stop Fuqua

         Fuqua's Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim rests upon Hess's initial stop and detention in Fuqua's front yard. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs "when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied." County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 844 (1998) (citations and emphasis omitted). The Supreme Court delineates at least three categories of police-citizen encounters meriting different levels of Fourth Amendment scrutiny: "(1) brief, consensual and non-coercive interactions that do not require Fourth Amendment scrutiny . . .; (2) legitimate and restrained investigative stops short of arrests to which limited Fourth Amendment scrutiny is applied . . .; and (3) technical arrests, full-blown searches or custodial detentions that lead to a stricter form of Fourth Amendment scrutiny" United States v. Perkins, 348 F.3d 965, 969 (11th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

         There exists no dispute Hess seized Fuqua during the encounter in the yard, as Hess stopped Fuqua to question him about the reported domestic disturbance, and he grasped Fuqua's shoulder to prevent him from proceeding into his home. The inquiry ensues whether these initial seizures, which manifest as investigative stops short of arrest, were unreasonable.

         The inquiry proceeds under the reasonable suspicion standard. The standard established in Terry v. Ohio permits officers to detain citizens briefly to investigate "a reasonable suspicion that such persons are involved in criminal activity." United States v. Pruitt, 174 F.3d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 1999); see also United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 229 (1985) ("if police have a reasonable suspicion, grounded in specific and articulable facts, that a person they encounter was involved in or is wanted in connection with a completed felony, then a Terry stop may be made to investigate that suspicion."). Reasonable suspicion exists as a "commonsense, nontechnical conception" for examining "the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent" persons, "not legal technicians, act." Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695 (1996) (citations omitted). As a "fluid concept[]" that gathers "substantive content from the particular context[] in which the standard[]" is assessed, "one determination [under the reasonable suspicion standard] will seldom be a useful precedent for another." Id. at 696, 698 (citations omitted).

         Nevertheless, courts have divined some precepts for the Terry standard. "Although the reasonable suspicion must be more than an inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch, the likelihood of criminal activity need not rise to the level required for probable cause, and it falls considerably short of satisfying a preponderance of the evidence standard." United States v. Bautista-Silva, 567 F.3d 1266, 1272 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing, inter alia, United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 274, (2002)) (other citations and internal alterations omitted). "The officer's reasonable suspicion must be based on 'specific articulable facts, together with rational inferences from those facts.'" Id. (citation omitted).

         Courts must review the "totality of the circumstances" to determine whether an officer possessed "a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing." Id. (quoting Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 273). "This process allows officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them that might well elude an untrained person." Id. (quoting Arvizu, 534 U.S. at 273); see also United States v. Reed, 402 Fed.Appx. 413, 415 (11th Cir. 2010) ("Reasonable suspicion analysis is not concerned with 'hard certainties, but with probabilities . . . .' '[T]he determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.") (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418 (1981); Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 125 (2000)). Moreover, "[reasonable suspicion is determined from the . . . collective knowledge of all the officers involved in the stop." United States v. White, 593 F.3d 1199, 1203 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In this case, the 911 call provided information indicating a possible domestic dispute and sufficiently described Fuqua's residence and the vehicles parked outside. Therefore, on these undisputed facts no reasonable juror could deny the officers possessed adequate, reasonable suspicion to initiate contact with Fuqua to conduct an investigation. See Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 403-04 (2014) (911 call claiming eyewitness knowledge of alleged illegal activity gave police reasonable suspicion to perform investigative stop); Terry, 392 U.S. at 22 ("a police officer may in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner approach a person for purposes of investigating possible criminal behavior even though there is no probable cause to make an arrest"); United States v. Sanders, 394 Fed.Appx. 547, 549 (11th Cir. 2010) (officers' corroboration of anonymous 911 call created reasonable, articulable suspicion to detain suspect for an investigatory stop). Therefore, Hess deserves qualified immunity and summary judgment on the unlawful seizure claim.

         II. Hess Possessed Probable Cause to Question and Arrest Fuqua

          Fuqua's second Fourth Amendment claim avers Hess perpetrated a false arrest under the circumstances of this case. An arrest without probable cause constitutes an unreasonable seizure that violates the Fourth Amendment. Brown v. City of Huntsville, 608 F.3d 724, 734 (11th Cir. 2010). Conversely, an arrest buttressed by probable cause constitutes an absolute bar to a Fourth Amendment claim for false arrest. See Gurrera v. Palm Beach Cnty. Sheriffs Office, 657 Fed.Appx. 886, 889 (11th Cir. 2016) (citing Marx v. Gumbinner, 905 F.2d 1503, 1505 (11th Cir. 1990)); Case v. Eslinger, 555 F.3d 1317, 1326-27 (11th Cir. 2009). Therefore, to preclude qualified immunity on a false arrest claim, a plaintiff must "show alack of probable cause" for the arrest. Gurrera, 657 Fed.Appx. at 889 (citation omitted).

         Law enforcement officers may effect warrantless arrests "where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed." Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 152 (2004) (citations omitted). "Probable cause exists when 'the facts and circumstances within the officers' knowledge, of which he or she has reasonably trustworthy information, would cause a prudent person to believe, under the circumstances shown, that the suspect has committed ... an offense.'" Miller v. Harget, 458 F.3d 1251, 1259 (11th Cir. 2006) (citing Rankin v. Evans, 133 F.3d 1425, 1435 (11thCir. 1998)). For probable cause to exist, "an arrest [must] be objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances," Bailey v. Board of Cnty. Comm'rs of Alachua Cnty., Fla, 956 F.2d 1112, 1119 (11th Cir. 1992), and an officer's subjective intentions play no role in determining the existence of probable cause. See Rankin, 133 F.3d at 1433-34.

         The "substance of all the definitions of probable cause is a reasonable ground for belief of guilt. . . particularized with respect to the person to be searched or seized." Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003) (citations omitted); see also United States v. $242, 484.00, 389 F.3d 1149, 1160 (11th Cir. 2004) ("Probable cause in this context is a 'reasonable ground for belief of guilt, supported by less than prima facie proof but more than mere suspicion-the same standard used to determine the legality of arrests, searches, and seizures in criminal law.'") (citations omitted). "All we have required is the kind of 'fair probability' on which 'reasonable and prudent people, not legal technicians, act.'" Florida v. Harris, 568 U.S. 237, 243 (2013) (citations and internal alterations omitted). Although "not a high bar," probable cause "requires ... a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity." District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 586 (2018).

         Indeed, in qualified immunity determinations, assessing probable cause commands a relaxed assessment. To obtain qualified immunity on a Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure claim, an officer need only sustain "arguable" probable cause, not actual probable cause. Brown, 608 F.3d at 735. Arguable probable cause exists where "reasonable officers in the same circumstances and possessing the same knowledge as [a defendant] could have believed that probable cause existed to arrest [a § 1983 complainant]." Kingsland v. City of Miami,382 F.3d 1220, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004) (quotation marks omitted). "Indeed, it is inevitable that law enforcement officials will in some cases reasonably but mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present, ...


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