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Martin v. Bringham

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

October 11, 2019




         This case is before the court on Defendants Elijah T. Brigham and Stephen Eason's Motion for Summary Judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. (Doc. # 18). The Motion is fully briefed (Docs. # 20, 23, 24) and is ripe for decision. After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, Defendant's Motion (Doc. # 18) is due to be granted.

         I. Background

         On January 15, 2017, Plaintiff Shannon Lea Martin was arrested by two Gardendale Police Officers, Elijah Brigham and Stephen Eason (collectively, “Defendants”), for driving under the influence of alcohol. (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 2-3; Doc. # 5-1). Plaintiff alleges that she was sitting in a parked vehicle at 3:00 am behind a jewelry store adjusting her clothing when Brigham approached her car and demanded she take a breathalyzer test and walk in a straight line. (Id. at ¶¶ 4-5). As Brigham attempted to administer a field sobriety test to Plaintiff, Eason arrived on the scene. (Doc. # 19-3 at 9-10). Plaintiff refused to submit to the testing. She declined to take a “balance and field sobriety test, ” claiming that she had “a problem with balance anyway”[1] and refused the breathalyzer because she has always been told not to take a breathalyzer because you don't know when they have been calibrated.” (Doc. # 19-1 at 8). Upon Plaintiff's refusal, Brigham placed her under arrest. After some initial non-compliance, she was placed in handcuffs and put her in the back of his patrol car. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 6). Plaintiff alleges that while she was sitting in the back of the patrol car, the handcuffs came off her right hand. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8). She asserts that she made no attempt to resist or escape but raised her right hand to inform Defendants that the handcuff had come off. (Id. at ¶ 8). According to Plaintiff, Brigham grabbed her by the arm, pulled her out of the patrol car in a standing position, and “slammed [her] head into the door frame of the car severely injuring her left eye.” (Id. at ¶¶ 10-12). Plaintiff further contends that both Defendants “seized [her] and shoved [her] into the ground slamming her into the pavement of the parking lot.” (Id. at ¶ 13). She also contends that Defendants reapplied the handcuffs while her stomach was pressed to the pavement. (Id. at ¶ 14). Finally, Plaintiff alleges that before she was taken to the Gardendale Jail, the Gardendale Police Department transported her to UAB Hospital to receive treatment for her injuries. (Id. at ¶ 17). On April 21, 2017, the Gardendale Municipal Court found Plaintiff guilty of driving under the influence. (Doc. # 5-1 at 3). Plaintiff has appealed that conviction. (Id. at 1-2).

         Plaintiff initially raised two claims against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. First, she claims that while acting under color of law, Defendants violated her constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive or unreasonable force during an arrest. (Id. at ¶¶ 19-24). Second, she asserts that Defendants “intentionally committed acts that violated [her] constitutional right not to be arrested without probable cause . . . by arresting [her] without probable cause.” (Id. at ¶¶ 25-29). On February 12, 2019, this court dismissed without prejudice Plaintiff's claim for unlawful arrest on the basis of Younger abstention. (Doc. # 14). Consequently, Plaintiff's only remaining claim, and the one addressed in this Memorandum Opinion, is her excessive force claim

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, or depositions, answers to interrogatories, and/or admissions on file --designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (“Anderson”). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id. at 249.

         When faced with a “properly supported motion for summary judgment, [the non-moving party] must come forward with specific factual evidence, presenting more than mere allegations.” Gargiulo v. G.M. Sales, Inc., 131 F.3d 995, 999 (11th Cir. 1997). As Anderson teaches, under Rule 56(c) a plaintiff may not simply rest on her allegations made in the complaint; instead, as the party bearing the burden of proof at trial, she must come forward with at least some evidence to support each element essential to her case at trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 248 (citations omitted).

         Summary judgment is mandated “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 Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. “Summary judgment may be granted if the non-moving party's evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative.” Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262 (D. Kan. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-51).

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Sawyer, 243 F.Supp.2d at 1262 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52); see also LaRoche v. Denny's, Inc., 62 F.Supp.2d 1366, 1371 (S.D. Fla. 1999) (“The law is clear . . . that suspicion, perception, opinion, and belief cannot be used to defeat a motion for summary judgment.”).

         B. The Law Related to Use of Excessive Force Claims

         The Supreme Court has instructed that “all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness' standard.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989). “Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396; Landsman v. City of Vero Beach, 621 Fed.Appx. 559, 562 (11th Cir. 2015) (“Whether a specific use of force is excessive turns on factors such as the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat, and whether the suspect is resisting or fleeing.” (citation omitted)); Priester v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th Cir. 2000) (“To come within the narrow exception, a plaintiff must show that the official's conduct ‘was so far beyond the hazy border between excessive and acceptable force that [the official] had to know he was violating the Constitution even without caselaw on point.'”).

         The overarching inquiry is “whether a reasonable officer would believe that this level of force is necessary in the situation at hand.” Mercado v. City of Orlando, 407 F.3d 1152, 1157 (11th Cir. 2005). However, “the use of force against an arrestee who, inter alia, is not a threat, has not exhibited aggressive behavior, and has not actively resisted arrest is excessive.” Perez v. Suszczynski, 809 F.3d 1213, 1222 (11th Cir. 2016).

         C. The Law Related to Qualified Immunity

         “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials [sued in their individual capacity] ‘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.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); Nelson v. Lott, 330 F.Supp.3d 1314, 1327 (N.D. Ala. 2018). “The protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official's error is ‘a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact.'” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231 (quoting Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 567 (2004)). However, the protections of qualified immunity do not apply to those officials “who knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took within his sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the [plaintiff], or if he took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury.” Nelson, 330 F.Supp.3d at 1327 (quoting Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 322 (1975)).

         In order to properly analyze a defense of qualified immunity, the Supreme Court set out a two-part framework. First, the court asks if the plaintiff has “sufficiently alleged a constitutional or statutory violation.” Mann v. Taser Int'l, Inc., 588 F.3d 1291, 1305 (11th Cir. 2009). “Without a . . . violation, there can be no violation of a clearly established right.” Mann, 588 F.3d at 1305. Second, the court must determine “whether the constitutional violation was ‘clearly established' on the date of the event leading to suit. The focus at this step of the analysis is on the question of whether the officer had ‘fair notice' that his conduct was unlawful.” Nelson, 330 F.Supp.3d at 1330.

         While “exact factual identity with a previously decided case is not required, . . . the unlawfulness of the conduct must be apparent from pre-existing law.” Coffin v. Brandau, 642 F.3d 999, 1013 (11th Cir. 2011). “A court looks only to binding precedent-cases from the United States Supreme Court, the [pertinent] Circuit, and the highest court of the state under which the claim arose-to determine whether the right in question was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Id. at 1013.

         III. Analysis

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's excessive force claim because (1) they did not violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights, or alternatively, (2) the constitutional right Plaintiff claims was violated was not clearly established at the time of the events at issue in this case. (Doc. # 20 at 8-9). ...

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