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Media Alerts - Sheehan v. City & County of San Francisco
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March 27, 2014
  Sheehan v. City & County of San Francisco
Headline: Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court's summary judgment and remanded in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state law, alleging the police officers violated a plaintiff's rights when they entered her residence without a warrant and shot her after she threatened them with a knife. The panel held, inter alia, that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to arrests and on the facts presented in this case, there was a triable issue whether the officers failed to reasonably accommodate plaintiff's disability when they forced their way back into her room without taking her mental illness into account or employing generally accepted police practices for peaceably resolving a confrontation with a person with mental illness.

Area of Law: Fourth Amendment; Americans with Disabilities Act; California's Lanterman-Petris-Short Act

Issues Presented: (1) Whether the warrantless entries violated the Fourth Amendment; (2) Whether the officers had qualified immunity against liability under a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim; (3) Whether San Francisco was liable under a 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim based on a theory of failure to train or ratification; (4) Whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to arrests; and (5) Whether the officers were immune from liability for violation of state law claims under California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5278.

Brief Summary: Teresa Sheehan suffered from mental illness, and she threatened her social worker, the police were called to transport her to a 72-hour involuntary commitment. When the officers first entered Sheehan's room, they were confronted with a knife and threats and immediately retreated. After calling for back up however, the officers entered Sheehan's room a second time, and again were confronted with a knife and threats, resulting in Sheehan being pepper sprayed and shot five to six times.

The district court granted the defendants summary judgment against all of Sheehan's claims.

The panel held that the officers were justified in entering plaintiff's home initially, without a warrant, under the emergency aid exception because they had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that plaintiff was in need of emergency medical assistance and they conducted the search or seizure in a reasonable manner up to that point. However, the panel also held that a jury could find that the officers acted unreasonably in forcing a second entry into plaintiff's residence and provoking a near-fatal confrontation, and that the plaintiff presented a triable issue of the unreasonable use of deadly force under a provocation theory.

Having determined that a reasonable jury could find a Fourth Amendment violation, the panel also held that the officers were not entitled, as a matter of law, to qualified immunity as against the 42 U.S.C. 1983 claim and, therefore, the granting of summary judgment was premature. Although the panel held that there were triable issues of fact whether the shooting was unreasonable on a provocation theory, the panel also held that the officer who shot Sheehan once she was already on the ground was entitled to qualified immunity because, despite having been shot, Sheehan continued to hold the knife and threaten officers and the other officer was in close proximity to Sheehan.

The panel further held that summary judgment was proper as to Sheehan's Monell claims, because the police department had provided its officers appropriate training, and mere acquiescence to the officers' conduct and failure to discipline, did not amount to ratification by San Francisco of the officers' conduct.

The Ninth Circuit addressed an issue of first impression addressed by other circuits - whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to arrests, and held that the Act did apply to arrests. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit adopted the approach of the Eleventh and Fourth Circuits, in which the focus is the reasonableness of the requested ADA modification where there are exigent circumstances presented by criminal activity. Because the reasonableness of modification was a question of fact, the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants, and the Ninth Circuit remanded that issue as well.

Finally, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court improperly granted summary judgment with respect to whether the defendants were immune under California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5278, because the claims alleged by Sheehan were not within the scope of the immunity granted under § 5278. The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's order dismissing Sheehan's state claims, and remanded.

The dissent contended that summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment excessive force claim with respect to the second entry should have been affirmed, as the amount of force used in the second entry was not excessive force, but instead objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

Extended Summary: A social worker contacted police for transportation of Teresa Sheehan, a woman suffering from mental illness, to a mental health facility for a 72-hour involuntary commitment for evaluation and treatment pursuant to California Welfare & Institutions Code § 5150. The social worker's concern arose from the woman's refusal to take her medication and the danger she posed to others, based on the threat made by the woman to "knife" the social worker. The social worker did not give the officers reason to believe Sheehan was likely to injure herself.

Police arrived and were informed that no other residents were in the group home building and that the only way out of Sheehan's room, aside from the door, was a second story window. The officers entered Sheehan's room, without a warrant, to confirm the social worker's assessment and take custody of the woman. Sheehan grabbed a knife and threatened to kill the officers, forcing the officers to leave the room. The officers called for back-up and then proceeded once again to attempt to enter Sheehan's room with their weapons drawn.

While the officers testified that Sheehan emerged from the room brandishing the knife, was unaffected by pepper spray, and was shot only after Sheehan continued to approach the officers, Sheehan testified that she opened the door, brandished the knife, and fell to the ground upon being pepper sprayed and was shot once she was on the ground.

Sheehan continued to hold the knife once shot and conceded that she intended to use the knife to defend herself against officers in an attempt to avoid being involuntarily committed.

Sheehan filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the officers and the San Francisco, asserting violations of her rights under the (1) Fourth Amendment, (2) Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as (3) tort and statutory claims under state law. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants, and Sheehan appealed.

Fourth Amendment

The panel considered Sheehan's contention that the officers violated her Fourth Amendment right when they entered her home without a warrant.

Initial Entry

As to the initial entry, the panel considered the exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's requirement for a warrant. Under the emergency aid exception there must be an objectively reasonable basis to conclude that there was an immediate need to protect others or themselves [officers] from harm, and the search's scope and manner must have been reasonable to meet the need. The exigency exception requires that the government show that the officer had probable cause to search or arrest and the exigent circumstances justified the warrantless intrusion. Further, the panel noted that, regardless of which exception is employed, the search or seizure may be invalid if carried out in an unreasonable manner.

To determine whether the intrusions by the officers were unreasonable, the panel applied the Supreme Court's excessive force standard, balancing the nature and the quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the government interests at stake. The reasonableness of force used is determined from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.

Applying the excessive force standard to the initial entry, the panel held it was lawful under the emergency aid exception, and did not violate Sheehan's Fourth Amendment rights, because (1) the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to determine that there was an urgent need to protect Sheehan from serious harm, pursuant to the information provided to the officers by the social worker, and (2) the officers entered in a reasonable manner - the officers knocked, announced they were officers, and used a key to enter.

Second Entry

The panel nonetheless held that summary judgment as to the second entry was inappropriate, as there were triable issues of fact with respect to whether that entry violated the Fourth Amendment. While the officers may have had justification that relieved them of the warrant requirement, because (1) there was still an ongoing emergency, (2) the two entries were a part of a "continuous search or seizure" and thus the second entry did not require a separate justification, and debatably (3) the officers may have been relieved by the exigent circumstances exception, the officers did not carry out the second entry in a reasonable manner.

Because the officers forced a second entry without taking Sheehan's mental illness into account, and appeared to depart from police officer training, the panel determined that the second entry could not be characterized as reasonable as a matter of law. Under the totality of the circumstances, the Ninth Circuit held that a reasonable jury could have found that the second entry was objectively unreasonable.

Qualified Immunity

The panel stated that a government official would be denied qualified immunity if (1) the facts that a plaintiff has alleged or proved show a violation of a constitutional right and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct.

In determining whether qualified immunity exists, the panel balanced the amount of force applied against the need for that force. Construing the facts most favorably to Sheehan, the panel determined that there was no pressing need to enter a second time because backup was on its way, Sheehan was not a threat to herself, and reasonable officers would have reason to expect that their subsequent entry may result in harm or death. Since the facts were disputed, the panel ruled that it was premature to hold that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law.

Turning to the question of deadly force, the panel noted that where a suspect threatens an officer with a weapon such as a knife or gun, the officer is justified in using deadly force. The use of deadly force, "viewed from the standpoint of the moment of the shooting," was reasonable as matter of law because the officers could reasonably believe they were in danger due to Sheehan's brandishing of the knife.

However, the panel also considered "whether the shooting was reasonable when the events leading up to the shooting are taken into account." Where an officer intentionally or recklessly provokes a violent confrontation, if the provocation is an independent Fourth Amendment violation, the officer may be held liable for this otherwise defensive use of force. The panel held that there were triable issues of fact as to whether the shooting was unreasonable on a provocation theory.

As to one of the officer's final shot, the Court held that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity as Sheehan was not necessarily subdued while on the ground, since she continued to hold the knife and make threats, and was in such close proximity to the other officer as to signal a continued danger.

Monell Claims

Sheehan asserted § 1983 claims under Monell against the San Francisco, based on (1) failure to train, and (2) ratification.

Failure to train or inadequate training may serve as a basis for a § 1983 claim only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come in contact. However, Sheehan failed to point to any facts in the record that show that the officer's training was responsible for the disregard of Sheehan's mental illness. In fact, Sheehan conceded that the police department had employed appropriate training.

To show ratification, a plaintiff must prove that the authorized policy makers approve a subordinate's decision and the basis for it. Sheehan argued that the city ratified the conduct by not disciplining the officers, but the panel ruled that more than mere acquiescence is required for ratification.

Americans with Disabilities Claim

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act protects against discrimination of individuals who are deemed disabled under the Act. Discrimination includes a failure to reasonably accommodate a person's disability.

The question whether the Act applies to arrests was one of first impression for the Ninth Circuit. While the Fifth Circuit has held that Title II does not apply to an officer's "on-the-street-responses," the Eleventh Circuit focuses on the reasonableness of the requested ADA modification where there are exigent circumstances presented by criminal activity. The Tenth Circuit held that excluding arrests from the scope of Title II "is not the law," and the Fourth Circuit applied a similar approach to the Eleventh Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit panel held that Title II applies to arrests and adopted the Eleventh Circuit's reasonableness of the ADA modification approach. Two types of Title II claims applicable to arrests have been recognized : (1) wrongful arrest, where police wrongly arrest someone with a disability based on a misperception that the effects of a disability amount to criminal activity, and (2) where there is a proper police investigation and arrest of a disabled individual for a crime unrelated to the disability, but there is a failure to reasonably accommodate the person's disability in the course of the investigation or arrest, resulting in the person suffering a greater injury or indignity in that process than other arrestees.

Sheehan raised the second type of claim. To state a Title 2 claim, the plaintiff must show that (1) she is a disabled individual (2) otherwise qualified to participate in or receive the benefit of a public entity's services, programs or activities, (3) was either excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of the public entity's services, programs or activities or was otherwise discriminated against by the public entity and (4) such exclusion, denial of benefits or discrimination was by reason of her disability.

The Ninth Circuit determined that reasonableness of an accommodation is a question of fact, and subsequently, the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on Sheehan's Americans with Disabilities Act claim.

State Law Claims

Finally, the district court ruled that the officers had immunity under California Welfare and Institutions Code § 5278, in response to Sheehan's claims for negligence, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a violation of California Civil Code § 52.1.

The Ninth Circuit outlined the scope of the immunity afforded under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, limiting immunity to (1) police officers' decision to detain, (2) the fact of detention, and (3) circumstances inherent in the involuntary detention. However, the officers were not immune if they were negligent in carrying out the detention; any injury that Sheehan suffered from the officers' failure to exercise ordinary care in taking Sheehan into custody would not be an "inherent" circumstance in the detention. Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants with respect to immunity under § 5278, and vacated the dismissal of the state law claims and remanded.

Dissenting Opinion

Addressing the excessive force claim, the dissent argued that summary judgment in favor of qualified immunity for the defendants should have been affirmed. The dissent contended that the officers could have reasonably concluded that their second entry did not violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on the use of excessive force, and that a plaintiff cannot avoid summary judgment merely based on an expert report that stated that the officers' conduct was inappropriate.

The dissent further noted that, after the officers witnessed Sheehan's dangerous disposition and retreated to the hallway, it was reasonable to believe that Sheehan still a danger to herself or others because behind the closed door Sheehan may have had access to other weapons. The dissent observed that the determination of what conduct may be deemed reasonable should take into account the need to make split-second decisions.

Panel: Judges Noonan, Graber, Fisher

Date of Issued Opinion: February 21, 2014

Docket Number: 3:09-cv-03889-CRB

Decided: Affirmed in part, reversed in part

Case Alert Author: Joseph Chaparo

Author of Opinion: Judge Fisher; partial concurrence and partial dissent by Judge Graber

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Glenn Koppel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 03/27/2014 02:45 PM     9th Circuit  

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