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Media Alerts - Family Serv. Ass'n ex rel. Coil v. Wells Twp. - Sixth Circuit
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May 27, 2015
  Family Serv. Ass'n ex rel. Coil v. Wells Twp. - Sixth Circuit
Headline: Civil-rights claim by alleged victim of police abuse survives motion for summary judgment

Area of Law: Civil Rights Act ยง 1983; Qualified Immunity

Issue Presented: Is a police officer entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity in a civil-rights suit alleging that the officer unlawfully seized the plaintiff and was deliberately indifferent to the plaintiff's safety, resulting in the plaintiff's injury by a third party?

Brief Summary: The plaintiff was sitting by the side of the road when he was approached by a police officer who demanded his identification, which he declined to provide. The plaintiff was severely injured when he was struck by a car after being pepper sprayed, handcuffed, and left lying in the road by the officer. The plaintiff filed a civil-rights suit against the officer, and the officer moved for summary judgment, arguing that no reasonable jury could find that the officer violated the plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of the officer's motion, finding that reasonable inferences could be drawn from the facts to establish that the officer had no legitimate reason for seizing the plaintiff and that the officer acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's safety in the course of the arrest.

Extended Summary: The plaintiff and his boyfriend were resting on a guardrail by the side of the road when a police officer approached them and asked for identification, which they refused to provide. The remaining facts of the encounter were disputed: the plaintiff claimed that he simply walked away from the encounter and was attacked by the officer, while the officer claimed that the plaintiff immediately became hostile and assaultive when the officer approached. But it was undisputed that the plaintiff wound up pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and lying face-down in the roadway, where he was struck by a passing vehicle and seriously injured. The officer, who attempted to remove the plaintiff from the roadway at the last minute, was also struck by the vehicle.

The plaintiff's legal guardian filed a civil-rights suit against the officer and his employer, alleging that the officer seized the plaintiff without reasonable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the officer exhibited deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's safety in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, but the district court denied the motion, and the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

First, the plaintiff asked the court to dismiss the interlocutory appeal for want of jurisdiction because, according to the plaintiff, the appeal contested only the plaintiff's version of the facts. A purely factual dispute, without a legal component, would not be an appropriate basis for an interlocutory appeal. The court rejected this argument because the defendants' argument was that, even looking at the factual record in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the officer had not violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. This was a question of law and an appropriate basis for an interlocutory appeal.

Reaching the merits, the Sixth Circuit noted that qualified immunity would protect the officer from the suit unless the plaintiff could establish that the officer "violated his constitutional rights and that those rights were clearly established." The officer would be entitled to summary judgment only if he could establish that no reasonable jury could find that the officer seized the plaintiff without reasonable suspicion and that he acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's safety.

Here, the court noted that police may not stop a citizen on the street without reasonable suspicion that the citizen is committing, or is about to commit, a crime. A reasonable jury could credit the plaintiff's version of the events surrounding his arrest and find that the officer had no reason to suspect that he had committed a crime. Simply walking away from an officer and refusing to provide identification are not crimes and do not establish reasonable suspicion. And while the officer claimed that the plaintiff struck him and attempted to flee, a reasonable jury could believe the opposite.

Moreover, once an individual has been taken into police custody, the police are liable for injuries inflicted by third parties if the police act with deliberate indifference to the individual's safety. Here, a reasonable jury could find that the officer acted with deliberate indifference when he left the plaintiff in the middle of the road for at least two minutes instead of moving him immediately after he was handcuffed. Also, the officer failed to activate his patrol car's regular or flashing lights to warn oncoming motorists of their presence. While the officer acted heroically in trying to pull the plaintiff from the roadway as the car approached, he still may have acted with deliberate indifference when he placed the plaintiff in that position to begin with.

Because material facts remained in dispute, the district court was correct to deny summary judgment. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.

Panel: Circuit Judges Alan E. Norris, Jeffrey S. Sutton, and Bernice B. Donald

Date of Issued Opinion: April 16, 2015

Docket Number: No. 14-4020

Decided: Affirmed

Counsel: Gregory A. Beck, BAKER, DUBLIKAR, BECK, WILEY & MATHEWS, North
Canton, Ohio, for Appellant. Neal E. Shapero, Abby L. Botnick, SHAPERO ROLOFF CO.,
LPA, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton

Case Alert Author: Greg Masters

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...ns.pdf/15a0069p-06.pdf

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 05/27/2015 03:47 PM     6th Circuit  

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