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November 8, 2016
  Holloman v. Markowski et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Pro Se Litigant Cannot Overcome Heavy Burden of Proof After Officer Fatally Shoots Her Son

Areas of Law: Fourth Amendment

Issues Presented: Whether a litigant who fails to prove widespread or flagrant violations of one's constitutional rights meets the Monell requirements to establish municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Whether a litigant overcome qualified immunity and establish officer liability for use of unreasonable and excessive force without precedent that the force used was unreasonable and excessive.

Brief Summary: In an unpublished per curiam decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of Plaintiff-Appellant's municipal liability and excessive force claims in this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action. Plaintiff-Appellant Marcella Holloman brought this case against Baltimore City and two individual police officers in the United States District Court for the District Court of Maryland. The District Court granted the City's motion to dismiss and the officers' motion for summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision, relying on the United States Supreme Court decision in Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Monell established that a Plaintiff "must point to a persistent and widespread practice of municipal officials" where the duration and frequency of such practice demonstrate that the policymakers (1) "had actual or constructive knowledge of the conduct, and (2) failed to correct it due to their deliberate indifference." The Fourth Circuit found that Holloman's claims were too speculative to plausibly claim municipal liability. Additionally, using the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness standard," the Fourth Circuit found the officers' use of force was not excessive. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision.

Extended Summary: Marcella Holloman was hosting a children's birthday party at her home when her son Maurice Donald Johnson, who suffered from bipolar disorder, came home and began breaking pieces of furniture in his bedroom. Hearing the sound of breaking glass, Holloman went up to Johnson's room and told him that she would take him to the hospital for psychiatric treatment after the party. Johnson replied that she would have to call the police to take him because he would not go voluntarily. Holloman and her daughter then removed the children from the home while Johnson continued to destroy personal property around the home. Johnson threw his mattress onto the front lawn and began tearing it apart. Holloman locked him out of the home and called for the police. Johnson kicked the front door, and ripped the back screen door off its hinges. Officers Paul Markowski and Gregory Bragg arrived at Holloman's home in response to the 911 call. Holloman notified the officers of Johnson's psychiatric issues, and explained that he would not stop his destructive behavior. She suggested that the officers use a Taser to bring her son under control, but asked them to not shoot Johnson.

The officers went to the back door and asked Johnson to calm down. Johnson responded by lunging at Officer Markowski, pinning him on the ground with his knees, and fighting him. Officer Bragg's efforts to pull Johnson off of Officer Markowski were unsuccessful. Officer Bragg then fired at least two gunshots, wounding and later killing Johnson.

Filing pro se, Holloman brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action before the United States District Court for the District Court of Maryland against Baltimore City (Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake), the Baltimore City Police Commissioner, Baltimore City Council and Officers Markowski and Bragg, individually. The District Court granted both the City's motion to dismiss and the Officers' motions for summary judgment. Holloman appealed to the Fourth Circuit. The two claims before the court were: the municipal liability claim and the excessive force claim.

The Fourth Circuit first addressed the municipal liability claim, relying on the Supreme Court's decision in Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). There, the Supreme Court "held that municipalities face liability under § 1983 if a municipal policy or custom itself causes a deprivation of constitutional rights." Holloman claimed that the City failed to supervise and train its employees on how to interact with the mentally ill and that it had a general policy, pattern, and/or practice of failing to discipline its officers' conduct.

Monell established two requirements necessary to prevail on a §1983 claim against municipalities. First, a plaintiff needs to "point to a persistent and widespread practice of municipal officials" where the duration and frequency of such practice demonstrated that the policymakers (1) "had actual or constructive knowledge of the conduct, and (2) failed to correct it due to their deliberate indifference." The Fourth Circuit continued that "sporadic or isolated violations of rights" were not sufficient to give "rise to Monell liability." Only evidence of "widespread or flagrant violations" will create such culpability.

Holloman presented four specific instances of on-duty officers in Baltimore City killing citizens. She also presented a Baltimore Sun newspaper article that reported City officers having shot ten individuals, eight of them fatally, and that some of those individuals suffered from a mental illness. The Fourth Circuit held that Holloman failed to present any facts to indicate that the officer shootings she presented involved constitutional violations or that the City failed to properly train or discipline its officers. In the court's view this deficiency meant that Holloman failed to meet the Monell requirements. Finding Holloman's claim too speculative to impose municipal liability, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision, and granted the City's motion to dismiss.

Next, the Fourth Circuit addressed Holloman's excessive force claim against Officers Markowski and Bragg. Using the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness standard" the court analyzed the excessive force claim "from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene." The Fourth Circuit noted that government officials sued under §1983 are protected under "qualified immunity unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct." A plaintiff may overcome an officer's qualified immunity only if she can demonstrate that (1) "with the facts viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the officer's conduct violated a federal right, and" (2) that the "right was clearly established at the time the violation occurred such that a reasonable person would have known that his conduct was unconstitutional." The Fourth Circuit reasoned that there was no precedent establishing that an officer's use of lethal force is objectively unreasonable and thus, constitutionally excessive when such force is used on an unarmed, yet physically resistant suspect, after the suspect has destroyed property, attacked an officer, and showed no signs of stopping such behavior. The Fourth Circuit concluded that the officers did not use constitutionally excessive force and affirmed the District Court's decision, granting the officers motion for summary judgment.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judge Wilkinson, Motz, and Harris

Argument Date: 09/20/2016

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/07/2016

Docket Number: No. 15-1878

Decided: Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.

Case Alert Author: Vanessa Destime, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Stephen Louis Braga, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. Frederic Nelson Smalkin, Jr., William Rowe Phelan, Jr., BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Hardev Chhokar, Brian Remondino, Josh Robbins, Andrew Selman, Third Year Law Students, Appellate Litigation Clinic, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. George Nilson, City Solicitor, BALTIMORE CITY LAW DEPARTMENT, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Per curiam

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

Edited: 11/08/2016 at 12:44 PM by Renee Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/08/2016 11:26 AM     4th Circuit  

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