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Roberts v. City of New Haven

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 26, 2016

KAREN ROBERTS and FRANK ROBERTS, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF NEW HAVEN et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         During a “live-fire” police training exercise, plaintiff Karen Roberts was shot more than a dozen times with simulated ammunition by her fellow police officers of the New Haven Police Department. She and her spouse-plaintiff Frank Roberts-claim that her colleagues shot her well beyond what was necessary for training purposes in order to retaliate for a controversial letter-to-the-editor that Frank had recently published in the local newspaper. Karen otherwise claims that-whatever their motive-her colleagues used excessive force on her and that her supervisors did not do enough to protect her.

         The principal question now before me is whether the United States Constitution affords a remedy for the injuries to Karen that occurred during the training exercise. In light of the facts presented on this record, I conclude that neither Karen nor Frank have established a genuine issue of fact to sustain their constitutional claims. Accordingly, I will grant defendants' motion for summary judgment as to plaintiffs' federal law claims and will otherwise dismiss the remaining state law claims for lack of federal jurisdiction.

         Background

         The following facts are based on the parties' submissions and are viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs.[1] Plaintiffs Karen Roberts and her husband Frank Roberts were both officers with the New Haven Police Department (NHPD). By 2006, Frank had retired from the force, while Karen continued to serve. In February of 2006, the NHPD established a new “elite crime interdiction unit” to help fight violent crime in the city. In mid-April, Frank wrote a letter that was published in the New Haven Register criticizing this new unit.

         Following the letter's publication, Karen began to face hostility from her fellow officers. Officers would be less friendly with her, or make negative comments to or about her. On at least one occasion, Karen called for back-up when out on the beat, but did not receive support quickly from her fellow officers. See Doc. #33-3 at 19-21. Karen did not make any formal complaints to her supervisors about this treatment. See Doc. #47-6 at 13.

         The crucial incident occurred on May 4, 2006. On that day, Karen participated in a police training exercise conducted by the NHPD in which officers, armed with non-lethal marking ammunition called “Simunition, ” had to chase an “aggressor, ” similarly armed with Simunition, into a building. Karen and her partner were instructed for this training exercise to wear a full-face helmet, facemask, and protective chest armor, along with regular police uniform pants.[2]Karen received two magazines of 9mm Simunition and a 9mm firearm that had been modified to use Simunition in place of the standard ammunition. Simunition is commonly used for police training, and it may be safely fired from distances greater than one foot. See Doc. #47-1 at 19; see also Moore v. Guthrie, 438 F.3d 1036, 1038 (10th Cir. 2006) (describing common use of Simunition for police “live fire” training exercises and noting that “because Simunition is intended as a combat training tool, Simunition cartridges are specifically designed to be painful to a person on impact; the Simunition manufacturer refers to this characteristic as ‘impact penalty, '” and that “a Simunition projectile striking unprotected skin will leave bruises, welts, and abrasions”).

         Participants were briefed on safety and underwent a classroom instruction session on using Simunition. The aggressors and participants were supposed to be unknown to each other, with identities obscured by the protective gear, but all the officers and aggressors waited in one hallway before beginning the exercise, and it was possible to identify officers even with the protective gear on.

         The training exercise began when pairs of officers pulled over a car and were fired upon by the fleeing driver, who then entered a building. The officers were supposed to follow the aggressor into the building and then to conduct a room-by-room search for the aggressor. After pulling over the vehicle and chasing the aggressor into the building, Karen and her partner conducted a search of the dark building. As indicated in a training video that was taken of the exercise, when the officers entered the building, one officer was wearing a light sweatshirt and the other (Karen) was wearing a dark sweatshirt, with long, dark hair visible from beneath the protective gear. One officer was also visibly larger and taller than the other officer (Karen). The two officers entered a dark locker room; then they turned a corner into an area with restroom stalls. Both officers opened fire directed towards a corner, but the target could not be seen. The other officer entered the shower area, which did not have a door but did have a doorway opening, while Karen told the aggressor to “Put your hands up!”

         Karen then entered the shower area. It appears in the video that both officers were in the shower chamber at this point. It is not clear from the video if there were any aggressors in the shower chamber, but officers continued to shoot out through the doorway of the shower chamber at any aggressors who were presumably across the restroom. The video shows Karen extending her gun out of the open shower and firing straight ahead; it does not appear that the other officer was shooting out of the doorway.

         An aggressor then ran from behind the videographer (who was standing in the doorway to the restroom area) and shot through the doorway of the shower chamber. At that point there were two aggressors in the restroom area. One of the aggressors moved towards the doorway opening and stood off to the right side of the doorway. The aggressor shot through the doorway towards the location where Karen was crouching. After a short period, Karen exited the shower chamber to tackle the shooter. An airhorn sounded, and the exercise ended. Karen had been shot at least fourteen times, mostly in the area of her legs which did not have armor protection. She was clearly upset, and her hands and clothing had marks of bright color on them.[3]

         Karen does not know which of the aggressors shot her. It is not disputed that defendants Jamie Sanchez, Charles Tyson, and Robert Maturo were serving as the aggressors that day for the training exercise. See Doc. #33-1 at 3. Defendant Sanchez discovered during the exercise that her gun was jammed, and she fired no shots during the exercise; accordingly, only Tyson and/or Maturo shot Karen that day. Defendants Thaddeus Reddish and Robert Strickland were supervising the training and were present during the exercise. Defendants Francisco Ortiz (who was then the police chief) and Kay Coddish were not present during the exercise. After the exercise, Karen complained to Chief Ortiz, who indicated that he would investigate, but did not investigate.

         Counts One and Two of the complaint allege causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985 that defendants Sanchez, Maturo, Tyson, and Ortiz violated Karen's and Frank's constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Count Three of the complaint alleges that defendants Coddish, Strickland, and Reddish violated Karen's constitutional rights by failing to train or supervise the officers or to properly equip her in connection with the training exercise. The remaining counts of the complaint allege state law claims as well as a § 1983 Monell claim of liability against the City of New Haven on alleged grounds that the City was deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs' constitutional rights. All defendants now seek summary judgment as to all claims against them.

         Discussion

         The principles governing a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a reasonable jury could decide in that party's favor.” Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC, 737 F.3d 834, 843 (2d Cir. 2013). The evidence adduced at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and with all ambiguities and reasonable inferences drawn against the moving party. See, e.g., Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866; Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 715 F.3d 417, 427 (2d Cir. 2013). All in all, “a ‘judge's function' at summary judgment is not ‘to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)).

         State Action

         To the extent that plaintiffs premise their claims on conduct by the defendants during the police training exercise, defendants contend that they “did not employ their police powers in the context of the training exercise, ” such that they were not “state actors” and acting “under color of law” in their capacity as participants in the training. Doc. #32-1 at 8. I do not agree. As the Supreme Court has made clear, “the traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 49 (1988). Thus, “state employment is generally sufficient to render the defendant a state actor, ” and “it is firmly established that a defendant in a § 1983 suit acts under color of state law when he abuses the position given to him by the State.” Id. at 49-50.

         Here, although it is true that defendants allegedly inflicted harm upon a co-worker rather than upon an ordinary citizen and that they did so in the context of posing as non-police “aggressors” for purposes of a training exercise rather than as ordinary patrol officers, they were put in the position that they were in during the training exercise solely by virtue of their official positions and employment with the city police department. Defendants' argument that they were not “state actors” in the context of the police training exercise is inconsistent with the recognized scope of constitutional rights. The Fourth Amendment, for example, “guarantees the privacy, dignity, and security of persons against certain arbitrary and invasive acts by officers of the Government, without regard to whether the ...


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