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Benson v. New Haven Police Department

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

December 29, 2016

RICHARD BENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW HAVEN POLICE DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants

          INITIAL REVIEW ORDER PURSUANT TO 28 U.S.C. § 1915A

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Richard Benson is a prisoner in Connecticut, and he brings this pro se and in forma pauperis action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to seek money damages because of his alleged physical abuse by officers of the City of New Haven's police department. He has named as defendants the New Haven Police Department, its former police chief, and two city police officers. For the reasons set forth below, I will allow plaintiff's claims for Fourth Amendment excessive force and for First Amendment retaliation to proceed against the two individual police officer defendants, but I will otherwise dismiss plaintiff's claims against the police department and its former police chief.

         Background

         Plaintiff has filed this lawsuit against four defendants: the New Haven Police Department, former Chief of Police Dean Esserman, Officer Brendon Borer, and Officer Michael Haines. The following facts are alleged in the complaint and accepted as true only for purposes of this initial ruling.

         On January 9, 2014, plaintiff was riding in a car to his grandmother's house in New Haven. When the car pulled up to her house, defendants Borer and Haines approached the car, knocked on the window, and requested identification. Plaintiff indicated that he lacked identification, but told the officers his name, after which Borer opened the car door and told plaintiff to step outside. Borer asked “didn't we just lock you up a couple months ago? At this same house?” and questioned plaintiff about how he had gotten out of jail. Doc. #10 at 6. Borer asked plaintiff to put his hands on the roof of the car, after which both Borer and Haines shoved him against the car. Plaintiff had previously made a complaint against Borer and Haines in July 2013, and once plaintiff brought it to the attention of Borer that he was being racially profiled and discriminated against, Borer immediately became hostile.

         Fearing for his safety, plaintiff ran away. Plaintiff's mother, who witnessed this event outside, yelled at plaintiff to stop, so he did, but Borer nevertheless tackled plaintiff to the ground. Plaintiff alleges that Borer and Haines then slammed plaintiff's face into the concrete on the ground, and that Borer punched him in the face until he started to lose consciousness, all the while yelling “why'd you run?” Doc. #10 at 8. He alleges that Haines saw him being punched, but failed to intervene until he intervened only to kick him and beat him with his night stick, and then spray him with mace.

         As against Esserman, the complaint alleges that “through his policies and customs defendants Borer and Haines were able to violently assault the plaintiff, ” and that “defendant Esserman's policies and customs . . . were so maliciously violent that it caused officers of the New Haven Police Department to use excessive force on detainees.” Id. at 9.

         Discussion

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b), the Court must review prisoner civil complaints against governmental actors and “dismiss . . . any portion of [a] complaint [that] is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, ” or that “seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” Id. Moreover, the allegations of a pro se plaintiff's complaint must be read liberally to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010) (discussing special rules of solicitude for pro se litigants).

         In recent years, the Supreme Court has set forth a threshold “plausibility” pleading standard for courts to evaluate the adequacy of federal court complaints. A complaint must allege enough facts-as distinct from legal conclusions-that give rise to plausible grounds for relief. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Even a pro se complaint may not survive dismissal if its factual allegations do not meet the basic plausibility standard. See, e.g., Fowlkes v. Ironworkers Local 40, 790 F.3d 378, 387 (2d Cir. 2015).

         Claims Against Officers Borer and Haines

         Plaintiff's claim of excessive force during his arrest implicates his rights under the Fourth Amendment (as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment against the states and municipal actors). See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394-95 (1989); Brown v. Doe, 2 F.3d 1236, 1242 n.1 (2d Cir. 1993). The Fourth Amendment protects plaintiff from excessive force during an arrest or investigatory stop, even though “the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. Whether the force used was excessive is “analyzed under a ‘reasonableness' standard, and determined by balancing . . . the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake” and by considering “the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Dancy v. McGinley, 843 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2016).

         Taken as true, plaintiff's allegations easily suffice to establish a claim for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Borer and Haines stopped plaintiff without legitimate reason and then they chased him down after he fled and brutally assaulted him, all without just cause and for vindictive reasons stemming from plaintiff's complaints about them. Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims against Borer and Haines will proceed.

         The caption of the complaint references the First Amendment, and the complaint alleges that Borer and Haines acted vindictively because of plaintiff's prior complaint about them and his accusation of racial profiling. To establish a First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff must allege facts showing “(1) that the speech or conduct at issue was protected, (2) that the defendant took adverse action against the plaintiff, and (3) that there was a causal connection between the protected speech and the adverse action.” Dolan v. Connolly, 794 F.3d 290, 294 (2d Cir. 2015). In light of plaintiff's allegations ...


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