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Huaman v. Tinsley

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 28, 2017



          MICHAEL P. SHEA, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         On the morning of November 15, 2012, East Hartford Police Officer Woodrow Tinsley, III, was dispatched to the apartment of Plaintiff Karla Huaman to assist a caseworker from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) in arranging for Huaman's troubled twelve-year-old son, J.M., to attend a psychological evaluation at the juvenile court. J.M. had committed no crime and posed no threat to anyone, but he did not budge that morning after Tinsley arrived at the apartment and urged him to get up from the couch, get dressed, and leave for the evaluation. Soon, Tinsley's “assist[ance]” turned into a forceful encounter, as Tinsley pulled J.M. across the floor of his home, and J.M.'s resistance precipitated a fight between J.M. and Tinsley. When the fight ended, J.M. was in handcuffs and under arrest for interfering with and assault on a police officer. Huaman sued Tinsley and others for false arrest, excessive force, and other claims, but after a trial, the jury found for defendants, apparently concluding, among other things, that Tinsley had had probable cause to arrest J.M. and had used only reasonable force against him.

         On Huaman's motion for a new trial, I find that the jury's verdict on these claims was against the weight of the evidence and that Tinsley is not entitled to qualified immunity. Tinsley's own testimony shows that, in dragging J.M. across the floor of his home to “assist” in ensuring that J.M. attended the evaluation, Tinsley used force that he lacked authority to use and that he did not reasonably believe was necessary to make an arrest or to protect himself or another. There was thus no basis for the jury to find that Tinsley was acting in the performance of his duties when J.M. engaged in the resistance that resulted in his arrest and, consequently, no basis to find probable cause that he was interfering with or assaulting an officer while in the performance of those duties. And because Tinsley used substantial force when the circumstances did not call for any, there was no basis for the jury to find that the amount of force he used was reasonable. No reasonable officer could have believed that dragging an unwilling child out of his home to attend a psychological evaluation-whether it was court-ed or not-was authorized by clearly established law. I therefore order a new trial on the false arrest claim and the two state law claims involving probable cause-false imprisonment and malicious prosecution-as well as on the excessive force claim. I deny the motion for new trial as to the negligence and emotional distress claims, as the jury's verdict as to those claims was not against the weight of the evidence. I deny Huaman's motion for judgment as a matter of law because she failed to make a Rule 50(a) motion before the case was submitted to the jury.

         II. Background

         A. Procedural History

         Huaman brought Fourth Amendment, state common law, and state statutory claims on behalf of J.M. against officers of the East Hartford Police Department (the former Chief of Police Mark Sirois, Police Sergeant Steven Syme, and Police Officers Kenneth Sullivan and Tinsley) and the Town itself. Before trial, Judge Dominic Squatrito dismissed the claims against Sirois, Syme, and Sullivan and all claims against the Town except the claim under Conn. Gen. Stat. §52-557n for negligent infliction of emotional distress. (ECF No. 106 at 42.) Remaining for trial were: (1) Human's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that Tinsley violated her son's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and arrest without probable cause; (2) state law claims for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment against Tinsley; (3) claims for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Tinsley; and (4) a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against the Town under § 52-557n of the Connecticut General Statutes. The case was transferred to me for trial, and evidence before the jury began on September 14, 2016.

         At the conclusion of Huaman's case, the defendants made a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a), and I reserved ruling. At no time during the trial did Huaman make a Rule 50(a) motion. The case was submitted to the jury, which returned a verdict for the defendants on all counts. Despite not filing a Rule 50(a) motion, Huaman has now filed a post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), as well as a motion for a new trial under Rule 59. I held oral argument on the motions on August 17, 2017, and, at the conclusion of that argument, issued an oral ruling denying the plaintiff's Rule 59 motion on some of the grounds she raised-including alleged juror misconduct and allegedly improper conduct by defense counsel during closing argument. (ECF No. 167.) This memorandum addresses the remaining arguments as well as Huaman's Rule 50(b) motion.

         B. The Evidence at Trial

         On November 15, 2012, Huaman's twelve-year-old son, J. M., had a 9:00 a.m. appointment for a psychological evaluation at the juvenile division of the Connecticut Superior Court in Hartford, Connecticut. (ECF No. 157 at 81-82; ECF No. 158 at 127.) J.M. had been diagnosed with both generalized anxiety disorder and a mild form of autism, and he had been truant from school. (Id. at 21-24, 40-42; ECF No. 156 at 39.) J.M. was reluctant to leave the house, to interact socially, and even to see to his own hygiene; he spent most of his time playing video games. (ECF No. 158 at 18, 56, 68.)

         At approximately 8:10 a.m. on November 15, 2012, Lisa Freeman, the DCF worker assigned to Huaman's family, arrived at Huaman's apartment. (Id. at 40; ECF No. 157 at 144-45.) Huaman had called Freeman the day before to tell her that J.M. did not want to go to the psychological evaluation. (ECF No. 156 at 41.) When she arrived at Huaman's apartment, Freeman found J.M. lying on a couch wearing only a pair of shorts. (Id. at 42; ECF No. 157 at 148.) Freeman and Huaman attempted to convince J.M. to attend his evaluation, but J.M. refused, saying that he was tired and did not want to go. (ECF No. 156 at 44.)

         Freeman called the East Hartford Police Department and informed dispatch that she needed police assistance with a juvenile who was refusing to attend a psychological evaluation at the Superior Court in Hartford. (ECF No. 157 at 85-86.) Huaman agreed with Freeman on the decision to call the police. (ECF No. 156 at 43-44.)

         Because, at this point, the parties' trial testimony substantially diverged, I set forth below each side's versions of events. I have reproduced Tinsley's testimony in detail because, as discussed below, the jury apparently credited it and I will defer to their credibility finding for purposes of this ruling.

         1. Officer Tinsley's Version of Events

         Tinsley, who by November 2012 had served as an East Hartford police officer for ten years (ECF No. 159 at 3), was dispatched to J.M.'s house after Freeman called for police assistance. (Id. at 3-5.) On his way there, Officer Tinsley received a call from his superior, Sergeant Syme. (ECF No. 157 at 195; ECF No. 159 at 19.) Syme was aware that Tinsley was responding to an assist call from DCF. He testified at trial that he instructed Tinsley not to “take any action unless [he had] a Court order signed by a judge.” (ECF No. 157 at 195-98; ECF No. 159 at 20.) Syme testified that he discussed this with Tinsley because, in situations where DCF calls the police for backup, the police are “limited in what [they] should be doing.” (ECF No. 157 at 196.) Tinsley recalled the same conversation as follows:

Q. . . . What's your recollection of your conversation with Sergeant Syme in this phone call?
A. He told me to not take any action unless I had a signed Court order.
Q. And what was your reaction to his telling you that?
A. I said okay.
Q. Now, at some point did you prepare a police report in this case?
A. I did.
Q. In that police report, did you mention your conversation with Sergeant Syme?
A. No.
Q. Why not?
A. I don't know. I didn't think it was relevant.
Q. Did you consider what Sergeant Syme said to you about the court order to be an order from him?
A. Yes. I explained to him that it was-he said don't take any action unless it's a court order. And then I referenced-I remember referencing the dispatch screen and telling him it says on the screen it's a court order. And he said okay.

(ECF No. 159 at 20-21.)

         Upon Officer Tinsley's arrival Freeman told him that J.M. was scheduled for a court-ordered evaluation and handed Officer Tinsley a document labeled “Notice of Evaluation.” (ECF No. 156 at 46; Exhibit 1.) The document set forth the following text, which is shown below-in slightly cut-off form-as it appears in an entry on the Court's docket (ECF No. 74-4 at 2):



         NOVEMBER 6, 2012



r Social Worker,
ourt Ordered PSY COMBO (CLN-INTELL-P/C) Evaluation Has Been Scheduled With:
ce Freedman, PHD
US [REDACTED] (CHILD) Thursday - November 15, 2012 AT 9:00AM to 2:00PM
th __oor Conference Ro920 BROAD STREET P.O. BOX 6219, STATION A HARTFORD CT
LA HUAMAN (Mother) Thursday - November 15, 2012 AT 2:00PM to 3:00PM
th Floor Conference Ro920 BROAD STREET P.O. BOX 6219, STATION A HARTFORD CT
LA HUAMAN (Mother) Thursday - November 15, 2012 AT 12:00PM to 1:00PM
th Floor Conference Ro920 BROAD STREET P.O. BOX 6219, STATION A HARTFORD CT
E [REDACTED] (Father) Thursday - November 15, 2012 AT 2:00PM to 4:00PM
th Floor Conference Ro920 BROAD STREET P.O. BOX 6219, STATION A HARTFORD CT

         The document also bore a date stamp “NOV 8 2012” as well as handwriting apparently referring to Lisa Freeman, the DCF worker, and a phone number. The document is not signed by a judge.

         Tinsley testified about his understanding of the document at trial:

Q. When you looked at this, this Notice of Evaluation, what did you make of it in terms of whether it was court ordered or not?
A. I thought it was a valid court order.
Q. There's no signature on this, is there?
A. Desiree Fernandez I assumed was an electronic signature.
Q. Do you know who Desiree Fernandez is?
A. No, I never met it. [sic]
Q. It says Court Services Officer?
A. Court Services Officer.
Q. Now, there's not a signature from a judge?
A. Correct.
Q. On this document, correct?
A. Correct.
Q. What did Lisa Freeman tell you in terms of what the significance of this document was?
A. She said it was a court order for him to go.
Q. And as far as you understood, was that a subject that a DCF social worker had reason to know?
A. Yes. Yes, absolutely.
Q. It's not a take into custody order, is it?
A. No, no. She explained that, you know, he's got this court order to go and he has to go.
Q. And it's not an arrest warrant?
A. No.

(ECF No. 159 at 34-35.) On cross examination, Tinsley also stated:

Q. Let me just show you the court order again. The Notice of Evaluation. And you can maybe demonstrate to the jury where in this document, Exhibit 1, gives you the legal basis to put this 12 year old disabled to be psychologically evaluated child in the back of your police car in handcuffs to go to the evaluation?
A. So when I got there Lisa Freeman gave me this order and said it's a court order and -
MR. BREWER: Objection, Your Honor.
THE COURT: He can finish his answer. Go ahead.
A. So she gave me this order. She said it was a court order. She had told dispatch. It was on my screen. So I had different sources telling me it was a court order. And when I looked down and see the Desiree Fernandez, Court Services Officer, I assumed that was an electronic signature. If you look at my police report it's got an electronic signature on it as well. That's how we do things now. And I just brought him to court. I assumed it was-this was an instruction for me to bring him to court or for him to go to court by any means necessary.
Q. Officer Tinsley, where in the that document does it give you the authority to take this child into custody and take him to this evalation, where does it say that?
A. It's the fact that [I] was told that it was a court order that I had to enforce.
Q. Where does it say that?
A. It doesn't say it anywhere.

(Id. at 106-7.)

         Further describing his arrival at the apartment, Tinsley testified:

Q. Did you have any conversations with anybody there after you first entered ...

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