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Sweet v. City of Hartford

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 24, 2018

JEFFREY SWEET, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HARTFORD, JAMES C. ROVELLA, GARRETT FRANCHER, GREGORY CORVINO, CHRISTOPHER REEDER, JOHN DOE #1, JOHN DOE #2, JOHN DOE #3, JOHN DOE #4, JOHN DOE #5, JOHN DOE #6, Defendants.

          RULING ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTIONS

          CHARLES S. HAIGHT, JR. SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jeffrey Sweet brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Hartford, Police Chief James Rovella, Officer Garrett Fancher, [1] Officer Gregory Corvino, Officer Christopher Reeder, and John Does #1-6, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. Plaintiff also alleges that the Defendants committed several state law torts, and asserts claims under state law for municipal liability.

         Plaintiff's claims arise from an incident that occurred on October 13, 2013, in Hartford, Connecticut. Plaintiff was forcibly removed from his vehicle by the police and arrested on several charges.

         As a result of this incident, Plaintiff asserts federal constitutional claims against the officers Fancher, Corvino, and Reeder (collectively, the "Officer Defendants") under section 1983 for unreasonable seizure and for failure to intervene. The Complaint also alleges claims under the common law for assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, recklessness, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Additional claims are asserted against Chief Rovella for failure to supervise, and for municipal liability against the City of Hartford ("City").

         The Officer Defendants, Chief Rovella, and the City have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The motions have been opposed, and are ripe for consideration. This Ruling resolves them.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party must "demonstrate the absence of any material factual issue genuinely in dispute" to be entitled to summary judgment. Am. Int'l Grp., Inc. v. London Am. Int'l Corp., 664 F.2d 348, 351 (2d Cir. 1981) (quoting Heyman v. Commerce & Indus. Ins. Co., 524 F.2d 1317, 1319-20 (2d Cir. 1975)) (quotation marks omitted). All inferences and ambiguities must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Rogoz v. City of Hartford, 796 F.3d 236, 245-46 (2d Cir. 2015).

         "In order to defeat a summary judgment motion that is properly supported by affidavits, depositions, and documents as envisioned by [Rule 56], the opposing party is required to come forward with materials envisioned by the Rule, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact to be tried." Gottlieb v. Cty. of Orange, 84 F.3d 511, 518 (2d Cir. 1996). The non-moving party cannot "defeat the motion by relying on the allegations in his pleading, or on conclusory statements, or on mere assertions that affidavits supporting the motion are not credible." Id. (citations omitted). In other words, "[w]hen the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56[], its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The nonmoving party "must present specific evidence demonstrating a genuine dispute." Gannon v. UPS, 529 Fed.Appx. 102, 103 (2d Cir. 2013) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). "An issue of fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Fincher v. Depository Tr. & Clearing Corp., 604 F.3d 712, 720 (2d Cir. 2010) (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) ("Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.").

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The following undisputed or indisputable facts are derived from the parties' submissions pursuant to Local Rule 56(a); the uncontroverted deposition testimony; and the affidavits and exhibits attached to the parties' submissions. All reasonable inferences have been drawn in Plaintiff's favor.

         During the time relevant to this action, Plaintiff was a resident of the City of Hartford, a municipality of the State of Connecticut. Defendants Fancher, Corvino, and Reeder were employed as police officers by the City. James Rovella was the City Chief of Police. See Plaintiff's Local Rule 56(a)2 Statement of Facts in Opposition to Summary Judgment, Doc. 68-1 ¶¶1-6.

         On October 13, 2013, at around 7:00 p.m., Plaintiff met friends at a sports bar in downtown Hartford. Id. ¶8. After dinner, at approximately 9:30 p.m., he proceeded to drive home alone. Id. ¶10; April 5, 2017, Deposition Testimony of Jeffrey Sweet, Doc. 51-1 at 64. Plaintiff drove west on Farmington Avenue. Doc. 68-1 ¶11. Before turning right on Sigourney Street, Plaintiff noticed lights in his rearview mirror; he did not see them again after making the turn. Doc. 51-1 at 67. He then made a left turn on Niles Street, a left onto Woodland, and a left into the parking lot of his apartment building at 30 Woodland Street. Doc. 68-1 ¶11.

         As Plaintiff was traveling home, Officers Fancher, Corvino and Reeder were together in a police vehicle, driving southbound on Woodland Street. Id. ¶¶28-9. Corvino was operating the vehicle. Id. ¶33. A dispatch came over the radio, indicating that an officer in the area had attempted to stop a silver or grey SUV last seen traveling westbound on Niles Street. August 27, 2017, Deposition of Greg C. Corvino, Doc. 51-1 at 178. Officer Corvino then observed a vehicle that matched that description, turning left from Niles Street onto Woodland Street. Id. at 175-76. Corvino attempted to catch up with the vehicle. Id. at 180. He did not operate the police car's lights or sirens. Id. Corvino followed Plaintiff's vehicle to 30 Woodland Street, pulling up and stopping behind Plaintiff's parked car. Doc. 68-1 ¶33.

         After parking his car in a spot at 30 Woodland Street, Plaintiff saw lights and people coming towards his car. Doc. 51-1 at 70. Fancher and Corvino approached the front driver's side of Plaintiff's vehicle. Doc. 51-1 at 78. Corvino had his service weapon drawn. Id. Reeder approached and opened the door on the passenger's side of Plaintiff's vehicle. Doc. 68-1 ¶40. While Plaintiff was still sitting in the driver's seat, Fancher punched him in the face. Id. ¶71-2; Police Report, Doc. 51-1 at 243. Plaintiff was then pulled from his vehicle by the officers and was brought to the ground. Doc. 51-1 at 72. He was handcuffed and arrested. Id. ¶17.

         Plaintiff claims to have suffered injuries as a result of the incident. Doc. 51-1 at 84. Plaintiff did not request medical attention at the time of his arrest. Doc. 68-1 ¶19. This arrest was the only time that Plaintiff had been arrested by the Hartford police. Id. ¶23.

         The parties' account of the events differs in several respects, not recounted above. The parties dispute whether Plaintiff was operating the car recklessly prior to bringing the vehicle to a stop in the parking lot of 30 Woodland Street. Plaintiff relies on his own deposition testimony and his affidavit to rebut the Officer Defendants' testimony and the police report. The parties also dispute whether the officers said anything to Plaintiff upon exiting their vehicle in the parking lot, whether Plaintiff resisted the officers, whether Plaintiff was subjected to any force beyond the blow to his face, and the extent of his injuries. Finally, the parties dispute whether Plaintiff was aware that he was interacting with the police - as opposed to civilians - prior to being pulled from the vehicle.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Pending before the Court are two motions for summary judgment: one on behalf of the Officer Defendants, and one on behalf of the City and Chief Rovella.

         As an initial matter, Plaintiff concedes that he cannot prevail on several counts, and therefore "does not object to summary judgment" on the claims alleged against Chief Rovella for failure to supervise, and on the claim alleged against the Officer Defendants for false arrest. Accordingly, summary judgment will be granted on those claims. Further, Plaintiff recognizes that the City cannot be liable for punitive damages; therefore, Defendant City's motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff's prayer for punitive damages will be granted. I will now consider the other dispositive motions.

         A. Officers' Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 51]

         1. Excessive Force[2]

         Plaintiff alleges that the Officer Defendants used an unreasonable and excessive amount of force during the course of his arrest on October 13, 2013. The Officer Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's section 1983 claim of excessive force on the grounds of qualified immunity. In opposing Defendants' motion, Plaintiff argues that a material issue of fact exists as to whether the officers' use of force was reasonable. Plaintiff contends that the parties' conflicting versions of the incident warrant denial of the motion.

         Section 1983 provides a private right of action for monetary damages from government officials, who, acting "under color" of law, have violated an individual's federal statutory rights, or constitutional rights and privileges. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Annis v. Cty. of Westchester, 136 F.3d 239, 245 (2d Cir. 1998). Qualified immunity operates to shield government officials from such liability, where "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982) (citations omitted). Thus, a police officer may be entitled to qualified immunity if: "(1) his conduct does not violate a clearly established constitutional right, or (2) it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe his conduct did not violate a clearly established constitutional right." Hartline v. Gallo, 546 F.3d 95, 102 (2d Cir. 2008) (quotation marks and citation omitted). "Because qualified immunity affords immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability, it is usually invoked before trial. Where, however, immunity depends on disputed facts, the availability of that shield may be determinable only after trial." O'Hara v. City of New York, 570 Fed.Appx. 21, 23 (2d Cir. 2014) (quotation marks, citation, and emphasis omitted).

         The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. Amend. IV. Where a claim of excessive force "arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right to be secure in their persons against unreasonable seizures of the person." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989) (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Cty. of Los Angeles, Calif. v. Mendez, 137 S.Ct. 1539, 1547 (2017) ("An excessive force claim is a claim that a law enforcement officer carried out an unreasonable seizure through a use of force that was not justified under the relevant circumstances."). "It is well established that the use of force is contrary to the Fourth Amendment if it is excessive under objective standards of reasonableness." Stephenson v. Doe, 332 F.3d 68, 77 (2d Cir. 2003) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

This objective standard allows for split-second judgments-circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a given situation. It allows even for a certain degree of mistake. If an officer reasonably, but mistakenly, believed that a suspect was likely to fight back, for instance, the officer would be justified in using more force than in fact was needed.

Santana v. City of Hartford, 283 F.Supp.2d 720, 727 (D. Conn. 2003) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         "Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake." Graham, 490 U.S. 396 (quotation marks and citation omitted). "In conducting that balancing, [the Court is] guided by consideration of at least three factors: (1) the nature and severity of the crime leading to the arrest, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 96 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 396); see also Sullivan v. Gagnier, 225 F.3d 161, 166 (2d Cir. 2000) ("The force used by the officer must be reasonably related to the nature of the resistance and the force used, threatened, or reasonably perceived to be threatened, against the officer."). "If the force used was unreasonable and excessive, the plaintiff may recover even if the injuries inflicted were not permanent or severe." Robison v. Via, 821 F.2d 913, 924 (2d Cir. 1987).

         The Court agrees with Defendants' contention that Reeder is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's excessive force claim because he had no physical contact with Plaintiff. The undisputed evidence establishes that Reeder did not subject Plaintiff to force, let alone force that can be deemed excessive. The surveillance video of the incident unequivocally shows that Reeder did not come into contact with Plaintiff during the incident. On the video, Reeder is seen exiting the front passenger door of the police vehicle, approaching the passenger's side of Plaintiff's vehicle, and opening the door. As Plaintiff emerges from the driver's side of his car, he is surrounded by other officers and is brought to the ground. During this time, Reeder can be seen standing apart, at a distance of several feet. Plaintiff offers no admissible evidence to refute this account, or evidence that identifies Reeder as one of the officers who "manhandled" or punched him after he was removed from his vehicle.

         "It is well settled in this Circuit that personal involvement of defendants in alleged constitutional deprivations is a prerequisite to an award of damages under § 1983." Wright v. Smith, 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994) (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also McKinnon v. Patterson, 568 F.2d 930, 934 (2d Cir. 1977) (same). The indisputable evidence before this Court does not support a reasonable conclusion that Reeder participated in the use of force against Plaintiff. Accordingly, Reeder is entitled to summary judgment on the excessive force claim.

         However, the same conclusion cannot be reached with regard to Plaintiff's claims against Fancher and Corvino. Plaintiff contends that without provocation or justification, he was subjected to a blow to his face by Fancher, was dragged out of his vehicle, and was manhandled and punched repeatedly. Defendants contend that the force used by Corvino and Fancher was reasonable, given the fact that Plaintiff had been driving erratically; that he ignored commands to surrender; and that he actively resisted arrest by struggling against the officers and by clutching his seat belt to avoid being removed from the car. But by both his testimony and his affidavit, Plaintiff plainly disputes Defendants' account that he had been non-compliant and resisting arrest. See Doc. 51-1 at 254-6; see also Doc. 68-9 ¶¶9, 10. Plaintiff also denies that he was driving recklessly prior to his interactions with the police, and states that he was unaware that the police were following his vehicle. See Doc. 68-9 ¶¶4, 7. These Defendants indisputably had some level of physical contact with Plaintiff. The contrasting accounts of both Plaintiff's and Defendants' conduct present genuine factual issues that preclude determination of the objective reasonableness of the force used by these officers. A reasonable jury could find that the use of force was objectively unreasonable.[3]

         The Second Circuit has stated that "at least in some excessive force cases the various parts of the [qualified immunity] analysis ultimately converge on one question: Whether in the particular circumstances faced by the officer, a reasonable officer would believe that the force employed was lawful." Cowan ex rel. Estate of Cooper v. Breen, 352 F.3d 756, 764 n.7 (2d Cir. 2003). "Although a conclusion that the defendant official's conduct was objectively reasonable as a matter of law may be appropriate where there is no dispute as to the material historical facts, if there is such a dispute, the factual questions must be resolved by the factfinder." Kerman v. City of New York, 374 F.3d 93, 109 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted); see also Mickle v. Morin, 297 F.3d 114, 122 (2d Cir. 2002) ("Where the circumstances are in dispute, and contrasting accounts present factual issues as to the degree of force actually employed and its reasonableness, a defendant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on a defense of qualified immunity." (quotation marks and citation omitted)).

         Crediting Plaintiff's account that he was lawfully operating his vehicle in a responsible manner, that the officers did not identify themselves or issue any commands, and that he did not resist in any way, the use of force here would be objectively unreasonable. See O'Hara, 570 Fed.Appx. at 24 (affirming the denial of qualified immunity on an excessive force claim where it was alleged that "unarmed, non-menacing" plaintiff was punched by an officer in the face without provocation and then punched repeatedly after he fell to the ground); see also Graham v. City of New York, 928 F.Supp.2d 610, 619 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (finding that the forcible removal of an nonviolent individual from a vehicle for suspected traffic violations can constitute an unreasonable use of force (collecting cases)). Although Defendants purport to rely on "the facts viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, " Doc. 51-1 at 1 n.1, the argument advanced as to their entitlement to qualified immunity is founded on the contention that Plaintiff was struck "to obtain compliance" and that "Plaintiff ignored commands to surrender and struggled when Officer Fancher attempted to remove him from the vehicle, by holding on to the driver's side seat belt." Id. at 12. This is hardly Plaintiff's version of the events; Plaintiff both testified and affirmed that he had not heard any commands from the police, nor had he resisted the officers. These assertions, made under oath, clearly create a genuine dispute.

         Viewing the facts in a manner most favorable to Plaintiff, no reasonable officer would believe that Fancher and Corvino were justified in punching this law-abiding individual in the face, forcibly pulling him from his car, and then subjecting him to an additional assault in bringing him to the ground to be restrained. For this reason, and because the Court "cannot grant summary judgment based on its assessment of the credibility of the evidence presented, " Rogoz, 796 F.3d at 246 (quotation marks and citation omitted), Defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Accordingly, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, and acknowledging that there are genuine issues of fact in dispute, Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against Fancher and Corvino will be denied.

         2. Failure to Intervene

         Plaintiff also asserts a claim for failure to intervene against each of the Officer Defendants. "A law enforcement officer has an affirmative duty to intercede on the behalf of a citizen whose constitutional rights are being violated in his presence by other officers." O'Neill v. Krzeminski, 839 F.2d 9, 11 (2d Cir. 1988) (collecting cases); see also Anderson v. Branen, 17 F.3d 552, 557 (2d Cir. 1994) ("It is widely recognized that all law enforcement officials have an affirmative duty to intervene to protect the constitutional rights of citizens from infringement by other law enforcement officers in their presence." (collecting cases)). "Liability attaches on the theory that the officer, by failing to intervene, ...


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