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Lear v. Borough of Brentwood

February 23, 2006

RONALD J. LEAR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BOROUGH OF BRENTWOOD, OFFICER MILTON MULHOLLAND, III, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge

MEMORANDUM ORDER

In this memorandum order, the court considers the motion for partial summary judgment filed by plaintiff Ronald J. Lear ("plaintiff" or "Lear") and the motion for summary judgment filed by defendants Borough of Brentwood (the "borough") and Officer Milton Mulholland, III ("Mulholland")( together with the borough referred to collectively as "defendants"). After considering the joint statement of material facts, the motions and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court will grant defendants' motion in part by dismissing the claims against the borough and by reason of qualified immunity will dismiss plaintiff's claim against Mulholland relating to plaintiff's involuntary commitment. The court will deny the remainder of defendants' motion as well as the plaintiff's motion in its entirety for the reasons set forth in this opinion.

Factual Background

Plaintiff is an adult individual, residing at 423 East Garden Street, Brentwood, Pennsylvania with his wife Carol Lear. Joint Statement of Material Facts ("J.S.") ¶ 1. The house located immediately next door to plaintiff's residence, on the east side, is owned by Norman and Laura Schmidt (the "Schmidts"). J.S. ¶ 2. The Schmidts' home address is 421 East Garden Street. Id. In the past, the Schmidts had confrontations with Lear, including some that required the summoning of law enforcement to the neighborhood. Id. ¶ 5.

On July 21, 2002, at 4:30 p.m., Laura Schmidt ("L. Schmidt") placed a telephone call to the Brentwood Police Department. Id. ¶ 3. During the telephone call, L. Schmidt stated the following:

This is Laura Schmidt at 421 East Garden. My neighbor is carrying on and he is out on the front street with a gun. I don't know what kind it is, but it's a gun.

Id. ¶ 3. L. Schmidt stated, in response to questions from the emergency dispatcher, that the gun was "a big handgun" and that the name of the person carrying the gun was "Ron Lear." Id. ¶ 4.

In response to the call from L. Schmidt, Mulholland and Officer Mike Fisher ("Fisher") were dispatched to 421 East Garden Road. Id. ¶ 6. The radio dispatcher informed Mulholland and Fisher that "there was a man out on the front street with a gun, a handgun in his hand." Id. ¶

6. Mulholland and Fisher were further informed that the man with the gun was a 60-year old white male "who lives right next door this address--he lives at 423." Id. ¶ 7. Neither Mulholland nor Fisher heard the telephone call from L. Schmidt to the Brentwood Police Department. Id. ¶

8. The only information available to Mulholland and Fisher was the information given to them by the radio dispatcher. Id. No one informed Mulholland and Fisher, prior to their arrival at 421 East Garden Road, that the man with the gun had pointed it at, or threatened to shoot at, anyone. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. Prior to their arrival, the Brentwood Police Department had not received a report indicating that Lear had fired a gun at anyone. Id. ¶ 11.

As Mulholland and Fisher arrived at the scene, Lear was not visible outside and contact was sought with Lear's residence. Id. ¶ 12. When Mulholland and Fisher arrived, no one on the street appeared to be in danger of any physical harm of a man with a gun. Id. ¶ 14.

Mulholland was the officer in charge at the scene. Id. ¶ 15. Mulholland recalled arriving on the scene "within a minute" of receiving the dispatch. Id. ¶ 16. Mulholland stated that, after he arrived on the scene and as he approached the Schmidts' residence, L. Schmidt came to the front door of the house. Id. ¶ 17. Mulholland recalled L. Schmidt telling him that the "man next door in front of her house... [had]...a big handgun." Id. ¶ 18. Mulholland also stated, however, that L. Schmidt did not inform him or state that the man had pointed the gun at her or anyone else. Id. ¶¶ 19-20.

L. Schmidt described the man to Mulholland as being loud and boisterous, but could not hear any words spoken by him. Id. ¶ 22. Mulholland then requested that the Brentwood Police Department attempt to establish a telephone connection with Lear's residence. Id. ¶ 27. The Brentwood Police Department was unable to establish a telephone connection with Lear's residence due to a busy signal. Id. ¶ 28. Carol Lear, wife of Lear, testified that the Lear residence contained only one telephone line and that she was conversing on that line during the time that the police arrived. Id. ¶ 29. Due to the Brentwood Police Department's inability to establish contact with the Lear residence, Mulholland requested that the telephone operator's assistance be sought to break through the busy signal on the Lear residence's telephone line. Id. ¶ 28.

After arriving on the scene, Mulholland set up a perimeter around the Lear residence. Id. ¶ 30. Mulholland said to Lear to "take a step out" of his residence. Id. ¶ 33. As the Lears exited their residence, police officers were surrounding the area. Id. ¶ 35. Immediately upon exiting his residence, Lear was handcuffed. Id. ¶ 36. Lear remained outside of his residence, handcuffed in the street, while it was searched by police officers. Id. ¶¶ 36, 38. Lear was held in custody outside of his home for 2-3 minutes and did not engage in behavior indicating an immediate threat of harm. Id. ¶ 40. Prior to Mulholland ordering Lear to exit his residence, there was sufficient time for Mulholland, or another police officer, to have obtained a warrant for Lear's arrest, if sufficient grounds existed for Lear's arrest. Id. ¶ 41. No attempt was made to obtain an arrest warrant for Lear. Id. ¶ 42.

Prior to Mulholland requesting Lear to exit his residence, Mulholland had not formed an opinion as to whether Lear was suffering from a mental disorder. Id. ¶ 43. Following the police officers' sweep of the Lear residence, Lear was returned to his residence, still in handcuffs, and seated on the couch in his living room. Id. ¶ 44. Mulholland then had a discussion with Lear.

Id. ¶ 48. The tone of the discussion was conversational. Id. Lear informed Mulholland that he was upset over damage done to his driveway by the Schmidts. Ex. F, at 76-78. During that conversation with Mulholland, Mulholland claims that Lear said he was going to "fix" his neighbors ( Id. ¶ 55), and that Lear also told Mulholland that he was outside of his residence with the pellet gun in order to "scare his neighbors"--the Schmidts. Id. ¶ 56. Shortly after Lear returned to his residence, Mulholland and Fisher were informed, after speaking with Lear, that the "gun" referred to by Schmidt was a pellet gun. Id. ¶¶ 45, 47.

Mulholland, after Lear was placed back in his residence, proceeded to leave the house and speak with L. Schmidt and Betty Couch ("Couch"). Id. ¶ 46. Upon speaking with L. Schmidt, Mullholland proceeded to inspect Lear's driveway for any damage or vandalism. Ex. F, pgs. 86-87. Mullholland found no evidence of any damage. Id. Lear then spoke with Couch and then returned to the Lear residence and spoke to Lear. Id. at 88-9. After Mulholland's discussion with Lear, and while Mulholland was speaking with L. Schmidt and Couch, Carol Lear retrieved the pellet gun and presented it to Fisher. J.S. ¶ 59. Couch is Lear's next-door neighbor to the east. Id. ¶ 51. During L. Schmidt's conversation with Mulholland, she was emotional and upset and indicated that she feared Lear. Id. ¶ 50.

After being taken into custody by Mulholland and Fisher, Lear was placed in a jail cell. Id. ¶ 65. While Lear was in his cell, Mulholland heard a loud thump. Id. ¶ 67. Lear was screaming in his cell for an attorney at the time. Id. Mulholland questioned whether Lear was unconscious after the thump and summoned Emergency Medical Services to transport Lear to the hospital. Id. ¶ 68. Lear was transported to Jefferson Memorial Hospital by ambulance and involuntarily committed for a mental health evaluation. Id. ¶ 70.

Borough police officers receive training at the police academy as well as yearly updates on dealing with mentally disturbed citizens. Exhibit A, at 24. In the borough, "very few" citizens are subject to involuntary commitments. Id. at 22. Within two years prior to the date of Lear's involuntary commitment, borough police officers attended a class on how to deal with mentally disturbed citizens. Id. Finally, all police officers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania must attend yearly classes administered under the auspices of the Municipal Police Officers Training and Education Commission and pass a test based on the material taught. Exhibit T, at 16. In 2002, the classes contained a course dealing with mental health and behavioral health issues. Id.

Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment may be granted if, drawing all inferences in favor of the non-moving party, "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c). A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by the mere existence of some disputed facts, but will be defeated when there is a genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 249. The court may consider any material or evidence that would be admissible or usable at trial in deciding the merits of a motion for summary judgment. Horta v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 2, 8 (1st Cir. 1993) (citing WRIGHT AND MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE§ 2721); Pollack v. City of Newark, 147 F.Supp. 35, 39 (D.N.J. 1956), aff'd, 248 F.2d 543 (3d Cir. 1957), cert.denied, 355 U.S. 964 (1958) ("in considering a motion for summary judgment, the court is entitled to consider exhibits and other papers that have been identified by affidavit or otherwise made admissible in evidence") (emphasis added).

Analysis

I. Qualified Immunity--Claims Against Mulholland

Defendants assert that Mulholland is entitled to summary judgment in his favor on all claims made against him on the ground of qualified immunity. The Supreme Court recognized that suits against state officials are another way of suing a state. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991). When sued in their personal capacities, state officers or officials, however, come to court as individuals. Id. at 27. A state official, when sued as an individual, fits within the statutory term "person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id.

The privilege of qualified immunity recognizes the balance between the need for a forum to vindicate the abuse of federal rights and the "substantial societal costs" entailed in opening government officials to suit for the discretionary exercise of their public duties. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 814 (1982). The United States Supreme Court resolved these competing concerns "by generally providing government officials performing discretionary functions with a qualified immunity, shielding them from civil damages liability as long as their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 632, 638 (1987).*fn1

An objective inquiry is required into the reasonableness of the actions of government officials that permits government officials to anticipate when their conduct may give rise to liability for damages. Id. at 645-66. The privilege affords "protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). "Thus, law enforcement officials who 'reasonably but mistakenly' conclude that their conduct comports with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment are entitled to immunity." Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 826 (3d Cir. 1997)(quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991)). When it attaches, the privilege of qualified immunity "is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability" which is lost if defendants are permitted to go to trial. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2001).*fn2 Once qualified immunity is asserted by a defendant, the plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating the privilege should not attach. McLaughlin v. Watson, 271 F.3d 566, 570 (3d Cir. 2001).

An analytical framework was developed to test whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. Under this framework, the inquiry into the claim of qualified immunity is distinct from the inquiry into the merits of the claim. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 197. First, the court must determine whether the facts, taken in a light most favorable to the plaintiff's allegations, show that defendant's conduct violated a federal right or constituted a constitutional violation. Id. at 201. In determining this first step, the court should "set forth principles which will become the basis for a holding that a right is clearly established." Id.

If a federal right would be violated based upon a plaintiff's allegations, the court must move to the next step: whether the federal right alleged to be violated was clearly established to a degree of particularity within the specific context of the case at issue. Id. A broad and generalized declaration that a clearly established federal right was violated is insufficient. Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640. For example, in Anderson, the Supreme Court determined that for purposes of applying the qualified immunity privilege, the simple assertion that the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless searches without probable cause and exigent circumstances was not enough to demonstrate that the defendants' conduct violated a "clearly established" right under the particular facts of that case. Id. at 640-41. Instead, the Court stated that, in order for a right to be "clearly established," "[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Id.

If a rule requiring particularity was not in place, "[p]laintiffs would be able to convert the rule of qualified immunity that our cases plainly establish into a rule of virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights." Id. at 639. The net effect would be to transform "a guarantee of immunity into a rule of pleading." Id. Thus, for the second prong of the framework, a right is "clearly established" where "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202. If the court determines that a review of the particular context demonstrates that the rights alleged to have been violated have been "clearly established," the court reaches the third and final step in the analytic framework: "whether a reasonable government official should have known that the alleged action violated the plaintiffs' rights." Doe v. County of Centre, Pa., 242 F.3d 437, 454 (3d Cir. 2001).

The Supreme Court of the United States instructs that determining whether a right was "clearly established depends, in large degree, on the degree of particularity within the specific context of the case at issue." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 197. Other courts have noted that a public official is considered to have constructive knowledge of established law. Cannon v. City & County of Denver, 998 F.2d 867, 874 n.6 (10th Cir. 1993). In addition, the Supreme Court has instructed lower courts to apply all precedents within their knowledge in deciding the issue of qualified immunity. Elder v. Holloway, 510 U.S. 510 (1994).

Plaintiff claims that Mulholland is not entitled to qualified immunity and that Mulholland violated plaintiff's constitutional rights because he was illegally seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment*fn3 , the warrantless search of his home violated the Fourth Amendment, and his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when he was involuntarily committed. The court will address each of plaintiff's arguments.

a. Illegal Seizure of Plaintiff

Plaintiff argues that exigent circumstances did not justify an arrest of plaintiff in his home. "Although police may make a warrantless search in a public place if they have probable cause to believe the suspect is a felon, 'the Fourth Amendment has drawn a firm line at the entrance to the house. Absent exigent circumstances, that threshold may not reasonably be crossed without a warrant." Sharrar, 128 F.3d at 819(quoting Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (1980)). The issue of when an arrest actually occurs has been repeatedly litigated. Two decisions illustrate the issue. In I.N.S. v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 215 (1984), the United States Supreme Court held that a person is seized, for Fourth Amendment purposes, "if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave." Later, in California v. Hodari D.,499 U.S. 621, 626 (1991), the Supreme Court held that an arrest is characterized as requiring either physical force or submission to the assertion of authority.

The parties agree that Lear was arrested without a warrant. Defendants argue that exigent circumstances permitted Mulholland to arrest plaintiff. The government, or borough in this case, bears the burden of showing that exigent circumstances existed to overcome the presumption that home arrests made without a warrant are unreasonable. Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 750 (1984). The United States Supreme Court in Minnesota v. Olson, 495 U.S. 91, 100 (1990), found that the Minnesota Supreme Court correctly outlined the parameters of exigent circumstances in this context. "'[A] warrantless intrusion may be justified by hot pursuit of a fleeing felon, or imminent destruction of evidence, ... or the need to prevent a suspect's escape, or the risk of danger to the police or to other persons inside or outside the dwelling'." Id. (quoting State v. Olson, 436 N.W.2d 92, 97 (Minn. 1989))(citations omitted); see Sharrar, 128 F.3d at 820 (quoting Olson).

In this case, the court recognizes that the first and second steps of the analytical framework relating to qualified immunity are met because the right to be free from arrest in one's home, absent the existence of one of the above listed exigent circumstances, is a clearly established constitutional right. Under the third step in the analysis the court must now consider the particular facts of this ...


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