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Hall v. Raech

January 7, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yohn, J.


Plaintiff, Stephen Hall, sues the City of Coatesville and two City police officers, Michael Raech and Joseph Carboni, seeking damages and other relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Plaintiff's claims stem from an incident in which he encountered the defendant officers while suffering a diabetic episode. Plaintiff alleges that Raech and Carboni violated his Fourth Amendment rights by "seizing" him when it should have been apparent that he was experiencing a medical emergency and by using excessive force in doing so, and that the City of Coatesville is liable for failing to train its police force properly. Plaintiff also sues Raech and Carboni for assault and battery under state law. All three defendants have filed a joint motion for summary judgment. Upon consideration of defendants' motion, plaintiff's response, and defendants' reply, and for the reasons set forth herein, the court will grant in part and deny in part the motion.

I. Factual Background*fn1

Plaintiff is an insulin-dependent, brittle*fn2 diabetic. (Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ["Defs.' Mot."] ¶ 7; Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. ["Pl.'s Resp."] ¶ 7; Pl.'s Dep. 110.) On July 21, 2007, plaintiff attended a birthday party for his teenage son at the home of his ex-wife. (Defs.' Mot. ¶¶ 5-6; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 5-6.) Although plaintiff checked his blood sugar before leaving the party to make the eight mile drive home, he suffered a diabetic episode, also known as insulin shock, when he was within a few blocks of his own residence. (Defs.' Mot. ¶¶ 7-8; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 7-8.) As part of this episode, plaintiff became confused and disoriented. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 9; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 9.) He did not know where he was and made a wrong turn, even though he was within two blocks of his home. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 9; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 9.) He also experienced blurry and double vision, minor trembling, and sweating. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 10; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff was aware at the time that he was having an insulin shock episode, and he started drinking a soda in an effort to adjust his blood sugar. (Pl.'s Dep. 28-30.) While still experiencing the symptoms of insulin shock, plaintiff attempted to turn his truck around and backed into a telephone pole. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 11; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 11; Pl.'s Dep. 29.) He then continued on, driving past his house and turning into the driveway of an industrial park two blocks away in order to "come back and park [his] vehicle in front of [his] house." (Pl.'s Dep. 30, 33-34.)

At 9:36 p.m., a resident who identified himself as Denton Rummel called 911 and reported that a dark colored truck "driving slowly up and down [an] alley" had run into a telephone pole and had run through a stop sign. (See Defs.' Ex. C (Tr. of 911 call).) Rummel also reported that the vehicle had headed westbound on Charles Street*fn3 and that the driver was a male of unknown race who was wearing a white t-shirt and appeared to be intoxicated. (See id.) Officer Raech received a radio call to respond to the situation at 9:38 p.m., and he arrived at the industrial park at the intersection of 11th and Charles Streets at 9:42 p.m. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 15; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 15; Defs.' Ex. D (Coatesville Police Department Incident Investigation Report).) Within moments, Officer Carboni also arrived at the scene. (Pl.'s Ex. B ["Raech Dep."] 144-45.) Finding plaintiff's pickup truck stopped but still running in the entrance to the industrial park, Raech approached the driver's side of the vehicle. (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 17; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 17; Raech Dep. 79.) The parties offer differing accounts of the encounter that followed.

Plaintiff testified that two Coatesville Police officers approached the truck, one at the driver's side door and the other in the front, and told him to shut the vehicle off. (Pl.'s Dep. 36-37.) Plaintiff complied and said, "I'm diabetic. I think my sugar dropped." (Id. at 37-38.) Plaintiff also testified that he was wearing a medical alert necklace on the outside of his shirt at the time of the encounter with Raech and Carboni, and that there was a medical alert decal on the driver's side of the front windshield of the truck.*fn4 (Id. at 74-75, 85-86.) Although plaintiff acknowledged that he probably was not speaking clearly, as speech problems are part of the syndrome that goes with insulin shock, he nevertheless believed that he was speaking in a way that the officers could understand.*fn5 (Id. at 42-43.) The officers then told plaintiff to "get out of the vehicle now." (Id. at 38.) Plaintiff reached for his seat belt, but before he could unfasten it, the officers grabbed him by the left shoulder and the back of his jeans and "[f]lipped [him] head first onto the road," ripping his right back pocket. (Id. at 38, 45-47.) Plaintiff hit the pavement head first, and an officer then "jumped on [his] back, on [his] shoulders very hard." (Id. at 38.) Plaintiff testified that as his left hand was pulled back, he felt someone "either jumping on, hitting or kicking [his] legs." (Id.) Because he was in pain, plaintiff was thrashing his upper body and trying to move his legs while the officers were attempting to handcuff him, even though they had told him to hold still. (Id. at 81-84.) Once the officers had handcuffed plaintiff, Raech patted him down and discovered his insulin pump. (Raech Dep. 97-98.) The officers then "sat [plaintiff] up with [his] knees up in the middle of the road" before picking him up and leaning him-still handcuffed-against the tailgate of his truck. (Pl.'s Dep. 38, 54, 56.)*fn6

It is undisputed that after Raech and Carboni discovered plaintiff's insulin pump, one of the officers at the scene*fn7 called an ambulance at 9:50 p.m., and that the ambulance arrived at 9:59 p.m. (Defs.' Mot. ¶¶ 27-28; Pl.'s Resp. ¶¶ 27-28; Defs.' Ex. G (ambulance records).) A paramedic confirmed that plaintiff's blood sugar was low and treated him with two glucose packs (Defs.' Mot. ¶ 29; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 29), and the ambulance departed by 10:21 p.m. (see Defs.' Mot. ¶ 31; Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 31). Plaintiff testified that he remained handcuffed while the paramedic was treating him.*fn8 (Pl.'s Dep. 59-60.)

Plaintiff testified that, as a result of the incident, he had immediate pain in his left shoulder, left elbow, neck, ribs, and head, which had hit the pavement when he was taken to the ground, causing an abrasion on his left temple. (Pl.'s Dep. 82-84.) Plaintiff also suffered bruising around his right shoulder blade and right side, just above the belt line, and scrapes on his left knee and elbow (id. at 89-91), and he has continued to have back, neck, and shoulder pain for which is still being treated (id. at 99-100; see also Pl.'s Ex. C (Apr. 20, 2009, letter from Dr. Carl E. Hiller to plaintiff's attorney)).

In October 2008, plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit, naming as defendants Raech and the City of Coatesville Police Department, as well as the Valley Township Police Department and Valley officer Jeffrey Giannini. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, and by order dated March 25, 2009, the court granted in part and denied in part defendants' motions. Pursuant to the parties' stipulation, the court later dismissed the claims against Giannini and the Valley Township Police Department on April 15, 2009, and plaintiff thereafter filed an amended complaint against Raech, Carboni, and the City of Coatesville. Defendants now have moved for summary judgment as to all claims against them.

II. Summary Judgment Standard

A motion for summary judgment should be granted "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must "come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). A factual issue is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Thus, to avoid summary judgment, the non-movant must make a showing sufficient to establish each essential element of its case with respect to which it will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.

In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [the non-movant's] favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. "Summary judgment may not be granted . . . if there is a disagreement over what inferences can be reasonably drawn from the facts even if the facts are undisputed." Ideal Dairy Farms, Inc. v. John Labatt, Ltd., 90 F.3d 737, 744 (3d Cir. 1996) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). However, "an inference based upon a speculation or conjecture does not create a material factual dispute sufficient to defeat entry of summary judgment." Robertson v. Allied Signal, Inc., 914 F.2d 360, 382 n.12 (3d Cir. 1990).

III. Discussion

A. Fourth Amendment Claims Against Raech and Carboni

The Fourth Amendment "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). Raech and Carboni do not dispute that they "seized" plaintiff within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment during their encounter with him. (Defs.' Mem. 5-6.) For his § 1983 claims against the defendant officers, plaintiff challenges the reasonableness of this seizure in several respects. Plaintiff asserts two counts of "Unreasonable Seizure," one against each officer, alleging that the seizure was unreasonable because Raech and Carboni should have recognized that plaintiff was experiencing a medical emergency and responded accordingly. (1st Am. Compl., Counts I & II.) He also asserts two counts of "Unreasonable Force," alleging that the seizure was unreasonable by virtue of the excessive force used by the officers in effecting it. (Id., Counts III & IV.)

Raech and Carboni argue that summary judgment must be granted as to plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims because plaintiff has not produced evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that his constitutional rights were violated. (See Defs.' Mem. 5-9.) They also invoke the defense of qualified immunity, arguing that even if plaintiff's evidence is sufficient to show a constitutional violation, the right infringed was not clearly established at the time of the incident. (See id. at 9-12.) The court will address these issues separately as to plaintiff's unreasonable seizure and unreasonable force claims.

1. Unreasonable Seizure (Counts I and II)

a. Constitutional Violation

Although the parties do not identify the precise point in time at which plaintiff was seized by the defendant officers, it is clear that a seizure had occurred by the time the officers approached his truck, one at the driver's side door and one in front of the truck, and told him to "shut the vehicle off" and to "get out of the vehicle now." A seizure "does not occur every time a police officer approaches someone to ask a few questions." Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 205 (3d Cir. 2003). However, by plaintiff's account, Raech and Carboni approached the truck and immediately ordered him to turn it off-a request with which plaintiff contends he complied right away-and then to get out of the vehicle. By the time the officers approached, moreover, at least three police cars with flashing lights had arrived on the scene. In these circumstances, a reasonable person would not have felt "'free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.'" Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255 (2007) (quoting Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436 (1991)). Accordingly, it is clear that the officers' actions resulted in a seizure by this point. See Johnson, 332 F.3d at 206 ...

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