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Christopher Jones v. City of Philadelphia

February 24, 2011

CHRISTOPHER JONES
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, ET AL



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Goldberg, J. February 24, 2011

Plaintiff, Christopher Jones, initiated this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against six Philadelphia police officers and the City of Philadelphia on behalf of the estate of his brother, Bryan Jones, who was shot and killed by Officer Steven Szczepkowski on January 1, 2007. Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND*fn1 On December 31, 2006, Officers Steven Szczepkowski and Michael Trintz were partnered and assigned to respond to reports of celebratory New Year's Eve gunfire.*fn2 Shortly after midnight, the officers were called to the1700 block of 59th Street, based upon a report of multiple gunshots and an officer in need of assistance. When they arrived at the intersection of 59th Street and Haddington Lane, Szczepkowski heard gunfire and observed two officers outside of their vehicles on North 59th Street firing at a male on the roof, while another officer took cover behind a tree. (Def.'s State. Facts ¶¶ 59, 63, 68, 70.)

Szczepkowski exited his vehicle, and with his gun drawn, ran east down Haddington Lane to secure the rear of the property. Szczepkowski testified that he then saw two individuals running south across Haddington Lane -- one who was pointing a gun in his direction, and another who was reaching for his waistband and turning towards him. Szczepkowski fired his weapon twice, fatally wounding an individual later identified as Bryan Jones. (Def. State. Facts ¶¶ 77-80.) During an interview with police officials later that evening, another officer at the scene, Paul Tinnenney, reported seeing only one individual run across Haddington Lane in the moments before the shooting. (Doc. No. 63, Ex. F., D-3 pp. 4-7.)

Plaintiff alleges that Szczepkowski's use of deadly force violated Bryan Jones's right to be free of unreasonable seizures, as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. He further contends that the City of Philadelphia is responsible for this constitutional violation, by virtue of its deficient policies and procedures regarding the pursuit and seizure of purported criminals, as well as its monitoring, investigation and discipline of Philadelphia police officers. Plaintiff also raises claims under Pennsylvania law.*fn3 (Compl. ¶¶ 31-40, 50-60, 67-68, 71-77, 83-89.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment is proper "if there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the movant's initial Celotex burden can be met simply by "pointing out to the district court that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Id. at 325. After the moving party has met its initial burden, summary judgment is appropriate if the non-moving party fails to rebut by making a factual showing "sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Id. at 322.

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment, asserting that: (1) the undisputed facts reflect that Officer Szczepkowski did not violate the constitutional rights of Bryan Jones, as is required under § 1983; (2) Officer Szczepkowski is entitled to qualified immunity; (3) Plaintiff has failed to adduce sufficient evidence to sustain a claim against the City of Philadelphia, pursuant to Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1992); and (4) Plaintiff's claims of reckless disregard of safety and wrongful death are barred by the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

A. The Alleged Fourth Amendment Constitutional Violation

To establish a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant, acting under the color of state law, violated the plaintiff's federal constitutional or statutory rights, and thereby caused the complained of injury. Elmore v. Cleary, 399 F.3d 279, 281 (3d Cir. 2005). Plaintiff's § 1983 claim is based upon Officer Szczepkowski's alleged use of excessive force in violation of the FourthAmendment.*fn4 Under this theory, Plaintiff must establish that "a 'seizure' occurred and that it was unreasonable." Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 515 (3d Cir. 2003)).

Because there is no question that Jones was seized, our analysis centers upon whether any material factual issues exist as to the reasonableness of the seizure. The "test for reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, 'the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivations.'" Kopec, 361 F.3d at 776 (quoting Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989)). In cases involving the use of deadly force, the factfinder must consider, among other factors, whether it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that such force was "necessary to prevent the suspect's escape, and that the suspect posed a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer[] or others[.]" Abraham v. Raso, 183 F.3d 279, 289 (3d Cir. 1999).

In support of summary judgment, Defendants point to the testimony of Officer Szczepkowski, which they claim is undisputed. Szczepkowski testified that after arriving at the 1700 block of North 59th Street, in response to reports of gun fire and a request for an officer assist, he exited his patrol car to secure the rear of the property and saw two individuals running south across Haddington Lane towards a pedestrian stairway. Szczepkowski claimed that the first individual to cross the street pointed a gun at him, and that the second "turned in [his] direction and grabbed his waistband." Szczepkowski testified that, upon ...


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