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Charlotte Bergdoll v. City of York

April 27, 2011

CHARLOTTE BERGDOLL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF YORK, THE HONORABLE JOHN S. BRENNER, MAYOR, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MAYOR FOR THE CITY OF YORK, MARK L. WHITMAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS POLICE COMMISSIONER FOR THE CITY OF YORK, WESLEY KAHLEY, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS POLICE CAPTAIN OF OPERATIONS FOR THE CITY OF YORK, POLICE OFFICER A. BAEZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS A POLICE OFFICER FOR THE CITY OF YORK, COUNTY OF YORK, H. STANLEY REBERT, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR THE COUNTY OF YORK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are Motions for Summary Judgment brought by Defendants County of York, Officer Baez, Police Commissioner Whitman, Police Captain Kahley, and City of York (Docs. 58 and 72), as well as a Motion to Disqualify Counsel brought by Defendant County of York (Doc. 55). For the reasons set forth below, Officer Baez's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted in part and denied in part, and the Summary Judgment Motions of the other Defendants will be granted. Finally, the Motion to Disqualify Counsel will be denied.

BACKGROUND

The instant suit stems from an incident that occurred on October 12, 2006. York City Police Officer Andrew Baez responded to a call to check on welfare at 745 West Poplar Street while on traffic car duty. When he arrived at the scene, a woman named Cassandra Whitted identified herself. Charlotte Bergdoll, who worked for Cherry Lane Realty, the manager of the property, then arrived at the residence. There are divergent accounts of what happened next. Officer Baez testified that Ms. Bergdoll immediately started yelling and cursing and became verbally abusive to him and to Ms. Whitted and that he told Ms. Bergdoll she had to leave the residence. In her deposition, Ms. Bergdoll denied using profanity but did state that she asked Officer Baez who he was "screwing" that he had to respond to code violations. Officer Baez then told Ms. Bergdoll she was under arrest According to Ms. Bergdoll, even though she immediately stopped and put her hands behind her back in order to be handcuffed, Officer Baez forcefully pushed her to the ground and put his knee into her back, kneeling on top of her and putting her in handcuffs while she screamed for help. In contrast, Officer Baez testified that Ms. Bergdoll pulled away from him when he was leading her onto the porch and resisted arrest while the two struggled on the porch. Officer Baez further testified that he finally had to put Ms. Bergdoll to the ground and that she continued to scream and resist while Officer Bergdoll kneeled on her and called for back-up. Another police officer then arrived on the scene and Ms. Bergdoll was arrested for disorderly conduct. At the police station, Ms. Bergdoll filed a private citizen complaint against Officer Baez, which was investigated by William Follmer of the York City Police Department Internal Affairs Department. After Mr. Follmer left Internal Affairs, the file was reviewed by Philip Roberts, who testified that there was nothing in Officer Baez's history that would have alerted anyone to his being prone to the use of excessive force or violating citizens' rights. Assistant District Attorney Laurence Stone was assigned by District Attorney Rebert to handle Ms. Bergdoll's trial for disorderly conduct. ADA Stone testified that he was not specifically instructed by the DA's office as to handle the case, and, using his own discretion, decided not to drop the charges against Ms. Bergdoll. Ms. Bergdoll was ultimately acquitted of the disorderly conduct charge.

On October 10, 2008, Ms. Bergdoll initiated the instant suit and filed a Complaint. The County of York and District Attorney Rebert filed a Motion to Dismiss, which the Court granted on January 5, 2009. Ms. Bergdoll filed an Amended Complaint on May 15, 2009 in which District Attorney Rebert was not named. In the Amended Complaint, Ms. Bergdoll brought claims against the Defendants for violations of her constitutional rights under § 1983 (Counts I, IV, V, VI, VII ), malicious prosecution (Count VIII), and state law claims (Counts II, III, IX). On November 3, 2009, the Court granted County of York's Motion to Dismiss the malicious prosecution and state law claims against it, but denied the Motion as to the § 1983 claims. All Defendants have now filed Motions for Summary Judgment. The Motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if "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 fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Where there is no material fact in dispute, the moving party need only establish that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Where, however, there is a disputed issue of material fact, summary judgment is appropriate only if the factual dispute is not a genuine one. Id. An issue of material fact is genuine if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

Where there is a material fact in dispute, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that: (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE: CIVIL 2D § 2727 (2d ed. 1983). The moving party may present its own evidence or, where the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, simply point out to the Court that "the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing of an essential element of her case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party, and the entire record must be examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to either present affirmative evidence supporting its version of the material facts or to refute the moving party's contention that the facts entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57.

The Court need not accept mere conclusory allegations, whether they are made in the complaint or a sworn statement. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

DISCUSSION

I. Officer Baez's Motion for Summary Judgment on the § 1983 Claims (Doc. 72)

Officer Baez's Motion for Summary Judgment on Ms. Bergdoll's Fourth Amendment Excessive Force claim will be denied but the Motion will be granted as to Ms. Bergdoll's remaining Fourth Amendment claims, as well as her First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

A. Qualified Immunity

The Third Circuit has long recognized that "qualified immunity . . . 'provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law'." Bumgarner v. Hart, 316 Fed.Appx. 201, 207 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Blackhawk v. Pennsylvania, 381 F.3d 202, 215 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal citation omitted)).

"Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability 'insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known'." Manigault v. King, 339 Fed.Appx. 229, 231 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Courts apply a two-step test to the defense of qualified immunity: "whether the Officers' acts violated a constitutional or statutory right, and if they did, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the violation." Mierzwa v. United States, 282 Fed.Appx. 973, 978 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court has "discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 129 S. Ct. 808, 819 (2009). Regarding the second step of the test, the United States Supreme Court has held: "[f]or a constitutional right to be clearly established, its contours 'must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right'." Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002) (internal citation omitted).

B. Fourth Amendment Claims

Officer Baez's Summary Judgment Motion will be denied as to Ms. Bergdoll's Excessive Force claim but will be granted as to the remaining Fourth Amendment claims.

1. Officer Baez is not entitled to qualified immunity on the Excessive Force claim.

"To state a claim for excessive force as an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must show that a 'seizure' occurred and that it was unreasonable." Estate of Smith, 318 F.3d at 515 (quoting Abraham v. Raso, 183 F.3d 279, 288 (3d Cir.1999)).

In providing a framework for assessing the reasonableness of a seizure, the Third Circuit has held:

The test of 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." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 1872, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). Thus, if a use of force is objectively reasonable, an officer's good faith is irrelevant and any bad faith motivation on his part is immaterial. See Estate of Smith, 318 F.3d at 515; Abraham, 183 F.3d at 289. Factors to consider in making a determination of reasonableness include the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he actively is resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396, 109 S.Ct. at 1872. A court in making a reasonableness assessment also may consider the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are violent or dangerous, the duration of ...


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