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Gaymon v. Borough of Collingdale

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 17, 2015

KIA GAYMON et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BOROUGH OF COLLINGDALE et al., Defendants

Page 458

          For KIA GAYMON, MICHAEL GAYMON, SANSHURAY PURNELL, Plaintiffs: JONATHAN H. FEINBERG, LEAD ATTORNEY, KAIRYS RUDOVSKY MESSING & FEINBERG LLP, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

         For BOROUGH OF COLLINGDALE, CARL WHITE, POLICE OFFICER, WILLIAM ECKERT, POLICE OFFICER, Defendant: MARK ALAN RAITH, ROBERT P. DIDOMENICIS, HOLSTEN & ASSOCIATES, MEDIA, PA.

Page 459

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Gerald Austin McHugh, United States District Court Judge.

         This is a case where, if the allegations are true, a petty complaint from a neighbor led to a grossly disproportionate response by police, culminating in officers entering a family's home and arresting its owner for doing nothing more than attempting to videotape the officers' over-reaction on her own property. It is a claim which can only be described as having particular resonance when viewed against the backdrop of recent events nationally, where videotapes by citizens have proven to be indispensable in bringing to light instances where police unfortunately misused their power. The facts remain unproven, but Defendants here seek to prevent Plaintiffs from even making their case by claiming that they are entitled to qualified immunity. When viewed against the allegations of this Complaint, the assertion of that defense, which would terminate this case at its outset, brings into sharp focus the question of whether the doctrine of qualified immunity is being invoked more than is warranted. Suffice it to say that dismissing this Complaint at the pleading stage given the record before me would risk rendering the Bill of Rights meaningless, at least as it applies to the sanctity of a citizen's home. Accordingly, the Motion to Dismiss has been denied.

Page 460

         I. Facts Alleged in Plaintiffs' Complaint

         Plaintiff Kia Gaymon is a 38-year-old social work supervisor for a nonprofit agency. She has a Masters of Social Work from Temple University. Her husband, Plaintiff Michael Gaymon, is a 35-year-old technician with a telecommunications utility company, in addition to currently completing his college education. They have a 21-year-old daughter, Plaintiff Sanshuray Purnell, and a 10-year-old son. They own a home in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, where they have lived with their children since March 2007.

         On February 22, 2014, Defendant Officers Carl White and William Eckert went to Plaintiffs' home in response to a call made by their next-door neighbor, who allegedly complained that Mr. Gaymon's mother (a guest in their home at the time) had parked her car so that the front tire was on the curb in front of the neighbor's house. Upon arriving, the Defendant officers confronted Plaintiffs as they were leaving for a family outing. According to the Complaint, Defendant White began yelling at them in an aggressive manner, asking who spit at their neighbor.

         Plaintiffs Mrs. and Mr. Gaymon explained that they had done nothing wrong, and that their neighbor falsely accused them of spitting at her. Defendant White then allegedly approached Mr. Gaymon in an antagonistic way, placing his face within inches of Mr. Gaymon's face while yelling at him. Mrs. Gaymon, concerned about the officer's aggressive conduct, took out her cell phone and began making a video recording. Officer White approached Mrs. Gaymon, at which point she moved inside her home, continuing to video White by either leaning around the storm door or through the window in the door.

         According to the Complaint, White ordered Mrs. Gaymon to stop videotaping him, and declared that her doing so violated Pennsylvania's wiretap statute. Her husband and daughter, who were standing in front of their home, told White he was incorrect, and Mrs. Gaymon had a right to record. White told Mrs. Gaymon that if she did not stop taping him, he would enter her house, seize her phone, and arrest her. Mrs. Gaymon told White he was not permitted to enter her home. He walked up the stairs to the front entrance, but before entering, he grabbed her daughter Sanshuray, handcuffed her, placed her under arrest, and threatened to deploy his Taser against her. Officer Eckert then removed Sanshuray from the scene.

         Officer White is next alleged to have entered Plaintiffs' home and ordered Mrs. Gaymon again to stop videotaping him. Mrs. and Mr. Gaymon reiterated that they did not consent to his entry, and he was not permitted to be in their home. Ignoring them, Defendant White allegedly grabbed Mrs. Gaymon, pushed her up against the wall, and held his Taser to her chest. At this time, Defendant Officers Eckert and others identified as " John Does" joined Officer White and placed Mrs. Gaymon under arrest. They removed Mrs. Gaymon from her home, placed her in a separate police vehicle from her daughter, and drove both women to the Collingdale Police Station.

         The officers released Mrs. Gaymon and Sanshuray from police custody later that day, stating they would receive citations in the mail for " disorderly conduct" under 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5503, which they did. As a result, they retained counsel to represent them during their court proceeding. On May 22, 2014, Mrs. Gaymon and Sanshuray appeared before a Magisterial District Justice. After hearing testimony from Defendant White, the Magisterial District Justice dismissed all charges.

Page 461

          Plaintiffs contend that they never engaged in wrongdoing of any kind, and Defendants never had probable cause to believe they engaged in disorderly conduct or committed any other criminal violation. They further plead that the criminal proceedings were maliciously initiated. In addition, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants did not have legal cause to enter their home, and the Defendant officers' acted in retaliation for Plaintiffs' engaging in First Amendment activity, including disagreeing with Defendant White and protesting the officers' entry into their home.

         The Complaint consists of four civil rights claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Borough of Collingdale and the individual Defendants: Officers White, Eckert, and Does. Mrs. Gaymon and Sanshuray Purnell assert a Fourth Amendment wrongful arrest claim (Count I); a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim (Count II); and a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim (Count III). Joined by Mr. Gaymon, they further assert a Fourth Amendment unlawful search violation (Count IV).

         II. Discussion

         Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, arguing that the Defendant officers are entitled to qualified immunity. In their written motion, Defendants argued that whether Mrs. Gaymon's conduct in recording Officer White violated the Pennsylvania Wiretap Act was not clearly established as of February 22, 2014, which would have resulted in dismissal of only Mrs. Gaymon's unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution claims.[1]

         At oral argument, defense counsel took the bold position that qualified immunity should be extended to shield the Defendant officers from all liability, including the constitutional claims alleged by Ms. Purnell and Mr. Gaymon. Defendants sought to redefine the focus of the qualified immunity analysis to whether there was a clearly established " First Amendment right to record" police officers performing their official duties at the time of the alleged incident in 2014. I will analyze these distinct arguments separately, but the result remains the same regardless of how one frames the issue. Under these circumstances, qualified immunity provides no defense.

         a. Legal Standard

         In determining whether the Defendant officers are shielded from liability based on qualified immunity, I must accept Plaintiffs' factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); George v. Rehiel, 738 F.3d 562, 571 (3d Cir. 2013). " Qualified immunity shields government officials from personal liability for civil damages 'insofar as their conduct

Page 462

does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" George, 738 F.3d at 571-72 (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). The doctrine is intended to give officers " breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions." Id. Consequently, " [a]ny claim of qualified immunity must be resolved at the earliest possible stage of the litigation." Miller v. Clinton County, 544 F.3d 542, 547 (3d Cir. 2008). Defendants emphasize that under a proper qualified immunity analysis, the doctrine protects " all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Id. at 572 (citing Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2085, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011)).

         To overcome the defense of qualified immunity, Plaintiffs must allege facts showing that the Defendant officers' conduct (1) " violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." George, 738 F.3d at 572 (quoting al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2080). Following Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009), I do not need to undertake the two-part inquiry in sequential order. Here, given the conduct of the police--following Mrs. Gaymon into her home over her protest and charging her for videotaping on her own property--I will focus on the second part of the test concerning whether the law was clearly established.

         Defendants bear the burden of establishing their entitlement to the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. See Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 288 (3d Cir. 2014). Thus, in light of Defendants' arguments, to succeed under either theory, they must prove that the statutory or constitutional right in question was not clearly established at the time of the incident. For purposes of this inquiry, the " contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Schneyder v. Smith, 653 F.3d 313, 329 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). In evaluating the state of the law in 2014, the " salient question" is whether the officers had " fair warning" that their conduct was unconstitutional. See Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 741, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002).

         Of particular significance here:

[t]o be established clearly, however, there is no need that " the very action in question [have] previously been held unlawful." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 615, 119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818 (1999). The unconstitutionality of outrageous conduct obviously will be unconstitutional, this being the reason, as Judge Posner has said, that " [t]he easiest cases don't even arise." K.H. v. Morgan, 914 F.2d 846, 851 (7th Cir. 1990). But even as to action less than an outrage, " officials can still be on notice that their conduct violates established law . . . in novel factual circumstances." Hope v. Pelzer, [536 U.S. at 741].

Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding, 557 U.S. 364, 377-78, 129 S.Ct. 2633, 174 L.Ed.2d 354 (2009) (emphasis added). When no case law addresses the specific facts at issue, " a general constitutional rule already identified in the decisional law may apply with obvious clarity to the specific ...


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