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Morse v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 18, 2015

CHARLES MORSE and LESA MORSE, Plaintiffs,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF PUBLIC SAFETY DEPARTMENT OF STATE POLICE; STATE TROOPER FRECHETTE, K-9 UNIT STATE TROOPER MAHER; TOWN OF STURBRIDGE; TOWN OF STURBRIDGE POLICE DEPARTMENT; POLICE CHIEF THOMAS FORD; POLICE SERGEANT MICHAEL CLOUTIER; POLICE SERGEANT JEFFREY LAVALLE; POLICE OFFICER DAVID FORTIER; POLICE OFFICER LARRY BATEMAN; POLICE OFFICER RONALD OBUCHOWSKI, JR., Defendants

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          For Charles Morse, Lesa Morse, Plaintiffs: James B Triplett, LEAD ATTORNEY, Triplett & Fleming, Oxford, MA.

         For State Trooper Maher, Defendant: Joseph G. Donnellan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Rogal & Donnellan, P.C., Norwood, MA.

         For Police Sergeant Michael Cloutier, Police Officer Larry Bateman, Police Officer David Fortier, Police Officer Ronald Obuchowski, Jr., Defendants: Leonard H. Kesten, Thomas R Donohue, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten, Boston, MA; Michael Stefanilo, Jr., Brady Hardoom Perkins & Kesten, Boston, MA.

         Adrian Podpora, Witness, Pro se, Sturbridge, MA.

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         MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON STURBRIDGE DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docket No. 134), STATE TROOPER MAHER'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docket No. 137), and STATE TROOPER FRECHETTE'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docket No. 140)

         TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN, DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Charles and Lesa Morse assert claims against Sturbridge Police Officers Michael Cloutier, Jeffrey LaVallee, David Fortier, Larry Bateman, Ronald Obuchowski, Jr. (the " Sturbridge Officers" ), and State Troopers Brian Frechette and Sean Maher.[1] Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their rights against unreasonable searches and seizures secured by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and seek damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (Counts V, VI, VII, and VIII). Plaintiffs also assert state tort claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress (Counts IX and X). The Sturbridge Officers, Trooper Maher, and Trooper Frechette have each moved for summary judgment on the claims against them. (Dockets No. 134, 137, and 140, respectively). Because the legal issues raised by each motion substantially overlap, the Court examines them jointly. For the reasons set forth below, the motions are denied in part and granted in part.

         Factual Background

         This case arises from the warrantless arrest of Plaintiff Charles Morse inside his home in Sturbridge, Massachusetts.[2] On

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August 16, 2009, at 10:58 pm, an individual at 21 River Road in Sturbridge called 911 and stated that people were in his back yard yelling threats and throwing rocks. Sturbridge Police Officers David Fortier and Larry Bateman responded to the call. Upon arrival, two teenage males, Justin Saviengsack and Adrian Podpora, informed the officers that they had been hit by rocks and that " he" was in the woods. One of the teens explained that " he" was their neighbor " Charlie" and that he may have a gun. Officers Fortier and Bateman searched the woods but were unable to find the individual. Sergeant Michael Cloutier, Officer Obuchowski, and Officer LaVallee of the Sturbridge police also arrived on the scene. The Sturbridge Officers requested assistance from Massachusetts State Police K-9 Units.

         There is conflicting evidence about what happened between Morse, Saviengsack and Podpora, but the gist of the teenagers' story appears in voluntary written statements made to the police on scene. Podpora stated that while he was at Saviengsack's house, someone in the woods began " throwing bottles, rocks, sticks, and metal pieces." The person in the woods was also directing racial slurs at them, and threatened to kill them " one by one with a gun." Podpora stated he believed it was " Charlie Morris [sic] from a couple houses down." Saviengsack reported that as he was standing in his backyard, he heard noises in the woods. When he looked toward the woods, he saw " Charlie Morse who through [sic] a rock an [sic] hit me in my collar bone area." Saviengsack reported that Charlie Morse was yelling racist remarks and that he was going to shoot Saviengsack and Podpora " one by one." He further stated that Morse was " claiming he will take my whole family out when we go to sleep." Officer Bateman knew that Morse had been charged in 2006 for threatening his daughter's ex-boyfriend with a gun, and informed the other officers of this fact.

         With the report made from the teenagers in hand, the police began searching for Charles Morse. Around 11:20 pm, Officers Bateman and Obuchowski went down the street to the Morses' house at 28 River Road. Charles's wife Lesa answered the door. Lesa informed the officers that her husband was not home, and that he was out with his friend Christopher Willman. Willman resided at 17 River Road, next door to the Saviengsack's house. Officer Bateman told Lesa that Charles had been in an altercation and asked that she notify him if Charles returned home. Officers Bateman, Obuchowski, and Sergeant Cloutier then went back up the street to the Willmans' house at 17 River Road. Christopher Willman told the officers that he had not seen Charles Morse since 10:30 that evening, they had drank a few beers, and to the best of his knowledge Morse was not carrying a firearm. At this point, K-9 Troopers Frechette and Maher arrived to assist the Sturbridge police in the search for Morse. Just before midnight, Cloutier, Fortier, Bateman, Obuchowski, Frechette and Maher went back to the Morse home, while Sergeant LaVallee remained at 21 River Road with the complaining witnesses.

         While many of the precise details of the evening are unclear from the record, the following facts are undisputed. Upon arriving at the Morse home the second time, Defendants Fortier, Bateman, Obuchowski and Maher went to the back door. Sergeant Cloutier and Trooper Frechette remained at the front of the residence. The officers did not have an arrest warrant. Fortier knocked on the back door. Charles Morse came to the entrance, opened an inner wooden door but left the outer screen door closed. As he opened the wooden door he simultaneously reached to

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the screen door and locked it. Morse identified himself and asked what was going on. The officers did not explain why they were there, but asked Morse to come outside. Morse refused, and repeatedly asked " what is this about?" The officers could see Morse through the closed screen door. He was wearing shorts but no shirt or shoes; his hands were visible and he was not threatening the officers or making dangerous movements. The officers then informed Morse that he was under arrest and that he needed to come outside. Morse closed the wooden door, and said that he would only surrender if the officers got a warrant. He told his wife to call a lawyer. The officers ordered Morse to open the door, and announced that they would forcibly enter if he did not comply. The outer screen door remained closed and locked for the duration of Morse's conversation with the officers.

         When Morse still did not come outside, Officer Obuchowski kicked through the screen door. Obuchowski then kicked a hole in the inner wooden door, enabling entry into the Morse home. The only officers that entered the home were Cloutier, Fortier, Bateman, Obuchowski, and Maher. Officer LaVallee and Trooper Frechette did not enter the residence or participate in the forced entry. Once inside, Fortier and Maher took custody of Morse by forcing him to the ground and pointing guns at his head as they applied handcuffs.

         As the police took custody of Charles, Lesa Morse began yelling. Alison Willman--Christopher Willman's wife--called on the phone to ask what was going on; Lesa answered and began telling her that the police had Charles on the floor with guns pointed at his head. Sergeant Cloutier ordered Lesa to hang up the phone, but Lesa refused. Sergeant Cloutier grabbed Lesa by the arm and threw her face first onto the couch, forced her hands behind her back and cuffed her. Lesa Morse remained in handcuffs for five or six minutes while the officers conducted a protective sweep of the residence. The officers removed Charles Morse and transported him to 21 River Road, where Saviengsack and Podpora identified Morse as the individual who threw rocks and threatened them. Morse was charged with two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (rocks), threat to commit a crime (murder), disorderly conduct, and disturbing the peace. The charges were later dismissed.

         Plaintiffs filed this action in Massachusetts Superior Court. It was removed to this Court on December 4, 2012. (Docket No. 1). Plaintiffs allege that they have experienced physical and emotional harm as a result of Defendants' conduct. The complaint asserts the following claims against Defendants: civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against State Troopers Frechette and Maher (Count V); civil rights violations under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (" MCRA" ) against State Troopers Frechette and Maher (Count VI); civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Sturbridge Officers (Count VII); civil rights violations the MCRA against the Sturbridge Officers (Count VIII); intentional infliction of emotional distress against State Troopers Frechette and Maher (Count IX); and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the Sturbridge Officers (Count X). Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all claims. (Docket Nos. 134, 137 and 140).

         Discussion

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that a district court shall grant summary judgment if the moving party shows, based on the materials in the record, " that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment

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as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A factual dispute precludes summary judgment if it is both " genuine" and " material." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). An issue is " genuine" when the evidence is such that a reasonable factfinder could resolve the point in favor of the non-moving party. Morris v. Gov't Dev. Bank, 27 F.3d 746, 748 (1st Cir. 1994). A fact is " material" when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law. Id.

         The moving party is responsible for " identifying those portions [of the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1968). It can meet its burden either by " offering evidence to disprove an element of the plaintiff's case or by demonstrating an 'absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case.'" Rakes v. U.S., 352 F.Supp.2d 47, 52 (D. Mass. 2005) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). Once the moving party shows the absence of any disputed material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to place at least one material fact into dispute. See Mendes v. Medtronic, Inc., 18 F.3d 13, 15 (1st Cir. 1994) (discussing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, " the court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Scanlon v. Dep't of Army, 277 F.3d 598, 600 (1st Cir. 2002).

         ยง 1983 ...


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