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Lachance v. Town of Charlton

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 21, 2019

MICHAEL E. LACHANCE, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF CHARLTON, a Municipal corporation And Officers TIMOTHY A. SMITH, SGT. KEITH R. CLOUTIER and JASON F. WHITE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOCKET NO. 22)

          TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Michael E. Lachance (“Plaintiff”) brought this claim alleging unreasonable use of force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I), assault and battery (Count II), a Monell claim against the Town of Charlton (Count III), negligence (Count IV), and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131, (Count V). Defendants filed this motion for summary judgement on all claims. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         Background

         This Court's review of the record is in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Santiago-Ramos v. Centennial P.R. Wireless Corp., 217 F.3d 46, 50 (1st Cir. 2000).

         On January 4, 2014, Kimberly Lachance awoke in the middle of the night and called 911 because the Plaintiff, her husband, was gasping for air. Plaintiff was shaking and had rolled out of bed onto the floor. He was unresponsive and a substance was coming from his mouth. When officers arrived they attempted to stop Plaintiff from moving and administer oxygen, but Plaintiff resisted. Plaintiff then attempted to leave his apartment; he was flailing his arms and was highly agitated. The officers threw Plaintiff onto a La-Z-Boy sofa, which toppled over backwards, and Plaintiff landed on his back and shoulder. One officer fell on top of Plaintiff and a “swarm” of others quickly jumped on top of him. An officer placed his knee in the center of Plaintiff's back and then placed two sets of handcuffs on Plaintiff. Officers also used a leg-lock technique to prevent Plaintiff's kicking. Plaintiff repeatedly hit his head against the hardwood floor, so officers initially attempted to stop Plaintiff with their hands and then placed a pillow under his head. Eventually, Plaintiff was put on a stretcher. While in the ambulance, Plaintiff was kicking, thrashing, and hitting everyone around him. He struggled against the handcuffs so much that they cut his wrists open.

         Plaintiff eventually arrived at UMass Memorial Medical Center where he was diagnosed with cluster seizures. Mrs. Lachance observed bruising and abrasions on Plaintiff at the hospital resulting from the altercation with officers. Similarly, Plaintiff's son observed that his father had cuff marks, deep cuts on his wrists, and bruising all over his back, ribs, and shoulders. Plaintiff suffered a thoracic T4-T5 compression fracture from being pushed over the couch which caused back pain for over a year after the incident.

         Standard of Review

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that the court shall grant summary judgment if the moving party shows, based on the materials in the record, “that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. A factual dispute precludes summary judgment if it is both “genuine” and “material.” See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (1986). An issue is “genuine” when the evidence is such that a reasonable factfinder could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party. Morris v. Gov't Dev. Bank of Puerto Rico, 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 (1986). 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 nonmoving party's case.'” Rakes v. United States, 352 F.Supp.2d 47, 52 (D. Mass. 2005), aff'd, 442 F.3d 7 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548). 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. Mendes v. Medtronic, Inc., 18 F.3d 13, 15 (1st Cir. 1994) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548). 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) (citation omitted).

         Discussion

         1. Constitutional Claims

         a. Excessive Force (Count I)

         Section 1983 provides a private right of action against a person who, under the color of state law, deprives someone of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and [federal] laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In order to state a claim under section 1983, “the plaintiff must show a deprivation of a federally secured right.” Harrington v. City of Nashua, 610 F.3d 24, 28 (1st Cir. 2010). Plaintiff's section 1983 claim is premised on the allegation that Defendants used excessive force while restraining him.

         Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. The First Circuit has adopted a two-part test to assess qualified immunity. A court must consider: “(1) whether the facts alleged or shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) if so, whether the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the defendant's alleged violation.” Maldonado v. Fontanes, 568 F.3d 263, 269 (1st Cir. 2009) (citation omitted).

         The second prong of the test is itself has two aspects. “One aspect of the analysis focuses on the clarity of the law at the time of the alleged civil rights violation.” Id. Thus, in order “[t]o overcome qualified immunity, ‘[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'” Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034 (1987)). The second aspect “focuses more concretely on the facts of the particular case.” Id. Thus, a court must assess “whether a reasonable defendant would have understood that his conduct violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights.” Id. Importantly, “this inquiry must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted); see also City of Escondido v. Emmons, 139 S.Ct. 500, 504 (2019) (per curiam) (noting “the need to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” (quoting District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 590, 199 L.Ed.2d 453 (2018))). In short, “the salient question is whether the state of the law at the time of the alleged violation gave the defendant fair warning that his particular conduct was unconstitutional.” Maldonado, 568 F.3d at 269. “This latter step is designed to achieve a prophylactic purpose: if affords some breathing room for a police officer even if he has made a mistake (albeit a reasonable one) about the lawfulness of his conduct.” Gray v. Cummings, 2019 WL 851351, at *5 (1st Cir. Feb. 22, 2019) (quotation marks and citation omitted).[1]

         b. Whether the Facts Make Out Violation of a Constitutional Right

         “Excessive force claims are founded on the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures of the person.” Raiche v. Pietroski, 623 F.3d 30, 36 (1st Cir. 2010) (citing U.S. Const. amend. IV; Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394-95, 109 S.Ct. 1865 (1989)). The Fourth Amendment is implicated when an officer uses “excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free citizen.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 395, 109 S.Ct. 1865.[2] Excessive force is assessed “according to the constitutional touchstone of objective reasonableness, so we do not consider an officer's subjective “intent or motivation.” Raiche, 623 F.3d at 36 (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865). Accordingly, to prevail, “a plaintiff must show that the defendant employed force that was unreasonable under all the circumstances.” Morelli, 552 F.3d at 23 (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865 (1989)).

         “Our starting point is the question of whether a reasonable jury could find that [Defendants] violated [Plaintiff's] Fourth Amendment rights through the use of excessive force.” Gray, 2019 WL 851351, at *3. The Court in Graham noted that while “the test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition . . . its proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.” 490 U.S. at 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865 (quotation marks and citation omitted). To assist courts in considering the facts most relevant to a reasonableness determination, the Court instructed courts to consider: (1) “the severity of the crime at issue, ” (2) “whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, ” and (3) “whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865.[3]

         I find that a jury could reasonably find that officers utilized excessive force when restraining Plaintiff. In Gray, the First Circuit held that a reasonable jury could find that an officer who used a taser to restrain a mentally ill person not suspected of a crime used excessive force. Gray, 2019 WL 851351, at *4. Regarding the first Graham factor, the court noted that “we think it important that [the officer] was not called to the scene to investigate a crime; he was there to return a person suffering from the hospital. When the subject of a seizure has not committed any crime, the first Graham factor ordinarily cuts in the subject's favor.” Id. (citing Estate of Armstrong ex rel. Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst, 810 F.3d 892, 899 (4th Cir. 2016)). Here, like in Gray, officers were not called to the scene to respond to a reported crime. Accordingly, the first Graham factor cuts against Defendants.

         Regarding the second factor-whether Plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the safety of Defendants or others-the Gray court noted that the plaintiff was involuntarily committed pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 123, § 12, based on a determination by a qualified medical professional that “failure to hospitalize [her] would create a likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental illness.” Id. § 12(a). However, the court noted:

It is also true that Cummings knew as much. Although a jury could supportably find on these facts that Cummings reasonably believed that Gray posed a danger to him, it could supportably find instead that Gray-who was shuffling down the sidewalk barefoot and unarmed-only posed a danger to herself (especially given Cummings's distinct height and weight advantage).

Gray, 2019 WL 851351, at *4. Similarly, here, Defendants knew they were responding to a medical emergency. Plaintiff was in his own home, undressed and unarmed. Further, Plaintiff was even less likely to pose a threat to officers than the plaintiff Gray, as Plaintiff was experiencing a medical emergency rather than suffering from mental illness. And while Cummings had a distinct height and weight advantage over Gray, Defendants here had a distinct advantage in numbers. At least three officers were on the scene to restrain Plaintiff, which mitigated the already small risk that he posed a threat to them.

         The final Graham factor-whether Plaintiff was actively resisting arrest-favors Defendants. The record unquestionably supports that Plaintiff resisted officers' efforts to restrain him. Thus, like in Gray, “the Graham factors point in conflicting directions. Seen through the prism of the totality of the circumstances the evidence is subject to interpretation and can support plausible though inconsistent inferences.” Id. At this stage in the litigation, however, the Court must draw those inferences in Plaintiff's favor. A reasonable juror could conclude that throwing a person-who is not suspected of committing a crime or a threat to officers-over a sofa with enough force to break his back, and then using the dangerous restraint technique of kneeling on his back, is an excessive use of force. See, e.g., Morelli, 552 F.3d at 23 (finding triable excessive force claim where officer slammed plaintiff against wall who, “at worst, was suspected of being a petty thief”); Alexis v. McDonald's Rests. of Mass., Inc., 67 F.3d 341, 353 (1st Cir. 1995) (holding jury could find excessive force where officer “violently grabbed and pulled [plaintiff] from the booth and across the table, handcuffed her hands tightly behind her back, and, with the help of Officer Fuer, dragged her from the booth” to effectuate arrest for trespassing in public restaurant).

         c. Whether That Right Was Clearly Established

         The First Circuit has found that kneeling on the back of a restrained person is unreasonable. In McCue v. City of Bangor, Maine, for instance, the court noted that “it was clearly established in September 2012 that exerting significant, continued force on a person's back while that person is in a face-down prone position after being subdued and/or incapacitated constitutes excessive force.” 838 F.3d 55, 64 (1st Cir. 2016) (quotation marks and citation omitted)[4]; see also Weigel v. Broad, 544 F.3d 1143, 1152, 1155 (10th Cir. 2008) (holding officer not entitled to qualified immunity at summary judgment stage where he applied pressure to detainee's back for “about three minutes” after hands and feet had been restrained and noting “the law was clearly established that applying pressure to [a person's] upper back, once he was handcuffed and his legs restrained, was constitutionally unreasonable due to the significant risk of positional asphyxiation associated with such actions”); Abdullahi v. City of Madison, 423 F.3d 763, 765 (7th Cir. 2005) (holding officer not entitled to qualified immunity at summary judgement where an officer, for 30 to 45 seconds, “placed his right knee and shin on the back of [a person's] shoulder area and applied his weight to keep [the person] from squirming or flailing” despite the fact that the detainee had “arch[ed] his back upwards as if he were trying to escape” because it may have instead been “a futile attempt to breath”); Drummond ex rel. Drummond v. City of Anaheim, 343 F.3d 1052, 1057 (9th Cir. 2003) (holding officers violated the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force by pressing their weight against the torso and neck “after he was ‘knock[ed] . . . to the ground where the officers cuffed his arms behind his back as [he] lay on his stomach'” (alterations in original)). Therefore, “as the abundant case law demonstrates, a jury could find that a reasonable officer would know or should have known about the dangers of exerting significant pressure on the back of a prone person, regardless of any lack of formal training.” McCue, 838 F.3d at 65.[5] Accordingly, I find it was clearly established that Plaintiff had a constitutional right to be free from an officer kneeling on his back after he had been restrained.

         The second aspect of the clearly established prong requires the Court to assess “whether an objectively reasonable official would have believed that the action taken violated that clearly established constitutional right.” Starlight Sugar, Inc. v. Soto, 253 F.3d 137, 141 (1st Cir. 2001). “It is not always evident at the time an official takes an action that a clearly established right is involved. For example, the factual situation might be ambiguous or the application of the legal standard to the precise facts at issue might be difficult.” Riverdale Mills Corp. v. Pimpare, 392 F.3d 55, 61 (1st Cir. 2004). Here, there is a genuine dispute whether an officer put his knee on Plaintiff's back. Moreover, it is unclear from the record how long officers exerted weight on Plaintiff's back or whether they stopped after his hands and feet were restrained. At this stage, disputes must be resolved, and inferences must be drawn, in Plaintiff's favor. See In re Varrasso, 37 F.3d 760, 763 (1st Cir. 1994) (“This means, of course, that summary judgement is inappropriate if inferences are necessary for the judgement and those inferences are not mandated by the record.”); Blanchard v. Peerless Ins. Co., 958 F.2d 483, 488 (1st Cir. 1992) (noting that summary judgment is precluded ...


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