United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MICHAEL E. LACHANCE, Plaintiff,
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
Excessive Force (Count I)
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
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
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).
Whether the Facts Make Out Violation of a Constitutional
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. 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)).
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
Whether That Right Was Clearly Established
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); 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. 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
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 ...