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Mathis v. Fossett

United States District Court, D. Delaware

March 27, 2017



         At Wilmington this 27th day of March, 2017, having reviewed defendants' motion for summary judgment and the papers submitted in connection therewith, the court issues its decision based on the following reasoning:

         1. Procedural background.

         Plaintiff Brenda Mathis ("plaintiff) filed a complaint against the above named defendants related to her arrest in the City of Wilmington on January 27, 2014. Plaintiff alleges: (1) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 use of excessive force, as to defendants Wilmington Police Officers Michael Fossett ("Fossett") and Samuel Smith ("Smith") (count 1); (2) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on Fourth Amendment unlawful detention and arrest, as to defendants Fossett and Smith (count 2); (3) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on First Amendment retaliation, as to defendants Fossett, Smith, and Wilmington Police Officer Jose Vasquez ("Vasquez") (count 3); (4) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on malicious prosecution against all of the named defendants (Fossett, Smith, Vasquez, and Wilmington Police Officer D. "Jones") (count 4); (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress, as to defendants Fossett (count 5) and Smith (count 6); (6) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure and retention of plaintiff's BMW, as to defendant Fossett (count 7); and (7) trespass to chattels, as to defendants Fossett and Jones. (D.I. 1, ex. A) Through the course of discovery and the instant summary judgment motion practice, plaintiff has withdrawn counts 6, 7 and 8.[1] The court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         2. Factual Background.

         On the morning of January 27, 2014, Fossett and Vasquez stopped a BMW sedan ("the BMW") after they saw the vehicle pass through a stop sign. (D.I. 37 at A-3) Plaintiff's son, Steven Wright ("Wright"), was driving the BMW (which was owned by plaintiff), and Jeremy Watkins ("Watkins") was in the passenger seat. (Id.) Wright pulled the BMW over in the parking lot of plaintiff's business, LJ's Playpen Academy. (Id. at A-135) Vasquez approached the driver's side window of the BMW, and Fossett approached the passenger side. (Id. at A-3, A-9-10, A-135-36) Vasquez asked Wright for his license, registration and insurance card; Wright refused to comply with the request until he was told why he was pulled over; Vasquez responded that the stop would be explained once Wright complied with the request. (Id. at A100, A107, A109) Because neither Wright nor Watkins rolled down the passenger door window, Fossett "could not gather information from or have an unobstructed view of the passenger compartment of the vehicle and the passenger." (Id. at A-3; A-108-109) "Due to the lack of cooperation, Fossett called for an assisting unit." (Id. at A-3)

         3. It was about at this time that plaintiff approached the BMW, by her own admission coming within 15 to 20 feet of the car. (D.I. 1, ex. A at 4; D.I. 37 at ¶ 136, A142, A211) Defendants assert that they warned her to not interfere with the traffic stop, [2] and that plaintiff and a second female[3] "were advised to go across the street numerous times with negative results." (Id. at A4) Shortly after the incident and in her complaint, plaintiff also asserted that she was told by police officers to "[g]et the away from the car." (D.I. 1, ex. A at 4; D.I. 37 at ¶ 211) By the time of her deposition, she was asked if she recalled either Fossett or Vasquez[4] "telling [her] to leave the immediate area of the stop." Her reply was "No."[5] (Id. atA144) Although plaintiff concedes that she conversed with her son, she denies telling him to disregard the police officers' instructions or using loud or offensive language. (Id. at A135-36, A143-44)

         4. When the assisting officers arrived on the scene, Fossett ordered Smith to place plaintiff under arrest due to her continued interference with the traffic investigation. (Id. at A3-4, A12-13, A34-35, A37) The parties have different accounts of the attempts by Smith and Fossett to effectuate the arrest, with defendants recounting plaintiff's efforts to physically resist arrest[6] and plaintiff describing the force used to effectuate the arrest.[7] At a minimum, however, it is undisputed that plaintiff remained at the traffic stop, did not refrain from participating in some manner with the police activity, and cannot be characterized as cooperating with police efforts to carry out their duties.[8] After plaintiff was taken into custody, she was transported to the emergency room by police officers due to her complaints of chest pain and wrist pain. It is not easy to decipher the related medical records (id. at A79-94), but it appears that plaintiff was discharged "with a negative work up, "[9] then came back later that day "upset that she was not given [a] proper work up" in the first instance. Plaintiff presented the second time with complaints of right wrist pain and body-wide pain related to her earlier interaction with police.[10] (Id. at A68) The discharge diagnosis was contusion of the left wrist[11] and rib pain. (Id. at A61, A68) Plaintiff ultimately was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and was released from custody.[12] Plaintiff contends in this litigation that she continues to suffer from physical pain and weakness and emotional trauma.

         5. Standard of Review.

         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows 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). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585 n. 10 (1986). A party asserting that a fact cannot be-or, alternatively, is-genuinely disputed must be supported either by citing to "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for the purposes of the motions only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, " or by "showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A) & (B). If the moving party has carried its burden, the nonmovant must then "come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita, 415 U.S. at 587 (internal quotation marks omitted). The court will "draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

         6. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586-87; see also Podohnik v. U.S. Postal Service, 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating party opposing summary judgment "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue") (internal quotation marks omitted). Although the "mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment, " a factual dispute is genuine where "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (stating entry of summary judgment is mandated "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial").

         7. Qualified immunity defense.

         With respect to counts 1, 2, and 4, defendants assert that they are protected from suit by the qualified immunity doctrine. (D.I. 36 at 8) Under certain circumstances, government officials are protected from § 1983 suits by qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity serves to protect officers from civil liability "when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Accordingly, it gives "ample room for mistaken judgments, " Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991), whether the official's mistake is a mistake of fact, mistake of law, or mistake based on mixed questions of fact and law, Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231. In the context of Fourth Amendment claims, qualified immunity operates to "protect officers from the sometimes 'hazy border between excessive and acceptable force, ' and to ensure that before they are subjected to suit, officers are on notice their conduct is unlawful." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 206 (2001) (quoting Priester v. Riviera Beach, 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th Cir. 2000) (internal citation omitted)).

         8. The court makes two inquiries when analyzing qualified immunity. Under the constitutional inquiry, the court examines "whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged or shown make out a violation of a constitutional right." Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232 (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)) (citation omitted). Second, the court inquires "whether the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of a defendant's alleged misconduct." Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. Courts have the 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. Id. at 236.

         9. Unlawful arrest and detainment (count 2), and malicious ...

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