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Singleton v. Cunningham

United States District Court, D. Delaware

October 17, 2018

NORMAN SINGLETON AND CHERAYNE WILLIAMS, a minor through her parent and natural guardian, SHERRIE WATTS, Plaintiffs,

          David A. Denham, Joseph M. Jachetti, Schuster Jachetti LLP, Wilmington, DE; Brian J. Zeiger, Levin & Zeiger, Philadelphia, PA - attorneys for plaintiffs

          Daniel A. Griffith, Whiteford Taylor & Preston LLC, Wilmington, DE - attorney for defendants



         Plaintiffs, Norman Singleton ("Singleton") and Cherayne Williams ("Williams"), a minor, [1](collectively "Plaintiffs") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting use of excessive force (Counts I and II), illegal seizure (Count III), and municipal liability (Count IV) in violation of their fourth and fourteenth amendment rights. They also raise supplemental state law claims. (Counts V-VII). Pending before the court is a motion for summary judgment (D, I. 23) filed by defendants, Patrolman Robert Cunningham, Police Officer Jacob Rankin, Corporal Robert Barrett, Chief Paul M. Bernat, Robin R. Christiansen, Mayor, City of Dover, and the City of Dover, Delaware (collectively "Defendants") with respect to all claims asserted in Plaintiffs' complaint (the "Complaint"). (D.I. 1). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant-in-part and deny-in-part Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


         Plaintiffs' claims arise from interactions with police officers on July 6, 2016. Many facts are undisputed, but where disputes are alleged, they are noted below.

         On July 7, 2016, Plaintiffs were traveling from their home in Smyrna, Delaware to Dover, Delaware.[2] At the time, Singleton was on probation from a former drug conviction. (D.I. 25, Exh. A at 3). Williams, who was a minor at the time, [3] is Singleton's step-daughter. (D.I. 1 at 2; D.I. 24 at l).

         The officers had received a tip about Singleton coming to Dover for a drug transaction. (D.I. 25, Exh. A at 3). Consistent with that tip, Officer Stagg, a probation officer who was monitoring Singleton's location, noticed that Singleton was travelling toward Dover. (Id.). Corporal Barrett and Officer Rankin positioned themselves along the route to Dover and initiated a stop of Singleton's car in the parking lot of the Dover Inn located on North DuPont Highway. (D.I. 25, Exh A at 3; D.I. 25, Exh. B at 19-20). After he was pulled over, Singleton was instructed to step out of the car and to talk to Officer Staggs. (D.I. 27, Exh. A at 32-33, 40, 43-44). At that point, he threw up his hands and ran across DuPont Highway towards a gas station.[4] (D.I. 45-46). Before he reached the highway, Corporal Barrett attempted to fire his TASER at Singleton, but one of the probes missed. (D.I. 25, Exh. A at 4). After Singleton reached the gas station, Patrolman Cunningham fired his TASER at Singleton.[5] (Id.). Singleton fell face forward to the ground and sustained serious injuries, including a fracture to his jaw, lacerations on his face, and road rash. (D.I 25, Exh. D at 4). He asserts that he currently walks with a slight limp in his gait and reports mild cognitive impairment. (D.I. 27 at 5; D.I 27, Exh. A at 57-58).

         After he was subdued, police searched Singleton and found two bags of cocaine in his pockets. (D.I. 25, Exh. A at 4). Police also searched the car and found three cellphones but no drugs.[6] (Id.). Singleton admits he was in possession of cocaine, but denies he was en route to sell it. Plaintiff was not convicted of any narcotics related offenses based on the July 7, 2016 incident. (D.I. 27 at 5).

         Williams apparently had remained in the vehicle when Singleton attempted to flee. After Singleton was apprehended, Officer Rankin testified that Williams was "taken into custody as part of [the] overall investigation." (D.I. 24 at 8). She was handcuffed, transported to the police station, and detained there until it was determined that "she was a juvenile and more than likely didn't have anything to do with" the investigation involving Singleton. At that point the handcuffs were removed. (D.I. 24 at 19, 6-17; D.I. 27 at 7; D.I. 28 at 7-8).

         The Domestic Incident Report written by Corporal Barrett offers a different take, suggesting that officers knew while still at the Dover Inn that Williams was a minor who was not involved in the criminal activity. Corporal Barrett wrote that Officer Rankin "had taken [Williams out] of the vehicle into custody without incident." (D.I. 25, Exh. A at 4). After several attempts, Corporal Barrett ultimately contacted Williams' mother, Sherrie Watts, and "inform[ed] her to come to the Dover Inn to get her daughter." (Id.). Twenty minutes later, Ms. Watts called Corporal Barrett and said that she was just then on her way to the Dover Inn. (Id. ). At that point, Corporal Barrett told Ms. Watts to go to the police station instead and "instructed Rank[in] to transport [] Williams to the police department." (Id.). Williams was ultimately released to the custody of her mother and not charged with any crimes.


         Summary judgment is proper if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A factual dispute is material when it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable factual inferences must be made in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 255; Patrick v. Moorman, 536 Fed.Appx. 255, 257 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775 (3d Cir. 2004)); Thomas v. Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing Bowers v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 475 F.3d 524, 535 (3d Cir. 2007)). The nonmoving party, however, bears the burden to establish the existence of each element of his case. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In doing so, the non-moving party must present specific evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could conclude in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Jones v. United Parcel Serv., 214 F.3d 402, 407 (3d Cir. 2000). Summary judgment should be granted if no reasonable trier of fact could find for the non-moving party. Radich v. Goode, 886 F.2d 1391, 1395 (3d Cir. 1989).

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides in pertinent part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress....

"In order to recover under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that the defendant, under color of state law, subjected the plaintiff to a deprivation of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the constitution or laws of the United States." Renda v. King, 347 F.3d 550, 557 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983); Berg v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 268 (3d Cir. 2000) ("Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights ... the plaintiff must allege a violation of a federal right.").

         Government officials performing discretionary functions are shielded from liability for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 "insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 826 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). It is the defendants' burden to establish they are entitled to qualified immunity. Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 142 n. 15 (3d Cir. 2001).

         A two-step analysis is used to evaluate whether a police officer is protected by qualified immunity. First, the court must determine whether the alleged facts, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiff, show that the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001); In re City of Phila. Litig, 49 F.3d 945, 961 (3d Cir. 1995). The qualified immunity analysis comes to an end, and the officer is entitled to immunity, "[i]f no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201-02; see also Bennett v. Murphy, 274 F.3d 133, 136 (3d Cir. 2001). If a "violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, [however, ] the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established," i.e., "whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201; see also Kornegay v. Cottingham, 120 F.3d 392, 395-96 (3d Cir. 1997). Qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986).


         A. Count I against Corporal Barrett and Count II against Patrolman Cunningham - § 1983 Action Based on Excessive Force in Violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

         Singleton alleges he was the victim of excessive force during his arrest on July 7, 2016 -first when Corporal Barrett fired his TASER and later when Patrolman Cunningham fired his. Defendants contend that any force used was ...

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