July 15, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Denver Police Officers Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity on Excessive Force Claims at Summary Judgment Stage

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Estate of Marvin L. Booker v. Gomez on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Denver police arrested Marvin Booker on a warrant for failure to appear at a hearing regarding a drug charge. During booking, Mr. Booker died while in custody after officers restrained him in response to his alleged insubordination. Several officers pinned Mr. Booker face-down to the ground, one placed him in a chokehold, and another tased him. After the officers sought medical help for Mr. Booker, he could not be revived.

Mr. Booker’s estate sued Deputies Faun Gomez, James Grimes, Kyle Sharp, Kenneth Robinette, and Sergeant Carrie Rodriguez (collectively “Defendants”) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging they used excessive force against Mr. Booker and failed to provide him with immediate medical care, which resulted in Mr. Booker’s untimely death. The Defendants moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The district court denied their motion because disputed facts precluded summary judgment. Defendants appealed.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 allows an injured person to seek damages against an individual who has violated his or her federal rights while acting under color of state law. Individual defendants named in a § 1983 action may raise a defense of qualified immunity, which shields public officials  from damages actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of clearly established law. Generally, when a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff carries a two-part burden to show: (1) that the defendant’s actions violated a federal constitutional or statutory right, and, if so, (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s unlawful conduct.

The court discerned five issues from the Defendants’ appeal: (A) whether the district court erred by considering Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim under both the Fourth and the Fourteenth Amendment standards; (B) whether the district court erred in failing to conduct an individualized analysis of each Defendant’s actions; (C) whether the district court erred in denying qualified immunity on Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim; (D) whether the district court erred in denying qualified immunity on Plaintiffs’ claim for failure to provide medical care; and (E) whether the district court erred in failing to grant qualified immunity to Sergeant Rodriguez on the Plaintiffs’ supervisory liability claim.

(A)   The District Court Did Not Err by Considering Plaintiffs’ Excessive Force Claim Under Both the Fourth and the Fourteenth Amendments

Determining which amendment applies to an allegation of excessive force requires consideration of where the plaintiff finds himself in the criminal justice system. It is well-established that the Fourteenth Amendment governs any claim of excessive force brought by a “pretrial detainee.” On the other hand, the Fourth Amendment governs excessive force claims arising from treatment of an arrestee detained without a warrant and prior to any probable cause hearing. The Tenth Circuit concluded the district court did not err in considering Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim under both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Rather, the district court did what many courts do: it analyzed the case under more than one legal rule and made alternative rulings, holding that Defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim under either the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendment.

The court held the Fourteenth Amendment applied to Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim in any event, because Mr. Booker was a pre-trial detainee.

(B) Individualized Analysis of Each Officer’s Use of Force

Defendants argued the district court should have assessed their actions individually, rather than judging the conduct of all the deputies as a whole. The Tenth Circuit disagreed and concluded that individualized analysis was not necessary at the summary judgment stage: all Defendants actively and jointly participated in the use of force, and even if a single deputy’s participation did not constitute excessive force, that deputy could be liable under a failure-to-intervene theory. The court concluded that the district court did not err in failing to consider each officer’s use of excessive force individually.

(C)   Qualified Immunity on Plaintiffs’ Excessive Force Claim

The Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity unless the Plaintiffs could show  (a) a reasonable jury could find unconstitutional the deputies’ use of force—a carotid restraint, pressure on Mr. Booker’s back, and application of a taser—once Mr. Booker was fully restrained; and (b) this use of force violated clearly established law.

The Tenth Circuit concluded Plaintiffs met both burdens. The court looked to these three factors in evaluating the excessive force claim under the Fourteenth Amendment: (1) the relationship between the amount of force used and the need presented; (2) the extent of the injury inflicted; and (3) the motives of the state actor.

The evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, showed the deputies used various types of force—including substantial pressure on his back, a taser, and a carotid neckhold—on Mr. Booker while he was not resisting. Because Mr. Booker was handcuffed and on his stomach, the court concluded the force was not proportional to the need presented. Second, the autopsy report concluded that Mr. Booker died of cardiorespiratory arrest as a result of restraint. A reasonable jury could conclude this evidence of Mr. Booker’s cause of death supported the Plaintiffs’ claim of excessive force. Next, the subjective intent standard for an excessive force due process violation is force inspired by unwise, excessive zeal amounting to an abuse of official power that shocks the conscience, or by malice rather than mere carelessness. A reasonable jury could conclude that the Defendants’ use of substantial pressure on Mr. Booker’s back, a two-minute carotid hold on his neck, and a taser while Mr. Booker was subdued and struggling to breathe in a prone position demonstrated the requisite level of culpability for a due process violation. The Tenth Circuit held that the Plaintiffs met their burden to show the Defendants violated Mr. Booker’s constitutional rights because a reasonable jury could conclude the Defendants engaged in excessive force in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Second, the legal norms underlying the three-factor due process analysis—proportionality, injury, and motive—were clearly established at the time of Mr. Booker’s death. The court therefore affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ excessive force claim.

(D)   Defendants Were Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity on Plaintiffs’ Claim for Failure to Provide Medical Care

Prison doctors and prison guards may be liable under § 1983 for indifference manifested in their response to the prisoner’s needs or by intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with treatment once prescribed. This standard applies to pretrial detainees. First, the detainee must produce objective evidence that the deprivation at issue was in fact sufficiently serious. A medical need is sufficiently serious if it is one that is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention. Second, under the subjective component, the detainee must establish deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs by presenting evidence of the prison official’s culpable state of mind.

First, Plaintiffs’ experts provided sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the Defendants’ delay in seeking medical care contributed to Mr. Booker’s death, which was without doubt, sufficiently serious to meet the objective component necessary to implicate the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, the disputed facts regarding Mr. Booker’s condition after the use of force ended precluded summary judgment.

There is little doubt that deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical need violates a clearly established constitutional right. The court stated that any reasonable officer in the Defendants’ position (and with their training) would have known that failing to check Mr. Booker’s vital signs, perform CPR, or seek medical care for three minutes when he was limp and unconscious as a result of the Defendants’ use of force could violate the Constitution.

(E)    Sergeant Rodriguez Was Not Entitled to Qualified Immunity on the Plaintiffs’ Supervisory Liability Claim

A plaintiff must satisfy three elements to establish a successful § 1983 claim against a defendant based on his or her supervisory responsibilities: (1) personal involvement; (2) causation; and (3) state of mind.

The court held that a reasonable jury could find Sergeant Rodriguez actively participated in—and failed to intervene and prevent—the use of excessive force to satisfy the first and second elements. Similarly, the court’s earlier conclusion that a reasonable jury could find Sergeant Rodriguez exhibited excessive zeal—by using the taser on Mr. Booker for 60 percent longer than the recommended time period when he was no longer resisting and fully subdued by handcuffs, and the carotid neck hold, satisfied the third element. Finally, the court’s previous conclusion regarding clearly established law, also precluded summary judgment on this claim.


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