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Tafler v. Dist. of Columbia

March 27, 2008

HOWARD TAFLER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Friedman United States District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff Howard Tafler filed this lawsuit against the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police Department Officer Anthony Hector in his individual capacity.*fn1 This is a constitutional and common law tort action in which the plaintiff seeks to recover damages following an allegedly false arrest involving the use of excessive force. The matter is before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn2 The Court previously dismissed several counts of the complaint in an Opinion and Order issued on November 8, 2006. See Tafler v. District of Columbia, 2006 WL 3254491 (D.D.C. Nov. 8, 2006). In the remaining counts, plaintiff alleges that both defendants are liable for a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights because of the use of excessive force (Count I), and that the District of Columbia is liable for negligent failure to train, supervise, and control Officer Hector (Count IV). Defendants argue that the District is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and that Officer Hector is entitled to qualified immunity. Upon consideration of the papers filed in connection with this motion and the entire record in this case, the Court grants the motion for summary judgment in part and denies it in part. Specifically, the Court grants summary judgment for the District of Columbia on both counts and denies summary judgment for Officer Hector.

I. BACKGROUND

Jennifer Andrews called 911 in the early morning hours of August 4, 2002, to report that her boyfriend was attempting to break into her home on the 1700 block of U Street, N.W., and that he was threatening to kill her. See Defs' SMF ¶ 1. She provided the name and physical description of her boyfriend, plaintiff Howard Tafler. See id. ¶ 2. Ms. Andrews informed the dispatcher that Tafler was known to carry a knife and that he held a "black belt." She also stated that he was intoxicated and under the influence of crack cocaine. See id. ¶ 3.

After being dispatched to the scene, Officer Anthony Hector of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") observed plaintiff in the alley behind Ms. Andrews' apartment. See Defs' SMF ¶ 5. Without announcing himself as a police officer, Officer Hector allegedly tackled Tafler from behind, knocking him to the ground. See Pl's SMFD ¶ 2. After tackling and handcuffing plaintiff, Officer Hector allegedly "knee[d] the back of his head and ribs and kick[ed] his side." Id. ¶ 4. Plaintiff alleges that the officers kicked him severely, causing him injuries including ringing in his head and ears, swelling in both knees, a bone chip in his elbow, and lacerations to his face that have left permanent scars on his lip and chin. See Am. Compl. ¶ 10. Plaintiff was arrested and charged with attempted burglary, destruction of property and felony threats. See id. ¶ 11. Plaintiff alleges that he was taken to the Third District police station where he was detained for an extended period of time without receiving proper medical attention. See id. The criminal charges against plaintiff subsequently were dismissed because the building and the property that were the subjects of the attempted burglary and destruction of property actually belonged to the plaintiff. See id. ¶ 12. For the purposes of this motion, defendants accept plaintiff's version of the facts with respect to the force used by Officer Hector, including "that plaintiff was struck while handcuffed." Reply at 2-3.

As mentioned above, Tafler sustained injuries, including lacerations to his face, during the arrest. See Defs' SMF ¶ 7. After officers transported Tafler to the Third District police station, a supervisor determined that he required medical attention. Officers brought plaintiff to the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital where doctors treated the lacerations to his chin and lip and released him. See id.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard for Summary Judgment

Summary judgment may be granted only if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits [or declarations], if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). "A fact is 'material' if a dispute over it might affect the outcome of a suit under the governing law; factual disputes that are 'irrelevant or unnecessary' do not affect the summary judgment determination." Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d at 895 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248). An issue is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d at 895. When a motion for summary judgment is under consideration, "the evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 255; see also Mastro v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 447 F.3d 843, 849-50 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Aka v. Washington Hosp. Center, 156 F.3d 1284, 1288 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc); Washington Post Co. v. Dep't of Health and Human Servs., 865 F.2d 320, 325 (D.C. Cir. 1989). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must "eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence." Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

The non-moving party's opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). He is required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in his favor. Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. Cir. 1987). If the non-movant's evidence is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative," summary judgment may be granted. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 249-50; see Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1776 (2007) ("where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is 'no genuine issue for trial.'") (quoting Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, a plaintiff must have more than "a scintilla of evidence to support his claims." Freedman v. MCI Telecomm. Corp., 255 F.3d 840, 845 (D.C. Cir. 2001).

B. Excessive Force Claim Against Officer Hector

Defendants argue that summary judgment is appropriate on the Fourth Amendment claim against Officer Hector because he is entitled to qualified immunity. See Mot. at 14. Qualified immunity "shields state officials from liability for their discretionary functions 'insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Butera v. District of Columbia, 235 F.3d 637, 645-46 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); see also Pitt v. District of Columbia, 491 F.3d 494, 509 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

A defendant's entitlement to qualified immunity is a question of law to be decided by the Court. See Pitt v. District of Columbia, 491 F.3d 494 at 509 (citing Hunter v. Bryan, 502 U.S. 224, 224-27 (1991)). In analyzing a claim of qualified immunity, the Court must first determine "'whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right at all.'" Butera v. District of Columbia, 235 F.3d at 646 (quoting Wilson v. Layne 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999)). If the plaintiff has alleged such a deprivation, the Court must then determine whether the right allegedly violated was "sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would understand that what he [was] doing violated that right." Butera v. District of Columbia, 235 F.3d at 646. "Whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable . . . generally turns on the objective legal reasonableness of the action." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. at 614. In assessing whether a party is entitled to qualified immunity, the facts must be taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the constitutional injury. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (citing Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 232 (1991)); see also Scott v. Harris, 127 S.Ct. at 1774.

The Court first turns to whether plaintiff has sufficiently alleged the violation of a constitutional right. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Hector violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force in effecting his arrest when he "violently tackl[ed] him from behind, knee[d] him on his neck and rib cage and kick[ed] him on ...


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