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Lane v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

November 3, 2014

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants

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For BRIDZETTE LANE, Individually and as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Ralphael Briscoe, Plaintiff: Billy L. Ponds, LEAD ATTORNEY, PONDS LAW FIRM, Washington, DC; Kenneth D. Bynum, LEAD ATTORNEY, BYNUM & JENKINS, PLLC, Alexandria, VA.

For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, A Municipal Corporation, CHAD LEO, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department Officer, Defendants: Kerslyn D. Featherstone, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL/DC, Washington, DC; Robert A. DeBerardinis, Jr., Stephanie Litos, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Public Interest Division, Washington, DC.

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CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

This case arises from the April 2011 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Ralphael Briscoe by Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (" MPD" ) officer Chad Leo. Officer Leo, a member of the MPD's specialized Gun Recovery Unit, shot Mr. Briscoe from an unmarked Ford Explorer as Briscoe was running away from him and other members of the unit. Officer Leo claims he fired because Briscoe was armed and posed a danger to him and his fellow officers. Briscoe's mother, Bridzette Lane, who brought this action, insists her son was unarmed and posed no harm whatsoever to the pursuing officers or anyone else when he was shot.

Lane filed a 20-count amended complaint against Officer Leo and the District of Columbia alleging various constitutional violations and common law torts. A number of Lane's claims have been dismissed or withdrawn.[1] The remaining counts consist of claims brought in Lane's representative capacity under the District of Columbia's Survival Act, D.C. Code § 12-101, and Wrongful Death Act, D.C. Code § 16-2701 (Counts 1 and 2); claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of Briscoe's Fourth Amendment rights (Counts 3 and 4) and Fifth Amendment rights (Counts 5 and 6) against both Defendants; claims for assault, battery, false arrest, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence against Officer Leo (Counts 9, 10, 15, 16, and 20 respectively), for which the District would be vicariously liable; and a claim for negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention against the District (Count 19). The District and Officer Leo have moved for summary judgment on all the remaining counts. The Court held a hearing on the motion on October 14, 2014.

What distinguishes this suit from the typical excessive force case is the existence of a closed-circuit video recording of the end of the chase and the shooting. Based on its review of the video footage, as well as other evidence in the record, the Court at the hearing denied the Defendants' motion for summary judgment on Lane's Fourth Amendment and common law assault and battery claims against Officer Leo (Counts 3, 9, and 10, respectively). For reasons explained more fully from the bench, the Court found that Officer Leo is not immune from suit on those claims because the evidence creates a genuine question of fact as to whether his conduct was objectively reasonable under the circumstances. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). The Court will now deny the Defendants' motion with respect to Lane's Survival Act and Wrongful Death Act claims (Counts 1 and 2), as well as her underlying tort claims for false arrest, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and common law negligence (Counts 15, 16, and 20, respectively). Similar questions of fact preclude summary judgment on those counts, and Lane's expert has testified to a standard of care for use of

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deadly force that is sufficient to support her common law negligence claim.

The Court will, however, grant summary judgment for the District on Lane's Fourth Amendment claim against it (Count 4). Lane has not presented sufficient evidence to enable a reasonable jury to conclude that the District was deliberately indifferent to a risk that GRU members would violate Mr. Briscoe's constitutional rights in the manner alleged. Nor has she presented evidence to support a reasonable inference that a lack of additional training caused Briscoe's death. The District is therefore not subject to municipal liability and is entitled to summary judgment on Count 4. The Court will also grant summary judgment for the District on Lane's negligent hiring, training, supervision, and retention claim (Count 19) because Lane has not offered sufficient evidence to establish an applicable standard that the District violated. And the Court will grant summary judgment for the Defendants on Lane's Fifth Amendment claims (Counts 5 and 6), as Lane did not respond in her opposition to the Defendants' argument that the availability of adequate post-deprivation remedies precludes Lane's due process claims under the Fifth Amendment.[2] Finally, the Court concludes that Lane is not entitled to punitive damages from the District, but that she has raised a triable question of fact as to whether Officer Leo is liable for punitive damages.

I. Factual Background

The MPD's Gun Recovery Unit (" GRU" ) is a specialized patrol unit charged with identifying and recovering illegal guns from the streets of Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier reconstituted the unit in November 2007. See Testimony of Chief Cathy Lanier, Pl's Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 20 (Oct. 1, 2008). Given the long history of gun violence in the city, the GRU's mission is both important and dangerous.

While many facts in this case are in dispute, this much is clear: On the afternoon of April 26, 2011, four plainclothes GRU members were on patrol in Southeast Washington in an unmarked black Ford Explorer. They encountered Ralphael Briscoe on the sidewalk outside an apartment complex talking on his cellphone. Deposition of Roberto Torres at 49, Feb. 12. 2014 (" Torres Dep." ). As the Explorer approached, one of the officers asked Briscoe if he had a gun. Deposition of Jordan Katz at 52, Feb. 11, 2014 (" Katz Dep." ); Deposition of Thomas Sheehan at 44, Feb. 11, 2014 (" Sheehan Dep." ). Briscoe, who was not suspected of any crime, began to walk away and then to run. Torres Dep. 49, 72. Two officers--Katz and Sheehan--jumped out of the Explorer and began to chase Briscoe on foot. Katz Dep. 53; Sheehan Dep. 52. Briscoe turned left, crossed the street, and sprinted down a sidewalk along the right side of the street. Torres Dep. 76. Officer Leo pursued in the Explorer with the fourth officer, Torres, in the back seat. Id. at 83. The vehicle passed the two officers on foot and quickly approached Briscoe. Video 1, Pl.'s Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 27. As Briscoe reached and began to turn right into a driveway, the Explorer drew parallel to him. Id. Officer Leo fired twice out of the

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passenger-side window of the slowing vehicle, hitting Briscoe in the left side of his back and left buttock. Deposition of Chad Leo at 81, 107-08, Feb. 19, 2014 (" Leo Dep." ); Pl.'s Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 33. Briscoe fell in the driveway and was handcuffed by the officers pursuing on foot. Katz Dep. 81. An ambulance took Briscoe to the hospital but he died soon after he arrived. Pl.'s Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 37, at 3. At the scene, officers recovered a cell phone and a BB-pistol broken into three pieces. Crime Scene Evidence Report, Coker Dep. Ex. 2A.

From there the accounts diverge. The parties first dispute whether Briscoe was in fact armed. Officer Torres, who was in the back seat of the Explorer, acknowledged that Briscoe was holding a cell phone when the officers first approached him, but testified he saw a gun in his hand during the chase. Torres Dep. 63, 81. Officer Leo, the driver, also insisted he saw Briscoe gripping a pistol in his right hand as he ran away. Leo Dep. 95. Defendants point to the BB-gun recovered at the scene and Officer Sheehan's statement that Briscoe told him " It's not even real! I should have never run!" Sheehan Decl. ¶ 6. Lane retorts that the police planted the BB-gun. Pl.'s Opp'n Def. Mot. Summ. J. at 18. The officers chasing Mr. Briscoe on foot did not see a gun in his hand. Katz Dep. 61; Sheehan Dep. 59. Other eyewitnesses deny Mr. Briscoe was holding a gun.

The parties also dispute whether, even if Officer Leo observed Briscoe with what appeared to be a gun, it was reasonable for him to shoot. Officer Leo contends he feared for his safety and that of his fellow officers because, as Briscoe was running away, he turned towards the Explorer with a gun in hand. Leo Dep. 111. Other witnesses, however, including two of the officers, did not see Briscoe turn. Deposition of LaTonya Boyd at 29, Apr. 7, 2014 (" Boyd Dep." ); Deposition of Caroletta Inman at 43, Apr. 7, 2014 (" Inman Dep." ); Katz Dep. 67; Sheehan Dep. 80. Each side says the video supports its position on both issues. A noted above, the Court ruled at the hearing that the video footage and other evidence raise a genuine question of fact as to whether the shooting was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

II. Legal Standards

The Court must grant the Defendants' summary judgment motion if they have demonstrated no genuine issue of material fact exists and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett,477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). To defeat the motion, Lane must provide " specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324. " [A] material fact is 'genuine' . . . if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" on a particular claim. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court must draw all reasonable inferences in Lane's favor and accept competent evidence presented by her as true, and ...

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