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Westfahl v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

December 12, 2014

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants

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For SHAWN WESTFAHL, Plaintiff: Daniel E. Schultz, Washington, DC; Jeffrey Louis Light, LAW OFFICES OF JEFFREY LIGHT, Washington, DC.

For DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DANIEL THAU, Offc., (#4783) In his Individual Capacity, TODD CORY, Ofc., (#5105), In his Individual Capacity, CRAIG D. MACK, Sgt., (#S0449), Defendants: Kerslyn D. Featherstone, LEAD ATTORNEY, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL/DC, Washington, DC.

For ROBERT ROBINSON, Ofc., (#4759) In his Individual Capacity, Defendant: Kerslyn D. Featherstone, OFFICE OF ATTORNEY GENERAL/DC, Washington, DC.

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CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

Officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (" MPD" ) arrested Plaintiff Shawn Westfahl during a protest march against the World Bank and charged him with assaulting a police officer. According to the police, Westfahl

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struck Officer Robert Robinson with a protest flag and resisted several officers' efforts to subdue and handcuff him. Westfahl maintains he dropped the flag and tried to comply with the officers' instructions. An amateur video of the incident, while blurry, appears to show that the flagpole never struck any officer. Westfahl has sued the officers for alleged violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and related common law torts. He also asserts that the District is liable for its officers' conduct because it deliberately failed to implement systems to investigate and discipline excessive force incidents. Westfahl further alleges that MPD violated his Fifth Amendment rights by denying him use of his asthma inhaler while in jail. The defendant officers and the District have moved for summary judgment on all of Westfahl's claims and Westfahl has cross-moved for partial summary judgment on his Fourth Amendment and assault and battery claims. Because genuine questions of fact exist regarding the reasonableness of some of the officers' conduct, the Court will deny both parties' motions as to Westfahl's Fourth and First Amendment, assault and battery, false arrest, and defamation claims against certain individual defendants. The Court will grant summary judgment to the District on Westfahl's municipal liability claim, however, because he has not offered sufficient evidence to support an inference that the District was deliberately indifferent to a likelihood of constitutional violations by MPD officers or that any city policy caused his injuries. And, because the Defendants have articulated a reasonable basis for MPD's policy of withholding an arrestee's medical device, the Court also will grant summary judgment for the Defendants on Westfahl's Fifth Amendment claim.

I. Background

Shawn Westfahl participated in a protest march against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. on October 9, 2010. Defs. Statement of Material Facts (" DSOF" ) ¶ 1. As he marched, Westfahl held a long wooden pole attached to a protest flag. Id. ¶ 8. Some of the protesters were disorderly: they walked in the street against traffic, threw newspaper dispensers and traffic barricades, and banged on cars. Id. ¶ ¶ 2-4. At L and 21st Streets, Northwest, Metropolitan Police Department (" MPD" ) officers cordoned the protesters, herding them onto the sidewalk along the wall of an office building. Id. ¶ 6. The officers included members of a bicycle squad. Deposition of Raul Figueras (" Figueras Depo." ) 28:15-22. According to several of the officers, and as depicted in a video taken by a participant in the protest, most of the protesters complied with the officers' instructions to move against the wall. Westfahl, however, attempted to walk past the line of officers. Deposition of Officer Robert Andrew Robinson (" Robinson Depo." ) 31:1-2; Deposition of Officer Daniel Thau (" Thau Depo." ) 51:6-8; Defs. Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (" Defs. Mem." ) Ex. 12 (" Video" ) 3:06-16.

After the officers stopped the protesters, the parties' versions of events diverge sharply. According to the officers involved in the incident, Westfahl hit Officer Robert Robinson's bicycle helmet with the flagpole. Robinson Depo. 55:11-59:3; Deposition of Officer Todd Cory (" Cory Depo." ) 29:18-20; Thau Depo. 56:3-17; Deposition of Sergeant Craig Mack (" Mack Depo." ) 56:2-20. Some of the officers testified that Westfahl brought the flag down on Officer Robinson's head, while others recounted that he brought it around to strike with the butt of the stick. Compare Robinson Depo. 55:11-59:3; with

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Mack Depo. 56:2-20. The officers' testimony also differs on whether the strike left a mark on Officer Robinson's helmet, compare Robinson Depo. 55:11-59:3; with Thau Depo. 56:3-17. Westfahl, on the other hand, testified that he dropped the flag after Officer Robinson pushed him back towards the wall. Deposition of Shawn Westfahl (" Westfahl Depo." ) 49:18-50:14, 54:1-55:8. The video, while blurry and granular, appears to show Westfahl's flag falling down and away from the police line, well away from any officer. Video 3:06-3:17. After Westfahl released the flagpole, Officer Robinson wrestled Westfahl to the ground and attempted to handcuff him. According to the officers, Westfahl refused to present his arm so that he could be handcuffed, causing the officers to strike Westfahl with a baton and their fists in an effort to compel compliance. Robinson Depo. 55:16-17, 60:6-12, 71:22-72:13; Thau Depo. 58:6-12, 66:1-3; Cory Depo. 33:3-22. Westfahl contends he was not resisting handcuffing and that his arm was pinned underneath him by the weight of the officers. Westfahl Depo. at 58:14-59:12, 106:20-107:5. The video again is unclear but could be interpreted to show Westfahl's arm pinned and slack while the officers strike him. Video at 3:28-3:45.[1]

After the officers finally placed Westfahl in handcuffs, the parties' versions of events converge once more. Westfahl was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer. DSOF ¶ 27. Westfahl was taken to a hospital to treat minor abrasions that he had sustained during the scuffle and arrest. See Pl. Ex. P (Plaintiff's responses to interrogatories). Officers then transported Westfahl to a police station and placed all of his personal property, including his asthma inhaler, in the station's evidence locker. DSOF ¶ 35. MPD policy at the time required the police to take all medical devices away from arrestees and to transport an arrestee to a nearby hospital if he requested use of the device. Id. ¶ ¶ 33-34. The next morning, while still in custody, Westfahl had an asthma attack and requested his inhaler. Id. ¶ 36. Following policy, MPD officers transported Westfahl to a nearby hospital where he received appropriate treatment. Westfahl suffered no long-term effects from this asthma attack. Id. ¶ ¶ 37-38.

Westfahl brought suit against the District and the bicycle squad officers who were personally involved in his arrest. Specifically, Westfahl has sued Officer Robinson, who allegedly wrestled Westfahl to the ground and struck him; Officer Todd Cory, who was the charging officer and allegedly struck Westfahl; Office Daniel Thau, who allegedly struck Westfahl with his baton; and Sergeant Craig Mack, who supervised the other officers and allegedly participated in Westfahl's arrest. Pl. Opp'n at 5-6.

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II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate " 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 must identify " those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, the nonmoving party must demonstrate that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 324. A dispute is " genuine" if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the nonmoving party and is " material" if it is capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In assessing a party's motion, the court must " view the facts and draw reasonable inferences 'in the light most favorable to the party opposing the summary judgment motion.'" Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (alterations omitted) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962) ( per curiam )).

III. Analysis

A. Claims Against Individual Officers

Westfahl brings the following claims against individual police officers: First and Fourth Amendment violations and assault and battery against Officers Robinson, Cory, and Thau, and Sergeant Mack; false arrest against Officer Cory, who arrested Westfahl at the scene; abuse of process against all the officers except Officer Thau; and defamation against Officers Cory and Robinson.[2] The Defendants assert a qualified immunity defense as to all claims against the individual officers. As to Westfahl's state law tort claims against the individual officers, Westfahl may hold the District liable for their actions under a respondeat superior theory. Armbruster v. ...

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