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Flythe v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 26, 2016

BETTY S. FLYTHE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants. Re Document No. 150, 151

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

         Denying Defendant Eagan's Motion for Summary Judgment and Denying Defendant Eagan's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Punitive Damages

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On December 26, 2009, an officer of the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) fatally shot Tremayne G. Flythe. Mr. Flythe's mother, Betty S. Flythe, brought this action in her personal capacity and on behalf of the estate of Mr. Flythe against the District of Columbia (“the District”) and the two officers directly involved in the shooting, Officer Travis Eagan and Officer Angel Vazquez. Against the officers, Ms. Flythe alleged constitutional excessive force claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and common law assault and battery claims. At summary judgment, the Court concluded that qualified immunity shielded Officer Eagan from Ms. Flythe's section 1983 and assault and battery claims and, consequently, granted summary judgment in his favor. See generally Flythe v. District of Columbia (Flythe I), 994 F.Supp.2d 50, 66-68, 74 (D.D.C. 2013). The Court allowed Ms. Flythe's claims against Officer Vazquez and some of her claims against the District to proceed to trial, however, see generally id.; Flythe v. District of Columbia (Flythe II), 4 F.Supp.3d 216 (D.D.C. 2014), and a jury found Officer Vazquez liable for assault (but not battery or excessive force), and found the District of Columbia liable “for assault and battery, for the actions of both Officer Vazquez and Officer Eagan, ” Jury Verdict, ECF No. 117 (emphasis added).

         On appeal, the D.C. Circuit affirmed the jury verdict in all respects, but reversed the entry of summary judgment against Officer Eagan. See Flythe v. District of Columbia (Flythe III), 791 F.3d 13, 15 (D.C. Cir. 2015). On remand, Officer Eagan has again moved for summary judgment, arguing that notwithstanding the D.C. Circuit's decision, summary judgment should be granted in his favor in light of the record produced at trial. The Court disagrees, both because the circuit did have the trial record before it and also because, in any event, genuine issues of material fact remain even after considering the trial testimony. Accordingly, the Court will deny both of Officer Eagan's motions. The Court does conclude, however, that the District of Columbia's liability was settled by the first trial-which has now been affirmed on appeal. As a result, this case will proceed against Officer Eagan, alone.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court and the D.C. Circuit have previously described the facts surrounding Mr. Flythe's death on December 26, 2009 in detail. See Flythe III, 791 F.3d at 15-18; Flythe I, 994 F.Supp.2d at 55-59. The Court assumes familiarity with those prior opinions and will focus on the facts most relevant to Officer Eagan's present motions for summary judgment.

         On December 26, 2009, the owner of Petworth Liquor Store, Balbir Singh Hundal, called the police to report that a man had thrown an empty bottle at his store's window. See Def. Eagan's Statement of Material Facts ¶ 3 (“Def.'s SUMF”), ECF No. 150-2.[1] Mr. Hundal had called the police the evening prior to report that the same man had thrown a brick through, and broken, another store window. Id. ¶ 1. District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department Officers Angel Vazquez and Travis Eagan arrived at Mr. Hundal's store and then set off, separately, to canvass the neighborhood assisted by Mr. Hundal's description of the individual as a “black male wearing a black jacket, [and] walking a dog.” Id. ¶¶ 5, 9; see also J.A. at 1756 (Mr. Hundal's trial testimony).[2]

         Officer Vazquez came across a male walking a dog on the 400 Block of Kenyon Street, who he claimed fit Mr. Hundal's description. J.A. at 362 ¶ 10 (Def. Vazquez's Stmt. of Undisputed Facts). That man was Tremayne Flythe. After parking his vehicle near the curb, Officer Vazquez instructed Mr. Flythe to tie his dog to a fence pole, and inquired whether he could ask Mr. Flythe some questions. Id. ¶ 13. Mr. Flythe and Officer Vazquez then moved to the rear of Office Vazquez's cruiser. Officer Vazquez testified that, as they did so, Mr. Flythe's demeanor changed and Mr. Flythe began playing with his jacket, prompting Officer Vazquez to ask whether Mr. Flythe “ha[d] anything on [him] that [Officer Vazquez] should know.” Id. at 402-03 (deposition of Angel Vazquez). Officer Vazquez testified that Mr. Flythe answered in the affirmative, pulled out a knife and attempted to stab Officer Vazquez. Id. at 403. Officer Vazquez “pushed or kicked” Mr. Flythe, drew his firearm, and fired two shots before the gun jammed. Id. at 408-09. After clearing the jam, Officer Vazquez was able to fire two additional 7(h)(1) (“In determining a motion for summary judgment, the Court may assume that facts identified by the moving party in its statement of material facts are admitted, unless such a fact is controverted in the statement of genuine issues filed in opposition to the motion.”). shots, which he claimed missed Mr. Flythe. Id. at 409-10. Mr. Flythe then untied his dog, and ran down Kenyon Street. Id. at 410.

         Contrary to Officer Vazquez's account, however, five other witnesses to the altercation all testified that they did not observe Mr. Flythe with a knife. See Id. at 539-40, 543 (deposition of Mary Frances McCotter); id. at 532-33 (deposition of Sabrina Shapiro); id. at 549-50 (deposition of Janean Willard); id. at 555-56 (deposition of Jonathan L. Poole); id. at 560 (deposition of Linda Smith). Several even testified that Mr. Flythe's hands were raised, or that his palms were open and forward, suggesting that he could not have been carrying a knife. See Id. at 543 (McCotter Dep.); id. at 533 (Shapiro Dep.); id. at 549 (Willard Dep.); id. at 555 (Poole Dep.). Those witnesses either testified to the same at trial or had the relevant portions of their deposition testimony read into evidence. See, e.g., id. at 1407-17 (portions of deposition of Linda Smith read into evidence); id. at 1420 (testimony of Mary Frances McCotter); id. at 1429, 1431 (testimony of Janean Willard); id. at 1435, 1444 (testimony of Jonathan Poole); id. at 1448 (testimony of Sabrina Shapiro).

         Meanwhile, Officer Eagan had been patrolling the same neighborhood, accompanied by Mr. Hundal. He heard the following over the police radio:

OFFICER [Vazquez]: Eagan. Four hundred block of Kenyon.
OFFICER: Hey, (inaudible), copy.
DISPATCHER: 3206 (phonetic).
OFFICER: Drop the knife.
OFFICER: Shot.
OFFICER: Drop the knife.
(Shot fired)
. . .
OFFICER: Tried to stab me, ma'am. My gun jammed. Get official on this location.

Id. at 222-23 (radio run call). In response, Officer Eagan drove around the block and proceeded toward Kenyon Street. Id. at 731-32 (deposition of Travis Eagan). Officer Eagan testified that, while he was driving northbound on Warder Street, he saw Officer Vazquez running westbound. Id. at 732. Officer Vazquez's weapon was out, he was pointing, and he said that Mr. Flythe was “running westbound.” Id. Officer Eagan testified that he looked westbound-down the 500 to 600 block of Kenyon Street-and “saw the suspect running on the north sidewalk in a westbound direction with the dog.” Id. Officer Eagan then turned left down Kenyon Street and proceeded forward, eventually parking his car near the 600 block, in order to cut off Mr. Flythe. Id. at 733. Officer Eagan ordered Mr. Flythe to “get on the ground . . . now[.]” Id.

         Officer Eagan testified that, instead of obeying his command, Mr. Flythe ran past him in close proximity for three to four feet before “Mr. Flythe jumped through the air and changed his momentum by doing a hop . . . and [then] started coming towards” Officer Eagan. Id. at 734. Officer Eagan stated that he began retreating, but that Mr. Flythe “made a motion toward his waistband and [Eagan] saw a silver blade of what [he] believed to be a knife coming up out of his waistband.” Id. Officer Eagan described how Mr. Flythe was holding his weapon as follows: “He [was] holding it in a fashion so that if the handle were-if the knife were vertical, the blade was pointing down and the handle up, he had the handle grasping it from the top so that if you were to bring your thumb back to your shoulder, the handle would be toward your shoulder and the blade of the knife would be forward of you.” Id. at 736. At trial, Officer Eagan testified that Mr. Flythe raised the knife above his head. See Id. at 1663 (“He raised it above his head and advanced towards me.”); id. at 1671 (“He raised the knife above his head and was running at me.”). At that point, Officer Eagan stated that “I was ordering him to drop the knife, I'll shoot, drop the knife, I'll shoot. He continued to advance towards me. I discharged my weapon . . . .” Id. at 428. Mr. Flythe fell to the ground. Id.

         During the altercation between Officer Eagan and Mr. Flythe, Mr. Hundal remained in the parked patrol car. Although much of his view was obstructed by the other cars parked on Kenyon Street, see J.A. at 1758-60, he claimed that at the critical moment at issue here-around the time he heard the gunshots-he could see the tops of Mr. Flythe's and Officer Eagan's heads and their shoulders, id. at 518-19 (deposition of Balbir Hundal); id. at 1760 (trial testimony). His testimony regarding when Officer Eagan fired is inconsistent, however. At one point during his deposition he stated that, when the shots were fired, Mr. Flythe and Eagan were “face to face.” Id. at 508, 519. At another point, however, he appears to claim that Officer Eagan exited the patrol car and shot at Mr. Flythe while chasing him. Id. at 517 (“Q: Was he still running when he fired his gun? A: Running still, yes.”); id. at 1760 (trial testimony: “Q: Before he came face-to-face with the policeman, had you heard any gunshots? A: Yes, I heard gunshots . . . I heard that when they running . . . .”).

         Ursula Edmonds, another witness to the shooting, was standing on the west end of the Kenyon Street block, almost at the intersection with Georgia Avenue. In her initial police interview, she stated that as soon as Officer Eagan's car pulled up to Mr. Flythe, “the police officer . . . immediately jumped out of the car, ran, started running, and I saw him chasing another gentleman.” J.A. at 580 (transcript of police interview). She then stated: “he is chasing him and I heard, I hear [sic] two gunshots, pop, pop.” Id. at 581. Ms. Edmonds stated that she “couldn't see where the gunshots came from, ” although she presented her “opinion” that “the police officer was shooting at the young man.” Id. At trial, however, Ms. Edmonds claimed that she saw Mr. Flythe run and then hide “behind a pole, ” and that Officer Eagan “pulled up” to Mr. Flythe, “jumped out of his vehicle, ” “immediately pointed his gun, ” and “went straight to him and shot him.” Id. at 1481-82 (trial testimony). When presented with her prior statement in which she claimed not to have seen where the gunshots came from, Ms. Edmonds eventually admitted that it was possible she reported during her interview that she had not seen where the gunshots came from, but maintained during her in-court testimony that “I absolutely know where the gunshot came from.” Id. at 1499-1500. The videotape of Ms. Edmonds initial interview was played for the jury as impeachment evidence. Id. at 1507.

         Officer Vazquez, meanwhile, testified that he was not sure whether Mr. Flythe had stopped running or not before Officer Eagan fired shots at him. He stated, “I know he was not stopped but I don't know if he was running-walking, I mean, he was towards Officer Eagan.” J.A. at 414. He also indicated that “prior to the shot [being fired], ” he did not ever see Mr. Flythe stop running. Id. at 413. Finally, Ivan Cloyd, another bystander, reported during a police interview that he saw Mr. Flythe “running when the officer was shooting at him.” J.A. at 577. At trial, Mr. Cloyd again said that he ...


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