Bruner v. Brown, No. 2:2016cv13907 - Document 26 (E.D. La. 2017)

Court Description: ORDER AND REASONS granting 15 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff John Bruner's claims are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Signed by Judge Sarah S. Vance on 5/1/2017. (cg)
Download PDF
Bruner v. Brown Doc. 26 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA J OHN BRUNER CIVIL ACTION VERSUS NO. 16-1390 7 SCOTT BROWN SECTION “R” (1) ORD ER AN D REASON S J ohn Bruner brings Bivens claim s against U.S. Navy Law Enforcement Officer Scott Brown for alleged violations of Bruner’s Fourth Am endment rights. Brown m oves to dism iss Bruner’s claim s, or in the alternative, for sum m ary judgm ent. The Court finds that Bruner’s allegations, taken as true, cannot overcome Brown’s qualified im m unity from suit. Accordingly, Brown’s m otion to dism iss is granted. I. BACKGROU N D The following facts are taken from plaintiff J ohn Bruner’s com plaint. Bruner alleges that on the afternoon of August 19, 20 15, he was driving on the U.S. Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, when he was stopped by defendant Scott Brown, a U.S. Navy law enforcement officer. 1 Brown told 1 R. Doc. 1 at 2. Bruner that Bruner had been stopped for failing to wear a seatbelt. 2 Bruner put his seatbelt on, apologized to Brown, thanked Brown, and told Brown to have a nice day. 3 Brown responded by swearing at Bruner and dem anding Bruner’s license and registration. 4 After Bruner provided his license, Brown asked Bruner for his social security num ber. 5 Bruner refused to answer. 6 Brown then inform ed Bruner that he was under arrest. 7 Bruner did not resist, but told Brown that he had a pre-existing shoulder injury. 8 Bruner told Brown not to handcuff Bruner’s hands behind his back, because doing so would severely aggravate the injury and harm Bruner. 9 According to Bruner, Brown then “maliciously injured [Bruner] while im properly handcuffing [Bruner] to cause [Bruner] pain and torture him .”10 Bruner was released from Brown’s custody at approxim ately 3:0 0 p.m. the same day. 11 He was issued two citations, one for Failure to Obey a Direct 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Id. Id. Id. Id. at 3. Id. Id. Id. Id. Id. Id. 2 Order and one for Failure to Wear a Seatbelt. 12 The citation for Failure to Obey a Direct Order was later dism issed. 13 Following an MRI, Bruner was diagnosed with tears of the 360 -degree periphery of the cartilaginous lip of the glenoid labrum. 14 Bruner alleges that Brown caused this injury when he handcuffed Bruner, and Bruner will require surgery to repair his shoulder. 15 Bruner sues Brown in his individual capacity. 16 Bruner asserts that Brown’s alleged actions constitute false im prisonment and excessive force under the Fourth Am endment. 17 Bruner seeks dam ages including m edical expenses, disability, pain and suffering, attorney’s fees, and punitive dam ages. 18 Brown now m oves to dism iss Bruner’s claim s and argues in part that Bruner’s claim s are barred by qualified im m unity. 19 Brown also m oves, in the alternative, for sum m ary judgm ent on the sam e issues. 20 Because the Court finds that Bruner’s alleged facts, taken as true, cannot support a claim , the Court does not consider the parties’ sum mary judgm ent evidence. 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 Id. Id. Id. at 4. Id. Id. at 1 Id. at 4. Id. at 5 R. Doc. 15. Id. 3 II. LEGAL STAN D ARD To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) m otion to dism iss, the plaintiff m ust plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 697 (20 0 9) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Tw om bly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (20 0 7)). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts that allow the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the m isconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. A court m ust accept all well-pleaded facts as true and m ust draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Lorm and v. US Unw ired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 239 (5th Cir. 20 0 9); Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190 , 196 (5th Cir. 1996). A legally sufficient com plaint m ust establish m ore than a “sheer possibility” that the plaintiff’s claim is true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. It need not contain detailed factual allegations, but it m ust go beyond labels, legal conclusions, or form ulaic recitations of the elem ents of a cause of action. Id. In other words, the face of the com plaint m ust contain enough factual m atter to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of each element of the plaintiff’s claim. Lorm and, 565 F.3d at 257. If there are insufficient factual allegations to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, or if it is apparent from the face of the com plaint that there is an 4 insuperable bar to relief, the claim m ust be dism issed. Tw om bly , 550 U.S. at 555. III. D ISCU SSION Brown is a federal law enforcement officer, and m ay therefore be liable for dam ages for certain violations of the Fourth Am endment. See Bivens v. Six Unknow n Fed. N arcotics Agents, 40 3 U.S. 388, 389 (1971). Brown is, however, protected by qualified im m unity. See W ilson v. Lay ne, 526 U.S. 60 3, 60 9 (1999). Qualified im m unity under Bivens is identical to the im m unity granted to individual defendants sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. Accordingly, Brown is im m une unless Bruner’s allegations, taken as true, dem onstrate that (1) Brown violated Bruner’s constitutional rights and (2) Brown’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the tim e of the alleged violation. Hinojosa v. Livingston, 80 7 F.3d 657, 669 (5th Cir. 20 15). “A Governm ent official’s conduct violates clearly established law when, at the tim e of the challenged conduct, the contours of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Ashcroft v. al– Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (20 11) (internal quotations and m odifications om itted); see also Manis v. Law son, 585 F.3d 839, 845 (5th Cir. 20 0 9) (“Qualified 5 im m unity shields from civil liability ‘all but the plainly incom petent or those who knowingly violate the law.’” (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, (1986)). A. Exce s s ive Fo rce In the context of an excessive force claim , a plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified im m unity m ust show: “(1) injury (2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable.” Freem an v. Gore, 483 F.3d 40 4, 416 (5th Cir. 20 0 7). Claim s of excessive force are fact intensive and they depend on “the facts and circum stances of each particular case.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). Accordingly, “[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force m ust be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20 / 20 vision of hindsight.” Id. This is an objective standard: “the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circum stances confronting them , without regard to their underlying intent or m otivation.” Id. at 397; see also Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 9 (1985) (court m ust determ ine whether “the totality of the circum stances justified” the particular use of force). This test “allow[s] for the fact that police officers are often forced to m ake split-second judgm ents—in 6 circum stances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the am ount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Graham , 490 U.S. at 397. Here, the Court finds that Bruner has failed to allege that Brown used excessive force that was clearly unreasonable. Bruner alleges, in essence, that Brown handcuffed Bruner’s hands behind his back, after being warned that Bruner had a pre-existing shoulder injury. Although Bruner alleges that the cuffing was “m alicious”, the Court m ust objectively analyze Brown’s actions “without regard to their underlying intent or m otivation.” Id. In the Fifth Circuit, it takes far m ore than handcuffing to run afoul of the deferential “clearly excessive” standard. See Pratt v. Harris Cty ., Tex., 822 F.3d 174, 184 (5th Cir. 20 16) (no excessive force where arrestee was hogtied and died due to asphyxiation); Davila v. United States, 713 F.3d 248, 260 (5th Cir. 20 13) (surrounding car with guns drawn, handcuffing plaintiffs, and forcing plaintiffs to kneel during traffic stop was not excessive or objectively unreasonable use of force); Freem an, 483 F.3d at 416 (no excessive force where “deputies twisted [plaintiff’s] arms behind her back while handcuffing her, ‘jerked her all over the carport,’ and applied the handcuffs too tightly, causing bruises and m arks on her wrists and arms); see also Glenn v. City of Ty ler, 242 F.3d 30 7, 314 (5th Cir. 20 0 1) (“handcuffing 7 too tightly, without m ore, does not am ount to excessive force”). Accordingly, the Court finds that cuffing Bruner behind his back was not a “clearly excessive” use of force. Brown’s preexisting injury does not change this analysis. “[A] plaintiff m ay recover for aggravation of a preexisting injury if the use of excessive force caused that aggravation.” Callaw ay v. Travis Cty ., No. 15-10 3, 20 16 WL 4371943, at *6 (W.D. Tex. J uly 28, 20 16). But a prerequisite to such recovery is that the force used by the officer be actually excessive. See Freem an 483 F.3d at 416 (to overcom e qualified im m unity, injury m ust “result[] directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive.”). Reasonable force, even reasonable force leading to severe injury, is insufficient. Because the alleged handcuffing was an application of reasonable force, Brown is shielded by qualified im m unity. See W ells v. Bonner, 45 F.3d 90 , 96 (5th Cir. 1995) (qualified im m unity barred claim that handcuffing behind back exacerbated existing shoulder injury); see also Dunn, 79 F.3d at 40 3 (explaining W ells decision: “The aggravation of the old injury was not attributable to the excessive com ponent of the force used. Rather, aggravation of Wells’s old shoulder injury was claim ed to have been caused by handcuffing his hands behind his back, a routine police procedure.”); Roy ster v. N ichols, 698 F.3d 681, 690 -91 (8th Cir. 20 12) 8 (upholding grant of sum m ary judgment where officer cuffed arrestee’s hands behind his back despite arrestees’ request that the officer cuff him in the front because of an old back and shoulder injury). B. Fals e Arre s t The right to be free from false arrest is protected under the Fourth Am endm ent. Eugene v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., 65 F.3d 1299, 130 5 (5th Cir. 1995). The Fourth Am endm ent, however, “does not guarantee that only the guilty will be arrested.” Mangieri v. Clifton, 29 F.3d 10 12, 10 17 (5th Cir. 1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 (1979)). A warrantless arrest, such as that alleged here, m ust be based on probable cause. United States v. Ho, 94 F.3d 932, 935 (5th Cir. 1996). Probable cause exists for a warrantless arrest “when the totality of the facts and circum stances within a police officer’s knowledge at the m oment of the arrest are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had com m itted or was com m itting an offense.” United States v. Cannon, No. 0 3-119, 20 0 3 WL 2140 6180 , at *2 (E.D. La. 20 0 3) (quoting Ho, 94 F.3d at 935-36). Even a very m inor offense m ay support a lawful arrest. Atw ater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (20 0 1) (“If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has com m itted even a very m inor crim inal offense in his 9 presence, he m ay, without violating the Fourth Amendm ent, arrest the offender.”). Even if an officer erred in concluding that probable cause existed for an arrest, he is entitled to qualified im m unity if his decision was reasonable, albeit m istaken. Lam pkin v. City of N acogdoches, 7 F.3d 430 , 435 (5th Cir. 1993). Thus, if “a reasonable officer could have believed” that the arrest was lawfully based on probable cause, the officer retains qualified im m unity. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987). In that event, the officer is entitled to sum mary judgm ent on qualified im m unity grounds even if the officer violated an individual’s Fourth Am endm ent rights. Estep v. Dallas County , Texas, 310 F.3d 353, 360 (5th Cir. 20 0 2). Here, Bruner concedes that he was not wearing a seatbelt when Brown stopped him . Bruner attaches a “violation notice” to his com plaint, which identifies Louisiana Revised Statutes section 295.1 as the “Basis for Charge.” Under section 295.1, a driver “shall have a safety belt properly fastened about his or her body at all tim es when the vehicle is in forward m otion.” La. Stat. § 32:295.1. Probable cause that a m otorist has comm itted a seat belt violation is sufficient to support a lawful arrest. See Ram dath v. Favata, No. 11-0 395, 20 14 WL 12586843, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. J uly 23, 20 14) (granting sum m ary judgement on false arrest claim where officer handcuffed arrestee 10 after observing arrestee not wearing seatbelt); Poole v. City of Burbank, 632 F. Supp. 2d 847, 851 (N.D. Ill. 20 0 9) (dism issing false arrest claim where defendant had been convicted of seatbelt violation). Bruner pleads facts dem onstrating that Brown had probable cause to arrest Bruner for a seatbelt violation, and his allegations therefore cannot support a claim for false arrest. Because“[c]laim s for false arrest focus on the validity of the arrest, not on the validity of each individual charge m ade during the course of the arrest,” Price v. Roark, 256 F.3d 364, 369 (5th Cir. 20 0 1), the Court need not consider whether Brown also had probable cause to arrest Bruner for failure to obey an order. IV. CON CLU SION For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff J ohn Bruner’s claim s are DISMISSED WITH PREJ UDICE. 1st New Orleans, Louisiana, this _ _ _ _ _ day of May, 20 17. _____________________ SARAH S. VANCE UNITED STATES DISTRICT J UDGE 11