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RIVERS v. O'BRIEN

January 21, 2000

TERRY RIVERS, SR., AUSTIN HART, A MINOR CHILD BY HIS GUARDIAN AND NEXT FRIEND RAYMOND HART, AND RAYMOND HART, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
RICHARD J. O'BRIEN, JAMES H. GODFREY, JAMES PARKER AND ZANE HATHAWAY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kahn, District Judge.

    MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment pursuant to FED.R.CIV.P. 56. Though Plaintiffs' memorandum of law in opposition to defendants motion for summary judgment is clearly in violation of the Local Rules for its excessive length, in the interest of justice to the individual Plaintiffs, we will accept the memorandum.*fn1 For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted-in-part and denied-in-part.

I. BACKGROUND

The civil rights violations alleged by Plaintiffs stem from events that occurred on September 27, 1995. On that date defendant O'Brien, a New York State Trooper, went to the residence of Steven Rivers to execute an arrest warrant issued by Ausable Town Judge Head. Steven Rivers resided with his parents, Bonnie Rivers and Terry Rivers, Sr. in Peru, New York.

Officer O'Brien arrested and handcuffed Steven Rivers, and escorted him toward Officer O'Brien's police car when Bonnie Rivers followed and began yelling at Officer O'Brien. Officer O'Brien instructed Bonnie Rivers to step away from the car.

Approximately twelve troopers and a Deputy Sheriff arrived at the Rivers' residence. Among the backup who arrived were defendants Sergeant Parker, Sergeant Hathaway and Trooper Godfrey. While in the house, Bonnie Rivers telephoned her brother Raymond Hart, telling him that his son, the infant Austin Hart, had been sprayed with pepper spray during the arrest of Steven Rivers. Raymond Hart quickly arrived at the Rivers' residence. Upon his arrival, Raymond Hart demanded to know who was responsible for spraying his son. Bonnie Rivers identified Officer O'Brien as the responsible party.

When Hart approached Officer O'Brien, the other officers, believing that Raymond Hart meant to harm O'Brien, intervened. The officers brought Hart to the ground and arrested him. Hart contends that he never acted aggressively during the incident.

Plaintiffs then commenced this action, alleging a deprivation of rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, whereby Plaintiffs were deprived of their "right to be free from unlawful assault and battery, unlawful arrest and detention, and defamation."

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard of Review

Summary judgment must be granted when the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits . . . 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); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Lang v. Retirement Living Pub. Co., 949 F.2d 576, 580 (2d Cir. 1991). The moving party carries the initial burden of demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. FED.R.CIV.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1999). In deciding the motion, all facts, inferences therefrom, and ambiguities must be viewed in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in nonmovant's favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Thomas 165 F.3d at 142. A genuine issue is an issue that, if resolved in favor of the non-moving party, would permit a jury to return a verdict for that party. R.B. Ventures, Ltd. v. Shane, 112 F.3d 54, 57 (2d Cir. 1997), citing Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

When the moving party has met the burden, the nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348. At that point, the nonmoving party "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(e); Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. at 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., 475 U.S. at 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348. To withstand a summary judgment motion, evidence must exist upon which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmovant. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505; Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348. Thus, summary judgment is proper where there is "little or no evidence . . . in support of the non-moving party's case." Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., 22 F.3d 1219, 1223-24 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted).

B. Section 1983

Section 1983 provides a civil claim for damages against any person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of a right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights, merely providing a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere. In order to prevail on a § 1983 claim a plaintiff must establish that the conduct of a person acting under color of state law deprived him of a federal right. Plaintiff may fail to state a claim even if he alleges facts which establish a deprivation of a federal right if the defendant has immunity from liability. See Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1999) (emphasis added).

C. Qualified Immunity

The doctrine of qualified immunity offers protection for police officers and other "government officials performing discretionary functions . . . from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Thomas, 165 F.3d at 142. "This policy is justified in part by the risk that the `fear of personal monetary liability and harassing litigation will unduly inhibit officials in the discharge of their duties.'" Thomas, 165 F.3d at 142, quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987).

Anderson v. Creighton established that "the right the official is alleged to have violated must have been `clearly established' in a more particularized, and hence more relevant, sense: The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Creighton, 483 U.S. at 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034.

"Even where the plaintiff's federal rights and the scope of the official's permissible conduct are clearly established, the qualified immunity defense protects a government actor if it was `objectively reasonable' for him to believe that his actions were lawful at the time of the challenged act." Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416, 420 (2d Cir. 1995). The objective reasonableness test is met — and the defendant is entitled to immunity — if "officers of reasonable competence could ...


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