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Robert Rhodes v. United States of America

March 6, 2012

ROBERT RHODES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Robert Rhodes, a former Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"), Customs and Border Protection ("CBP")*fn1 Officer, commenced this action on July 23, 2007, pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. § 2671, et. seq.. (Docket No. 1.) Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on January 9, 2008, alleging five causes of action. (Docket No. 14.)

Presently before this Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), and alternatively, Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 17.)*fn2 Having considered the parties' written submissions and the applicable law, this Court will grant Defendant's motion and dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The following facts are not in dispute.*fn3 On July 21, 2004, Plaintiff was involved in an incident at the Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, New York, where he was on duty at the bus and pedestrian inspection terminal. Allegations were made by Supervisory Customs and Border Protection Officer ("SCBPO") Martin Mahady to the DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") Resident Agent in Charge, Office of Professional Responsibility ("OPR"), that on that date Plaintiff was involved in an incident with a Chinese national, Zhao Yan ("Zhao") wherein Plaintiff administered pepper spray to subdue Zhao and may have struck her in the head while restraining her.

The following day, OPR Senior Special Agents ("SSAs") Donald Mania ("Mania") and Steven MacMartin ("MacMartin") began their investigation of the allegations of excessive force by Plaintiff against Zhao. Mania and MacMartin interviewed several witnesses to the incident involving Plaintiff and Zhao, and took photographs of Zhao's injuries.

On July 22, 2004, at approximately 6:30 p.m., a warrant for the search of Plaintiff's person was signed by Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott, Western District of New York. Approximately two hours later, Plaintiff was arrested for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, Deprivation of Rights under Color of Law.*fn4 Plaintiff's arrest was based on upon a criminal complaint and a warrant for arrest signed by Magistrate Judge Scott.

During the morning hours of July 23, 2004, the warrant for the search of Plaintiff's person was executed, and photographs were taken of Plaintiff. He was subsequently arraigned and charged under 18 U.S.C. § 242, pleaded not guilty, and was released on $50,000 bond.

On July 27, 2004, a federal Grand Jury convened and indicted Plaintiff on August 11, 2004, charging him with a one-count violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, Deprivation of Rights under Color of Law. Plaintiff was arraigned on August 13, 2004, and pleaded not guilty to the charge.

A jury was seated to hear evidence in the case of United States v. Rhodes, 04-CR-196 (W.D.N.Y) on August 18, 2005. On September 8, 2005, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Following the not guilty verdict, DHS/ICE OPR conducted an internal security investigation to determine whether the misconduct allegations made against Plaintiff were substantiated. Specifically, whether Plaintiff used unreasonable force while detaining Zhao and whether he made false material statements to CBP or to ICE on July 21 or 22, 2004. After the internal security investigation and the report of final investigation were complete, CBP determined that were substantiated allegations of misconduct against Rhodes.

On July 21, 2006, Plaintiff submitted an administrative Claim for Damage, Injury, or Death (Form SF-95) in the amount $25,000,000 for "psychological and emotional injury trauma" resulting from the criminal and internal proceedings against him. Plaintiff's claim was denied by DHS on May 23, 2007.

B. Plaintiff's Allegations

The allegations of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint are in dispute. By affidavit, Plaintiff attests that on July 21, 2004, he was working at the Rainbow Bridge performing inspections of pedestrians, buses, and tour vans entering the United States from Canada. (Plaintiff's Aff. (Docket No. 24), ¶ 4.) At approximately 11:00 p.m., a black male passed through Plaintiff's booth when another CBP Officer, Angelo Arcuri ("Arcuri") observed a bulge at the small of the man's back. Arcuri approached the man, patted down the area, and found an object taped to his back. Plaintiff assisted Arcuri in restraining the man, and pressed the "duress" button to summon assistance from other officers. (Id., ¶¶ 5-8.) Arcuri then brought to Plaintiff's attention three women standing outside the exit doors looking in, and directed Plaintiff to bring the women in for questioning. (Id., ¶ 9.) When Plaintiff approached the women and gestured them to come inside, they backed up and said, "no, no, no," and began to run away. (Id., ¶ 11.) Despite Plaintiff's yells to stop, the women continued to run, and Plaintiff pursued them on foot. (Id., ¶ 12.)

Plaintiff caught up with one of the women, later identified as Zhao, and attempted to grab her left arm, but she pulled away. According to Plaintiff, Zhao then began to scratch and kick Plaintiff. (Id., ¶ 13.) At that point, Plaintiff produced a can of pepper spray and discharged it once in Zhao's face in a 1-2 second burst. As Plaintiff reached for Zhao's arm, she again began to hit and kick Plaintiff, who then discharged a second burst of pepper spray. As Zhao continued to struggle with Plaintiff, Plaintiff attests that her hand "was getting close to my gun," so he "pushed her off center, whereupon I brushed against the building." (Id., ¶¶ 14-15.) Fellow CBP Officer Emmett Russell ("Russell"), assisting Plaintiff, then picked up Zhao, brought her to the center of the walkway, and applied an "arm bar to bring her to the ground." At that point, Plaintiff observed the top of Zhao's head make contact with the ground. (Id., ¶ 16.) While her head was on the ground, Russell pulled Zhao's legs out to straighten them, and as a result, "her head slid along the concrete paving stones that constituted the walkway." (Id., ¶ 16.)*fn5

Plaintiff approached Zhao, and, to control her movements, placed his knee on the left side of her back. While Russell "got control of Ms. Zhao's right hand," a third CBP Officer, Amina Zinnerman ("Zinnerman") approached and attempted to control Zhao's left hand. (Id., ¶¶ 17-18.) At that point, Plaintiff "readjusted [his] knees" for the purposes of relieving pressure upon them to control Zhao's body. He then placed his hands on top of her head and one knee against her shoulder. (Id., ¶ 19.) Three times Zhao attempted to raise her head, and "each time" Plaintiff "took [her] head with both fists and pressed it back down, as I had been trained to do under such circumstances, because of the potential of the subject spitting on or biting an officer. . . ." (Id., ¶ 20.)

Zinnerman also continued to struggle with Zhao. When Zinnerman momentarily released Zhao's hand to produce her handcuffs, Zhao's hand immediately went beneath her body in the vicinity of her handbag, from which she retrieved a camera. Zhao opened the back of the camera to expose the film inside. (Id., ¶¶ 21-22.) Zinnerman again took hold of Zhao's left arm. According to Plaintiff, Russell then tapped his shoulder, telling him, "Rocky, stop,"*fn6 whereupon Plaintiff released Zhao's head and backed away. (Id., ¶ 23.) Officers were ultimately able to apply handcuffs to Zhao, and Zhao was led into the building. (Id., ¶ 24.)

Plaintiff attests that during the struggle, he, Russell, and Zinnerman repeatedly instructed Zhao to "stop resisting," and Zhao ignored those commands. (Id., ¶ 25.)

Plaintiff then reported the incident to his supervisor, SCBPO Mahady, and prepared a written statement detailing what occurred. Shortly thereafter, SSAs Mania and MacMartin arrived at approximately 1:00 a.m. and met with Mahady and Plaintiff. Mania observed a small cut on Plaintiff's right forearm. (Id., ¶¶ 26-28.)

At 7:30 a.m., Mania and MacMartin advised Plaintiff that he could leave without taking an additional statement from him. (Id., ¶ 29.)

Later, Plaintiff learned that the three women were taking photographs on the pedestrian walkway, a designated "no photograph" zone near a defective entrance gate. Zhao, a Chinese national, had in her possession an expired visa. (Id., ¶¶ 31-34.) Although Zhao ran from and resisted CBP officers, she was released without charges. Id., ¶ 42.)

As of July 22, 2004, Plaintiff was suspended without pay from his job with DHS. According to Plaintiff, he was "singled out" for prosecution after Zhao initially accused several unnamed DHS officers of pepper spraying and kicking her repeatedly. (Id., ¶¶ 35-36.) Plaintiff avers that since he came out as openly gay in 1997, he has been the subject of harassment by supervisors and employees of DHS based on his sexual orientation, including discipline against him for "trivial and trumped up infractions." (Id., ¶ 37.) Prior to that, Plaintiff claims to have had an "exemplary" record. (Id.) As a result, Plaintiff filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") complaint regarding the alleged instances of harassment. (Id., ¶ 39.)

Plaintiff also contends that his prosecution was a result of Bush Administration "caving in" to pressure from the Chinese government, who had published several gruesome photographs of Zhao's injuries through its news agencies as evidence of the "barbarism" of the United States government. (Id., ¶ 40.) Also, that DHS and the United States Justice Department allegedly pressured DHS/CBP Officers to give inculpating testimony regarding Plaintiff. (Id., ¶¶ 43-45.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that: (1) CBP Officers that either witnessed or were involved in the incident were pressured or coached by SSAs Mania and MacMartin to change their testimony to incriminate Plaintiff; (2) the SSAs did not investigate Zhao or the other two women that were with her at the time of the incident; (3) Officer Russell, who performed an "arm bar" to restrain Zhao, was not investigated; (4) Zhao's injuries were inconsistent with the actions allegedly taken by Plaintiff with respect to his use of force; (5) Zhao's account of the incident was "totally different" from those of the officers; and (6) the allegations in the criminal complaint contain several misstatements regarding statements given to investigators by Officers Russell and Zinnerman, and Zhao Yan. (Plaintiff's Stmt. of Facts (Docket No. 24-4), ¶¶ 82-93.)

III. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment 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." A fact is "material" only if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine" dispute exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Id. In determining whether a genuine dispute regarding a material fact exists, the evidence and the inferences drawn from the evidence "must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158--59 (1970) (internal quotations and citation omitted).

"Only when reasonable minds could not differ as to the import of evidence is summary judgment proper." Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991) (citation omitted). Indeed, "[i]f, as to the issue on which summary judgment is sought, there is any evidence in the record from which a reasonable inference could be drawn in favor of the opposing party, summary judgment is improper." Sec. Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc., 391 F.3d 77, 82--83 (2d Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). The function of the court is not "to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.

B. The Federal Tort Claims Act

It is beyond cavil that the principle of sovereign immunity shields the United States from being sued without its consent and that the existence of consent is, consequently, a prerequisite for jurisdiction. See United States v. Mitchell, 463 U.S. 206, 212 (1983); FDIC v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994); Adeleke v. United States, 355 F.3d 144, 150 (2d Cir. 2004).

In the FTCA, Congress waived sovereign immunity for suits arising from injury "caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government while acting within the scope of his office or employment." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). This waiver must be "strictly construed in favor of the government." Akutowicz v. United States, 859 F.2d 1122, 1125 (2d Cir. 1988). In FTCA actions, the court is bound to apply the law of the place where the incident occurred--here, New York. See Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 114 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 10-15 (1962)).

C. The Defendant's Motion

Plaintiff has moved for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) Plaintiff's arrest was privileged, therefore there can be no claim of false arrest or false imprisonment; (2) Plaintiff's malicious prosecution claim is barred by the discretionary function and intentional tort exceptions to the FTCA; (3) Plaintiff's arrest and prosecution were supported by probable cause requiring Plaintiff's abuse of process claim to be dismissed, and, in the alternative, Plaintiff's claim of discrimination on account of his sexual orientation and retaliation for prior EEO complaints is not actionable under the FTCA; and ...


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