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Garcia v. Dutchess County

United States District Court, S.D. New York

August 21, 2014

DENISE ANN GARCIA, as Administrator of the Estate of JAMES J. HEALY, JR., Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
DUTCHESS COUNTY, DUTCHESS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, and DEPUTY BENJAMIN SISTARENIK, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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August 21, 2014, Filed

For Denise Ann Garcia, as administrator or the estate of James J. Healy, Jr., deceased, Plaintiff: Gary Todd. Certain, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Certain Law Firm, PLLC, New York, NY; Michael Zilberg, The Zilberg Law Firm, Pllc, New York, NY.

For Dutchess County, Dutchess County Sheriff's Office, Deputy Benjamin Sisternik, Defendants: David Lewis Posner, LEAD ATTORNEY, McCabe & Mack LLP, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Sidney H. Stein, United States District Judge.

OPINION

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OPINION & ORDER

SIDNEY H. STEIN, U.S. District Judge.

I. Introduction

Denise Ann Garcia brings this action as administrator of the estate of James J. Healy, Jr., the deceased father of her children K.A. and C.L. Garcia asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York state law against Dutchess County and the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office (collectively the " County defendants" ), and Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Sistarenik.[1] Plaintiff's action arises out of the events on the early morning of March 10, 2010, culminating in Healy's death after Sistarenik fired a taser at Healy twice in short succession during a struggle between Healy and several law enforcement officers.

Now before the Court is defendants' motion for summary judgment in their favor pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c).[2] The relevant remaining claims are against defendant Sistarenik: (1) pursuant to section 1983 for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and for failure to provide medical care in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (2) pursuant to New York state law for assault, battery, and wrongful death. Plaintiff also seeks to hold the County defendants vicariously liable on the state law claims.[3]

Material factual disputes preclude those claims from being resolved on a motion for summary judgment. When all factual inferences are drawn in plaintiff's favor, a jury could reasonably conclude that Sistarenik used excessive force against Healy, and therefore committed assault and battery. In short, factual disputes abound regarding whether Healy posed a threat to officer safety, whether Healy was resisting arrest when tased, whether the other officers had already restrained Healy when

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Sistarenik used the taser, and whether Sistarenik warned Healy before using the taser. These disputed facts all bear on the totality of circumstances relevant to whether Sistarenik's use of the taser constituted excessive force. On this record, a jury could also reasonably conclude that Sistarenik delayed obtaining medical care for Healy once Healy's girlfriend alerted Sistarenik and the other officers that Healy was not breathing. For similar reasons, Sistarenik has not met his burden at this juncture of showing that he is entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff's section 1983 claims. Moreover, a jury could reasonably determine based on the autopsy report and other record evidence that firing the taser was a significant factor contributing to Healy's death and that defendants are therefore liable on plaintiff's wrongful death claim.

Accordingly, the Court denies defendants' motion for summary judgment. The Court also dismisses the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office as a defendant because that entity is not amenable to suit.

II. Background

The parties sharply dispute the underlying facts. The following summary presents the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the non-moving party. See Giannullo v. City of N.Y., 322 F.3d 139, 140-41 (2d Cir. 2003).

At approximately 1:30 a.m. on the morning of March 10, 2010, Virginia Scianna called 911 to request assistance because she was concerned for the health and safety of Healy, with whom she lived in Rhinebeck, New York. (Defs.' Local Civil Rule 56.1 Statement of Undisputed Facts (" Defs.' 56.1" ) ¶ 7; Dep. of Virginia Scianna dated July 11, 2012, at 27:4-10, 33:3-4, Ex. T to Aff. of David L. Posner dated June 21, 2013.) Scianna told the 911 operator that she believed Healy may have been under the influence of cocaine; that he was ranting to himself; and that he was running back and forth from one end of the house to the other. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 9-10.) She also explained that she did not believe Healy was in possession of any weapons. ( Id. ¶ 11.)

The 911 operator advised a New York State Police dispatcher of the substance of Scianna's call, and five law enforcement officers -- all of whom heard the dispatch -- proceeded to Scianna's home. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 12-16.) The first two officers to arrive at the home were New York State Police troopers Chaderick Greer and Albert Miano. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 3-4, 16.)

Upon arriving at Scianna's home, Greer found Healy in the kitchen, standing behind an island. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 20-21; Dep. of Chaderick Greer dated July 24, 2012, at 53:11-54:2, Ex. Q to Posner Aff.) Miano also entered the home but before entering the kitchen, he spoke with Scianna in the living room to obtain more information about Healy's situation. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 20-21; Dep. of Albert Miano dated Oct. 23, 2012, at 38:5-39:7, Ex. P to Posner Aff.; Scianna Dep. at 51:4-6; 52:23-53:10.) Scianna explained to Miano that Healy " was talking nonsense; that he was sweating profusely, breathing heavily; [and] that [Scianna] was in fear of him overdosing, possibly having a heart attack." (Scianna Dep. at 52:2-8.)

While Scianna spoke with Miano, Greer addressed Healy, who initially did not respond verbally. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 21.) Greer explained that he was there to help and asked if Healy was okay, but Healy did not answer. ( Id. ¶ 22.) Miano soon entered the kitchen, and Healy began to make incoherent comments about money and

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knives[4] and to repeatedly open and close various kitchen drawers. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 24-27.) Although Healy never displayed or retrieved from the drawers either a knife or any object that could be used as a weapon, Healy's comments and actions led Greer and Miano to believe that Healy may have been searching for a knife. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 27, 30-31; Miano Dep. at 52:15-53:8.) Based on Healy's behavior, Greer and Miano decided that they would detain Healy pursuant to New York Mental Hygiene Law § 9.41, which confers on state police the authority temporarily to " take into custody any person who appears to be mentally ill and is conducting himself . . . in a manner which is likely to result in serious harm to the person or others." (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 28-29.)

While Greer and Milano were in the kitchen with Healy, defendant Benjamin Sistarenik, a Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff who had also heard the 911 dispatch, arrived. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 1, 15, 32, 37.) Sistarenik initially remained in the living room with Scianna. ( Id. ¶ 32; Dep. of Benjamin Sistarenik dated Nov. 27, 2012, at 84:24-85:1, Ex. O to Posner Aff.) Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Healy continued to utter remarks about money and knives to Greer and Milano. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 35.) After Sistarenik heard Greer and Miano explain to Healy that the troopers wanted to take Healy to the hospital, Sistarenik called 911 and requested the dispatch of an ambulance for " psychiatric transport." ( Id. ¶ 37-39; Sistarenik Dep. at 90:13-23.)[5]

Shortly thereafter, New York State Police troopers Craig Rose and Wesley Shaw arrived and entered Scianna's home. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 5, 6, 45, 46.) Still in the kitchen, Healy continued to make comments about knives, and to pace around the room " dialing the phone continuously," while Miano tried again unsuccessfully to have a conversation with him. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 56-59.) Having concluded that Healy would not leave voluntarily, Miano instructed Healy to put his hands behind his back and explained that the troopers would take him to the hospital. ( Id. ¶ 60.) Healy responded by becoming " combative" and " pulling back." ( Id. ¶ ¶ 66-67, 137.)

Some of the troopers then approached Healy to " try[] to restrain him," and a " struggle ensued." (Scianna Dep. at 67:3-4; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 75.) Miano took a step toward Healy, and the two became " engaged nearly chest to chest in a struggle." (Greer Dep. at 72:16-17; Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 76.) Greer approached and grabbed one of Healy's arms. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 77.) Greer " felt Healy begin to circle counterclockwise" ; in response, Greer " slid down" to " hug[]" one of Healy's thighs. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 78-79; Greer Dep. at 79:23.) The officers decided to force Healy onto the floor so that they could handcuff him more easily.

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(Greer Dep. at 84:24-85:5; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 26.) Within a matter of between a few seconds and a minute, Greer and Miano brought Healy to the kitchen floor. ( Compare Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 79 with Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 79; Greer Dep. at 86:11-13; Shaw Dep. at 45:9-10.)

Once Healy was on the floor, with his " face down," Greer, Miano, Rose, and Shaw all attempted to handcuff him. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 135; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 37; Dep. of Craig Rose dated Oct. 23, 2012, at 64:6-8, Ex. S to Posner Aff.; Shaw Dep. at 48:23-25.) The troopers continued to direct Healy to submit to being handcuffed, but Healy kept " tugging" his own arms underneath his body. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 97; Shaw Dep. at 49:14-22.))

After a period of struggle, all four troopers " were all either standing or on top of . . . Healy attempting to bring both of his arms to his back." (Greer Dep. at 87:20-23.) Miano was eventually able to handcuff Healy's wrist by " just pull[ing]" Healy's right arm while other officers restrained Healy's other limbs. (Miano Dep. at 78:3-25.) Miano, Greer, and other officers were also able to handcuff Healy's left arm by " pulling on" it for a period of time, without using " any form of pain compliance." (Shaw Dep. at 49:8-50:2; see Miano Dep. at 68:20-69:3; Greer Dep. at 88:17-18.) Throughout their efforts to handcuff Healy, the officers decided not to use pepper spray because of the risk that the officers would be impacted by the spray. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 110-11.)

At some point while Healy was on the ground but not yet handcuffed, Sistarenik joined in the effort to forcibly restrain Healy. ( Id. ¶ 95.) Sistarenik applied a taser model X26 to the back of Healy's right thigh. ( Id. ¶ 114.) Sistarenik's first firing of the taser was in " stun" mode and lasted five seconds.[6] (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 114.) After a two-second pause, Sistarenik again applied the taser to the back of Healy's right thigh and administered another five-second " stun" cycle.[7] (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 116.) Sistarenik concluded that there was no purpose in tasing Healy a third time because Healy appeared to continue to struggle just as before. ( Compare id. ¶ 117, with Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 117.)[8] Although " Sistarenik was in a back up role to all of the" troopers (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 19), Sistarenik had not asked the troopers if he should use the device at any point during the struggle, nor had any of the troopers directed Sistarenik to use the taser. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 23; Sistarenik Dep. at 115:5-10.)

After the officers handcuffed Healy, Scianna entered the kitchen and saw Healy

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" face down on the kitchen floor." (Scianna Dep. at 72:15-17, 73:12-15.) She observed that his back was not " rising and falling" and told the officers: " he is not breathing." ( Id. at 72:18-20; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 38.) One officer responded that Healy was " all right; he is just tuckered out." (Scianna Dep. at 72:20-22; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 39.) Scianna " kept staring at [Healy's] back" and again remarked: " No, he is not breathing." (Scianna Dep. at 72:22-23.)

" At some point" thereafter, a female trooper arrived at the house. ( Id. at 73:23-25.) Only then did the officers " listen[] to what [Scianna] said" about Healy not breathing. ( Id. at 74:4-6; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 40.) " [O]ne of the officers said, Oh, shit; he is not breathing; turn him over on his back." (Scianna Dep. at 74:6-7; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 41.) The officers " unrestrained [Healy and] turned him over on his back" ; Healy appeared " blue." (Scianna Dep. at 74:8-9.) The officers " st[ood] around, looking down at" Healy. ( Id. at 74:10-11.) Scianna asked: " Isn't anybody going to do CPR?" ( id. at 74:11-12), and one of the state troopers responded: " I don't have my mask with me." ( id. at 74:12-13.)

Before any medical personnel arrived, Sistarenik performed chest compressions on Healy (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 124; Scianna Dep. at 74:17-24), but none of the officers performed " mouth-to-mouth" respiration.[9] (Scianna Dep. at 76:14-15; 91:10; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ ¶ 41-42.)

After a length of time that is unclear, emergency medical service technicians and paramedics arrived at the scene (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 126), and Sistarenik continued his efforts to perform chest compressions ( id. ¶ ¶ 126-28.) The emergency personnel also administered medical care to Healy at the house. Healy had no pulse, and the paramedics took him to Northern Dutchess Hospital, where he was pronounced dead that morning. (Dep. of Heather Williams dated July 11, 2012, at 49:21, Ex. V to Posner Aff.; Ex. E to Posner Aff., Dkt. No. 36-5, at 2.) The resulting autopsy listed several causes of death: " cardiac arrhythmia due to acute cocaine intoxication during altercation with police" ; " morbid obesity" ; and " restraint in prone position and application of TASER x 2." (Ex. E to Posner Aff., Dkt. No. 36-5, at 2.) A toxicology report indicated that Healy had in his bloodstream 1,000 ng/mL of cocaine and 2,900 ng/mL of benzoylecgonine, a metabolic derivative of cocaine, " within the range of fatalities for these substances," and twice the level at which " [n]egative cardiovascular effects" may occur. ( Id. at 10; Defs.' 56.1 ¶ ¶ 130-32.)

Healy's autopsy indicated that he had extensive abrasions and contusions, including of his forehead, frontal scalp, lips, tongue, right elbow, forearms, right leg, left wrist, and right calf, in addition to bruises on his thigh and torso consistent with administration of a taser, a defibrillator, and CPR. (Ex. E. to Posner Aff., Dkt. No. 36-5, at 3, 6.) One of his teeth was loose. ( Id. at 5.) The medical examiner observed that Healy's brain had two " subarachnoid hemorrhage[s]." ( Id. at 6.)

None of the five officers sustained injuries during their struggle with Healy. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 47.)

III. Discussion

A. Summary Judgment Standard

To prevail on their summary judgment motion, defendants " must show that 'there is no genuine [dispute] as to any material

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fact'" and that they are " 'entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" See Brown v. Henderson, 257 F.3d 246, 251 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). Defendants have the burden to " establish the absence of any material factual issues." See Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 137 (2d Cir. 2003).

" A genuine issue of fact means that 'the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" See Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). " In assessing a motion for summary judgment, [the] Court is 'required to resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment'" is sought. See Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 154 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Terry, 336 F.3d at 137); see also Buckley v. Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, 888 F.Supp.2d 404, 414-15 (S.D.N.Y. 2012), aff'd, 541 F.App'x 62 (2d Cir. 2013). " It is not the province of the court itself to decide what inferences should be drawn . . . ; if there is any evidence in the record from any ...


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