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Corbett v. The City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 27, 2017



          GREGORY H. WOODS United States District Judge.

         Early in the morning of February 7, 2015, Plaintiff Jonathan Corbett was on the phone with his girlfriend when she jumped out the window of her thirty-first-floor midtown Manhattan apartment, taking her own life. He rushed to her apartment, found her lying on an adjacent roof approximately twenty-three stories below, and called 911. After speaking voluntarily with officers who arrived on the scene, Corbett ended up going to the police precinct in an NYPD vehicle, waited there for approximately 90 minutes, and then answered officers' questions for 20-30 minutes.

         Defendants contend that Corbett went to the precinct and remained there to answer questions voluntarily. Corbett, on the other hand, asserts that it was an unlawful detention. Corbett filed this action, asserting claims against three NYPD officers and the City of New York (“Defendants, ” and as to the officer-defendants, the “Individual Defendants”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest or imprisonment in violation of the Fourth Amendment and for municipal liability pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), as well as various state-law claims. In a previous opinion and order, the Court dismissed Corbett's Monell claims. Defendants now ask the Court to grant summary judgment in their favor on Plaintiff's false arrest claim, as well as his claim under the New York Freedom of Information Law, and to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remainder of his state-law claims. Because triable issues of material of fact exist, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         1. Facts

         On the morning of February 7, 2015, Plaintiff Jonathan Corbett was on the phone with his girlfriend of three years, Andrea Brannon. Decl. of Jonathan Corbett in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 95-1) (“Corbett Decl.”) ¶ 1. Brannon had a history of depression and was regularly treated by a psychiatrist. Id. ¶ 5. She had once intentionally overdosed on prescription medication during her relationship with Corbett, and on at least two other occasions, Corbett had been concerned she might attempt suicide by jumping out her large apartment windows. Id. During the call that morning, Brannon made several statements implying that she would take her own life. Id. ¶ 6. Corbett did not think she would act on those statements, but, at some point during the call, he heard her scream, followed by a loud noise and “nothing further on the phone line.” Id. ¶¶ 7, 9. After attempting unsuccessfully to call her back, he took a taxi to Brannon's apartment, arriving approximately fifteen minutes later. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. He looked out her bedroom window, which was wide open, and saw a body lying motionless on an adjacent roof approximately 250 feet below. Id. ¶¶ 11-12.

         Immediately thereafter, at approximately 4:19 a.m., Corbett called 911 and reported what had occurred. Defs.' Local Rule 56.1 Statement (ECF No 92) and Pl.'s Local Rule 56.1 Response and Counterstatement (ECF No. 95-5) (collectively, “56.1”) ¶ 1.[2] The first to arrive at the scene were two non-party officers from the New York City Police Department's Midtown South Precinct.[3]56.1 ¶ 3. Shortly thereafter, Defendant Sergeant Roberto More and at least one additional NYPD officer, as well as members of Emergency Medical Services and the New York City Fire Department arrived on the scene. 56.1 ¶¶ 3-4; Decl. of Eviana Englert in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 93) (“Englert Decl.”), Ex. B; Englert Decl., Ex. K, Dep. of Roberto More (“More Dep.”) 12:7-11, (Oct. 3, 2016). Brannon was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 4:57 a.m. 56.1 ¶¶ 8, 18. Defendants Detective Michael Ahearne[4] and Sergeant Bryan Gillis, as well as a non-party detective also responded to the scene and conducted preliminary interviews and a search of the apartment. Id. ¶¶ 17, 19.

         Immediately after calling 911, Corbett took the elevator to the lobby of Brannon's building to meet the responders. Corbett Decl. ¶ 18. He approached the two first-responding NYPD officers and voluntarily provided them with information about what had happened and where to find Brannon's body. 56.1 ¶¶ 5-6. One of the officers then asked Corbett for his identification and requested that he step into the building's mailroom to further discuss what had occurred. Corbett Decl. ¶¶ 21. He gave the officer his Florida driver's license, stepped into the mailroom, and told the officer about his call with Brannon and about her mental health history. Id. ¶¶ 22-23. The officer did not return Corbett's license to him at that time. Id. ¶¶ 22, 45.

         At some point thereafter, Sergeant More approached and, within Corbett's earshot, told another officer to take Corbett to the precinct.[5] Id. ¶ 24. Either More or another nearby officer then told Corbett: “[H]old tight, you're in for a long night.” Id. ¶ 25. More proceeded to walk away before Corbett could respond in any way to the instruction to take him to the precinct. Id. ¶ 26. Neither More nor any other officer asked Corbett whether he was willing to go to the precinct for further questioning, see Id. ¶¶ 26, 40, and Corbett neither verbally consented nor verbally objected, 56.1 ¶ 10. In light of More's instruction to transport him to the precinct, the “in for a long night” comment, the officers' tone and body language, the continued retention of his driver's license, and the general context of being questioned about his girlfriend's death, Corbett subjectively believed at this time that he was not free to leave. Corbett Decl. ¶ 27. He chose not to verbally argue with the officers because he was emotionally distraught and was afraid that protesting would result in his being handcuffed. Id. ¶ 28.

         Not feeling at liberty to refuse, Corbett was directed outside by an officer to a marked police car.[6] Id. ¶ 33; Dep. of Bryan Gillis, Ex. C to Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 95-3) (“Gillis Dep.”) 15:5-10 (Oct. 3, 2016).[7] As stated in the NYPD's Unusual Occurrence Report, which was prepared by More, Corbett was “transported to the Midtown South Precinct for further questioning by Nightwatch.” Englert Decl., Ex. B; see also 56.1 ¶ 9.

         Upon arrival, Officer Doe led Corbett to the Juvenile Room at the back of the precinct. Corbett Decl. ¶ 34; 56.1 ¶ 16. Corbett was not checked in at the front desk, he did not speak to a desk sergeant, and his name was not entered into the precinct's command log. 56.1 ¶¶ 13-15. He waited inside the Juvenile Room from the time he arrived at the precinct slightly before 5:00 a.m. until 6:25 a.m., when Ahearne and Sergeant Gillis arrived to speak with him. 56.1 ¶¶ 16, 20; Corbett Dep: 63:16-17, 73:18-20; Englert Decl., Ex. D. Officer Doe stayed with him the entire time. Corbett Decl. ¶ 35. Corbett took one bathroom break, during which Officer Doe accompanied him to the bathroom, waited at the door for him to finish, and accompanied him back to the Juvenile Room.[8] Id. ¶ 37. Based largely on that fact, Corbett believed that Officer Doe was there to prevent him from leaving. Id. ¶ 36. However, Corbett was not handcuffed at any point. 56.1 ¶ 11.

         At approximately 6:25 a.m., Ahearne and Gillis returned to the precinct to speak with Corbett. 56.1 ¶ 20. Once they arrived, Officer Doe left the Juvenile Room, not to be seen by Corbett again. Corbett Decl. ¶ 39. Ahearne and Gillis did not ask at that time whether Corbett had been transported to, and had waited at, the precinct voluntarily; however, they testified in depositions that they subjectively believed he was there of his own freewill. Id. ¶ 40; Gillis Dep. 16:6-14; Dep. of Michael Ahearne, Ex. L to Englert Decl. (“Ahearne Dep.”) 19:19-25 (Oct. 3, 2016). According to their own deposition testimony, neither More, nor Ahearne, nor Gillis made a determination that there was probable cause or reasonable suspicion to support detaining Corbett involuntarily. Ahearne Dep. 17:16-18:12; Gillis Dep. 9:20-10:4; More Dep. 18:24-19:4.

         Ahearne and Gillis asked Corbett to recount what had happened that morning, from the phone call with Brannon to his arrival at her apartment. 56.1 ¶¶ 20-21; Corbett Dep. 77:22-78:12. They also asked about his relationship with Brannon, her mental health history, and how they could contact her mother. 56.1 ¶¶ 21-22. Ahearne and Gillis questioned Corbett inside the Juvenile Room for 20-30 minutes, while physically blocking the only exit to the room. 56.1 ¶ 20; Corbett Decl. ¶ 41.[9] Corbett continued to believe he was free to leave the room during that time. Corbett Decl. ¶ 42.

         When it appeared to Corbett that the officers had finished their questions, he asked them if he was free to leave, and the officers said he was. 56.1 ¶ 23. His driver's license, which had been taken earlier that morning, was then returned to him. Corbett Decl. ¶ 45. That was the first time since being directed into the police car outside Brannon's apartment that Corbett felt free to go. Id. ¶ 46.

         Ahearne then interviewed Brannon's roommate and her roommate's boyfriend about the incident in another part of the precinct. 56.1 ¶¶ 24-25. At approximately 9:20 a.m., a non-party detective completed a report indicating that no signs of criminality had been found surrounding Brannon's death and that video surveillance footage had corroborated witnesses' statements. Id. ¶¶ 26-27.

         2. Procedural History

         Corbett initiated this lawsuit pro se on November 23, 2015 against the City and four “John Doe” officers. ECF No. 1. On March 29, 2016, after a Valentin order from the Court and a response from the City, he amended his complaint to name Defendants More, Gillis, and Ahearne, as well as to remove the “John Doe” officer whom the City was unable to identify. ECF No. 22. Corbett amended his complaint once again with leave of the Court on October 19, 2016. ECF No. 65. In his second amended complaint, he brought claims under Section 1983 for false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Monell claims against the City, and various state-law claims. Id.

         On November 2, 2016, the City moved to dismiss the Monell claims pleaded in the second amended complaint. ECF Nos. 69-72. The Court granted that motion on December 22, 2016. ECF No. 85. On January 10, 2017, Corbett moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(2) to voluntarily dismiss his New York Freedom of Information Law (“FOIL”) claim. ECF No. 87. Corbett stated that, because “almost all of the records” he had sought through his FOIL request had been produced through discovery, his claim under FOIL had “largely been mooted, ” but that he wished to reserve the right to recover costs and/or fees at the conclusion of the case. Id. He moved pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2) rather than submitting a stipulation of dismissal because, while Defendants consented to the dismissal of the FOIL claim, they “[took] no position” on his reservation of rights. Id. After a telephone conference on the motion, the Court denied it on January 17, 2017. ECF Nos. 88-89.

         Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on January 23, 2017. ECF Nos. 90-94. Corbett filed an opposition on February 8, 2017, ECF No. 95, and Defendants filed a reply on February 14, 2017, ECF No. 97.[10]


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (“[S]ummary judgment is proper ‘if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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.'” (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c))). A genuine dispute exists where “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, ” while a fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.” Id.

         The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating “the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, ” and, if satisfied, the burden then shifts to the non-movant to present “evidence sufficient to satisfy every element of the claim.” Holcomb v. Iona Coll., 521 F.3d 130, 137 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24). To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the non-movant “must come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting former Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-movant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant].” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Moreover, the non-movant “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the ...

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