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Grant v. City of Syracuse

United States District Court, N.D. New York

November 17, 2017

ALONZO GRANT, et al.,, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF SYRACUSE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          Lawrence E. Kahn U.S. District Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On April 14, 2015, Alonzo and Stephanie Grant commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986, and New York law, against the City of Syracuse, the Syracuse Police Department (the “SPD”), and various named and unnamed Police Department officers. Dkt. No. 1 (“Complaint”). The four named officers are Officer Damon Lockett, Officer Paul Montalto, Sergeant Brian Novitsky (collectively, “Arresting Officers”), and Chief of Police Frank Fowler. Id. at 1. On May 19, 2015, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint. Dkt. No. 10(“Amended Complaint”).[1]

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert claims arising out of an incident at their house on the evening of June 28, 2014, which led to Alonzo's arrest. Alonzo asserts claims for false arrest, excessive force, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy to interfere with civil rights in violation of the United States Constitution. Amended Compl. at 48-69. He also asserts claims for assault and battery, false imprisonment, and defamation in violation of New York law. Id. at 61, 65, 71. Additionally, Stephanie asserts claims for false imprisonment in violation of the Constitution, id. at 64, and negligent infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium in violation of New York law, id. at 67, 71. Finally, Alonzo and Stephanie together assert claims under the Constitution for unlawful entry against Lockett and for failure to train, supervise, or discipline police officers against the City and the Police Department, id. at 57, 66, and under New York law for trespass, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent training, hiring, retention, and supervision of police officers, id. at 65-66, 68, 70.

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment, filed on March 21, 2017. Dkt. No. 63 (“Motion”); see also Dkt. Nos. 63-2 (“Defendants' Statement of Material Facts”), 63-3 (“Memorandum”). On May 2, 2017, and May 8, 2017, Plaintiffs filed papers in opposition. Dkt. Nos. 68 (“Opposition”), 73-1 (“Plaintiffs' Statement of Material Facts”). Defendants filed an Amended Reply on May 18, 2017. Dkt. No. 78 (“Amended Reply”).[2] Pursuant to the Court's request, Dkt. No. 80, the parties submitted supplemental briefings regarding Alonzo's malicious prosecution and defamation claims. Dkt. Nos. 81 (“Defendants' Supplement”), 83 (“Plaintiffs' Supplement”), 84 (“Defendants' Reply Supplement.”) For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         At all relevant times, Plaintiffs resided at 105 Hudson Street in the City (“Grant Home”), where they lived with their youngest child, Alonzo Grant, Jr. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 1-2. On Saturday, June 28, 2014, Alonzo left the Grant Home at approximately 7:15 AM in order to perform work at his friend's farm. Dkt. No. 63-38, Ex. JJ (“Alonzo Deposition”) at 23. He returned at approximately 3:00 PM, and he consumed two beers while sitting outside. Defs.' SMF ¶ 3; Alonzo Dep. at 24-25. After grilling dinner, Alonzo entered the Grant Home in order to shower at approximately 6:30 PM. Defs.' SMF ¶ 4; Alonzo Dep. at 28. Upon noticing items on the floor and dirty dishes in the kitchen, Alonzo became upset because he “expected things to be a little neater.” Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 4-5. “In a loud voice, ” he told Stephanie and Alyssa, Plaintiffs' adult daughter, that “you guys need to get off your asses and make sure the house get [sic] take care of.” Id. ¶ 6. Alonzo's comment precipitated an argument between Alonzo, Stephanie, and Alyssa. Id. ¶ 8. Alonzo asked Alyssa to leave the Grant Home three times. Id. ¶¶ 10-11.

         Eventually, Alyssa left the Grant Home and began to argue with Plaintiffs' neighbor. Id. ¶ 12. Alonzo called 911 in response to this argument. Id. ¶ 13. He “yelled” at the 911 dispatcher to “send the cops over here right now, ” because Alyssa was “acting like a fucking asshole and is just fucking with my house, okay.” Id. at 14. Alonzo hung up the phone within thirty seconds, and the Police Department distributed the following bulletin: “M911 OPEN LINE W/ ARGUMENT - MALE REQUESTING OFFICERS BE SENT TO ADDRESS RE: DAUGHTER ALYSSA GRAHAM - COMPL[AINANT] UNCOOPERATIVE - DISC.” Id. at 16-17. SPD Officers Lockett and Montalto arrived at the Grant Home less than five minutes later. Defs.' SMF ¶ 18. Upon their arrival, Plaintiffs told them that their assistance was not needed. Defs.' SMF ¶ 19.

         However, Defendants allege that Plaintiffs were arguing loudly inside their home, and Alonzo appeared to be extremely upset. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 20-21. In turn, Lockett entered the Grant Home and saw Alonzo “flailing his arms violently.” Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 22-23. Lockett asked Alonzo to exit his house and speak with Montalto. Id. ¶ 24. While exiting, Alonzo “shoved” the front door, causing it to “slam” against the iron rail of the house's front porch. Id. ¶¶ 25-26. Lockett then attempted to place Grant under arrest, but Alonzo resisted. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. In order to subdue Alonzo, Lockett and Montalto punched and kicked him, and Lockett placed him in a “hold” to immobilize his head. Id. ¶¶ 30-32. Eventually, the officers handcuffed Alonzo. Id. ¶ 35.

         In contrast, Plaintiffs allege that their argument had ceased by the time Lockett and Montalto arrived. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 79-80. Plaintiffs were inside their home, and the officers arrived in separate cars approximately thirty seconds apart. Id. ¶¶ 81-85. Lockett approached the Grant Home first, and both Plaintiffs told Lockett that “his services were no longer necessary as [Alyssa] had left the premises.” Id. ¶¶ 86-87. Stephanie spoke to Lockett through an open window, Dkt. No. 63-39, Ex. KK (“Stephanie Deposition”) at 23, while Alonzo opened the house's front door to speak to him, Pls.' SMF ¶ 87. Lockett did not respond, and Alonzo closed the door and ascended the house's interior staircase. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 88-89.

         Alonzo then spoke to Stephanie about his desire for the house to be clean and that he was tired from work. Id. ¶ 90. He gesticulated while he spoke, but he did not yell or pace wildly. Id. ¶ 92. At some point during this conversation Lockett entered the Grant Home “without invitation and without announcing himself.” Id. ¶ 95. Lockett asked, “What's going on here?” Id. ¶ 97. Alonzo explained that his daughter had been arguing with his neighbor, which is why he called 911, but now Alyssa was gone. Id. ¶ 98. Lockett ordered Alonzo to go outside and speak with Montalto, and Alonzo immediately complied. Id. ¶¶ 102-03. To exit the Grant Home, Alonzo pushed open the house's storm door, which lacked a spring and therefore struck the front porch's iron railing and made a noise. Id. ¶ 108.

         After Alonzo descended three steps from the top of the porch, Lockett locked Alonzo's hands behind his back. Id. ¶ 110. Lockett did not tell Alonzo that he was under arrest. Id. ¶ 111. Montalto, who was standing at the bottom of the house's outdoor staircase, then ascended the steps and grabbed Alonzo's ankles. Id. ¶¶ 112-13. The officers threw Alonzo over the staircase's railing, and Alonzo landed on his back. Id. ¶ 113. The officers punched and kicked Alonzo repeatedly, and Lockett placed him in a chokehold. Id. ¶¶ 116, 123-24. After Stephanie questioned the officers' actions, she was told to “take [her] ass back in the house” or she would be “taze[d].” Id. ¶ 119. Eventually the officers handcuffed Alonzo, who by then was bleeding from his nose. Id. 131, 137.

         Following the incident, Alonzo received medical attention from paramedics and was transported to the hospital. Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 37, 39. Plaintiffs allege that Alonzo suffered a concussion, broken nose, and a laceration above his left eye that required stitches. Pls.' SMF ¶ 142. The officers charged Alonzo with violating New York Penal Law § 240.26(1) (“Harassment in the Second Degree”), Penal Law § 240.20(1) and Criminal Procedure Law § 530.11 (“Domestic Disorderly Conduct”), and Penal Law § 205.30 (“Resisting Arrest”). Defs.' SMF ¶ 41. On September 10, 2014, the Syracuse Criminal Court dismissed these charges in the interest of justice pursuant to Penal Law § 170.30. Id. ¶ 42; Dkt. No. 63-9, Ex. G (“City Court File”) at 23.[3]

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instructs courts to grant summary judgment if “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). Although “[f]actual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary” will not preclude summary judgment, “summary judgment will not lie if . . . the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Taggart v. Time, Inc., 924 F.2d 43, 46 (2d Cir. 1991) (“Only when no reasonable trier of fact could find in favor of the nonmoving party should summary judgment be granted.”).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and identifying those portions of the record that the moving party claims will demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Similarly, a party is entitled to summary judgment when the nonmoving party carries the ultimate burden of proof and has failed “to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Id. at 322.

         In attempting to repel a motion for summary judgment after the moving party has met its initial burden, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). At the same time, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000); Nora Beverages, Inc. v. Perrier Grp. of Am., Inc., 164 F.3d 736, 742 (2d Cir. 1998). Thus, a court's duty in reviewing a motion for summary judgment is “carefully limited” to finding genuine disputes of fact, “not to deciding them.” Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd. P'ship, 22 F.3d 1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1994).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Alonzo's Claims Against Individual Officers

         1. Section 1983 Claims

         Plaintiffs have brought this action pursuant to § 1983, which provides a cause of action for anyone subjected “to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws” by a person acting under the color of state law. “Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights; it provides only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere.” Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1999).

         a. False Arrest and False Imprisonment

         i. Applicable Law

         The Fourth Amendment provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . .” U.S. Const. amend. IV; accord Garenani v. County of Clinton, 552 F.Supp.2d 328, 333 (N.D.N.Y. 2008). “The unreasonable seizure of a person in the form of a false arrest and imprisonment is violative of the Fourth Amendment and actionable under § 1983.” Garenani, 552 F.Supp.2d at 333.

         “A section 1983 claim for false arrest is substantially the same as a claim for false arrest under New York law.” Jenkins v. City of New York, 478 F.3d 76, 84 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996)). Moreover, “[u]nder New York law, the torts of false arrest and false imprisonment are synonymous.” Fincher v. County of Westchester, 979 F.Supp. 989, 998 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (citing Posr v. Doherty, 944 F.2d 91, 96 (2d Cir. 1991)). To prove the elements of false arrest under New York law, a plaintiff must show that “(1) the defendant intended to confine plaintiff, (2) the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement, (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement, and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged.” Garenani, 552 F.Supp.2d at 333 (quoting Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. 1994)).

         “The existence of probable cause to arrest is a complete defense to a claim of false arrest and imprisonment; in other words, it renders the confinement privileged.” Id. (citing Bernard, 25 F.3d at 102 and Weyant, 101 F.3d at 852). “In general, probable cause to arrest exists when the officers have knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information of facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a crime.” Weyant, 101 F.3d at 852. “A district court must look to the ‘totality of the circumstances' in deciding whether probable cause exists to effect an arrest.” Caldarola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 162 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 233 (1983)).

         Even if there was not probable cause to arrest the plaintiff, the defense of qualified immunity entitles public officials to freedom from suit, as a result of the consequences of the performance of their discretionary duties, when “(1) their conduct does not violate clearly established constitutional rights, or (2) it was objectively reasonable for them to believe their acts did not violate those rights.” Martinez v. Simonetti, 202 F.3d 625, 633-34 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting Weyant, 101 F.3d at 857). Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, and, as such, defendants bear the burden of proving that the privilege of qualified immunity applies. Coolick v. Hughes, 699 F.3d 211, 219 (2d Cir. 2012). In considering a qualified immunity defense, courts should not be “concerned with the correctness of the defendants' conduct, but rather the ‘objective reasonableness' of their chosen course of action given the circumstances confronting them at the scene.” Martinez, 202 F.3d at 634 (quoting Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416, 421 (2d Cir. 1995)).

         “[I]n the context of a qualified immunity defense to an allegation of false arrest, the defending officer need only show ‘arguable' probable cause.” Martinez, 202 F.3d at 634 (citing Lee v. Sandberg, 136 F.3d 94, 103 (2d Cir. 1987)). “An officer's determination is objectively reasonable”-and thus, arguable probable cause is demonstrated-when “officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable cause test was met.” Jenkins, 478 F.3d at 87 (quoting Lennon, 66 F.3d at 423-24). As the Second Circuit explained in Jenkins, “‘[a]rguable' probable cause should not be misunderstood to mean ‘almost' probable cause . . . . If officers of reasonable competence would have to agree that the information possessed by the officer at the time of the arrest did not add up to probable cause, the fact that it came close does not immunize the officer.” Id.

         ii. Analysis

         Alonzo brings claims for false arrest and false imprisonment stemming from his arrest on June 28, 2014.[4] Defendants contend that the Arresting Officers had probable cause to arrest Alonzo, and that therefore his false arrest claim must be dismissed. Mem. 19-22. Defendants also contend that the Arresting Officers' actions in arresting Alonzo are shielded by qualified immunity. Id. at 23-24.

         It is undisputed that the Arresting Officers: (1) intended to confine Alonzo by arresting him; (2) Alonzo was conscious of that confinement; and (3) Alonzo did not consent to his confinement. Thus, the only issue in dispute is whether Alonzo's confinement was privileged-in other words, whether the officers had sufficient probable cause to arrest Alonzo, or at least arguable probable cause such that the their actions are shielded by qualified immunity.

         As outlined above, Plaintiffs and Defendants sharply dispute what happened at the Grant Home on the evening of June 28, 2014. The Court concludes that summary judgment is inappropriate on this claim, as there are material issues of fact as to the circumstances surrounding Alonzo's arrest. See Murphy v. Lynn, 118 F.3d 938, 947 (2d Cir. 1997) (“Where the question of whether an arresting officer had probable cause is predominantly factual in nature, as where there is a dispute as to the pertinent events, the existence vel non of probable cause is to be decided by the jury.”); Yorzinski v. City of New York, 175 F.Supp.3d 69, 80 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (denying defendants' motion for summary judgment on false arrest claim since “it is not clear from the record that [plaintiff] was, in fact, ‘disorderly'”); Milfort v. Prevete, 922 F.Supp.2d 398, 406 (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (“If a jury were to credit Plaintiff's version of events, it could conclude that the police lacked probable cause to arrest Plaintiff.”).

         According to Plaintiffs, Alonzo and Stephanie had ceased arguing by the time Lockett and Montalto arrived. Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 79-80. Although Alonzo gesticulated while he spoke to Stephanie about his desire for the house to be clean, he did not yell or pace wildly. Id. ¶ 92. He also pushed his storm door open against an iron railing, making a noise, when he exited his home. Id. ¶ 108. Viewing these facts in the light most favorable to Alonzo, his conduct does not necessarily evidence the mens rea that is required to violate Penal Law § 240.20 or Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”) § 530.11.[5]

         The disorderly conduct statute requires that the defendant act with ‘intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm' or with recklessness ‘creating a risk thereof.'” Provost v. City of Newburgh, 262 F.3d 146, 158 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting § 240.20)); see also People v. Baker, 984 N.E.2d 902, 905 (N.Y. 2013) (“As is clear from precedent, critical to a charge of disorderly conduct is a finding that defendant's disruptive statements and behavior were of a public rather than an individual dimension. This requirement stems from the mens rea component . . . .”). Even under Defendants' version of the events, in which Alonzo violently flailed his arms at Stephanie and slammed open his front door, Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 22-26, the officers did not make any accusations “establishing the proximity of that altercation to neighbors or other members of the public such that [Alonzo's] actions could support a logical inference that [he] acted with intent or recklessness in regard to members of the public, ” Sharon D. v. Dara K., 13 N.Y.S.3d 656, 659 (App. Div. 2015) (finding that altercation between mother and grandmother in the confines of great-aunt's home did not illustrate requisite mens rea).

         Therefore, a reasonable jury could find that the Arresting Officers did not have sufficient probable cause to arrest Alonzo for disorderly conduct. See, e.g., Provost, 262 F.3d at 158 (holding that mens rea did not necessarily exist when plaintiff “banged on the glass, ” “hollered, ” and “yelled through the window” inside a police station, since plaintiff wanted to communicate with an officer); People v. Pritchard, 265 N.E.2d 532, 533 (N.Y. 1970) (holding that defendant, who fought with another teenager on the dance floor of a crowded nightclub, did not necessarily intend to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm, because the fight was prompted by a personal insult); Kirsten G. v. Melvin G. Sr., 39 N.Y.S.3d 460, 462 (App. Div. 2016) (holding that defendant's “ranting and raging” outside of her apartment door did not constitute disorderly conduct because no evidence was presented regarding proximity of neighbors or other members of the public, or that her conduct could have caused public alarm).

         The Court also concludes that these issues of fact preclude a determination that the Arresting Officers possessed arguable probable cause to arrest Plaintiff, and therefore the Court cannot determine whether their actions are protected by qualified immunity. See, e.g., Thomas, 165 F.3d at 143 (“Summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds is not appropriate when there are facts in dispute that are material to a determination of reasonableness.”); Oliveira v. Mayer, 23 F.3d 642, 649 (2d Cir. 1994) (“Though ‘[i]mmunity ordinarily should be decided by the court, ' that is true only in those cases where the facts concerning the availability of the defense are undisputed; otherwise, jury consideration is normally required.” (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991)). As described above, there are material issues of fact as to whether Alonzo's conduct prior to his arrest was disorderly, and thus whether the Arresting Officers' decision to arrest him was objectively reasonable. See Milfort, 922 F.Supp.2d at 407 (“Under Plaintiff's version [of the facts], his arrest was entirely unprovoked. Under those circumstances, no reasonably competent officer would have acted in the same way.”).

         Accordingly, Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Alonzo's false arrest and false imprisonment claims are denied.

         b. Excessive Force

         i. Applicable Law

         “The Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of unreasonable and therefore excessive force by a police officer in the course of effecting an arrest.” Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 96 (2d. Cir. 2010); see also Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394-95 (1989). The Court does not evaluate the record in hindsight, but, instead, from the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. The court must carefully review the totality of the circumstances of each particular case, considering: “(1) the nature of and severity of the crime leading to the arrest, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Tracy, 623 F.3d at 96 (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 396). “Application of physical force is excessive when it is more than is necessary under the circumstances.” Brown v. City of New York, No. 11-CV-1068, 2013 WL 491926, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 8, 2013) (citing Curry v. City of Syracuse, 316 F.3d 324, 332 (2d Cir. 2003)).

         “Given the need for such a fact-intensive inquiry, ‘granting summary judgment against a plaintiff on an excessive force claim is not appropriate unless no reasonable factfinder could conclude that the officers' conduct was objectively reasonable.'” Hill v. City of New York, No. 03-CV-1283, 2005 WL 3591719, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 30, 2005) (quoting Amnesty America v. Town of West Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 123 (2d Cir. 2004)); see also Greenaway v. County of Nassau, 97 F.Supp.3d 225, 235 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (“Because objective reasonableness is extremely fact-specific, summary judgment on the issue is often inappropriate.”).

         Here, as described above, a significant dispute exists between the parties regarding Alonzo's conduct prior to and during the arrest. Accordingly, the Court finds that the determination as to the objective reasonableness of the force used is one to made by a jury following a trial. See Jackson v. City of New York, 939 F.Supp.2d 235, 254 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (finding that summary judgment was inappropriate on the issue of excessive force because of the significant dispute between plaintiff's and officers' descriptions of the arrest and force used). Therefore, Lockett and Montalto are not entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs' excessive force claim, nor are they entitled to qualified immunity. See Curry, 316 F.3d at 334 (“In this case it is impossible to ‘determine whether the officers reasonably believed that their force was not excessive when several material facts [are] still in dispute, [and therefore] summary judgement on the basis of qualified immunity [is] precluded.'” (quoting Thomas, 165 F.3d at 144)); Milfort, 922 F.Supp.2d at 409 ...


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