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Scott v. City of New York

United States District Court, E.D. New York

January 14, 2020



          NICHOLAS G. GARAUFIS, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs assert causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York common law against numerous individual police officers (collectively, the "Individual Defendants"). (See Fourth Am. Compl. ("FAC") (Dkt. 87).) Plaintiffs also name the City of New York (the "City") as a Defendant in this action. Plaintiffs, however, do not assert an independent Monell claim against the City; rather, its claims against the City are premised on vicarious liability under respondeat superior for any common-law torts for which any individual officer is held liable. (FAC ¶ 40.)

         Plaintiffs' claims arise out of an encounter with Defendants early in the morning of April 2, 2014 that culminated in the arrests of Scott and M. Mejia on charges of obstruction of governmental administration in the second degree in violation of New York Penal Law § 195.05 ("OGA").

         Defendants move pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 for summary judgment on: (1) all Plaintiffs' federal claims for unlawful entry; (2) Scott, M. Mejia, and S. Mejia's federal claims for false arrest; (3) M. Mejia and S. Mejia's federal claims for excessive force; (4) Scott and M. Mejia's federal claims for malicious prosecution; (5) Scott's state-law claim for malicious prosecution; (6) Scott's state-law claim for malicious abuse of process; (7) Scott, M. Mejia, and S. Mejia's federal claims for denial of the right to a fair trial; (8) Fernandez's federal claim for invasion of privacy; and (9) all Plaintiffs' federal and state claims (including Scott's federal excessive force claim, which is otherwise not at issue in this motion) insofar as asserted against Defendants Southerton, Casalino, Carman, and Illardi. (Not. of Mot. ("Mot.") (Dkt. 99); Mem. in Supp. of Mot. ("Mem.") (Dkt. 102).)

         For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statement of Facts

         The court bases the following statement of facts on the parties' Local Rule 56.1 Statements and the admissible evidence submitted therewith. (See Defs. R. 56.1 Statement (Dkt. 101); Plfs. R. 56.1 Resp. ("56.1 Resp.") (Dkt. 104); Defs. Reply 56.1 ("56.1 Reply") (Dkt. 107).) The court construes the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs and draws all reasonable inferences in their favor. See, e.g.. Nationwide Life Ins. Co. v. Bankers Leasing Ass'n. Inc., 182 F.3d 157, 160 (2d Cir. 1999) (collecting cases). Where the facts are in dispute, the court credits Plaintiffs' version of events if they are supported by record evidence. Id. However, to the extent that Plaintiffs fail to controvert specific factual statements set forth in Defendants' Local Rule 56.1 Statement with citations to admissible evidence (see, e.g., 56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 10-11, 28), the court credits Defendants' version of events and deems those facts undisputed for the purpose of deciding this motion. See Costello v. N.Y.S. Nurses Ass'n, 783 F.Supp.2d 656, 661 n.5 (S.D.N.Y.2011).

         Early in the morning on April 2, 2014, the Individual Defendants were each on-duty officers of the New York City Police Department. (56.1 Resp.¶ 1.) At this time, Plaintiffs were present in Apartment 1A (the "Apartment") located in the building at 1-05 Astoria Blvd., Queens, New York (the "Building"). (Id. ¶¶ 5-7.) Around 1:31 am, the Individual Defendants received a radio run indicating an ongoing family dispute in an apartment located within the Building. (Id. ¶ 2.) Approximately ten minutes later, the Individual Defendants received a second radio run indicating that shots had been fired inside the Apartment. (Id. ¶ 3.) Dorsaint, Smith, Muller, and Everette responded first, arriving at the Apartment around 1:45 am. (Id. ¶ 4.) At some point thereafter, they were joined by Capolla and Vanderschuyt. (Id. ¶ 10.) When the officers arrived, the door to the Apartment was closed but S. Mejia opened the door after Dorsaint knocked. (Id. ¶ 7.) From their vantage point, the Defendants then on the scene were able to see into the Apartment and observed drops of blood on the floor. (Id. ¶¶ 9-11.)

         Scott and M. Mejia joined S. Mejia (M. Mejia's mother) by the door. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.)[1] At some point in their ensuing exchange with the officers, someone began filming the encounter. (See Video (Dkt. 100-10).) Muller asked to enter the apartment to ensure that all occupants were safe, explaining first that the officers were responding to a noise complaint and then, after M. Mejia refused to permit them to enter, that they had received multiple domestic disturbance calls; at no point did Muller refer to the shots fired call or the blood on the floor. (56.1 Resp. ¶ 12; Video; Jan. 11, 2017 Tr. of M. Mejia Dep. ("M. MejiaTr.") (Dkts. 100-6, 103-13) at 27:10-28:17.) Scott, M. Mejia, and S. Mejia verbally refused to permit the officers to enter the Apartment and, over the course of at least the next five minutes, engaged in an at-times heated discussion with Muller about the propriety of the officers' request to enter the Apartment. (56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 13-14; Video.) At several points during their discussion, M. Mejia attempted to defuse the situation by quieting the other Plaintiffs then present. (Video.) M. Mejia does appear somewhat animated in the video but did not raise his voice when speaking to the officers. (Id.) At no time did any of the Plaintiffs physically block or prevent any Individual Defendant from entering the Apartment; indeed, over the course of their discussion, Muller and another officer can be seen advancing into the Apartment without incident. (56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 13-14; Video.) Meanwhile, Fernandez, who at the time was a minor, was in her bedroom with the door closed in a state of partial undress. (56.1 Resp. ¶ 19.)

         At this point, the Defendants present entered the apartment. The specific sequence of the events that followed is unclear from the record, but the parties generally agree that, upon entering the Apartment, Everette, Capolla, Muller, and Vanderschuyt arrested Scott. (Id. ¶ 16.) It appears that a considerable amount of force was used to effect this arrest, but Scott's excessive force claim is not at issue in this motion, and so the court will not describe it in detail. Dorsaint arrested M. Mejia by throwing him to the floor, putting handcuffs on him, and placing his foot on his neck. After subduing M. Mejia, Dorsaint pulled out a taser and pointed it at M. Mejia's face while saying "you see this right here motherfucker? This is for you." (Id. ¶¶ 17, 36.) Mero (who by this time had joined the other Individual Defendants) arrested S. Mejia by pulling S. Mejia's hands behind her back, knocking S. Mejia's head against the door, handcuffing S. Mejia, throwing S. Mejia to the floor, and putting her knee on S. Mejia's back. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 39-40.) When Mero slammed S. Mejia's head against the door, S. Mejia told Mero that she had brain injuries due to seizures and asked Mero not to hit her head; likewise, when Mero put her knee on S. Mejia's back, S. Mejia told Mero that she had back problems and asked her to desist. (May 21, 2018 Tr. of S. Mejia Dep. ("S. Mejia Tr.") (Dkts. 100-8, 103-10) at 54:11-22.) According to S. Mejia, Mero responded to these pleas with derisive laughter and sarcastically asked S. Mejia whether she "need[ed] a wheelchair to go to bookings." (Id. at 54:22; see also id. at 54:11-22.) Mejia was then transported to a marked police vehicle. (Id. at 59:1-15.) She has no memory of what happened between the time she was thrown on the ground and the time she was placed in the police vehicle. (Id.)

         M. Mejia did not suffer any physical injuries beyond an averred "displeasure" to his neck. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) S. Mejia did not have any visible injuries but told someone present that her head had been injured, and, at some point while she was in the police car, Vanderschuyt directed other officers present uncuff her and summon an ambulance. (56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 31, 42-43; Mero Memobook (Dkt. 103-19) at Bates No. D004712.) However, when the ambulance arrived, she refused medical attention. (56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 42-43.)

         Upon hearing the commotion, Fernandez put on a pair of shorts and began walking towards the door of her bedroom. (Aug. 20, 2018 Tr. of G. Fernandez Dep., dated Aug. 20, 2018 ("Fernandez Tr.") (Dkt. 100-14) at 30:24-31:11.) As she was reaching for the doorknob, the door opened from the other side and Muller, Vanderschuyt, and an unidentified male officer entered. (56.1 Resp. ¶¶ 20-21; Fernandez Tr. at 34:8-24.) At this point, Fernandez had nothing covering her upper body but was holding a tank-top in her hands, which she raised palms forward. (Fernandez Tr. at 34:18-35:11.) Fernandez told the officers to leave because she was not fully dressed. (Id. at 41:12-16.) The officers, however, remained in the room for several minutes; one officer (either Vanderschuyt or the unknown third officer) shined his flashlight around the room. (Id. at 42:23-43:7.) Muller, meanwhile, continually shined his flashlight toward Fernandez's bare breasts and made a face "like if a four-year-old got cotton candy." (Id.) After a few minutes, one of the other officers told Muller that they should leave and let her finish getting dressed. (Id. at 43:11-18.) At no point did the officers ask Fernandez any questions or otherwise speak to her. (56.1 Reply ¶ 6.) Fernandez was not arrested, handcuffed, or otherwise touched by the officers. (56.1 Resp. ¶ 26.)

         Southerton responded to the location but did not enter the Building or the Apartment at anytime. (Id. ¶44.) No Plaintiff saw Casalino (then Southerton's supervisor) at the scene. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47.)

         Following these events, Scott and M. Mejia (who were both taken into custody and booked) were prosecuted on charges of OGA and resisting arrest. (Id. ¶ 27; see also M. Mejia Tr. at 45:2-13.) Scott was released on his own recognizance after his initial appearance. (May 1, 2017 Tr. of J. Scott Dep. (Dkts. 100-9, 103-13) at 63:10-11; M. Mejia Tr. at 47:2-7.) Dorsaint signed the criminal complaint against Scott and M. Mejia, which also included sworn testimony from Smith regarding Scott's alleged resistance when Smith tried to arrest him. (56.1 Resp. ¶ 28.) According to the complaint, the officers were responding to a 911 call when they heard screaming from the Apartment (the door to which was partially open when they arrived). (Criminal Compl. (Dkt. 100-9) at 2.) The complaint further alleges that the officers observed blood and could smell bleach in the Apartment, and that both Scott and M. Mejia came to the door and began yelling and screaming while refusing to permit the officers to enter. (Id.) Finally, the complaint alleges that both Scott and M. Mejia writhed and twisted their bodies in an attempt to evade arrest. (Id.) All charges against Scott and M. Mejia were ultimately dismissed on speedy trial grounds. (56.1 Resp. ¶ 29.)

         S. Mejia was summonsed on a charge of disorderly conduct but she was not detained beyond her initial arrest. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31.) S. Mejia did not learn about the summons until some time later when she went to the Queens County Criminal Court and was informed that she was subject to an outstanding bench warrant. (Id. ¶¶ 32-34.) A week or so thereafter, S. Mejia appeared before a judge, who dismissed the case. (Id. ¶ 35.)

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed their complaint in this court on February 18, 2016. (Compl. (Dkt. 1).) Plaintiffs amended their complaint several times to add and remove defendants before filing the FAC on June 20, 2018. (See FAC.) Discovery proceeded before Magistrate Judge Steven Tiscione and involved considerable motion practice. Discovery closed on November 2, 2018. (See Sept. 14, 2018 Scheduling Order.)

         Defendants served notice of the instant motion on February 1, 2019. (See Mot.) Plaintiffs served their opposition on March 1, 2019. (See Mem. in Opp. to Mot. ("Opp.") (Dkt. 105).) Defendants replied on March 22, 2019. (See Reply in Further Support of Mot. ("Reply") (Dkt. 108).)


         Summary judgment is appropriate "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." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(a). "A 'material' fact is one capable of influencing the case's outcome under governing substantive law, and a 'genuine' dispute is one as to which the evidence would permit a reasonable juror to find for the party opposing the motion." Figueroa v. Mazza, 825 F.3d 89, 98 (2d cir. 2016) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "The movant may discharge this burden by showing that the non-moving party has 'failed to make a showing sufficient 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."' Lantheus Med. Imagine. Inc. v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 255 F.Supp.3d 443, 451 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) (alteration adopted) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)).

         "To determine whether an issue is genuine, 'the inferences to be drawn from the underlying affidavits, exhibits, interrogatory answers, and depositions must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion."' Mikhaylov v. Y & B Trans. Co., No. 15-cv-7109 (DLI), 2019 WL 1492907, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2019) (alterations adopted) (quoting Cronin v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 46 F.3d 196, 202 (2d Cir. 1995)). Nonetheless, the non-movant "may not rely on mere speculation or conjecture as to the true nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment." Fletcher v. Atex, Inc., 68 F.3d 1451, 1456 (2d Cir. 1995) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).


         Defendants move for summary judgment on all but one of Plaintiffs' federal and state claims. The court begins by addressing Plaintiffs' federal claims, each of which is asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, before turning to Plaintiffs' state-law claims.

         A. Plaintiffs' § 1983 Claims

         In order to state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) that she has been deprived of a right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and (2) that this deprivation occurred under color of law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; accord Pitchell v. Callan, 13 F.3d 545, 547 (2d Cir. 1994) (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981)). In this case, Plaintiffs claim that the Individual Defendants, acting under color of law, violated rights secured to them under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by: (1) unlawfully entering their home, arresting them, and prosecuting them without probable cause; (2) using excessive force in effecting their arrests; (3) denying them the right to a fair trial; and (4) invading Fernandez's right to privacy. The court addresses each of these claims below.

         1. Unlawful Entry

         Scott, M. Mejia, and S. Mejia claim that the Individual Defendants' warrantless entry in to the Apartment violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants argue that their entry into the Apartment was permissible under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement or, in the alternative, that it was objectively reasonable for Defendants to believe that the emergency aid exception applied, thus entitling them to qualified immunity. (Mem. at 5-10.) Based on the factual record the court holds that Defendants had, at the least, an arguably reasonable basis to conclude that the emergency aid exception justified their entry and, accordingly, grants Defendants summary judgment on this claim.

         The Fourth Amendment protects the rights of people "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const, amend. IV. "It is a basic principle of Fourth Amendment law that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable." Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006) (quoting Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559 (2004) (internal quotation marks omitted)). At the same time, however, "[i]t is well settled ... that the warrant requirement must yield ... where exigent circumstances demand that law enforcement agents act without delay." Callahan v. City of New York, 90 F.Supp.3d 60, 69 (E.D.N.Y. 2015) (citation omitted).

         "One exigency obviating the requirement of a warrant is the need to assist persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury." Brigham City, 547 U.S. at 403; see also Kerman v. Citv of New York, 261 F.3d 229, 235 (2d Cir. 2001) ("[P]olice officers may enter a dwelling without a warrant to render assistance to a person whom they reasonably believe to be in distress." (citation omitted) (alteration adopted)). Whether an officer's belief is reasonable is assessed under an objective standard in light of the totality of the circumstances confronting her at the time she effects entry. See Callahan, 90 F.Supp.3d at 69; see also Thompson v. Clark, 364 F.Supp.3d 178, 190 (E.D.N.Y. 2019) (police may enter dwelling without a warrant to render emergency aid "if, based on the totality of the circumstances known to the investigating officers at the time of entry, it was objectively reasonable for them to do so" (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Further, the doctrine of qualified immunity bars § 1983 claims against public officials where either "(a) the defendant's action did not violate clearly established law, or (b) it was objectively reasonable for the defendant to believe that his action did not violate such law." Garcia v. Does,779 F.3d 84, 92 (2d Cir. 2015) (citing Russo v. City of Bridgeport,479 F.3d 196, 211 (2d Cir. 2007)): see also Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991) ("The qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). "Qualified immunity serves to protect police from liability and suit when they are required to make on-the-spot judgment in tense circumstances." Tierney v. Davidson,133 F.3d 189, 196 (2d Cir. 1998) (citation omitted) (alteration adopted). In the context of a warrantless entry pursuant to the emergency aid exception, qualified immunity bars liability "if, given the circumstances confronting [an] officer, it is at least ...

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