In Courtright v. City of Battle Creek, ___ F.3d ___, 2016 WL 5956725 (6st Cir. Oct. 14, 2016), the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with the District Court and held that the officers who arrested the Plaintiff Jeff Courtright were not immune from liability on Courtright’s civil suit against them based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity.
After the Battle Creek Michigan Police Department received a telephone tip that Courtright possessed a gun and that he had threatened to shoot a dog, the Battle Creek Police Department dispatched Defendants Craig Wolf and Todd Rathjen, both of whom were officers with the Battle Creek Police Department, to the scene of the alleged confrontation. Specifically, the telephone tip advised the police dispatcher that Courtright had “come out of his room [at the Traveler’s Inn] with a gun and threatened to shoot” the dog of “another resident” at the hotel.
In his civil complaint against Wolf, Rathjen, and the City of Battle Creek, Michigan, Courtright alleged that he “was nowhere near his room when the alleged incident was said to have taken place,” that he “attempted to tell Defendant Wolf that he was not in his room at the time the incident allegedly occurred, but was visiting friends.” Courtright further alleged that he had attempted to tell Wolf that he did not “leav[e] his room with a gun and threaten[ ] to shoot any animal.” Nevertheless, Wolf arrested Courtright for felonious assault. According to Courtright, in handcuffing him in the course of the arrest, Wolf and Rathjen “forcefully grabbed Plaintiff’s arms and pulled them behind Plaintiff’s back,” even though Courtright had told the officers that prior rotator cuff injuries and shoulder surgeries precluded him from placing his hands behind his back. Courtright repeatedly complained of pain to the officers after he was handcuffed, but neither officer “did anything to alleviate Plaintiff’s pain.” Courtright was, then, jailed overnight, but the prosecutor declined to issue a warrant, and Courtright was released the next day.
Thereafter, Courtright sued Wolf, Rathjen, and the City of Battle Creek alleging use of excessive force by Wolf and Rathjen in violation of the Fourth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I); false arrest by Wolf in violation of the Fourth Amendment and § 1983 (Count II); false arrest and false imprisonment by Wolf under state law (Count III); and municipal liability on the part of the City of Battle Creek under § 1983 and Monell v. Department of Social Servs. Of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) (Count IV).
The Defendants moved to dismiss all four counts of Courtright’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims (Count III) and denied the motion with respect to Courtright’s federal-law claims (Counts I, II, and IV), rejecting the officers’ qualified-immunity defense. The District Court reasoned that the federal excessive-force and false-arrest claims were “thin” but that there was “enough to kick the case forward into at least the basic discovery process.” Accordingly, the District Court concluded that it was “okay to keep [the municipal liability against the City of Battle Creek] claim alive for now so that we can at least see if there’s any potential for the plaintiff to flesh out what they claim in terms of policy and practice.” The Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal of the District Court’s denial of their motion to dismiss on Counts I, II, and IV.
The Sixth Circuit began its analysis of Defendants’ appeal by noting that, although appellate courts generally do not possess appellate jurisdiction over interlocutory appeals that challenge the denial of a motion to dismiss, the Sixth Circuit had appellate jurisdiction in this case based upon the collateral-order doctrine. Pursuant to the collateral-order doctrine, “a district court’s order rejecting qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage of a proceeding is a ‘final decision’ within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1291.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 672 (2009). The Sixth Circuit went on to explain that, in order to survive the motion to dismiss on qualified-immunity grounds, the plaintiff must allege facts that plausibly make out a claim that the defendant’s conduct violated a constitutional right that was clearly established law at the time, such that a reasonable officer would have known that his conduct violated that right. The plaintiff also must allege, with particularity facts, that demonstrate what each named defendant did to violate the asserted constitutional right. Ultimately, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that an officer is not entitled to the defense of qualified immunity. The test is whether, reading the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, it is plausible that an official’s acts violated the plaintiff’s clearly established constitutional right.
In this case, the Sixth Circuit found that Courtright’s complaint satisfied this plausibility test. The Sixth Circuit also agreed that the officers were not immune from this suit based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials, when performing discretionary functions, from civil suits in their individual capacities. This protection attaches unless the officials’ conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Thus, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.
The Sixth Circuit applies a two-tiered inquiry in order to be protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The first step is to determine if the facts alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right. The second is to ask if the right at issue was clearly established when the event occurred such that a reasonable officer would have known that his conduct violated it. A court may address the steps in any order, but both must be answered in the affirmative for the plaintiff’s claim to proceed. If either step is not satisfied, then qualified immunity shields the government officer from civil damages.
In this case, the Sixth Circuit held that the officers were not immune from Courtright’s excessive force claim or his false arrest claim. As for his excessive force claim, the Sixth Circuit explained that excessively forceful or unduly tight handcuffing is a constitutional violation under the Fourth Amendment and that freedom from such actions is a clearly established right for the purposes of qualified immunity. Notably, the Sixth Circuit stated that the extent of the physical injury suffered by the arrestee need not be severe in order to support an excessive force claim.
The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that Courtright’s allegations regarding any physical injury that he suffered from the alleged excessive force was “sparse.” Nevertheless, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the District Court that the determination of whether the officers exercised excessive force against Courtright was a question better left for determination on either summary judgment or trial. Although the question of whether an officer is immune from suit is to be determined at the earliest stage possible in the litigation so as to avoid the inherent burdens of litigation, the Sixth Circuit found that Courtright may be able to sustain his excessive force claim depending upon the evidence to be presented later in the litigation process, and therefore, the officers could not rely upon the doctrine of qualified immunity to dismiss the excessive force claim against them.
Likewise, the Sixth Circuit held that the officers could not rely upon the doctrine of qualified immunity to dismiss the false arrest claim against them. The Sixth Circuit explained that the right to freedom from arrest in the absence of probable cause is clearly established by the Constitution. A police officer has probable cause for an arrest if, at the time the officer makes the arrest, the facts and circumstances within the officer’s knowledge and of which the officer had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the arrestee had committed or was committing an offense. In other words, probable cause exists only when the police officer discovers reasonably reliable information that the suspect has committed a crime. A probable cause determination is based on the totality of the circumstances and must take account both the inculpatory and exculpatory evidence within the knowledge of the arresting officer. The probable-cause determination must be based on the information that the arresting officer had when he made the arrest rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Here, the Sixth Circuit stated that the crux of the probable cause issue was whether the telephone call to the police was sufficient to establish probable cause for Courtright’s arrest. The Sixth Circuit opined that it was not.
First, although the allegations in Courtright’s complaint suggested that the caller was another resident at the Traveler’s Inn, there is no indication that the caller was an actual eyewitness to the crime. Second, although there may be some instances in which a sufficiently reliable phone call to the police may provide reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop, the Sixth Circuit noted that it did not find any precedential case in which the court had concluded that a phone call, without any corroborating information, provided probable cause for arrest.
Therefore, viewing the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to Courtright as the Sixth Circuit was required to do on a motion to dismiss, the Court found that Courtright’s complaint stated a plausible claim that his arrest was unsupported by probable cause; Courtright’s complaint alleged a violation of a clearly established constitutional right; and therefore, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of the officers’ motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.
The protection afforded by the doctrine of qualified immunity is an important and powerful tool that protects officers performing their jobs. In order for the doctrine to provide immunity from suit, a court must determine if the facts alleged by the civil plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional right committed by the officer, and a court must determine if the right claimed by the plaintiff was clearly established when the events that formed the basis for the suit occurred. If either question is answered in the negative, a court should dismiss the case against the officer because qualified immunity not only protects the officer from liability for any alleged damages suffered by the plaintiff, the doctrine protects the officer from the suit and from the burdens of litigation in the initial instance.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.