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Faulkenberry v. Yost

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, Austin Division

January 3, 2018

LAWRENCE FAULKENBERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
SERGEANT DUSTIN YOST, DEPUTY MICHAEL TAYLOR, DEPUTY GALEN HOUSETON, and CAPTAIN JESSE HERNANDEZ, Defendants.[1]

          AMENDED ORDER [[2]]

          SAM SPARKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         BE IT REMEMBERED on this day the Court reviewed the file in the above-styled cause, and specifically, Plaintiff Lawrence Faulkenberry's Motion for Entry of Judgment [#84], Defendant Sergeant Dustin Yost (Sergeant Yost)'s Response [#86] in opposition, and Faulkenberry's Reply [#88] in support, as well as Sergeant Yost's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, or, Alternatively, Motion for New Trial or Remittitur [#85], Faulkenberry's Response [#87] in opposition, and Sergeant Yost's Reply [#89] in support. Having reviewed the documents, the governing law, and the file as a whole, the Court now enters the following opinion and order.

         Background

         On January 15, 2015, at approximately 6:30 p.m., Alexander Faulkenberry (Alexander) called 911 and claimed his father, Lawrence Faulkenberry (Faulkenberry), was intoxicated and brandishing a firearm. Alexander told the 911 dispatcher he feared for his safety. The dispatcher relayed Alexander's account to Sergeant Yost, Deputy Michael Taylor, and Deputy Galen Houseton, who responded to the call. The dispatcher also informed the officers the property had been marked "dangerous" for an unknown reason.[3]

         At trial, Faulkenberry denied he had been intoxicated or had brandished a gun at Alexander. Both Faulkenberry and Alexander testified that Alexander, who was 16 years old at the time, suffered from bipolar disorder and had not been taking his anti-psychotic medication for some time when he called the police. Earlier that day, Faulkenberry had grounded Alexander for his behavior at school. At trial, Alexander testified he had made up the accusations he conveyed to the 911 dispatcher because he was upset with his father and having a mental episode.[4]

         The officers' arrival on the property was captured by Sergeant Yost's dash cam. Upon reaching Faulkenberry's property, the officers parked their cars at the entrance of a long, unlit driveway leading up to Faulkenberry's house. Because of the distance between the patrol cars and Faulkenberry's house, the video captured by the officers' dash cams does not clearly show what transpired after the officers arrived on the property. However, Faulkenberry had installed cameras on his property which captured the entirety of the following incident, and all officers were wearing body mics.

         Alexander met the officers in the driveway as they approached the residence. The officers immediately frisked and secured Alexander near Sergeant Yost's patrol vehicle, briefly questioning him as to the location of Faulkenberry. Alexander indicated his father was in the office adjacent to the residence at the far end of the driveway.

         As the officers-with guns drawn-resumed their approach towards Faulkenberry's residence, Sergeant Yost saw movement in the one of the buildings at the end of the driveway, at which point Faulkenberry walked outside with his hands in the air. Upon spotting Faulkenberry, Sergeant Yost immediately announced the officers' presence, stating, "Sheriffs Office. Keep your hands up!" Faulkenberry complied with the order to keep his hands above his head, but can also be heard profanely questioning the officers' presence on his property. Without responding to Faulkenberry's questions, Sergeant Yost again announced the officers' presence and repeatedly commanded Faulkenberry turn around and walk backwards towards the officers with his hands in the air. Faulkenberry refused these commands, instead choosing to demand an explanation as to the officers' presence and remain standing with his hands above his head. When the officers asked Faulkenberry whether he was armed, he emphatically responded, "No, I don't have a f-king gun on me." Faulkenberry, who appears to grow more agitated as the officers approach, continued shouting obscenities, at one point stating, "[f]-k all three of you." The officers' guns remained trained on Faulkenberry for the entirety of this exchange.

         When the officers reached Faulkenberry, they pulled his hands behind his back to apply handcuffs. Sergeant Yost held Faulkenberry's left arm, while Deputy Taylor held Faulkenberry's right arm. As the officers were in the process of applying handcuffs but before they had finished doing so, Faulkenberry turned his head towards his right shoulder to ask Deputy Taylor whether the officers had a warrant. In response to this perceived pulling away, Sergeant Yost attempted to execute a takedown maneuver by performing a leg sweep on Faulkenberry. The maneuver was unsuccessful. Sergeant Yost tripped while performing his leg sweep and both Faulkenberry and the officers fell to the ground, where Faulkenberry's hands remained unsecured. Sergeant Yost then punched Faulkenberry in the face while the officers secured Faulkenberry's hands.

         After the officers handcuffed Faulkenberry, they began to search his residence while Faulkenberry remained sitting on the ground. During this time, Faulkenberry continued to demand an explanation as to why the officers were on his property. Sergeant Yost eventually responded, "We're here because you pulled a gun on your son." Faulkenberry denied this allegation and accused the officers of being misled by a "manic child." When Faulkenberry asked Sergeant Yost why the officers did not question him about the incident before attempting the takedown, Sergeant Yost responded, "I did. You told us to 'f- off That's why you're on the ground right now."

         In December 2015, Faulkenberry filed the instant lawsuit. The Court denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding there were material issues of fact as to whether the officers used excessive force against Faulkenberry and whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. At trial, a jury found Sergeant Yost violated Faulkenberry's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force by intentionally using unreasonable and excessive force while subduing Faulkenberry. The jury awarded Faulkenberry $275, 000 for physical pain and mental anguish sustained in the past; $74, 804.64 for reasonable and necessary medical expenses incurred in the past; $55, 989 for income lost in the past; $250, 000 for physical pain and mental anguish Faulkenberry will in reasonable probability sustain in the future; $250, 000 for income that in reasonable probability Faulkenberry will no longer be able to earn in the future; and $350, 000 in punitive damages for harm resulting from the malice or reckless indifference of Sergeant Yost.[5]

         Sergeant Yost has now filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, asking this Court to find there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict against Sergeant Yost and to find Sergeant Yost was entitled to qualified immunity. In the alternative, Sergeant Yost requests a new trial. Faulkenberry, meanwhile, has moved for entry of judgment. These pending motions are now ripe for review.

         Analysis

         I. Renewed Rule 50(b) Motion

         Sergeant Yost argues he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on Faulkenberry's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Specifically, Sergeant Yost contends that he did not use excessive force against Faulkenberry, and that, in any event, he is entitled to qualified immunity because his actions were objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law. The Court first examines Sergeant Yost's argument he did not use excessive force as a matter of law. The Court then turns to Sergeant Yost's renewed contention he is entitled to qualified immunity. As explained below, the Court denies Sergeant Yost's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law on both grounds.

         A. Legal Standard

         When ruling on a Rule 50(b) motion for judgment as a matter of law, "[a] jury verdict must stand unless there is a lack of substantial evidence, in the light most favorable to the successful party, to support the verdict." Am. Home Assurance Co. v. United Space AIL, LLC, 378 F.3d 482, 487 (5th Cir. 2004). Accordingly, the question for the court "is whether the state of proof is such that reasonable and impartial minds could reach the conclusion the jury expressed in its verdict." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "[Although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 151 (2000). In other words, "the court should give credence to the evidence favoring the nonmovant as well as that evidence supporting the moving party that is uncontradicted and unimpeached, at least to the extent that that evidence comes from disinterested witnesses." Carroll v. Ellington, 800 F.3d 154, 168 (5th Cir. 2015) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         B. Application

         1. Excessive Force

         The Fourth Amendment confers a right to be free from excessive force during an arrest. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 169 (5th Cir. 2009) (per curiam). To establish a claim of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, a plaintiff must show "(1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need and (3) the force used was objectively unreasonable." Cass v. City of Abilene, 814 F.3d 721, 731 (5th Cir. 2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         "Excessive force claims are necessarily fact-intensive; whether the force used is 'excessive' or 'unreasonable' depends on 'the facts and circumstances of each particular case.'" Deville, 567 F.3d at 167 (quoting Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)). Guiding this inquiry, the Supreme Court has identified three sets of facts which deserve careful consideration in determining whether the force used is "excessive" or "unreasonable": (1) the severity of the crime at issue; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Graham, 490 U.S. at 396; see also Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 313-14 (5th Cir. 2016) ("A court must measure the force used under the facts as a reasonable person would perceive them, not necessarily against the historical facts.").

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Faulkenberry and disregarding all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe, the Court finds there is sufficient evidence to support the jury's conclusion Sergeant Yost used excessive force in subduing Faulkenberry.

         First, there is substantial evidence to indicate Faulkenberry sustained an injury. At trial, Dr. Robert Josey testified Faulkenberry suffered from disc herniation in his back, for which he eventually received surgery. Trial Tr. of Sept. 19, 2017 at 184-87. Faulkenberry was also treated for a laceration to his eye. Trial Tr. of Sept. 18, 2017 at 91.

         Second, there is substantial evidence indicating Faulkenberry's injuries resulted directly and only from the force applied by Sergeant Yost. Sergeant Yost does not appear to dispute the laceration to Faulkenberry's eye was caused by Sergeant Yost punching Faulkenberry in the face. With respect to Faulkenberry's back injury, Faulkenberry testified at trial he had never injured his back or received treatment for back pain prior to the takedown by Sergeant Yost. Trial Tr. of Sept. 19, 2017 at 27. Following the takedown, Faulkenberry told officers he was "in a lot of pain" and had "broke" his back. Id. at 27. Faulkenberry was subsequently treated for back pain and eventually underwent surgery. Id. at 187. At trial, Dr. Josey testified the nature of Faulkenberry's injury was consistent with Faulkenberry's explanation that the injury was caused by Sergeant Yost's use of force. Id. at 157, 159-60. Examining this evidence as a whole, the Court finds reasonable and impartial minds could reach the jury's conclusion that Faulkenberry's injuries were caused by Sergeant Yost's takedown and subsequent punch to Faulkenberry's face.

         Third, there was substantial evidence to indicate the takedown and punch which resulted in Faulkenberry's injuries were clearly excessive to the need and objectively unreasonable.[6] In assessing whether Sergeant Yost's use of force was clearly excessive and objectively unreasonable, the Court applies the Graham factors. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396.

         The only Graham factor to counsel in favor of Sergeant Yost's use of force is the severity of the crime at issue. The relevant inquiry is what a reasonable officer on the scene would have believed the crime at issue to be. The dispatcher conveyed to Sergeant Yost that Alexander Faulkenberry called 911 to report his father was intoxicated and had a gun, and Alexander feared for his safety. Based on this report, a reasonable officer would have suspected Faulkenberry of the serious crime of assaulting a family member.

         The second and third Graham factors-whether Faulkenberry posed an immediate threat to the officers or others and whether Faulkenberry actively resisted arrest-counsel in favor of minimal force. Alexander, who made the 911 call, met the officers almost immediately upon their arrival and demonstrated no visible signs of harm. Trial Tr. of Sept. 19, 2017 at 224. As the officers approached the house with guns drawn, Faulkenberry can be heard denying being armed, and the surveillance video does not show Faulkenberry holding a gun or any other weapon. Pl's Tr. Ex. 1-A; Pl's Tr. Ex. 2-B. Belying the officers' claims they felt seriously threatened by Faulkenberry, the officers did not seek cover as they approached the house, instead walking steadily up the driveway towards Faulkenberry. Id. As the officers approached, Faulkenberry stood still with his hands over his head. Id. Though he failed to comply with the officers' orders that he walk backwards towards the officers, he did not attempt to flee. Id.

         According to Faulkenberry's testimony, Faulkenberry was not physically resisting the officer's attempts to handcuff him when Sergeant Yost attempted to perform a dangerous takedown maneuver. Trial Transcript of Sept. 18, 2017 at 55. The surveillance video does not clearly discredit Faulkenberry's version of the events and instead leaves open the possibility Faulkenberry exhibited little, if any, physical resistance prior to the takedown by Sergeant Yost. Pl's Tr. Ex. 1-A. It is undisputed that after Faulkenberry hit the ground, Deputy Taylor and Deputy Houseton pinned Faulkenberry to the ground while Sergeant Yost punched him in the face.[7] In light of Faulkenberry's testimony and the evidence adduced at trial, there is substantial evidence to support the conclusion that a reasonable person in Sergeant Yost's position would not have perceived Faulkenberry to be resisting arrest or to pose an immediate threat to the officers and that therefore Sergeant Yost's use of force was clearly excessive and objectively unreasonable.[8]

         The Court finds this evidence taken as a whole is such that reasonable and substantial minds could reach the jury's conclusion Faulkenberry was entitled to recover on his excessive force claim. The Court therefore DENIES Sergeant Yost's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law as to the excessive force claim.

         2. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity protects public officials "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald,457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The qualified immunity analysis involves two considerations: "(1) whether facts alleged or shown by plaintiff make out the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct." Pasco v. Knoblauch,566 F.3d 572, 579 (5th Cir. 2009). As applied in Fourth Amendment excessive force cases, "the second prong of the analysis is better understood as two separate inquiries: whether the allegedly violated constitutional rights were clearly established at the time of the incident; and if so, whether the conduct of the defendants was objectively unreasonable in light of that then clearly established law." Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 313 (5th Cir. 2016) (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also Saucier v. Katz,533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001) ("If the officer's mistake as to what the law requires is reasonable ... the officer is entitled to the immunity defense."). For purposes of determining whether a ...


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