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Williams v. City of Houston

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

June 11, 2019

CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, et al., Defendants.


          Lee H. Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge.

         Reuben Williams and Houston Police Department Officer Salvador R. Corral crossed paths while Williams was in the Houston City Jail on a misdemeanor charge of suspicion of driving while intoxicated. (Docket Entry No. 20). Williams has sued the City of Houston and Officer Corral, alleging Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations and asserting state-law claims for assault and battery. (Id. at 4-5). In April 2007, this civil case was stayed pending the disposition of the misdemeanor charge. (Docket Entry Nos. 24, 26). That charge was dismissed, this court lifted the stay, and after discovery, the City and Officer Corral moved for summary judgment and to exclude an expert opinion Williams submitted. (Docket Entry Nos. 54, 55, 58, 65, 67). Counsel for both sides argued the motions at a hearing.

         Based on the motions, the responses, the record, the applicable law, and counsels' arguments, the court excludes the expert opinion, grants summary judgment for the City, and grants in part and denies in part summary judgment for Officer Corral. Summary judgment is granted on Williams' malicious-prosecution claim. His Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims based on excessive use of force and his state-law claims for assault and battery remain. A status and scheduling conference is set for July 12, 2019, at 8:30 a.m. in Courtroom 11-B.

         The reasons for these rulings are explained in detail below.

         I. Background: The Summary Judgment Record

         Houston Police Department Officer Erin M. Swift arrested Williams for suspicion of driving while intoxicated on November 8, 2014. Williams was taken to the City Jail because he refused a field-sobriety test. (Docket Entry No. 20 at 2; Docket Entry No. 56-5). Officer Swift reported that Williams spat and urinated inside the patrol car and was combative on the way to the Jail. (Id. at 4). Once there, Officer Swift got a warrant for a blood test and asked Officer Corral to help take Williams from the holding cell to the room where the blood test would be done. (Id.). Williams resisted the blood test, and the officers forcibly placed his arm in the strap. Williams was shouting racial slurs and kicking his feet at the officers to keep them away. When Officer Corral put his forearm across Williams's upper chest to keep him from moving, Williams yelled, “I can't breathe!” (Id.). The nurse was able to take the blood sample.

         After the blood draw, Officer Corral handcuffed him and took him back to the holding cell. Officers J. Little, P. McRae, A. Garcia, and D. Matthews followed. Officer Corral testified that, on their way back to the holding cell, Williams was verbally abusive and spat on Officer Corral's face, neck, and left shoulder. (Docket Entry No. 60-4 at 3). Williams disputes this, describing his behavior as compliant and emphasizing that he was handcuffed. (Docket Entry No. 65, Ex. 7).

         A video recording taken by the Jail hallway surveillance camera shows that Williams stopped at the holding-cell door. Officer Corral shoved Williams's head into the steel doorframe, cutting his forehead and injuring his right eye. (Docket Entry No. 68, Ex. 2). A camera inside the holding cell recorded that after his head hitting the doorframe, Williams turned back toward Officer Corral with his mouth open. It is unclear whether Williams was talking, preparing to spit, or simply had his mouth open. When Williams turned his body and head back toward Officer Corral, the officer put Williams's neck in a chokehold and pushed him against the wall. When Officer Corral released the chokehold, Williams fell to the floor with blood on his face. (Docket Entry No. 60-4 at 3).

         Officer Corral testified that he pushed Williams's head away from him into the doorframe; and then held Williams against the wall, because he believed that Williams was about to spit on him again. (Id.). Williams disputes this, arguing that the videotapes show that when Officer Corral pushed his head into the steel doorframe and then shoved him against the holding-cell wall, he was standing in front of Officer Corral and facing away from him, making it impossible for him to spit on the officer.

         After Officer Corral released Williams, he laid on the floor. Officer Corral testified that he tried to get Williams to sit up, but Williams resisted by kicking and yelling. (Id.). Williams disputes this, claiming that he lost consciousness and collapsed onto the floor. (Docket Entry No. 65, Ex. 7).

         Officer Little called the Houston Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services and notified Sergeant S. R. Sorge of the incident. (Docket Entry No. 60-6 at 3-4). EMS staff cleaned and bandaged Williams's cut. (Docket Entry No. 60-4 at 5). Williams told the medical personnel that he was HIV positive. (Id.). Williams was taken to the hospital, where, according to Officer Swift and Officer Corral, he continued spitting and cursing at medical staff and at police officers. (Id.; Docket Entry No. 60-5 at 5).

         After the incident, Williams was indicted for harassing a public servant by spitting. (Docket Entry No. 54 at 9). The charge was dismissed after Williams was convicted for another crime. (Docket Entry No. 65, Ex. 4). Officer Corral was criminally investigated, but a grand jury declined to indict him. The City's internal investigation found that Officer Corral did not act reasonably when he pushed Williams's head into the doorframe and ordered Official Corral to get counseling. (Docket Entry No. 60-1 at 7).

         This lawsuit against the City and Officer Corral, for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and for state-law claims for assault and battery, followed. (Docket Entry No. 1). After discovery, the City and Officer Corral moved for summary judgment and to exclude the expert opinion Williams submitted. (Docket Entries No. 54, 56, 58). Williams responded, and the court heard oral argument. (Docket Entry No. 65).

         II. The Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         “Summary judgment is appropriate only if ‘there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Vann v. City of Southaven, 884 F.3d 307, 309 (5th Cir. 2018) (citations omitted); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the ‘evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Bennett v. Hartford Ins. Co. of Midwest, 890 F.3d 597, 604 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “The moving party ‘bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.'” Nola Spice Designs, LLC v. Haydel Enter., Inc., 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)).

         “Where the non-movant bears the burden of proof at trial, ‘the movant may merely point to the absence of evidence and thereby shift to the non-movant the burden of demonstrating . . . that there is an issue of material fact warranting trial.'” Kim v. Hospira, Inc., 709 Fed.Appx. 287, 288 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Nola Spice Designs, 783 F.3d at 536). While the movant must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, it does not need to negate the elements of the nonmovant's case. Austin v. Kroger Tex., L.P., 864 F.3d 326, 335 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1076 n.16 (5th Cir. 1994)). A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit.” Thomas v. Tregre, 913 F.3d 458, 462 (5th Cir. 2019) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

         “When the moving party has met its Rule 56(c) burden, the nonmoving party cannot survive a summary judgment motion by resting on the mere allegations of its pleadings.” Jones v. Anderson, 721 Fed.Appx. 333, 335 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Duffie v. United States, 600 F.3d 362, 371 (5th Cir. 2010)). The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party's claim. Infante v. Law Office of Joseph Onwuteaka, P.C., 735 Fed.Appx. 839, 843 (5th Cir. 2018) (quoting Willis v. Cleco Corp., 749 F.3d 314, 317 (5th Cir. 2014)). “This burden will not be satisfied by ‘some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence.'” McCarty v. Hillstone Rest. Grp., Inc., 864 F.3d 354, 357 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Boudreaux v. Swift Transp. Co., 402 F.3d 536, 540 (5th Cir. 2005)). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Wease v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 915 F.3d 987, 992 (5th Cir. 2019).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity protects government 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). “Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, ” and it “protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)).

         Courts undertake a two-step analysis in reviewing a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. Luna v. Mullenix, 773 F.3d 712, 718 (5th Cir. 2014). “First, [courts] ask whether the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, show the officer's conduct violated a federal constitutional or statutory right.” Id. (citing Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 655- 56 (2014)). “Second, [courts] ask ‘whether the defendant's actions violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Id. (quoting Flores v. City of Palacios, 381 F.3d 391, 395 (5th Cir. 2004)). The court has discretion to decide which prong to consider first. Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2013). To defeat qualified immunity, a plaintiff must demonstrate that “it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 199 (2004). Qualified-immunity claims must be evaluated in the light of what the officer knew at the time he acted, not on facts discovered subsequently. Luna, 773 F.3d at 718. As to whether the law at time of an incident was clearly established, the court must define each alleged right at an appropriate level of specificity. Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S. 3, 6 (2013). While “a case directly on point” is unnecessary, the “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Id. (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741).

         At summary judgment, courts must resolve genuine factual disputes in favor of the nonmovant. Tolan, 572 U.S. at 656-57 (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). A district court may not grant summary judgment based on qualified immunity if “resolution of [qualified immunity] . . . turns on what the defendant actually did, ” and the plaintiff's version of the story would defeat the qualified-immunity defense. See Haverda v. Hays Cty., 723 F.3d 586, 599 (5th Cir. 2013) (quotation omitted). Summary judgment may still be appropriate “based on a plaintiffs inability to [raise other factual issues material] to recovery, ” but “this has nothing to do with the qualified immunity defense.” Id. When videotape evidence is available, however, a court is not required to adopt the plaintiffs version of facts if the plaintiffs story “is blatantly contradicted by the [video] record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007); see also Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 312 (5th Cir. 2016) (“Although courts view evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, they give greater weight, even at the summary judgment stage, to the facts evident from video recordings taken at the scene.” (citing Carnaby v. City of Houston, 636 F.3d 183, 187 (5th Cir. 2011)).

         C. Municipal Liability

         “Municipalities are persons susceptible to suit under § 1983, but they cannot be found liable on a theory of vicarious liability or respondeat superior.” Davidson v. City of Stafford, 848 F.3d 384, 395 (5th Cir. 2017); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 692 (1978). Rather, the municipality itself must have caused the violation. Littell v. Hous. Indep. Sch. Dist, 894 F.3d 616, 622 (5th Cir. 2018). Municipal liability requires proof of a constitutional violation, that a municipal policymaker promulgated an official policy, and that the policy was the moving force behind the constitutional violation. Pena v. City of Rio Grande City, 879 F.3d 613, 621 (5th Cir. 2018).

         III. The Parties' Summary Judgment Evidence

         A. The Defendants

         The City and Officer Corral submitted the following evidence:

● Exhibit A: HPD-IAD Investigation Summary for Williams's incident;
● Exhibit B: HPD-IAD Investigation Report for Williams's incident;
● Exhibit C: Counseling Memo for Officer Corral;
● Exhibit D: Officer Corral's Certification Record;
● Exhibit E: HPD Offense Report;
● Exhibit F: Officer Corral's sworn statement to HPD-Homicide Division;
● Exhibit G: Officer Swift's sworn statement to HPD-Homicide Division;
● Exhibit H: Officer Little's sworn statement to HPD-Homicide Division;
● Exhibit I: Expert report of John G. Peters;
● Exhibit J: Video recording of events at issue-produced on CD to the Court;
● Exhibit K: Affidavit of Officer Corral.

(Docket Entry No. 58 at 9-10).

         The City also submitted Houston Police Department ...

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