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Johns v. City of Eugene

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

January 30, 2018

ALVIN JOHNS, Plaintiff,


          Arm Aiken United States District Judge.

         In this action, plaintiff Alvin Johns asserts various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights as well as state-law negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. Defendants, the City of Eugene ("the City") and Eugene Police Department Officers Yolanda Anderson[1] and Bryan Inman, move for summary judgment on all claims against them. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is denied as to plaintiffs Fourth Amendment claim against the individual officers, denied as to the vicarious-liability negligence claim against the City, and granted in all other respects.


         Special rules of construction apply when evaluating summary judgment motions: (1) all reasonable doubts as to the existence of genuine issues of material fact should be resolved against the moving party and (2) all inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. T. W. Elec, Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987). As such, this section is stated in the light most favorable to plaintiff, with all questions of material fact resolved in his favor.

         On the evening of August 3, 2014, Betsy Jean Castleton appeared at plaintiffs home with a strong odor of alcohol on her breath and insisted on seeing plaintiffs adult son, Alvin Johns II ("Mr. Johns II"), who was her friend and coworker. Given the time of night and Ms. Castleton's intoxicated state, plaintiff refused to allow her inside his home. Despite plaintiffs repeated requests, Ms, Castleton refused to leave. Plaintiff grabbed a metal baseball bat, pointed it at Ms. Castleton's chest, and told her, once again, to leave the premises. At some point, Ms. Castleton fell down backwards, landing on her own cell phone. Awoken by the commotion, Mr. Johns II emerged from the house to see Ms. Castleton lying on the porch screaming "bloody murder" at his father, who was standing over her with a baseball bat. Miller Decl. Ex. 2 at 4, Aug. 22, 2017. Ms. Castleton and Mr. Johns II both began yelling at plaintiff, threatening to beat him up and send him to the hospital. Plaintiff retreated into the house and locked his door.

         Once inside, plaintiff phoned 911 for assistance. According to the transcript of that call filed in support of the City's motion for summary judgment, plaintiff reported that he was inside the house and that Mr. Johns II and Ms. Castleton were outside, yelling at him and threatening him. The 911 operator could hear people yelling in the background. When the 911 operator asked him if there were any weapons involved in the altercation, plaintiff immediately stated that he had a baseball bat.

         Four officers were dispatched to the scene: defendant Officers Anderson and Inman, and non-defendant Officers Kyle Evans and Robert Rosales.[2] By the time the officers arrived, Mr. Johns II and Ms. Castleton had left the area. Plaintiff met the officers in front of his house and identified himself as "the one who called." Id., As plaintiff began to explain what had happened, Mr. Johns II returned to the vicinity. As Mr. Johns II approached, he became extremely agitated and started yelling at plaintiff. The officers directed plaintiff to go back into his house in order to separate the two men.

         According to Officer Anderson's investigation report, Mr. Johns II stated that he was angry because plaintiff had hit Ms. Castleton with a baseball bat. Officer Anderson then spoke to Ms, Castleton. Ms. Castleton stated that she had gone to the house to check on Mr. Johns II and that she was worried because Mr. Johns II told her that his father beat him. She asserted that she had gone to the door and asked to see Mr. Johns II, but that plaintiff had told her to come back the next day. She further stated that about thirty seconds after the door closed, she decided she wanted to leave a message for Mr. Johns II, and that when she knocked on the door a second time, plaintiff appeared in the doorway with a baseball bat in his hand. She reported that plaintiff "put the bat to [her expletive] throat" and told her to get off the porch. Anderson Deck Ex. 1 at 3. She then alleged that plaintiff pushed the baseball bat against her throat with enough force that she fell to the ground, dropping her cell phone beside her on the porch. Ms. Castleton stated that she told plaintiff she was going to call the police, at which point plaintiff "went psycho the [expletive] on [her] phone" and began smashing it with the baseball bat. Id. She told Officer Anderson that when she attempted to reach for the phone, plaintiff raised the bat over his head and swung at her. Ms. Castleton stated that plaintiff missed four times because she scurried out of the way, but hit her "one good time" with the bat. Id. at 4.

         The report states that Officer Anderson "did not see any redness or swelling" on Ms. Castleton's chest or throat (despite Ms. Castleton's statements that her chest and throat hurt the most) but that she did observe "a bump, red marks and swelling on the right side of her back." Id. Officer Anderson smelled a strong odor of alcohol on Ms. Castleton's breath. Photographs taken by the officers show a cell phone with a shattered screen and a welt on Ms. Castleton's back. The officers did not test the phone see if it was still operable. When Ms. Castleton told the officers she needed her phone, they gave it back to her without asking why she needed a demolished phone. Officer Anderson stated in her deposition that an examination of plaintiffs bat revealed "sparkles, like little glass particles" on the end, but that fact is not documented in either the investigation report or the probable cause affidavit. Michaels Decl. Ex. 1 at 7. The bat was not seized as evidence and no photos of it appear in the summary judgment record. The officers did not examine the porch, which is constructed of soft fir wood, for evidence that it had been hit with a bat.

         Officers Anderson and Inman then went into the home to talk to plaintiff. Plaintiff admitted to using the baseball bat to "direct" Ms. Castleton off the porch by pointing the bat at her chest. Id. He denied making any physical contact with Ms. Castleton and denied smashing her cell phone. When Officer Anderson asked how Ms. Castleton ended up on the ground, plaintiff responded, "[s]he fell from being drunk I guess." Id. In his deposition, plaintiff stated that the officers asked him several times to explain what happened. It appears that plaintiff became frustrated with the officers' repeated questions and asked them "if I did [smash her phone] what it if was on my property[?]" Anderson Decl. Ex. 1 at 4. When the officers asked if that was an admission that he had in fact smashed the phone, plaintiff reiterated his denial and said they were "twisting [his] words" and that he "didn't see a phone." Id. At some point, Officer Inman suddenly "called [plaintiff] an [expletive] liar and bum rushe[d him] from approximately 8 feet away and grab[bed plaintiff] like [he] was about to hit his coworkers." Miller Decl. Ex. 2 at 5.

         The officers believed Ms. Castleton, a white woman, rather than plaintiff, a black man, and arrested plaintiff. Plaintiff was charged by information with menacing and criminal mischief in the second degree, both misdemeanors. Plaintiff remained in custody for three days and because his release agreement forbade him from being within a mile of Ms. Castleton, the City forced plaintiff out of his home. In order to comply with the terms of his release, plaintiff rented a room in a hotel for twenty -three days at a cost of approximately $1, 350. The terms of the release agreement also prevented plaintiff from visiting a doctor in San Francisco and taking a long-planned trip to see a football game in Seattle.

         Several months later, an Assistant District Attorney ("ADA") took the case to the grand jury to consider the addition of a felony charge. Through Ms. Castleton's testimony, the ADA learned that Ms. Castleton had continued to use her phone after the attack. Ms. Castleton also described the attack in a way that was not consistent with the evidence documenting her injuries. The ADA pulled the case from the grand jury and dismissed all charges.

         Plaintiff filed this civil rights action in May 2016. On February 15, 2017, I denied defendants' motion to dismiss. Johns v. City of Eugene, 2017 WL 663092 (D. Or, Feb. 15, 2017). Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims.


         Summary judgment is appropriate 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). The moving party has the burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id.; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the moving party shows the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and identify facts which show a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "Summary judgment is inappropriate if reasonable jurors, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor." Diaz v. Eagle Produce Ltd. P'ship, 521 F.3d 1201, 1207 (9th Cir. 2008).


         I. Fourth Amendment

         Defendants move for summary judgment on plaintiffs claim that the individual officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Defendants argue that plaintiffs claim fails because, on the undisputed facts, a reasonable officer could conclude that there was probable cause to arrest plaintiff for several crimes including assault, harassment, criminal mischief, and menacing. Defendants also assert that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff responds that the truth of the "undisputed" facts submitted by defendants is at issue, and that inconsistencies between Ms. Castleton's story and the available physical evidence triggered defendants' duty to investigate further before arresting him.

         A. Merits

         The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]" U.S. Const, amend. IV. "[A]n arrest is lawful . ., only if it is accompanied by probable cause to believe that the arrestee has committed, or is committing, an offense." Conner v. Heiman, 672 F.3d 1126, 1132 (9th Cir. 2012) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         "Probable cause to arrest exists when officers have knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to lead a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person being arrested." United States v. Lopez, 482 F.3d 1067, 1072 (9th Cir. 2007). "Whether probable cause exists depends 'on the totality of facts[.]'" Sialoi v. City of San Diego, 823 F.3d 1223, 1232 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lopez, 482 F.3d at 1073). While probable cause does not require law enforcement officers to support their seizure with "certainty or even a preponderance of the evidence, " officers must be able to conclude that there is a "fair probability" that the defendant committed a crime, United States v. Gourde, 440 F.3d 1065, 1069 (9th Cir. 2006), and "may not disregard facts tending to dissipate probable cause, " Sialoi, 823 F.3d at 1232. Finally, while law enforcement officers do not need "conclusive evidence of guilt" to support seizures with probable cause, "mere suspicion, common rumor, or even strong reason to suspect" a plaintiff engaged in criminal conduct are not enough to establish probable cause. Ramirez v. City of Buena Park, 560 F.3d 1012, 1023 (9th Cir. 2009) (citation and quotation marks omitted); Harper v. City of L.A., 533 F.3d 1010, 1022 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         Defendants assert probable cause supported plaintiffs arrest for several crimes. As evidence supporting probable cause, defendants focus on the fact that Ms. Castleton described being threatened with a bat and that she was able to show a fresh welt on her body and a shattered phone screen to the officers at the scene. Because arrests based on probable cause only require a "fair probability" that an offense has been committed by the arrestee under the totality of the circumstances, defendants argue that there was probable cause to arrest plaintiff.

         Plaintiff contends that his arrest was on mere suspicion, in violation of his Fourth Amendment Rights. He argues that the probable cause affidavit omits multiple relevant facts. In particular, plaintiff points to the facts that (1) he was not intoxicated at the time of the incident, whereas Ms. Castleton was; (2) Officer Anderson could not see any redness or swelling on Ms. Castleton's chest or throat area, undermining Ms. Castleton's report that she was hit in the chest so hard she fell down; (3) Ms. Castleton's cell phone was intact and operable after alleged repeated blows by a metal bat; (4) the swelling on Ms. Castleton's back and damage to her phone were more consistent with plaintiffs contention that she fell than with Ms, Castleton's allegation that plaintiff struck her and the phone with a bat; (5) the officers should have suspected that Ms. Castleton was not telling the truth about the bat hitting her phone because she asked to have the phone back, suggesting that she knew it remained operable; and (6) plaintiff, not Ms. Castleton, was the person who had called 911. Plaintiff argues that the officers ignored these facts, all of which tended to dissipate probable cause, and failed in their basic duty to investigate evidence before making an arrest.

         Viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, I conclude that there remain issues of material fact as to plaintiffs Fourth Amendment claim.

         To support their probable cause argument, defendants largely rely on Ms. Castleton's statements and physical evidence observed by the officers. The allegedly corroborating physical evidence, however, is not sufficient to definitively establish probable cause. I begin by addressing the allegation that plaintiff attacked Ms. Castleton with a bat, Considering Ms. Castleton's report that she was hit so hard in the chest that she fell down and it hurt the most in the chest area, the absence of any redness or swelling on that part of her body could permit a jury to conclude that defendants should have questioned Ms. Castleton's version of events.

         Second, I consider the allegation that plaintiff smashed Ms. Castleton's phone. Here, the fact that her phone was still operable and intact after violent blows could support the conclusion that the officers should have known the screen was shattered in some other way-for example, as plaintiff suggested, as a result of Ms. Castleton falling down due to intoxication. And even though the officers would not know from visually inspecting the phone that it remained operable, a jury could conclude either that they should have tested the phone right away, or that Ms. Castleton's statement that she needed the phone back undermined her story because it suggested she knew the phone was still working. Moreover, although glass shards on the end of the bat clearly would have corroborated Ms. Castleton's story, a jury could question Officer Anderson's veracity regarding her examination of the bat because the officers did not take the bat into evidence and there is no documentation of visible glass on the bat in the investigatory report or probable cause affidavit.

         A jury could conclude that these inconsistencies between Ms. Castleton's statement and the physical evidence triggered the officers' duty to investigate further. Had such an investigation been conducted, the officers might have learned from Mr. Johns II that Ms. Castleton's phone "always had a broken screen." Michaels Decl. Ex. 7 at 2. They might have examined the soft fir wood of the deck and found no evidence that plaintiff had hit the wood when he missed Ms. Castleton.

         Finally, these evidentiary inconsistencies must be considered together with the fact that Ms. Castleton was intoxicated while plaintiff was sober, that plaintiff summoned the police to his house, and that plaintiff readily admitted to using a baseball bat to get Ms. Castleton to leave (though not in the way she alleged). Collectively, the evidence gives rise to ...

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