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Hahn v. City of Carlsbad

United States District Court, S.D. California

June 16, 2017

CINDY MICHELLE HAHN, an individual, Plaintiff,


          Hon. Dana M. Sabraw United States District Judge.

         This case comes before the Court on Defendants' motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The motions came on for hearing on June 9, 2017. Benjamin J. Meiselas appeared for Plaintiff. Golnar Jabbari Fozi, Daniel Stephen Modafferi, and Paul G. Edmonson appeared for Defendants. After considering the parties' briefs, oral argument, and the record before the Court, Defendants' motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         At 3:38 p.m. on July 31, 2013, Officer Kenyatte Valentine began to impound a vehicle for having expired registration tags. (Declaration of Kenyatte Valentine (“Valentine Decl.”) ¶ 5.) The vehicle was parked on Beech Street, west of Garfield Street, in the City of Carlsbad. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) When Officer Valentine began to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle, Plaintiff approached him and asked him what was going on. (Id. ¶ 5; Notice of Lodgment (“NOL”) in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 10, 14-15.) Officer Valentine asked Plaintiff whether the vehicle belonged to her, and she responded, “No.” (Valentine Decl. ¶ 5; NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 15.) The events that transpired thereafter are disputed. Plaintiff argues Officer Valentine told her to “mind your own fucking business” and called her a “bitch.” (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 15, 21.) In contrast, Defendants contend Plaintiff began yelling and swearing at Officer Valentine. (NOL in Supp. of Mot., Ex. 3 at 45; id., Ex. 4 at 50-51.) Plaintiff eventually walked away and called the Carlsbad Police Department to complain about Officer Valentine. (Id., Ex. 5 at 55.) She was immediately placed on hold. (Id.) When her friend Misty Cervantes pulled up in front of Plaintiff in a white Infinity SUV, Plaintiff hung up without filing a complaint and climbed into the front passenger seat. (Id. at 55-59.)

         After getting the vehicle towed, Officer Valentine returned to his motorcycle when he observed the SUV Plaintiff was riding in proceeding northbound on Garfield Street. (Valentine Decl. ¶ 6.) Officer Valentine noticed Cervantes was driving without her seatbelt fastened. (Id.; NOL in Supp. of Mot., Ex. 6 at 71.) Based on that observation, Officer Valentine effectuated a traffic stop, and Cervantes pulled into a parking lot. (Valentine Decl. ¶ 6.) The parties also dispute the events which transpired immediately following the traffic stop. The records show Plaintiff initially exited the vehicle from the passenger side and went to the rear of the SUV and opened up the rear hatch to retrieve registration and insurance cards. (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 23-26; NOL in Supp. of Mot. at Ex. 1 at 5.) However, she became distracted and began to look for her son's clothing instead.[2] (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 23-26; NOL in Supp. of Mot. at Ex. 1 at 6.) Subsequently, Plaintiff proceeded to the driver's side of the car, where Officer Valentine was standing. (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 26, 28; NOL in Supp. of Mot. at Ex. 2 at 22-23.) Officer Valentine told Plaintiff, “Go sit on the curb or get in the car now.” (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 33; NOL in Supp. of Mot. at Ex. 2 at 23.) It is disputed whether Plaintiff complied with Officer Valentine's orders.

         Officer Valentine then told Plaintiff that she was under arrest. (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 37; Valentine Decl. ¶ 10.) The parties further dispute what transpired when Officer Valentine attempted to arrest Plaintiff. At some point during the encounter, Officer Valentine grabbed Plaintiff's wrists and swept her legs out from under her, causing her to fall to the ground. (NOL in Supp. of Mot., Ex. 2 at 33-36; id., Ex. 5 at 62.) Plaintiff yelled for help. (NOL in Supp. of Mot., Ex. 1.) Subsequently, Officer Jody Knisley arrived on the scene and immediately knelt down besides Plaintiff. (Id., Ex. 9 at 110-11.) Corporal Richard Galanos arrived on the scene as Officer Knisley ran to assist Officer Valentine.[3] (Declaration of Richard Galanos (“Galanos Decl.”) ¶ 4.) To restrain Plaintiff, Officer Knisley “punched [Plaintiff] on the right side of the face by her right cheek bone” and “delivered one distraction knee strike to [Plaintiff's] right side.” (NOL in Supp. of Mot., Ex. 8 at 100.) Plaintiff contends Officer Knisley administered further strikes to her head with his fist. (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 48.) Officers Valentine and Knisley eventually handcuffed Plaintiff and placed her in the back of a patrol car.[4] Officers Karches and Seapker arrived on the scene after Plaintiff was in custody.


         Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating that summary judgment is proper. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). The moving party must identify the pleadings, depositions, affidavits, or other evidence that it “believes demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “A material issue of fact is one that affects the outcome of the litigation and requires a trial to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth.” S.E.C. v. Seaboard Corp., 677 F.2d 1301, 1306 (9th Cir. 1982).

         The burden then shifts to the opposing party to show that summary judgment is not appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. The opposing party's evidence is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). However, to avoid summary judgment, the opposing party cannot rest solely on conclusory allegations. Berg v. Kincheloe, 794 F.2d 457, 459 (9th Cir. 1986). Instead, it must designate specific facts showing there is a genuine issue for trial. Id.; see also Butler v. S.D. Dist. Atty's Off., 370 F.3d 956, 958 (9th Cir. 2004) (stating if defendant produces enough evidence to require plaintiff to go beyond pleadings, plaintiff must counter by producing evidence of his own). More than a “metaphysical doubt” is required to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).


         A. § 1983 Claim

         In her first claim, Plaintiff alleges Defendant officers, acting under the color of law, violated her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, and excessive force. Defendants move for summary judgment on all claims.

         1. Unlawful Arrest and Malicious Prosecution

         To succeed on claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must show the defendants lacked probable cause to arrest and to prosecute her. See Dubner v. City & Cty. of S.F., 266 F.3d 959, 964 (9th Cir. 2001) (“A claim for unlawful arrest is cognizable under § 1983 as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, provided the arrest was without probable cause or other justification.”); Lacey v. Maricopa Cty, 693 F.3d 896, 919 (9th Cir. 2012) (setting forth elements of malicious prosecution claim under § 1983). “Probable cause exists when there is a fair probability or substantial chance of criminal activity.” United States v. Bishop, 264 F.3d 919, 924 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 235 (1983)).

         Defendants argue collateral estoppel precludes Plaintiff from re-litigating the issue of probable cause because the state court already determined there was probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. Defendants explain the state court found sufficient evidence to bind over Plaintiff for trial and set bail on charges including resisting arrest under California Penal Code § 148, and resisting arrest with force and violence under California Penal Code § 69. “When an individual has a full and fair opportunity to challenge a probable cause determination during the course of the prior proceedings, ” collateral estoppel prevents her “from relitigating the issue in a subsequent § 1983 claim.” Awabdy v. City of Adelanto, 368 F.3d 1062, 1067 (9th Cir. 2004). However, collateral estoppel does not apply “‘where the plaintiff establishes that the arresting officer lied or fabricated evidence presented at the preliminary hearing.'” Wige v. City of L.A., 713 F.3d 1183, 1186 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting McCutchen v. City of Montclair, 73 Cal.App.4th 1138, 1147 (Cal.Ct.App. 1999)). When an officer “misrepresents the nature of the evidence supporting probable cause and that issue is not raised at the preliminary hearing, a finding of probable cause would not bar relitigation of the issue of integrity of the evidence.” McCutchen, 73 Cal.App.4th at 1147. “To rebut the presumption [of probable cause], a plaintiff must point to something more ‘than the fact that the officers' reports were inconsistent with [his] own account of the incidents leading to his arrest.” Carino v. Gorski, No. 07-455-PHX-NVW, 2008 WL 4446706, at *6 (D. Ariz. Sept. 30, 2008) (quoting Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 483 (9th Cir. 2007)).

         Here, Plaintiff does not dispute the parties litigated the issue of probable cause in the state court proceeding. Rather, she argues collateral estoppel is inapplicable because there are triable issues of fact as to whether Officer Valentine failed to disclose material evidence at the preliminary hearing. Plaintiff, however, does not point to any evidence of fabrication other than the assertion that Officer Valentine's testimony was inconsistent with her account of the incident, which is insufficient to preclude summary judgment. See Sloman v. Tadlock, 21 F.3d 1462, 1474 (9th Cir. 1994) (stating that to show evidence of fabrication, a plaintiff must show evidence “other than the fact that the officers' reports were inconsistent with [his] own account of the incidents leading to his arrest.”). Officer Valentine's testimony at the preliminary hearing reflected the same information stated in his investigation report. See Fenters v. Chevron, No. CV-F-05-1630 OWW DLB, 2010 WL 5477710, at *26 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 30, 2010) (finding that collateral estoppel applied to prevent re-litigation on probable cause because plaintiff failed to show fabrication as “Defendant Hutton's testimony at the preliminary hearing was the same information that was reflected in his written investigation report.”). The fact that Officer Valentine testified regarding the incident in a manner that differed from Plaintiff's perception does not amount to the type of wrongful conduct that rebuts the presumption of probable cause. See Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 106 (the presumption can be rebutted through proof that a police officer “improperly exerted pressure on the prosecutor, knowingly provided misinformation to him, concealed exculpatory evidence, or otherwise engaged in wrongful or bad faith conduct that was actively instrumental in causing the initiation of legal proceedings.”). Consequently, Plaintiff is collaterally estopped from re-litigating the issue of probable cause. Defendants' motion for summary judgment is therefore granted with respect to the unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution claims.

         2. Excessive Force

         The Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures permits law enforcement officers to use only such force to effect an arrest as is “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989). “The ‘reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Id. at 396. Because the Fourth Amendment test for reasonableness is inherently fact-specific, see Chew v. Gates, 27 F.3d 1432, 1443 (9th Cir. 1994) (citing Reed v. Hoy, 909 F.2d 324, 330 (9th Cir. 1989)), it is a test that escapes “mechanical application” and “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396; Fikes v. Cleghorn, 47 F.3d 1011, 1014 (9th Cir. 1995). In determining whether a particular use of force was reasonable, courts consider: “(1) the severity of the crime at issue; (2) whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether the suspect actively resisted arrest or attempted to escape.” S.B. v. Cty. of S.D., No. 15-56848, 2017 WL 1959984, at *4 (9th Cir. May 12, 2017) (citing Graham, 490 U.S. at 396). Of all these factors, the “most important” one is “whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.” George v. Morris, 736 F.3d 829, 838 (9th Cir. 2013) (quoting Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 826 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations omitted)).

         a. Officers Karches and Seapker

         Defendants move for summary judgment on the excessive force claim against Officers Karches and Seapker. Defendants contend these officers were not on scene when Plaintiff was arrested. Plaintiff does not oppose this aspect of Defendants' motion. Because Officers Karches and Seapker did not participate in the alleged constitutional deprivation, Plaintiff's claim against them fails. Accordingly, Officers Karches and Seapker are entitled to summary judgment on the excessive force claim.[5]

         b. Officer Valentine

         Defendants, relying almost entirely on their version of the incident, argue the undisputed facts show Officer Valentine did not use excessive force against Plaintiff. They contend Plaintiff exited the vehicle during a traffic stop without permission and refused to return to the car or sit by the curb despite Officer Valentine's orders. When Officer Valentine grabbed Plaintiff's wrists to place her under arrest for obstructing an officer, Plaintiff resisted by pulling her arms away and running away. Officer Valentine pursued Plaintiff and grabbed both of her wrists to handcuff her, but she again resisted by slipping her wrists out of his grip. In order to restrain Plaintiff, Officer Valentine tripped Plaintiff, causing her to fall on the ground, and then held her left hand down and draped his right leg over her body while waiting for backup. Defendants contend Officer Valentine's use of force was reasonable under these circumstances.

         Plaintiff's account of the incident differs significantly, thereby raising genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Officer Valentine used excessive force. First, Plaintiff correctly notes she was arrested for a nonviolent and relatively minor offense. Second, Plaintiff contends a reasonable jury could conclude she posed no immediate threat to Officer Valentine's safety during the encounter. Wearing sandals and a terry cloth dress over her bikini, Plaintiff contends she was in no position to resist, did not threaten Officer Valentine, and complied with Officer Valentine's orders by walking to the curb with her hands in the air. Third, Plaintiff disputes she evaded arrest by running away. Once Officer Valentine stated she was under arrest, Plaintiff claims she turned around with her hands remaining in the air, asking “For what?” Officer Valentine, without warning, allegedly lunged at Plaintiff and swept her legs out from under her, causing her to fall to the ground. Plaintiff contends Officer Valentine then “deliberately threw [her] body up in the air to hit [her] head straight first on the ground.” (NOL in Opp'n to Mot., Ex. 1 at 45.) Once she fell again on the ground, Officer Valentine allegedly inflicted pain by exerting pressure on her body with his knee.

         Because reasonableness of force is necessarily fact-specific, it is often a question that escapes resolution on summary judgment. See Chew, 27 F.3d at 1440 (“Because questions of reasonableness are not well-suited to precise legal determination, the propriety of a particular use of force is generally an issue for the jury.”). Viewing the facts most favorably to Plaintiff, as the Court must on the present motion, Officer Valentine lunged at Plaintiff without any provocation on her part and caused Plaintiff to fall on the ground. According to Plaintiff, this occurred even though she was complying with his commands. A reasonable jury viewing the circumstances in this light could conclude that Officer Valentine's use of force was not objectively reasonable, and therefore, excessive. Accordingly, Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the excessive force claim against Officer Valentine is denied.

         c. ...

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