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Ventura v. Rutledge

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 16, 2019

MARIA VENTURA, individually and on behalf of the ESTATE OF OMAR VENTURA and the HEIRS OF OMAR VENTURA, Plaintiffs,
v.
OFFICER JENNIFER RUTLEDGE; UNKNOWN POLICE OFFICERS; and CITY OF PORTERVILLE, CALIFORNIA, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (DOC. NO. 22)

         This matter came before the court on February 5, 2019 for a hearing on defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 22.) Attorney Kevin Little appeared telephonically on behalf of plaintiffs and attorney Bruce Praet appeared telephonically on behalf of defendants. The court has considered the parties' briefs and oral arguments, and for the reasons set forth below, will grant defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         The facts that follow are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Decedent Omar Ventura (hereinafter “Omar”) fathered two children with Martha Andrade (hereinafter “Martha”), though the two were never married and did not live together. (Doc. No. 22 at 7.) On December 24, 2015, Martha called 911 to report that Omar had hit her, hit his mother, Maria Ventura (hereinafter “Maria”), and smashed the window of Martha's vehicle. (Doc. No. 25-2 at ¶ 1.) Officer Jennifer Rutledge of the Porterville Police Department responded to the call as a “415V, ” or violent domestic disturbance. (Id. at ¶ 2.)

         While Officer Rutledge was interviewing Martha, Martha pointed to Omar who walking up the street and exclaimed, “That's him.” (Id. at ¶ 3.) As Omar continued to approach, Martha moved behind trash cans in the driveway. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Officer Rutledge gave several orders to Omar to stop, which Omar ignored. (Id. at ¶ 5.) As Omar approached Martha, he removed a knife from his pocket, and asked Martha, “Is this what you wanted?” (Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.)

         Although plaintiffs do not dispute that Omar removed a knife from his pocket as he approached Martha, they do dispute whether Omar presented a threat at the time. (Id. at ¶¶ 10- 11.) Plaintiffs contend that Officer Rutledge was at least ten yards away from Omar and was not herself endangered. (Id.) Plaintiffs further contend that Omar was walking normally and did not appear to be about to harm anyone. (Id.)

         Officer Rutledge warned Omar, “Stop or I'll shoot.” (Id. at ¶ 8.) When Omar continued to approach Martha with his knife in hand, Officer Rutledge fired two rapid shots, fatally striking Omar. (Id. at ¶ 9.) The parties do not dispute that Omar had advanced to less than twenty feet from Martha at the time he was shot by Officer Rutledge.[1] (Id. at ¶ 10.)

         Plaintiffs Maria Ventura and the Estate and Heirs of Omar Ventura commenced this action against Officer Rutledge and the City of Porterville on February 16, 2017. (Doc. No. 1.) Plaintiffs' operative complaint asserts the following causes of action: (1) violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, based on the excessive use of force; (2) violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to familial association; (3) municipal liability based on unconstitutional customs, policies, and practices; (4) violation of California Civil Code § 52.1 (the “Bane Act”); (5) negligence; (6) battery; and (7) wrongful death.

         On December 12, 2018, defendants filed the pending motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 22.) Therein, defendants represent that the parties met and conferred prior to the filing of the motion for summary judgment, and that plaintiffs agreed to voluntarily dismiss the Monell claims against the City. (Id. at 1.) Defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law as to all remaining claims because: (1) the use of force by defendants was objectively reasonable; (2) plaintiffs fail to meet the heightened “purpose to harm” standard required by the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) Officer Rutledge is entitled to qualified immunity; and (4) plaintiffs' remaining state law claims fail in the absence of a constitutional violation. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiffs filed their opposition to the motion for summary judgment on January 22, 2019, and defendants filed their reply on January 28, 2019. (Doc. Nos. 23, 25.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party “shows that 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).

         In summary judgment practice, the moving party “initially bears the burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” In re Oracle Corp. Sec. Litig., 627 F.3d 376, 387 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The moving party may accomplish this by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or by showing that such materials “do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that the adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A), (B). If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue as to any material fact actually does exist. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). In attempting to establish the existence of this factual dispute, the opposing party may not rely upon the allegations or denials of its pleadings but is required to tender evidence of specific facts in the form of affidavits, and/or admissible discovery material, in support of its contention that the dispute exists. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1); Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586 n.11; Orr v. Bank of Am., NT & SA, 285 F.3d 764, 773 (9th Cir. 2002) (“A trial court can only consider admissible evidence in ruling on a motion for summary judgment.”). The opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987), and that the dispute is genuine, i.e., the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, see Wool v. Tandem Computs., Inc., 818 F.2d 1433, 1436 (9th Cir. 1987).

         In the endeavor to establish the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that “the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” T.W. Elec. Serv., 809 F.2d at 631. Thus, the “purpose of summary judgment is to ‘pierce the pleadings and to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citations omitted).

         “In evaluating the evidence to determine whether there is a genuine issue of fact, ” the court draws “all reasonable inferences supported by the evidence in favor of the non-moving party.” Walls v. Cent. Contra Costa Cty. Transit Auth., 653 F.3d 963, 966 (9th Cir. 2011). It is the opposing party's obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. See Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F.Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff'd, 810 F.2d 898, 902 (9th Cir. 1987). Undisputed facts are taken as true for purposes of a motion for summary judgment. Anthoine v. N. Cent. Counties Consortium, 605 F.3d 740, 745 (9th Cir. 2010). Finally, to demonstrate a genuine issue, the opposing party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citation omitted).

         ANALYSIS

         A. Federal Law Claims

         The Civil Rights Act provides as follows:

Every person who, under color of [state law] . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution . . . shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus, to prevail on a valid claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law, and that this conduct deprived a person of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-95 (1978); Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362, 370-71 (1976).

         As noted above, plaintiffs assert violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against Officer Rutledge. The parties do not dispute that Officer Rutledge was acting under color of state law at the relevant time. Therefore, the only remaining questions are whether Officer Rutledge deprived plaintiffs of their constitutional rights, and if so, whether she is entitled to qualified immunity.

         1. Fourth Amendment Claim

         Plaintiffs first allege that Officer Rutledge employed excessive force against Omar on December 24, 2015. A claim that a law enforcement officer used excessive force during the course of an arrest is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989); Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 7-8 (1985). Under this standard, “‘[t]he force which [i]s applied must be balanced against the need for that force: it is the need for force which is at the heart of the Graham factors.'” Liston v. County of Riverside, 120 F.3d 965, 976 (9th Cir. 1997) (quoting Alexander v. City & County of San Francisco, 29 F.3d 1355, 1367 (9th Cir. 1994)); see also Drummond ex rel. Drummond v. City of Anaheim, 343 F.3d 1052, 1057 (9th Cir. 2003). Thus, in light of the facts and circumstances surrounding a law enforcement officer's actions, courts “must balance the nature of the harm and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Bryan v. MacPherson, 630 F.3d 805, 823 (9th Cir. 2010) (citations and internal quotations omitted); see also Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 383-84 (2007); Santos v. Gates, 287 F.3d 846, 853 (9th Cir. 2002); Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272, 1280 (9th Cir. 2001); Liston, 120 F.3d at 976. “Force is excessive when it is greater than is reasonable under the circumstances.” Santos, 287 F.3d at 854 (citing Graham, 490 U.S. 386). Accordingly,

[a]lthough it is undoubtedly true that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments, and that therefore not every push or shove, even if it may seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, it is equally true that even where some force is justified, the amount actually used may be excessive.

Id. at 853 (citations and internal quotations omitted).

         In considering the pending motion for summary judgment, the following admonition of the Ninth Circuit with respect to the use of summary judgment in cases involving claims of excessive use of force must be kept in mind:

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement may use “objectively reasonable” force to carry out such seizures; as in the unlawful arrest analysis, this objective reasonableness is determined by an assessment of the totality of the circumstances. . . . Because this inquiry is inherently fact specific, the “determination whether the force used to effect an arrest was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment should only be taken from the jury in rare cases.”

Green v. City & County of San Francisco, 751 F.3d 1039, 1049 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). In the instant case, while many of the facts before this court are uncontroverted on summary judgment, such as the nature and quantum of the deadly force utilized, as explained below there is nevertheless a genuine dispute of material fact as to the reasonableness with which that force was applied.

         a. Nature and Quality of the Intrusion

         The court begins its analysis by assessing both the type and the amount of force used. See Bryan, 630 F.3d at 824; Davis v. City of Las Vegas, 478 F.3d 1048, 1055 (9th Cir. 2007). Here, it is undisputed that Officer Rutledge fired her weapon at Omar twice, fatally striking him. (See Doc. No. 25-2 at ¶ 9.) Shooting a suspect with a firearm constitutes use of deadly force. Blanford v. Sacramento County, 406 F.3d 1110, 1115 n.9 (9th Cir. 2005) (defining “deadly force” as “force creating a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily injury”) (citing Smith v. City of Hemet, 394 F.3d 689, 704-07 (9th Cir. 2005) (en banc)). It is well established that:

The intrusiveness of a seizure by means of deadly force is unmatched. The use of deadly force implicates the highest level of Fourth Amendment interests both because the suspect has a fundamental interest in his own life and because such force frustrates the interest of the individual, and of society, in judicial determination of guilt and punishment.

A. K. H. by & through Landeros v. City of Tustin, 837 F.3d 1005, 1011 (9th Cir. 2016) (citations and quotation marks omitted). Accordingly, “[d]eadly force is permissible only ‘if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction ...


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