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Sinclair v. Purnell

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 13, 2014

DARYL JAMES SINCLAIR, #273546, Plaintiff,



On June 14, 2013, Plaintiff Daryl James Sinclair (hereinafter referred to as "Sinclair") filed suit against Salisbury, Maryland Police Officers under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983, alleging excessive force on the part of the officers and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. According to Sinclair, the officers' actions during his arrest resulted in three broken teeth and open wounds on the side of his face, which required stitches at a local hospital. Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or, Alternatively, for Summary Judgment, which shall be construed as a Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 14. Sinclair has filed an Opposition and a Motion to Appoint Counsel. ECF Nos. 20 & 21. Defendants' Motion may be determined on the pleadings and shall be denied without oral hearing. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2014).

I. Background

With the exception of the reasonableness of force used and a factual question of whether Sinclair reached for an officer's service weapon, the facts of this case remain largely undisputed. On December 26, 2012, a number of officers from the City of Salisbury were dispatched to an area of the City concerning an individual who had just pulled a gun on two victims. The officers arrived on the scene and interviewed the victims who informed officers that the incident took place outside a residence located at 716 Oak Hill Avenue. Defs.' Mot. at Exs. 1-3. One victim told the officers that when they arrived at the residence, he walked to the door while his companion remained in the car. Upon approach, a black male met the victim at the door and pointed a long, dark revolver-styled handgun at him. Id . The victim identified the gunman as "Daryl." Id. at Ex. 2. Both victims reported that they retreated to their car and drove away. Once out of harm's way, they called police who then confirmed the address and secured the residence. Id.

In establishing a perimeter around the residence, officers observed a man and woman exit the house and move towards a red Oldsmobile Alero parked nearby. Id. at Exs. 3 & 4. Officers were directed to detain both subjects. Id. at Exs. 4 & 5. Two officers were asked to stay with the male subject later identified as Daryl Sinclair. Defs.' Mot. at Ex. 4. The two victims were brought to the scene and identified Sinclair as the man who had pointed the gun at them. Id. at Exs. 1-3. One of the officers observed a child sleeping in the Oldsmobile and a black-zippered bag on the front passenger seat. Sinclair was advised he was under arrest for first-degree assault. Id. at Ex. 3. Defendants affirm that as Sinclair was being placed into the back seat of a police car, he pulled away, lunged at one of the officers, and reached for the officer's holstered service weapon. Defendants maintain that Sinclair "forced his hand onto the gun in the space between the officer's right hip and pulled it toward him." Id. at Ex. 4. The officer, unsure if Sinclair's hand was still cuffed allegedly used his right elbow to strike Sinclair and to spin away to break Sinclair's grip on the weapon. The officer reached for his holster and found that its top strap had been unsnapped and, as a result, his weapon was no longer fully secured. Id . Sinclair denies reaching for the weapon.

After breaking free, Sinclair began running down Oak Hill Avenue chased by Salisbury police officers. Id. at Exs. 4 & 5. Officers lost sight of him when he turned onto Wilkins Street. Sinclair's description was broadcasted via police radio and the area was flooded with officers from the City of Salisbury, the Office of the Sheriff, and the Maryland State Police. Defs.' Mot. at Exs. 3-8. During the foot chase, Sinclair was twice ordered to stop and get on the ground. He refused to do so and, according to one of the officers, was seen reaching into his shirt as if to "retrieve a gun." Id. at Ex. 5. Sinclair was spotted and caught by an officer who again ordered him to the ground. Sinclair refused. The officer sprayed Sinclair in the back of the head with two short bursts of "OC" spray.[1] The spray was ineffective, but did cause Sinclair to stop, turn, and face the officer. An officer grabbed Sinclair's shirt and pulled him to the pavement. Id . Defendants affirm that Sinclair continued to struggle and fight by keeping his body weight on his left arm and refusing to yield it to officers. Id. at Ex. 5.

Defendants maintain that it took several officers to gain Sinclair's compliance and they acknowledge that an officer placed his knee in Sinclair's back to avoid further chance of escape. Id. at Exs. 2 & 4-8. An officer, with the assistance of another, was able to place Sinclair's right hand in the cuff that was secure on his left arm. Sinclair was pulled to his feet and walked to a nearby police car. When he began to resist, he was moved to the curb. Id. at Exs. 2 & 6. Defendants assert that Sinclair suffered a cut to his left eye lid and was treated at the scene by Emergency Medical Services. He was taken to the Emergency Room at a local hospital in police custody and then to the Police Department. Defendants state that Sinclair's injuries consisted of a cut eyelid and some swelling around the left eye. Defs.' Mot. at Exs. 2 & 6-8.

According to Sinclair, two officers approached him at gunpoint, handcuffed him, and informed him that he was under arrest for an assault. Compl. at 6. Sinclair acknowledges that while being escorted to a squad car he attempted to flee. Pl.'s Opp'n at 3. He claims that he ran and lost the officers pursuing him in the neighborhood and during the course of his flight he was able to free one cuff from his wrist. Id . Sinclair alleges that an officer saw him and gave chase with his gun drawn, caught up with him, and "violently" forced him down to the ground. Id . Another officer allegedly placed his knee into Sinclair's back while he was being handcuffed, a different officer excessively sprayed Sinclair with pepper spray, and yet another officer beat him with a service weapon "so severely that it split the left side of [his] face open along with [his] left eyelid." Id. at 3-4. During this time, several other officers allegedly kicked Sinclair in the face and head "from all angles" as they arrived to the scene. Id. at 4. Sinclair claims that he suffered three broken teeth and open wounds on the side of his face which required stitches at a local hospital. Id.

The officers obtained a search warrant for the 2000 red Oldsmobile Alero and the residence on Oak Hill Avenue. A black bag containing a loaded handgun was found on the front passenger seat of the vehicle. Defs.' Mot. at Ex. 3. Sinclair was charged with first-degree assault (two counts); second-degree assault (two counts); reckless endangerment (two counts); use of a firearm in the commission of a crime of violence; wearing, carrying, and transporting a handgun; attempting to disarm a law enforcement officer; resisting arrest; obstructing and hindering a police officer; second-degree escape; attempted theft; and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Id. at Ex. 9. In August 2013, a jury convicted Sinclair of resisting arrest, obstruction and hindering, and escape. He was acquitted of second-degree assault, attempting to disarm a law enforcement officer, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The remaining charges were nolle prossed. Sinclair was sentenced to three years in jail. Id.

II. Standard of Review

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) authorizes the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The purpose of the rule is to "test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Presley v. City of Charlottesville , 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)). To that end, the court bears in mind the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662 (2009), when considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Specifically, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state "a plausible claim for relief, " as "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678-79; see also Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-00237 , 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (discussing Iqbal and Twombly standard). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 663.

When reviewing a motion to dismiss, "[t]he court may consider documents attached to the complaint, as well as documents attached to the motion to dismiss, if they are integral to the complaint and their authenticity is not disputed." Sposato v. First Mariner Bank, No. CCB-12-1569 , 2013 WL 1308582, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 28, 2013); see also CACI Int'l v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. , 566 F.3d 150, 154 (4th Cir. 2009); Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c) ("A copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes."). Moreover, where the allegations in the complaint conflict with an attached written instrument, "the exhibit prevails." Fayetteville Investors v. Commercial Builders, Inc. , 936 F.2d 1462, 1465 (4th Cir. 1991); see also Azimirad v. HSBC Mortg. Corp., No. DKC-10-2853 , 2011 WL 1375970, at *2-3 (D. Md. Apr. 12, 2011). If the Court considers matters outside the pleadings, as the Court does here, however, the Court must treat the motion as a motion for summary judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); Syncrude Canada Ltd. v. Highland Consulting Grp., Inc. , 916 F.Supp.2d 620, 622-23 (D. Md. 2013).

Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates through "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations..., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, " 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), (c)(1)(A); see also Baldwin v. City of Greensboro , 714 F.3d 828, 833-34 (4th Cir. 2013). When considering cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court must consider "each motion... individually" and view "the facts relevant to each... in the light most favorable to the non-movant." Mellen v. Bunting , 327 F.3d 355, 363 (4th Cir. 2003). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Celotex v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317 (1986). The existence of only a "scintilla of ...

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