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Watson v. City of Aberdeen

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 22, 2016

CITY OF ABERDEEN et al., Defendants.


JAMES K. BREDAR, District Judge.

I. Background

Plaintiff Brandon Watson sued the City of Aberdeen, Maryland, the Aberdeen Police Department, and Aberdeen Police Officers Thaddeus Tomlinson, [1] Raul Forsmark, John Divel, Craig Gentile, and Fredrick Harry Budnick; Watson claimed a violation of his federal civil rights, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, negligent retention and hiring, and violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, Articles 24 and 26. (Compl., ECF No. 2.) The case was removed to this Court (ECF No. 1), and Defendants filed a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 7). The motion was granted in part and denied in part. (ECF No. 14.) The Aberdeen Police Department was dismissed from the case; the City of Aberdeen was dismissed from all counts except Count VIII (claiming violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights); the police officers sued in their official capacities were dismissed from Count I (brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983); and Count VII (claiming negligent hiring and retention) was dismissed. ( Id. ) Later, the Court ruled that Watson had substantially complied with the Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act's notice provision and denied the remaining portion of the motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 22.)

After the parties were afforded a discovery period (ECF No. 19), Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 24 & 25), to which Watson filed his response in opposition (ECF No. 26) and for which Defendants filed their reply (ECF No. 27). No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). The motion will be granted.

II. Standard for Summary Judgment

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant 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); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing predecessor to current Rule 56(a)). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate the absence of any genuine dispute of material fact. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970). If sufficient evidence exists for a reasonable jury to render a verdict in favor of the party opposing the motion, then a genuine dispute of material fact is presented and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). However, the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [opposing party's] position" is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 252. The facts themselves, and the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 230 (4th Cir. 2008), who may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading but instead must, by affidavit or other evidentiary showing, set out specific facts showing a genuine dispute for trial, Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). Supporting and opposing affidavits are to be made on personal knowledge, contain such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and show affirmatively the competence of the affiant to testify to the matters stated in the affidavit. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(4).

III. Facts

Preliminarily, the Court notes that Defendants have provided a detailed statement of facts, supported by citations to evidence (Defs.' Mot. Supp. Mem. 3-11), whereas Watson has merely reiterated the allegations of his complaint with no citations to evidence (Pl.'s Opp'n 3-5). Watson's opposition has thus "rest[ed] upon the mere allegations... of his pleading" and his counsel's arguments. It is not this Court's duty to ferret out specific facts in the record to support Watson's opposition.

Defendants do not contest certain allegations in the complaint setting forth the factual scenario that precipitated this lawsuit, and those uncontested allegations will be cited accordingly; otherwise, citations will be made to specific items of evidence. As noted in Defendants' statement of the facts, a robbery occurred at the Exxon gas station at 7 North Philadelphia Boulevard in Aberdeen, Harford County, Maryland, on January 30, 2014, about 11:40 p.m. Approximately $500 was taken from the cash register. (Compl. ¶ 13.) After removing the money from the cash register, the suspect ran out the same door he entered and ran in the direction of the train station. ( Id. ¶ 14.) The first officer on the scene was Defendant Gentile, followed by Defendant Forsmark. ( Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Gentile reviewed the gas station's surveillance video and provided a description of the suspect to other officers, indicating the suspect was a white or light-skinned black male, wearing dark clothing, a black ski mask, and light-colored or white shoes, but no gloves. ( Id. ¶ 14.) The scene was dusted for fingerprints, but none were recovered. ( Id. ¶ 15.)

Gentile attested that his review of the video at the gas station shortly after the robbery was made difficult by poor quality of the video and/or monitor on which he viewed it; as a result, he had difficulty determining whether the robbery suspect was a white male or a light-skinned black male. (Gentile Aff. ¶ 5, Nov. 3, 2015, Defs.' Mot. Ex. D.) Once Gentile left the scene, he had no further involvement with the investigation of the robbery and he was not present for any of the other events about which Plaintiff has complained in this lawsuit. ( Id. ¶¶ 7-9.) Forsmark authored the incident report, which reflected Gentile's and Forsmark's uncertainty as to whether the suspect was white or black, but which repeated the description as either a white male or light-skinned black male. (Defs.' Mot. Ex. E.) Forsmark spoke to the store employee who was present when the suspect removed the cash from the register as well as the manager who was in the restroom at the time of the robbery. (Forsmark Aff. ¶¶ 8-9, Nov. 8, 2015, Supp. Ex. G, ECF No. 25.) After Forsmark processed the scene, he was no longer involved with the investigation of the robbery and was not present for any of the other events about which Plaintiff has complained. ( Id. )

On February 4, 2014, Defendant Detective Divel went to the gas station and interviewed the employees about the robbery. (Compl. ¶ 17.) He viewed the surveillance video of the robbery and determined that it showed "a short black male, approximately 5'6" tall... wearing dark pants, a dark jacket with a white emblem on the left upper portion of his chest, white sneakers with black trim, and a black ski mask covering his face except for the area around his eyes." (Divel Aff. ¶¶ 3-4, Nov. 4, 2015, Defs.' Mot. Ex. A.) After talking with gas station employees who indicated their belief that the suspect was a regular customer, Divel requested surveillance video footage from two days before to two days after the robbery. ( Id. ¶¶ 5, 7-8.) He obtained the footage and when he was reviewing it, he "observed an African American male, about 5'6" and wearing dark pants and a dark jacket with a white emblem on the upper left side of his chest walk into the Exxon Gas Station on February 2, 2014, three days after the robbery took place." ( Id. ¶ 9.) Divel "recognized the individual as Plaintiff Brandon Watson because of his many prior run-ins with the Aberdeen Police Department. Specifically, Plaintiff had been arrested in the past for burglary and theft." ( Id. ) The station manager verified that this individual was a regular customer. ( Id. ¶ 10.) Divel "noted that Plaintiff's height, build, skin color, and clothing matched the robbery suspect." ( Id. ¶ 11.) At his request, the Aberdeen Police Department produced still photographs from the robbery footage and the February 2, 2014, footage. ( Id. ¶ 12.) He stated,

I compared the two photographs and based on the fact that the suspect and Plaintiff were the same height, same build, same skin color, wore identical clothing, that Plaintiff was familiar with the Exxon Gas Station employees and their habits, and had a long history of prior arrests, including arrests for burglary and theft, I determined that the photos showed the suspect and Plaintiff to be the same person.

( Id. ¶ 13.) Based on his conclusion, Divel applied for an arrest warrant for Plaintiff, which was issued on Feb. 6, 2014. ( Id. ¶ 14; Ex. L.) The warrant cited charges of armed robbery, robbery, assault first degree, assault second degree, and theft less than $1, 000. (Ex. L.) "Just prior to obtaining the warrant for Plaintiff's arrest, [Divel] directed then-Officer Thaddeus Tomlinson to detain Plaintiff in connection with the armed robbery of the Exxon Gas Station if he encountered Plaintiff while on patrol." (Divel Aff. ¶ 15, Nov. 4, 2015, Ex. A.)

In his affidavit, Defendant Tomlinson stated he was patrolling near the vicinity of the Exxon Gas Station on February 6, 2014, at approximately 4:24 p.m., when he saw Watson at the gas station and detained him. (Tomlinson Aff. ¶ 5, Nov. 6, 2015, Ex. N.) Tomlinson stated, "Plaintiff was detained without incident and without any more use of force than was necessary to execute the detention"; further, Watson did not complain of any injuries to Tomlinson or request medical attention. ( Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) Tomlinson transported Watson to the Aberdeen Police Department, and within two hours of the initial detention, Tomlinson executed the arrest warrant and released Watson into the custody of the department's Criminal Investigation Division. ( Id. ¶ 9; Arrest Warrant, Ex. L.) Tomlinson did not further interact with Watson. (Tomlinson Aff. ¶ 10.)

Watson executed an "Explanation of Miranda Warnings" form (Defs.' Mot. Ex. M), but he refused to answer any questions posed to him by Divel. (Divel Aff. ¶¶ 17-18.) After Watson was transported to the Harford County Detention Center, Divel had no further contact with him. ( Id. ¶ 22.) Divel attested that he never entered Watson's holding cell to question him or interact with Watson in any way, that other Aberdeen Police Officers never had to intervene to restrain him or prevent him from striking Watson, and that he never struck Watson or implied or made any motions to imply he was going to strike Watson. ( Id. ¶¶ 19, 20, 21.)

The last Defendant sued, Budnick, attested that, in his position as Lieutenant with the Aberdeen Police Department, he has the responsibility of reviewing and approving incident reports written by departmental police officers. (Budnick Aff. ¶¶ 1-3, Nov. 3, 2015, Ex. Q.) On February 9, 2014, Budnick approved the supplemental incident report written by Divel following Watson's arrest. ( Id. ¶ 4; Ex. B.) Budnick's responsibility did not require him to know the details of an incident, but to look for correct use of grammar and technical terms. (Budnick Aff. ¶ 5.) If Budnick observed that edits, changes, and/or corrections were needed, then he so noted that fact and sent the report back to the reporting officer to change; Budnick could not make edits, changes, and/or ...

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