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Schuerholz v. Coker

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 31, 2016



          William M. Nickerson Senior United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendant Officers Eugene Coker and Ricardo Cabreja. ECF No. 61. The motion is fully briefed. Upon review of the motion and the applicable case law, the Court determines that no hearing is necessary, Local Rule 105.6, and that the motion must be granted.

         This case arises out of an incident that occurred late in the evening of August 25, 2013, in Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood. Plaintiff's account and Defendants' account of the incident differ as to many of the details, but the parties do agree as to the following. Plaintiff and a male friend, Jeffery Machiran, took a taxi cab from a Fells Point bar where they had been drinking and socializing with friends but discovered at some point that they did not have any means by which to pay the cab driver. Defendants Coker and Cabreja, who are Baltimore City Police Officers, were summoned to the scene and, by the end of their encounter with the couple, Plaintiff and Mr. Machiran were arrested for “Disorderly Conduct” and “Theft, Less than $100.”

         Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City alleging that, in the course of her arrest, Officers Coker and Cabreja utilized excessive force which caused her “severe physical and emotional trauma that continues to this date.” Compl. ¶ 14 (ECF No. 2). She alleges that her injuries “include, but are not limited to seven broken ribs, a collapsed lung, contusions, anxiety, emotional distress, etc.” Id. As causes of action, she asserted claims of battery (Count 1); violations of Articles 16, 19, and 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (Count 2); negligence (Count 3); and violations of the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, those claims being brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count 4). In addition to Officers Coker and Cabreja, Plaintiff named as Defendants the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (City) and the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD).

         After the case was removed to this Court, Plaintiff filed a motion to remand and Defendants City and BPD filed motions to dismiss. On October 22, 2015, this Court issued a Memorandum and Order denying the motion to remand and granting the motions to dismiss.[1] ECF No. 31. The City's motion was granted on the ground that the BPD is an agency of the State of Maryland, and not the City, and therefore the City has no liability based upon the conduct of officers of the BPD. The BPD's motion was granted as to all of the Maryland state law claims on the ground that, as a State agency, it has sovereign immunity against those claims. As to the federal constitutional claims, the Court granted the motion after noting that there were no facts alleged from which it could be concluded that the Officers' actions were pursuant to any policy or custom of the BPD. The Court also noted that the Complaint stated no plausible Eighth Amendment claim as that amendment is only applicable to convicted and sentenced prisoners. By that same reasoning, the Court dismissed Count 4 as to the Officers to the extent the claim in that count was premised on the Eighth Amendment.

         After the discovery deadline passed, Defendant Officers filed the pending Motion for Summary Judgment. Their motion is well supported with admissible evidence, including: a recording of the 911 call; Plaintiff's discovery responses; medical records; affidavits from both Defendants; the Statement of Probable Cause for her arrest; and, perhaps of most significance, the transcript of Plaintiff's deposition in which Plaintiff made and was then confronted with numerous material inconsistencies in her testimony. This evidence submitted by Defendant Officers details the following series of events.

         At approximately 11:17 p.m. on the evening of August 25, 2013, the BPD received a 911 call from cab driver Rupert Campbell. Mot., Ex. E (audio file of 911 call). In that call, Mr. Campbell complained that two passengers, later identified as Plaintiff and Mr. Machiran, after having used his cab “as a hotel, ”[2] were refusing to pay his fare. Mr. Campbell also stated that Mr. Machiran was making insulting comments and, during the course of the call, an individual is heard arguing with Mr. Campbell in the background. Id. From the content of the exchange, that individual was clearly Mr. Machiran.

         In response to the 911 call, Officer Coker arrived at the Royal Farms store located at the corner of Dean Street and Fleet Street and spoke with Mr. Campbell. Coker Aff. ¶¶ 2, 3 (ECF No. 61-8). Mr. Campbell reported that the couple had incurred a $13 fare which they were refusing to pay. Id. ¶ 5. A witness at the scene, Phillip Atwood, confirmed that the couple had refused to pay their fare and had given Mr. Campbell difficulty. Id. ¶ 6. Mr. Campbell then pointed in the direction of the 600 block of South Dean Street where Plaintiff and Mr. Machiran had drifted on foot and where they had been engaging in sexual activity for the last five minutes. Id. ¶ 7. Officer Coker then drove his marked police car to that location, which was about a block away. Officer Coker approached the couple and observed Mr. Machiran with his head under Plaintiff's dress and heard Plaintiff making sounds consistent with sexual stimulation. Id. ¶¶ 9, 10. Officer Coker announced his presence as “Baltimore Police” and Mr. Machiran removed his head from under Plaintiff's dress. Id. ¶ 11.

         Officer Cabreja arrived at the scene about that time. From the couple's slurred speech and potent body odor, Officers Coker and Cabreja quickly concluded that both Plaintiff and Mr. Machiran were intoxicated. Id. ¶ 14. They explained that they were responding to the cab driver's complaint about the unpaid fare. Mr. Machiran initially argued with the Officers but eventually agreed to go with Officer Cabreja to the ATM in the Royal Farms store to retrieve some cash to pay the fare. Once there, however, Mr. Machiran claimed that he did not have an ATM or debit card with which to retrieve any cash. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. Officer Cabreja returned with Mr. Machiran to where Officer Coker was waiting with Plaintiff.

         The Officers continued their attempt to persuade the couple to pay their cab fare but Mr. Machiran responded with a profanity-laced tirade as to why he felt he did not need to pay Mr. Campbell the cab fare, including his making disparaging comments regarding Mr. Campbell's nationality. Id. ¶¶ 19, 20. Mr. Machiran and Plaintiff also became increasing loud and boisterous despite the Officers' attempts to persuade them to lower their voices. When the couple refused to adjust their behavior, Officer Coker placed them in handcuffs. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24. Concerned that the couples' continued disruptive and loud behavior was disturbing this residential neighborhood, the Officers moved them closer to the Royal Farms store while awaiting the transport wagon to take them to the Central Booking Intake Facility.

         While waiting for that transport, “[o]n several occasions, Plaintiff attempted to rise to her feet. Each time, [Officer Coker] returned Plaintiff to a seated position.” Id. ¶ 28. This continued for approximately ten minutes as Plaintiff continued to yell out and try to get up. Cabreja Aff. ¶ 19 (ECF No. 61-10). When the transport arrived, the Officers had to physically lift and force the Couple into the transport vehicle. Id. ¶ 21. Mr. Campbell was never paid for his services. The subsequent charges against Plaintiff of “Disorderly Conduct” and “Theft, Less than $100” that arose from this incident were eventually nol prossed in exchange for Plaintiff's agreement to do 25 hours of community service. Eastside District Court Record (ECF No. 61-11).

         In moving for summary judgment, Defendant Officers make the following legal arguments. Defendants argue that all claims against Officer Cabreja must be dismissed because Plaintiff stated in her deposition that it was Officer Coker who assaulted her but made no similar claim against Officer Cabreja. Pl.'s Dep. 134-35 (ECF No. 67-3). Defendants argue that the claim of battery against Officer Coker should be dismissed as well because police officers “‘have the right to take reasonably necessary measures to make the arrest in a manner that protects both the public and themselves, '” and “‘[i]n doing so, they may use some degree of force.'” ECF No. 61-1 (quoting Tavakoli-Nouri v. State, 779 A.2d 992, 1001 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2001)). In light of the couple's continued disruptive behavior and Plaintiff's continued efforts to stand up after she was instructed to remain seated, Defendants contend that the limited force applied was reasonable.

         In arguing that Plaintiff's claims under the Maryland Declaration of Rights must be dismissed, Defendant Officers highlight the somewhat careless pleading of Plaintiff's counsel. The Complaint invokes Article 16 which relates to capital punishment and cruel and unusual punishment which obviously has no relation to this action. Complaint also invokes Article 19 which relates to the right to a speedy trial, again, a provision that is irrelevant to this action. Similarly, Plaintiff's counsel included a claim under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution that could have no possible relation to this case. The Eighth Amendment addresses excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. Plaintiff's counsel conceded in the Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment that these claims should be dismissed. ECF No. 67-1 at 10.[3]

         Plaintiff's negligence claim is also at odds with the allegations in the Complaint. It has long been established that negligence is not an intentional tort but, instead, arises where an individual's unintentional failure to use reasonable care results in injury to another. Adams v. Carey, 190 A. 815, 821 (Md. 1937) (noting that "the absence of intent is essential to the legal conception of negligence"). Here, Plaintiff is clearly alleging intentional conduct. While there is a narrow exception to the unintentional rule where an intentional act causes ...

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