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Krell v. Queen Anne's County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 3, 2019

QUEEN ANNE'S COUNTY, et al., Defendants.



         This case arises out of the arrest of Edwin Krell ("Plaintiff) and his subsequent confinement at Queen Anne's County Detention Center ("QACDC"). In March 2018, Plaintiff filed a twelve-count complaint alleging federal and state law claims against numerous state and local officials, as well as Queen Anne's County. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) In December 2018, this Court dismissed several of those claims and parties, leaving two sets of defendants: (1) two of the state troopers that arrested Plaintiff, Sergeant Tyson Brice and Trooper First Class Kyle Braightmeyer, and (2) the warden of QACDC, LaMonte Cooke. (Mem. Op. Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 27.)

         Plaintiff brings a variety of federal and state law claims against Brice and Braightmeyer (collectively, "Defendants"). Plaintiff brings three federal causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983: Count I alleges violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, Count II alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, and Count IV-brought only against Braightmeyer- alleges violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Plaintiff also brings two claims under the Maryland Declaration of Rights: Count VI alleges violations of Articles 24 and 26, and Count VII alleges violations of Articles 16 and 25. Plaintiff also brings numerous state law claims: Count IX alleges negligence, Count X alleges gross negligence, Count XI alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"), and Count XII-brought only against Braightmeyer-alleges state law battery. (Compl. ¶ 61-169.)

         Discovery has been completed, and Defendants move to dismiss or for summary judgment on all claims.[1] (M.S.J., ECF No. 58.) The motions have been fully briefed. No. hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant this motion in part and deny it in part.[2]

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff was arrested in his home for a felony drug offense on March 3, 2015. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 2, M.S.J. Ex. 8, ECF No. 58-10.) The arrest was made pursuant to an arrest warrant. (M.S.J. Ex. 3, ECF No. 58-6.) Two of the officers involved in executing the warrant were Tyson Brice and Kyle Braightmeyer. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 2; Brice Decl. ¶ 2, M.S.J. Ex. 9, ECF 58-11.) Plaintiffs partner, Paul Ellwood, was present at the time and was also arrested. (Ellwood Depo. 14:12-18, 28:10-13, Opp'n Mem. Ex. E, ECF No. 65-5.)

         The crux of Plaintiffs allegations are as follows: upon entering Plaintiffs home, Braightmeyer tackled him and pushed his head into the ground with enough force to break the floor tile. (Krell Depo. 120:11-17, Opp'n Mem. Ex. B, ECF No. 66-2.) Braightmeyer then handcuffed Plaintiff behind his back and lifted him off the floor by the handcuffs. (Id. 126:18-19.) Plaintiff told Defendants that he had previous shoulder problems and was in severe pain, and asked that they move the handcuffs to his front. (Id. 126:2-11.) Braightmeyer refused and said "F this faggot... I'm sticking to protocol." (Id. 130:11-18.) Despite Plaintiff s pleas for medical help, Defendants refused to render any aid. (Id., 147:5-14.) Defendants' use of force during the arrest ultimately caused Plaintiff to need surgery to repair a ruptured subscapularis tendon and a torn rotator cuff. (Opp'n Mem. at 12, ECF No. 65; Opp'n Mem. Ex. J, ECF No. 65-6.)

         Defendants dispute virtually every aspect of this account. Defendants deny Braightmeyer ever pushed Plaintiffs head into the ground. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 7; Brice Decl. ¶ 6). Defendants deny Braightmeyer used any excessive force when handcuffing Plaintiff. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 7; Brice Decl. ¶ 6.) Defendants deny Braightmeyer ever used a homophobic slur. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 8; Brice Decl. ¶ 9.) Defendants contend they did move Plaintiffs handcuffs to the front when he requested. (Braightmeyer Decl. ¶ 9; Brice Decl. ¶ 7.) Defendants contend that Plaintiffs shoulder injury predated his arrest and they did not cause or exacerbate any of Plaintiff s injuries. (M.S.J. Ex. 6 at 6, ECF No. 59.)

         Despite these divergent narratives about the course of events on March 3, 2015, Defendants contend there are no genuine disputes of material fact, and they move for summary judgment on each claim.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         "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 moving party bears the burden of demonstrating 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 non-moving party, then a genuine dispute of material fact exists, and summary judgment should be denied. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). But, the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position" is insufficient. Id. at 252.

         Where a genuine dispute exists, the facts and inferences derived therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2009). "Where the determination of what actually happened depends on an assessment of the credibility of the [parties'] respective witnesses, 'this assessment is a disputed issue of fact that cannot be resolved on summary judgment.'" Zoroastrian Or. & Darb-E-Mehr of Metro. Wash, B.C. v. Rustam Guiv Found. of N.Y., 822 F.3d 739, 751 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Rainey v. Conerly, 973 F.2d 321, 324 (4th Cir. 1992)).

         In this case, it is Defendants' burden to show they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law, but Plaintiff has the burden of persuasion in establishing his claims. This means that the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, but Plaintiff still must present enough evidence to show there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial.

         III. Analysis

         A. The Excessive Force Claims

         There are three excessive force claims pending against Defendants: Count II alleges a violation of the Fourth Amendment, Count VI alleges a violation of Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and Count XII-alleged only against Braightmeyer-alleges state law battery.[3] These claims rise and fall together, as the state law and state constitutional claims parallel the Fourth Amendment claim. Hines v. French, 852 A.2d 1047, 1069 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2004) ("The standards for analyzing claims of excessive force are the same under Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Constitution as that under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution."); Rowland v. Perry, 41 F.3d 167, 174 (4th Cir. 1994) (explaining that a state law battery claim is subsumed within a federal claim for excessive use of force).

         A claim of excessive force during an arrest is "properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's 'objective reasonableness' standard." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 388 (1989). The right to make a stop or arrest necessarily involves the right to use some degree of physical force so "[t]he question is whether the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation." Id. at 396-97. A court analyzes several factors to determine objective reasonableness, including "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. "The extent of the plaintiffs injury is also a relevant consideration." Bailey v. Kennedy, 349 F.3d 731, 743 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Jones v. Buchanan, 325 F.3d 520, 527 (4th Cir. 2003)).

         To prevail on an excessive force claim, a plaintiff must also establish causation between the force alleged and the plaintiffs injury. Evans v. Chalmers, 703 F.3d 636, 647 (4th Cir. 2012) ("Of course, constitutional torts, like their common law brethren, require a demonstration of both but-for and proximate causation."); Estate of Anthony Anderson v. Strohman, Civ. No. GLR-13-3167, 2016 WL 4013638, at *10 (D. Md. July 27, 2016) (granting defendants summary judgment where Plaintiff failed to establish defendants' use of excessive force was the actual cause of Plaintiffs death). "Court[s] look[] to state law to determine what is required to show [causation]." Estate of Anthony Anderson, 2016 WL 4013638, at *10.

         Under Maryland law, expert testimony is not required to establish causation where the plaintiffs injury falls into one of the three Wilhelm categories; (1) the injury develops "coincidentally with" or within a "reasonable time after" the alleged act; (2) the proof of causation is "clearly apparent" from the nature and circumstances of the injury; or (3) the "cause of the injury relates to matters of common experience, knowledge, or observation of laymen," Wilhelm v. State Traffic Safety Comm'n, 185 A.2d 715, 719 (Md. 1962). But "[w]hen a complicated issue of medical causation arises, expert testimony is almost always required." Giant Food, Inc. v. Booker, 831 A.2d 481, 488 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2003).

         "Complicated medical questions" can arise when the plaintiff has a pre-existing chronic injury that "cloud[s] causation." Wiseman v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Civ. No. SAG-16-04030, 2017 WL 4162238, at *2-3 (D. Md. Sept. 19, 2017) (requiring expert testimony where a plaintiff had chronic shoulder and knee problems prior to the fall that allegedly worsened them); see also Am. Airlines Corp. v. Stokes, 707 A.2d412, 419 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1998) (requiring expert testimony where the plaintiff "had a long history of chronic back problems that presented a far more likely explanation for his ultimate" back injury than the incident alleged). The purpose behind requiring proof of causation is "to guard against raw speculation by the fact-finder." Sakaria v. Trans World Airlines, 8 F.3d 164, 172-7.3 (4th Cir. 1993).

         Plaintiff alleges two instances of excessive force that resulted in two different injuries. The first involves Braightmeyer allegedly pulling Plaintiff up off the floor by the handcuffs and then subsequently refusing to move Plaintiffs handcuffs to his front. (Krell Depo. 126:2-19.) Plaintiff alleges this resulted in shoulder injuries that needed surgical repair. (Opp'n Mem. at 12.) The second involves Braightmeyer allegedly slamming Plaintiff's face into the ground with enough force that his face broke the floor tiles. (Krell Depo. 120:11-17.) Plaintiff alleges this resulted in facial lacerations. (Id. 121:14-16, ) The Court addresses each injury in turn.

         1. The Shoulder Injury

         Defendants contend that Plaintiffs excessive force claims related to his shoulder injury fail as a matter of law because Plaintiff has not produced a medical expert to testify to causation between the force alleged and Plaintiffs shoulder injury. (M.S.J. Mem, Supp. at 16-17.) An expert is required, Defendants argue, because Plaintiffs "serious pre-existing injuries" complicate the causation analysis and "the parsing out of pre-existing injuries is not something in the purview of the normal [juror]."[4] (Id.)

         The Court agrees. Plaintiff had extensive shoulder damage at the time of his arrest. A summary of his medical records reveals that between 2000-2015, Plaintiff had more than 100 documented visits to the emergency room related to his shoulder. (M.S.J. Ex. 7.) Most of these visits involved shoulder dislocations. (Id.) During one visit, Plaintiffs shoulder dislocated and was reduced a total of eight times. (Id. at 7.) Medical personnel consistently informed Plaintiff that his shoulder needed to be surgically repaired or the shoulder pain and dislocations would continue. (Id.) Plaintiff acknowledged this, but stated he was unable to follow up with an orthopedic surgeon because he lacked medical insurance. (Krell Depo. 245:3-6.)

         In light of this history, Plaintiffs evidence that Defendants' conduct caused his shoulder injuries is inadequate. For example, Plaintiffs testimony that he was in pain during his arrest (id. 107:9-10), and Ellwood's corroboration of this (Ellwood Depo. 67:5), do not establish that Plaintiff suffered new injuries during his arrest or that Braightmeyer's use of force permanently exacerbated his existing ones. Similarly, the shoulder surgery he received five months later sheds no light on whether Plaintiffs ruptured subscapularis tendon and torn rotator cuff predated his arrest or arose as a result of it (Opp'n Mem. Ex. J.) His medical records suggest a strong possibility the former is true. Accordingly, none of the three Wilhelm categories are implicated here: it is not clear that his injury developed "coincidentally with" Defendants' use of force, causation is not "clearly apparent" from the nature of his injury, and the cause of his injury does not relate to the "common experience, knowledge, or observation of laymen." See Wilhelm, 185 A.2d at 719.

         In short, the issue of causation here is a "complicated medical question" for which expert testimony is required. See Giant Food, 831 A.2d at 488. Because Plaintiff has produced no such testimony, Plaintiff's excessive force claims fail as a matter of law to the extent they allege any shoulder injuries.

         2. The Facial Injuries

         Plaintiff s alleged facial injuries are another matter. Neither party contends these injuries involve a "complicated medical question" of causation that would necessitate expert testimony. Therefore, the issue is whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Defendants used the amount of force alleged, and if so, whether that force was reasonable.

         Plaintiff asserts that he obtained facial lacerations when, during his arrest, Braightmeyer tackled him and forcefully pushed his head into the ground. (Krell Depo. 120:11-21.) The whole incident took approximately "ten seconds," but the force was allegedly sufficient to break the tiles and cause Plaintiffs face to be "a little scratched up." (Id. 121:6-15.) Plaintiff contends that he did not resist being handcuffed and was wearing only boxer shorts at the time. (Id. 120:12-21; Braightmeyer Decl. ΒΆ 5.) Ellwood was not in the room when the incident occurred, but saw Plaintiff immediately ...

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