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Sherrill v. Cunningham

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 14, 2019




         Plaintiff Talatha Sherrill filed suit against Defendants Deputy Joseph Cunningham and Corporal Jonathan Pristash, officers of the Cecil County Sheriffs Office, alleging they subjected her to an unlawful search and seizure and used excessive force during an arrest in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Sherrill also brings state law claims for negligence, gross negligence, malicious prosecution, and battery. Now pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 50). No hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Shortly after 8:00 p.m. on January 14, 2016, Sherrill was driving her Chevy Cruze in Cecil County, Maryland after leaving a client's home on Old Schoolhouse Drive. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 139- 40, ECF No. 50-3; Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 37, ECF No. 56-3.) Sherrill, a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor, stands at four feet six inches tall and weighs about one hundred thirty pounds. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 10, Ex. 8 at 1, ECF No 56-8.) Deputy Cunningham testified that around the same time, an undercover officer in the area of the Schoolhouse Apartments near Old Schoolhouse Drive radioed that a silver Chevy Cruze was "traveling at a high rate of speed coming out of the apartments." (M.S.J. Ex. D at 16, ECF No. 50-6.) Deputy Cunningham testified that the Schoolhouse Apartments were a "[h]igh crime, high drug area." (Id. at 17.) Deputy Cunningham was on patrol nearby, and he saw the silver Chevy Cruze when it drove past him. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 28-31.) He testified that the speed limit was 50 miles per hour and the car appeared to be speeding. (Id. at 30-31.) Deputy Cunningham then "paced" the vehicle by driving behind it and determined it was moving at 69 miles per hour. (Id. at 31.) Sherrill, however, testified that she was only driving "about 50 [miles per hour]... No more than 55." (Id. at 143.) Sherrill did not recall the speed limit in the area, testifying, "I don't even remember. I want to say it was 55, but I don't really recall." (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 33.)

         Deputy Cunningham pulled onto the road and activated his emergency lights in order to make the traffic stop. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 32-34.) After Sherrill pulled over, Deputy Cunningham approached her vehicle. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 41-42.) At this point, the stories diverge. Sherrill testified that she had her license and registration in her hand and had partially rolled her window down. (Id. at 44-45.) She testified that she attempted to hand Deputy Cunningham these documents through the window, but "[h]e pushed [her] hand back in and said roll your fucking window down." (Id. at 45.) She testified that she said her window was down, and that he repeated his expletive-filled demand, (Id.) She testified that she asked if he could call for backup, and he responded, "Negative." (Id.) She said he seemed "irate" and was "screaming and yelling" at her. (M.S. J. Ex. A at 148.) She testified that she asked if they could go to a "lit area," and that he responded, "'You are not going anywhere. Get out of the car. I said get out of the F-ing car.'" (Id.) At this point, Sherrill testified that he began to put on gloves and pulled out a tool which she assumed he would use to break her window. (Id. at 148-49.) She said she was "pretty much scared for [her] life." (Id. at 150.) She testified that she was on a "dark road" with "no street lights," so she decided to drive toward a Royal Farms where there would be "witnesses." (Id. at 150.)

         Deputy Cunningham denies this characterization of their interaction. He testified that he introduced himself and identified himself as part of the Cecil County Sheriffs Office without using the expletive Sherrill alleged he used. (Id. at 42, 231-32.) He also testified that Sherrill never tried to hand him her license and registration through the window. (M.S. J. Ex. D at 53.) After Sherrill refused to roll her window down, he testified that he ordered her to step out of the vehicle twice and that she refused to do so. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 42.) At this point, he testified that he told her "if she refused to do so, [he] would be forced to break the window and extricate [or extract] her from the vehicle." (Id. at 42.) Deputy Cunningham testified that Sherrill said no and "sped off." (Id.) He then "radioed to dispatch that the vehicle had fled from the traffic stop," activated his siren, observed Sherrill fail to stop at a stop sign, and began following Sherrill. (Id. at 43.) He said he saw Sherrill "cross the double center line multiple times" and cross the white line onto the shoulder. (Id. at 44.) He once again paced his vehicle with Sherrill's vehicle and determined she was driving at 60 miles per hour where the speed limit was 40 miles per hour. (Id. at 45.) Sherrill testified that during this time she was driving 47 miles per hour because she thought Deputy Cunningham would hit her car and that she did stop at the stop sign before continuing toward the Royal Farms. (Id. at 149-50.)

         Corporal Pristash testified that he was at the Royal Farms when he heard Deputy Cunningham call out that a vehicle had just fled a traffic stop, and he soon saw that vehicle heading in his direction. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 209-11.) Corporal Pristash attempted to do a U-turn to follow Sherrill's vehicle, but when Sherrill's vehicle came close, both vehicles stopped to avoid hitting each other. (M.S.J. Ex. C at 18, ECF No. 50-5.)

         The parties agree that Sherrill was subsequently removed from her vehicle and placed face down on the ground, but they dispute the way in which this occurred. Sherrill testified that before she was pulled out of her vehicle, she heard Corporal Pristash say, '"Get out of the car, get out of the car. What the 'F' is wrong with you. What's wrong with you. What's wrong with you."' (M.S.J Ex. A at 152.) She continued, "And I am like, okay, and I had my arms up. I had my hands up so they could be seen, because I knew that, you know, you just need to let the officer see your hands. He yanked me out. Threw me on the ground. He had a gun in his hand ..." (Id.) Sherrill testified that after she stopped her vehicle, "before I get my car put in park[], barely" Corporal Pristash "yanked open my door." (M.S.J. Ex. B at 57, ECF No. 50-4.) When asked whether Corporal Pristash had given any commands before he "put[] his hand on the door handle" of her vehicle, Sherrill responded, "No, I got no commands." (Id. at 58.)

         Sherill testified that she was pulled from the car "with such force that [her] hood actually was ripped in half." (M.S.J. Ex. A at 180.) She testified she was "thrown immediately to the ground in the middle of the street. [Her] glasses flew off. [Her] earrings, [her] wedding ring flew off." (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 60.) She explained, "[Her] face was smashed to the ground almost like a rubbing in... There was someone with a knee in [her] back, and Cunningham was trying to arrest [her]." (Id. at 58.) She testified that she "went down with such force that [she] had bruises on [her] face," and that her face was "burning" and she was picking gravel and glass out of her face in the ambulance later that night. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 182.) She also testified that as Cunningham was attempting to put the handcuffs on her, "he twisted and twisted and twisted" her arm even though she "kept saying, 'My arm, my arm, my arm.'" (Id. at 153-54.)

         The officers, however, testified that the interaction progressed quite differently. Corporal Pristash testified that he never used any expletives in his interaction with Sherrill. (Id. at 219.) According to the officers, Corporal Pristash gave multiple demands for Sherrill to show her hands and exit the vehicle, but Sherrill did not comply. (Id. at 219-220; M.S.J. Ex. C at 19.) Corporal Pristash testified that he "grabbed her by her coat and started to pull her out of the vehicle." (M.S. J. Ex. A at 221.) Deputy Cunningham then approached the vehicle and "grabbed" Sherrill's coat on her right and "assisted in lowering the subject to the ground." (Id. at 48.) Deputy Cunningham testified that she was placed on the ground gently, "with the least amount of force necessary." (M.S.J. Ex. D at 73-74.)

         Corporal Pristash and Deputy Cunningham testified that Sherrill's hands were under her abdomen when she was lowered to the ground. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 48, 226.) Deputy Cunningham testified that they "ordered the suspect to put her hands behind her back multiple times. She continued to resist." (Id. at 48.) Corporal Pristash grabbed Sherrill's left side and Deputy Cunningham pulled on Sherrill's right side "to get her hands out from underneath of her." (Id.) Deputy Cunningham explained, "[a]s I got the subject's hands out from underneath her torso, utilizing a wrist manipulation, I maneuvered her arm behind her back and we proceeded to place her in handcuffs." (Id. at 49.) Sherrill, however, testified that she never placed her hands under her stomach. (Id. at 182.)

         After Sherrill was arrested, Deputy Cunningham searched Sherrill's vehicle. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex 4 at 185, ECF No. 56-4.) Deputy Cunningham testified that officers in his unit completed an inventory search for every vehicle prior to towing while it is still on the scene in order to record whether any valuables are present. (M.S.J. Ex. D at 93-94, Ex. H at 1, ECF No. 50-14.) Corporal Pristash testified that he was not involved in the vehicle search, (M.S.J. Ex. A at 224), but Sherrill testified that he was involved in the search, as were up to 15 other officers, (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 69-70). Sherrill testified that her Christmas bags were dumped out and the contents were left all over her trunk and car, (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 4 at 158.)

         At some point after her arrest, Sergeant Walmsley came to the scene to supervise. (M.S.J. Ex. A. at 51.) After Sherrill was arrested, she told the officers that she was afraid of the police and that her right arm was in pain. (M.S.J, Ex. A at 49-50.) Sherrill was then taken to the hospital, and after an X-ray she was diagnosed with a sprained elbow. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 3 at 79.) The only medical attention that she received at the hospital was an X-Ray. (M.S.J. Ex. A at 184.) After being released from the hospital, Sherrill saw another doctor who found that her right elbow was fractured. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex. 6, ECF No. 56-6.)

         Sherrill was later convicted in the District Court of Maryland for Cecil County for the misdemeanor of obstructing and hindering, as well as several traffic offenses, including eluding police, failure to obey traffic instructions, and failure to drive right of center. (M.S.J. Ex. M at 1, 5, 7, 12, ECF No. 50-19.) Sherrill appealed this conviction, and the State entered a nolle prosequi to all charges. (Opp'n M.S.J. Ex 8 at 1-2.) At the time of the appeal, the Defendants were unavailable because they were on leave, (M.S.J. Ex. G at 4, ECF No. 50-13, Ex. H at 5.), and the State's Attorney said that the reason for the nolle prosequi was the Defendants' unavailability, (M.S.J. Ex. N at 2-3, ECF No. 50-20).

         II. Motion for Summary Judgment

         The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on Sherrill's claims. Sherrill filed an opposition to that motion, but specifically stated that she did not contest the Defendants' motion as it related to her malicious prosecution claim and her claim that the arrest after the second stop was unlawful. (Opp'n M.S.J. Mem. at 2 n.1, ECF No. 56.) The Court will now address the Defendants' motion.

         a. 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 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, Lnc,477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). 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). Still, the opposing party must present those facts and cannot rest on denials. The opposing party must set forth specific facts, ...

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