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Crouse v. Town of Moncks Corner

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 15, 2017

RICHARD CROUSE; GEORGE T. WINNINGHAM, Plaintiffs - Appellants,
v.
TOWN OF MONCKS CORNER; JAMES CHAD CALDWELL, Chief of Police, Moncks Corner Police Department, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: December 7, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Charleston. C. Weston Houck, Senior District Judge. (2:14-cv-00438-CWH)

         ARGUED:

          Shon Robert Hopwood, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

          Christopher Wofford Johnson, GIGNILLIAT, SAVITZ & BETTIS, L.L.P., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Steven H. Goldblatt, Appellate Litigation Program, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER, Washington, D.C.; Marybeth Mullaney, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina; Jennifer Munter Stark, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, for Appellants.

          Derwood L. Aydlette, III, GIGNILLIAT, SAVITZ & BETTIS, L.L.P., Columbia, South Carolina, for Appellees.

          Before WILKINSON, MOTZ, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

         Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Wilkinson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Floyd joined. Judge Motz wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

          WILKINSON, Circuit Judge.

         Appellants are two police officers who appeal their dismissal from the force, claiming that it was in retaliation for the exercise of their First Amendment rights. The district court granted qualified immunity to the police chief on the ground that it was unclear whether the officers had acted as private citizens or government employees. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment.

         I.

         Plaintiffs Richard Crouse and George Winningham were detectives in the Moncks Corner Police Department until they were forced to resign in October 2013. Winningham was a corporal, and he reported directly to Crouse, a sergeant. Crouse, in turn, reported to Lieutenant Michael Roach. Roach's supervisors were Captain Mark Murray and, in charge of the entire department, Chief Chad Caldwell.

         Crouse and Winningham had "good" relationships with Roach when they began to work for him, but those relationships deteriorated over time. J.A. 980, 1091. Crouse and Winningham complained about Roach's management style, his treatment of criminal suspects, and his showing the officers inappropriate pictures. Chief Caldwell agreed that Roach could be "argumentative" and "abrasive." J.A. 608. Another officer described Roach as "aggressive, " but she felt that his approach as a detective "tend[ed] to work." J.A. 1323. Crouse discussed his complaints about Roach with both Captain Murray and Chief Caldwell, but until October 2013, these complaints did not include accusations of excessive use of force.[1]

         The sequence of events leading to Crouse's and Winningham's resignations began with the arrest of James Berkeley on October 4, 2013. Berkeley had fallen asleep in his car in a Wal-Mart parking lot after taking the wrong medication. His three sons in the car could not wake him and alerted Wal-Mart security, who called the police. Roach was the first to arrive on the scene. Berkeley claims that Roach pulled him from the car and threw him to the ground, while Roach says that he pulled Berkeley out of the car to wake him up. A second Moncks Corner police officer, Shawnda Winder, arrived to find Berkeley standing outside of his car arguing with Roach. While she did not see the initial encounter, Winder felt that Roach was being rude to Berkeley and making the situation more difficult.

         Roach and Winder learned that Berkeley had an outstanding arrest warrant and placed him under arrest in the back of Winder's patrol car. While Berkeley was in the patrol car, he and Roach began to argue again. Roach tried to shut the car door, but Berkeley's leg prevented it from closing. Roach tried to shut the door again and then used a knee strike to try to force Berkeley's leg into the car. Berkeley claims the knee strike hit his groin, while Roach claims the strike was to Berkeley's outer thigh. After the knee strike, Berkeley jumped out of the patrol car. Roach and Winder tried to push Berkeley back into the patrol car. Another officer on the scene, Officer Dozier, was able to force Berkeley onto the ground. Roach and Dozier held Berkeley down, and Roach threatened to use his Taser if Berkeley resisted further. Berkeley calmed down, and Dozier and Winder helped him back into the patrol car.

         Crouse and Winningham learned about this incident the following Monday, October 7, 2013. That morning, another officer told Crouse and Winningham that he had heard that Roach had "kneed Mr. Berkeley in the" groin. J.A. 1116. Crouse and Winningham read the incident report and viewed pictures of Berkeley's injuries. Crouse discussed his concerns about the incident with Captain Murray.

         The next day, Crouse and Winningham decided to talk to Berkeley. During their lunch, Crouse and Winningham drove to Berkeley's house. They were in plainclothes and driving an unmarked car, but their guns and badges were visible. After a few minutes sitting outside the house, they saw Berkeley and initiated a conversation with him. Crouse and Winningham encouraged him to file a complaint about Roach. They told him that other officers supported his version of the story, and Winningham suggested that Berkeley get an attorney. Crouse also handed Berkeley a form that the police department prepared for citizens to submit complaints about police officers. These forms were freely available in the police station and were distributed by clerical staff and police officers.

         Crouse and Winningham made several efforts to conceal their visit to Berkeley. Crouse used a separate piece of paper to hold the citizen complaint form, ensuring that his fingers never touched the form that he gave to Berkeley. Crouse told Berkeley to pretend not to recognize the officers if they saw each other in the police station. After they left, the two officers initially agreed to say that Berkeley had flagged them down but ultimately decided to tell the truth if they were questioned.

         Despite the officers' entreaties to Berkeley not to discuss their visit, he spoke with Officer Winder that day. He told her that a Moncks Corner police officer had encouraged him to sue Roach and the Moncks Corner Police Department. Winder informed Chief Caldwell, who assigned Lieutenant Mark Fields to investigate the entire incident-both Berkeley's claim of excessive use of force and the visit by the mysterious officers.

         Fields began his investigation by reviewing the incident report and interviewing some of the officers who were present at Berkeley's arrest. On October 15, 2013, Fields interviewed Berkeley about both his arrest and the officers who had come by his house. Based on Berkeley's physical ...


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