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Mitchell v. Rountree

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 30, 2018

BARRY ROUNTREE, et al., Defendants.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge

         This § 1983 action comes before the Court on a Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #67] filed by Defendants Barry Rountree, P.T. Watkins, H. Bowen, J.M. Tuttle, and B.A. George, all of whom are employees of the Winston-Salem Police Department. In addition, Plaintiff Justin Randolph Mitchell, who is proceeding pro se, has filed a Motion [Doc. #92] to impose sanctions against Defendants for providing false statements. For the reasons set out below, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and the Court will recommend that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment be granted and that this case be dismissed.


         Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate indifference, excessive force, and “being deprived of my Constitutional Rights, ” and also brings a claim under state law for assault and battery, all arising out of “the process of me being taken into custody by Winston-Salem Detectives/SWAT members” on May 17, 2016. (Amended Complaint [Doc. #26] at 1.)[1] According to the Amended Complaint, on May 12, 2016, four detectives were trying to locate Plaintiff and attempted to search Plaintiff's father's residence but were denied permission. On May 16, 2016, two detectives questioned Plaintiff at his place of business and requested permission to search his girlfriend's car, but were denied permission. Plaintiff accompanied the detectives to the police station where he was questioned. Plaintiff contends that officers confiscated his cell phone and denied his request to speak to a lawyer. (Id. at 5-6.) Plaintiff was allowed to leave, but the next day, on May 17, 2016, Plaintiff saw detectives around his girlfriend's apartment, assumed that they were coming to arrest him, and decided to hide in the ceiling of his girlfriend's apartment. Officers approached the apartment, and while the officers were present, Plaintiff fell through the ceiling, striking a coffee table below. Plaintiff contends that he was handcuffed, his head was“slammed . . [onto] the kitchen counter, ” and his requests for medical attention were ignored. (Id. at 6-7.)[2]

         In support of their motion for summary judgment, Defendants submit the declarations of Julie Carter, Assistant Risk Manager for the City of Winston-Salem, Defendant George, Defendant Rountree, and Defendant Watkins, along with the deposition testimony of Plaintiff. Defendants explain that the Winston-Salem Police Department was investigating a series of robberies, including an armed robbery that occurred during the morning of May 14, 2016, and that Detective Watkins received an email with images from a security camera and believed that one of the suspects looked liked Plaintiff. (Watkins Aff. [Doc. #68-4] ¶ 4 and Ex. A.) Plaintiff was interviewed on May 16, 2016, and admitted to participating in the robbery. (Id. ¶ 5-6.) Officers obtained a warrant for his arrest. (Id.) The next day, on May 17, 2016, officers attempted to locate Plaintiff to execute the warrant. Having obtained information that Plaintiff was at the apartment of his girlfriend, officers conducted surveillance of the apartment complex, and Detectives Watkins and Bowen walked up the stairs to the second floor apartment which opened to an outside walkway with a railing. (Watkins Aff. ¶¶ 8-9; Mitchell Dep. [Doc. #68-5] at 15-16, 32.) Plaintiff looked out the apartment window and recognized unmarked Winston-Salem police cars and detectives approaching the apartment. Plaintiff assumed that the officers were coming to arrest him, and he went into a child's bedroom and climbed into the attic to hide. (Watkins Aff. ¶¶ 8-9; Mitchell Dep. at 15-17.) Detectives Watkins and Bowen knocked, and receiving no answer started to walk away, when a woman identifying herself as Sylvia Davis, Plaintiff's girlfriend, opened the door and advised officers that Plaintiff was not at the residence. She allowed detectives to look inside. (Watkins Aff. ¶¶ 9-10.) Detective Bowen remained near the doorway and Detective Watkins entered the living room. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff, hiding in the ceiling, was aware of the detectives' presence in the apartment. (Pl. Dep. at 22.) The ceiling began to crack, and the detectives heard noises. Detective Bowen shouted: “He's in the ceiling. He's in the ceiling.” (Watkins Aff. ¶ 10; Pl. Dep. at 22.) A large section of the ceiling, together with insulation, fell to the floor, and Plaintiff fell from the ceiling, hitting a coffee table and then the floor. (Watkins Aff. ¶ 10; Pl. Dep. at 22-23.) The detectives drew their guns and re-holstered them after Plaintiff's hands were visible. The detectives instructed Plaintiff to get on the ground. When Plaintiff refused to comply, Detective Watkins reached for his taser. (Pl. Dep. at 28-29, 31, 33; Watkins Aff. ¶ 10; George Aff. [Doc. #68-2] ¶ 7). Officer George arrived at the apartment and also instructed Plaintiff to get on the ground. Plaintiff then put his hands up and knelt as if complying with the order but then stood up and started for the door in what officers believed was an attempt to leave the apartment, which opened to the outside and not an interior hallway. (Pl. Dep. at 29, 31, 33-4; Watkins Aff. ¶ 10; George Aff. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff testified that he made it to the doorway of the apartment when Officer George grabbed him and pushed him, head first, to the ground. Plaintiff's right arm was pinned underneath his body with officers on top instructing him not to resist and to give officers his arm to be cuffed. According to Plaintiff, officers were hitting him in the back of the head with their hands. (Pl. Dep. at 29, 31-39.) Plaintiff testified that the officers believed he was resisting because he was unable to give them his right arm because it was pinned underneath him. (Id. at 34-36.) Plaintiff was eventually handcuffed, lifted from the floor, and was escorted toward the door of the apartment by Detective Watkins, who was walking alongside a kitchen counter. (Mitchell Dep. at 29, 30, 36; Watkins Aff. ¶¶ 11-12.) According to Plaintiff, he “snatched away” from Detective Watkins, and Officer George apprehended him. According to Plaintiff, Officer George tried to slam Plaintiff's head on the nearby counter while Plaintiff continued to resist, and while Plaintiff was resisting Officer George tried again and succeeded in slamming Plaintiff's head onto the counter and holding him there. (Pl. Dep. at 30, 39-41.) Plaintiff testified that immediately after he fell from the ceiling, he told them he wanted “medical attention” and that he was “hurting.” (Id. at 36, 43, 52-53.) Plaintiff also contends that he told officers he had asthma and was having difficulty breathing due to the loose insulation. (Id. at 41.) After officers regained control over Plaintiff, he was escorted outside the apartment and down the stairs into a police car. (Id. at 42-43, 51-55.) Plaintiff testified that he was not screaming in pain when he was taken to the patrol car for transport to jail, and he was able to squat down and stand up and walk with no trouble. (Id. at 51-60.) Plaintiff agreed that someone looking at him would not know he had serious medical needs. (Id. at 60.) Plaintiff testified that while he was in the parking lot of the apartment complex, waiting to be transported to the Magistrate's Office at the Forsyth County Detention Center for booking, he was not screaming in pain but was “coughing real bad” due to breathing insulation from the attic. Plaintiff states that he requested a patrol officer take him to the hospital, and the patrol officer responded that he would take him to the Detention Center per instructions. (Id. at 52-55.) Plaintiff explained that he did not bother to complain about an injury to his back while in the patrol car because he had already requested medical attention while in the apartment. (Id. at 53-55.) Plaintiff testified that it was well known to the officers and to Plaintiff that he would be able to see a nurse upon being booked into the Forsyth County Detention Center. (Id. at 58-59; Watkins Aff. ¶ 14; George Aff. ¶ 12.) He arrived at the Detention Center between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon, and he saw the nurse “around three.” The nurse completed an intake form with various questions, checked Plaintiff's vital signs including oxygen saturation, and prescribed ice packs for his wrists. (Pl. Dep. at 61, 63-4, 66-67 and Ex. 2.) According to Plaintiff's medical records, Plaintiff saw the nurse again two days later, but no issues were noted. He submitted a sick call request regarding his back pain two weeks later, on May 30, 2016. An x-ray was obtained on June 17, 2016, reflecting vertebrae with “normal alignment without fracture, ” and noting “[s]acrum and joints appear normal without fracture or asymmetry.” (Plaintiff's Decl. [Doc. #79] at 38.)

         According to Plaintiff, during the course of the arrest, the officers failed to comply with Police Department internal policies by not turning on their body cameras, not taking Plaintiff to a hospital, and not filing an incident report. Plaintiff seeks an award of compensatory and punitive damages.[3]


         A. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists. Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1011 (4th Cir. 1991). A genuine issue of fact exists if the evidence presented could lead a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view all facts and draw all reasonable inferences from the evidence before it in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. The proponent of summary judgment “bears the initial burden of pointing to the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Temkin v. Frederick County Comm'rs, 945 F.2d 716, 718 (4th Cir. 1991) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). If the movant carries this burden, then the burden “shifts to the non-moving party to come forward with facts sufficient to create a triable issue of fact.” Id. at 718-19 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48). A mere scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party's case is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (non-moving party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials.)

         B. Deliberate Indifference

         Plaintiff alleges that the decision not to take him to a hospital after he fell from the ceiling violated Police Department protocols for an injured detainee and constituted a violation of his constitutional rights.[4] Because of his status as a pretrial detainee, Plaintiff's claim of deliberate indifference to his medical needs would be evaluated under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment rather than under the Eight Amendment standard applicable to convicted prisoners. City of Revere v. Mass. Gen. Hosp., 463 U.S. 239, 244 (1983); see Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535 (1979). In practice however, the standards are the same for both pretrial detainess and convicted persons. See Brown v. Harris, 240 F.3d 383, 388-89 (4th Cir. 2001)(holding that a pretrial detainee is entitled to the protections of due process, but concluding that the court need not decide whether the prisoner was convicted or a pretrial detainee because the standard is the same). Plaintiff must establish that defendants acted with “deliberate indifference” to his “serious medical needs.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104 (1976); Iko v. Shreve, 535 F.3d 225, 241 (4th Cir. 2008). The “serious medical needs” component is objective and as is relevant here, is a medical need that is so obvious that even a non-physician would recognize the need for a doctor's attention. 535 F.3d at 241. On the other hand, the “deliberate indifference” standard is judged subjectively, meaning that a plaintiff must show that a defendant knew of and disregarded the risk posed by the serious medical need. Id.; Scinto v. Stansberry, 841 F.3d 219, 225 (4th Cir. 2016). This may occur when non-medical personnel “intentionally deny[ ] or delay[ ] access to medical care.” Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104-05.

         Plaintiff has not met his burden to establish a constitutional violation. After falling through the ceiling, Plaintiff was able to stand, squat, and walk, and repeatedly tried to physically elude, avoid, or resist arrest by law enforcement officers. Critically, Plaintiff acknowledges that someone observing him would not have concluded that he needed medical attention. Once in the patrol car to be transported to be booked, he did not repeat a request for medical attention, was not screaming in pain, and testified that both he and the officers on the scene were aware that Plaintiff would receive medical attention during the course of being booked into the Forsyth County Detention Center. The Court notes that Plaintiff's visit with the nurse and a subsequent x-ray appears consistent with the observations by the officers that immediate hospitalization was not required. Therefore, summary judgment should be granted to all moving defendants on Plaintiff's claim of deliberate indifference to his medical needs.

         C. Excessive Force

         Plaintiff also brings a claim for alleged violation of his due process rights to be free from excessive use of force during his arrest. Plaintiff contends that “Defendant B.A. George forced the Plaintiff on the kitchen counter-top by the Plaintiff['s] head and held the Plaintiff['s] head face down on the kitchen counter.” (Opposition [Doc. #77] at 11.) Plaintiff also described this incident as follows: Defendant George “used excessive and unnecessary force on the Plaintiff [who was secured in ...

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