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Cundiff v. Postel

March 25, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: H. Bruce Guyton United States Magistrate Judge



This case is before the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Rule 73(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the consent of the parties, for all further proceedings, including entry of judgment [Doc. 11], on the Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 20] of defendants Blount County (the "County"), Rodney D. Postel ("Deputy Postel"), and James Berrong ("Sheriff Berrong") in their official capacity (collectively, the "County Defendants")*fn1 , the Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 22] of defendants Rodney D. Postel and James Berrong in their individual capacities (collectively, the "Individual Defendants"), and plaintiff Sandra Cundiff's ("Plaintiff") Motion in Limine. [Doc. 31] The parties appeared before the Court for a hearing on the plaintiff's motion on February 19, 2008, and for a hearing on the dispositive motions on February 26, 2008. At both hearings, attorney Janet Leach Hogan appeared on behalf of the plaintiff, attorney Carl P. McDonald appeared on behalf of the County Defendants, and attorney Gary M. Prince appeared on behalf of the Individual Defendants. After the hearings, the Court took the motions under advisement and they are now ripe for adjudication. For the reasons stated more fully below, Plaintiff's motion [Doc. 31] will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, the motions for summary judgment of the County Defendants [Doc. 20] and Individual Defendants [Doc. 22] will be GRANTED, all federal claims will be DISMISSED with prejudice, and all state law claims will be DISMISSED without prejudice.

I. Procedural Background

On November 14, 2006, Plaintiff filed the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 1] Plaintiff asserts claims of excessive force, unlawful arrest, and a failure to provide due process, all in violation of her rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as well as state law claims of assault and battery and outrageous conduct. [Id. at ¶¶ 14, 18]

Plaintiff's claims stem from her encounter with law enforcement officers on the night of November 19, 2005, an encounter which terminated in Plaintiff's vehicle being forced off the road, causing Plaintiff to be ejected from her vehicle. [Id. at ¶ 7] Plaintiff alleges that Deputy Postel used excessive force when he forced Plaintiff's vehicle off the road, that Deputy Postel lacked probable cause to arrest, and that the County and Sheriff Berrong were also liable for failing to properly train and supervise Deputy Postel, as well as for failing to implement procedures governing the proper use of the maneuver Deputy Postel used to force Plaintiff off the road. [Id. at ¶¶ 8, 10, 14] The defendants deny the allegations, arguing that Deputy Postel exercised a reasonable amount of force, that it was necessary to stop Plaintiff, and that the County and Sheriff Berrong have no liability in this matter. [Docs. 6, 7] The defendants further contend that, subsequent to filing the instant litigation, Plaintiff pled guilty to Felony Evading Arrest, and thus should be estopped from presenting any arguments in the instant litigation that would run contrary to her guilty plea. [Docs. 15, 18]

On April 20, 2007, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned for all further proceedings, including entry of judgment, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Doc. 11] The instant motions followed. Because the Court's ruling on the Motion in Limine will necessarily affect what evidence the Court considers when ruling on the dispositive motions, the Court will address the Motion in Limine before setting forth the facts relevant to the dispositive motions.

II. Motion in Limine [Doc. 31]

Plaintiff moves the Court to exclude from evidence any reference to Plaintiff's blood-alcohol test results, a dismissed DUI charge, her guilty plea to evasion, as well as any reference to Deputy Postel's subjective intentions, all of which the defendants address in their dispositive motions. As grounds, Plaintiff contends that Deputy Postel's decision to exercise force when stopping Plaintiff must be considered based only upon the information available to the Deputy at the time of the incident, arguing that the Court cannot consider any subsequent events, such as those the defendants seek to introduce, and also arguing that Deputy Postel's subjective intentions are irrelevant, because the Court must analyze the deputy's actions under an objective reasonableness standard. The defendants oppose the motion, arguing that the information presented by the defendants is relevant and appropriate for the Court to consider when ruling on the dispositive motions.

The United States Supreme Court has held that:

The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. . . . With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: "Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the judge's chambers" violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments -- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving -- about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the "reasonableness" inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the 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. An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989) (internal citations omitted). Thus, Plaintiff is correct in arguing that the Court must consider only the facts and circumstances as they existed at the time of the incident, and should not consider any facts that came to light after the incident.

However, the Court's analysis is complicated by the fact that Plaintiff has pled guilty to felony evasion. For while the Court acknowledges the Supreme Court's ruling in Graham, the Court must also consider the case of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In Heck, the Supreme Court held that: in order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983. Thus, when a state prisoner seeks damages in a § 1983 suit, the district court must consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence; if it would, the complaint must be dismissed unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated. But if the district court determines that the plaintiff's action, even if successful, will not demonstrate the invalidity of any outstanding criminal judgment against the plaintiff, the action should be allowed to proceed, in the absence of some other bar to the suit.

Id. at 486-87. Additionally, the Court notes that the preclusive effect of state-court decisions in § 1983 actions is a matter of state law. Id. at 480. Under Tennessee law, collateral estoppel is appropriate where: (1) the issue sought to be precluded is identical to the issue decided in the earlier suit; (2) the issue was actually litigated and decided on its merits in the earlier suit; (3) the judgment in the earlier suit has become final; (4) the party against whom collateral estoppel is sought was a party to the earlier suit; and (5) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity in the earlier suit to litigate the issue sought to be precluded. Beaty v. McGraw, 15 S.W.3d 819, 824-25 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1998). It is likewise clear that, under Tennessee law, a criminal conviction will have a preclusive effect on a subsequent civil suit in which the party convicted on his own guilty plea seeks to assert that he did not convict the criminal act for which he was convicted. See Gibson v. Trant, 58 S.W.3d 103, 114 (Tenn. 2001) (holding that estoppel is appropriate where a defendant pleads guilty to a substantial criminal charge and then seeks in civil litigation concerning the same transaction to assert that he did not commit the criminal act.)

Turning to the instant case, on April 2, 2007, Plaintiff pled guilty to Class D Felony Evading Arrest. [Doc. 20, Exhibit 4 to Affidavit of James L. Berrong] Codified at Tennessee Code Annotated § 39-16-603, Tennessee law provides, in pertinent part, that:

(b) (1) It is unlawful for any person, while operating a motor vehicle on any street, road, alley or highway in this state, to intentionally flee or attempt to elude any law enforcement officer, after having received any signal from the officer to bring the vehicle to a stop. (2) It is a defense to prosecution under this subsection (b) that the attempted arrest was unlawful. (3) A violation of subsection (b) is a Class E felony unless the flight or attempt to elude creates a risk of ...

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