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Coffey v. Carroll

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 5, 2019

Nicholas Samuel Coffey, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Adam Carroll; Michael Pranger; James Pilchak, Defendants-Appellants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:16-cv-13081-Sean F. Cox, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          John C. Clark, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, PC, Troy, Michigan, for Appellants.

          Thomas M. Loeb, Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: MERRITT, THAPAR, and READLER, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          READLER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The qualified immunity doctrine serves to shield public officials-oftentimes, police officers-from liability and harassment for reasonable acts undertaken in the line of duty. As the doctrine affords a public official immunity from the costs of litigation, federal courts have an obligation to weigh the issue as early as practicable, and certainly no later than summary judgment. By the same token, where the law is settled and the record is murky as to whether an official has acted reasonably when judged against that settled legal standard, the claims are often left for resolution at trial.

         This appears to be such a case. In the proceedings below, three City of Taylor (Michigan) police officers were accused by Plaintiff Nicholas Coffey of violating his constitutional rights while arresting him for attempted larceny. The officers believe they are entitled to qualified immunity regarding the events surrounding the arrest. In a well-reasoned opinion, the district court found that material questions of fact permeated the case, and therefore denied summary judgment to the officers. Following an independent review of the record, we AFFIRM the district court's order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A caller to 911 reported that two men had approached her parked car, and that one of them tried to break in. Officers Adam Carroll, Michael Pranger, and James Pilchak were dispatched to the scene. The 911 caller gave the officers a lead in tracking the purported burglars. Mother Nature did the rest. Because the attempted break in took place with fresh snow on the ground, the officers could track prints in the snow revealing the men's escape. The incriminating trail of snowprints led the officers to the home of Nicholas Coffey.

         Outside the home, David Coffey, Coffey's father, told the officers that Coffey and his friend, Drew Jerrell, were inside. But, says David Coffey, he never gave the officers permission to enter the home. The officers, however, say that David Coffey did consent to them entering the home, and they did so. What happened outside the home, and the events that ensued inside, are at the crux of this dispute. And these facts, like the case more broadly, are deeply disputed.

         Perhaps the lone point of agreement is this: When the officers found Coffey, he was asleep on a loveseat. According to Coffey, he was sleeping there after a long night and morning of drinking. Coffey's father says that the officers tried to wake Coffey by poking him in the chest, and that when poking proved unsuccessful, one of the officers punched Coffey in the face and yelled "stop resisting." Making matters worse, Coffey says, as he was waking, the officers flipped him onto his stomach and handcuffed him. Coffey says he did not resist the arrest. Nonetheless, he explains, the officers used his face to open the storm door as they dragged him out of the house. The officers then placed Coffey in the backseat of the police car. The encounter left him with injuries to his ear, mouth, nose, and chin.

         The officers describe these events differently. Officer Carroll, they say, upon discovering Coffey asleep on the loveseat, tapped Coffey on the shoulder a few times. When Coffey woke up, the officers say he grabbed Officer Carroll's finger and twisted it. The officers claim they attempted to arrest Coffey, but that he fought, kicked Officers Pranger and Pilchak, and pulled his arms away. When the officers eventually restrained Coffey, they handcuffed him and placed him in the backseat of a police car.

         Coffey spent the next two nights in jail, at which point the county prosecutor approved a felony arrest warrant. After a preliminary hearing, at which Officers Carroll and Pranger testified, the trial court bound over Coffey. Eventually, Coffey was tried for three counts of assaulting a police officer. The jury acquitted him of the charges.

         Coffey then turned the tables. Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he filed his own action against the officers and the City of Taylor. Coffey alleged that the officers, under the supervision of the City, violated Coffey's constitutional rights by engaging in conduct amounting to unlawful entry, excessive force, and malicious prosecution. By stipulation, the suit against the City was dismissed, and the claims against the officers proceeded through discovery.

         Following discovery, the officers moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court granted parts of their motion and denied other parts. The court found there existed a material dispute of fact over whether the officers unlawfully entered Coffey's home, whether the officers used excessive force when arresting him, and whether Officers Carroll and Pranger influenced or participated in the decision to prosecute Coffey for assaulting a police officer. But the district court found no issue of material fact as to whether Officer Pilchak (unlike the other two officers) influenced or participated in the decision to prosecute Coffey, primarily because Pilchak did not testify at Coffey's preliminary hearing. Accordingly, the district court entered judgment in Pilchak's favor on Coffey's malicious-prosecution claim.

         The officers appealed the district court's order partially denying their motion for summary judgment. Coffey has not done the same with respect to the district court's partial grant of summary judgment to Officer Pilchak.

         II. JURISDICTION

         Before turning to the merits of the appeal, we must first consider our jurisdiction. Unlike our practice with respect to most interlocutory appeals, we have jurisdiction to hear interlocutory appeals by government officials challenging a denial of qualified immunity. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 527 (1985). But, generally speaking, those appeals must sound in law, not fact. After all, it is equally true that at this intermediate step, other than in instances where the plaintiff's version of the facts is "blatantly contradicted" by the record such that it is "demonstrably false," we do not have jurisdiction to resolve on an interlocutory basis disagreements over the district court's reading of the factual record. Diluzio v. Village of Yorksville, 796 F.3d 604, 609 (6th Cir. 2015).

         So, we must ask at the outset, is this appeal one of law, which we can hear now, or one of fact, which, save for a narrow band of cases, we cannot? At times, the officers' arguments take aim at the factual record. For example, they argue their conduct was justified because Coffey resisted arrest, a fact Coffey contests. As Coffey's version of the events is not blatantly contradicted by the record, these fact-based arguments are not appropriate for our interlocutory resolution.

         But other arguments present "a series of strictly legal questions." Phelps v. Coy, 286 F.3d 295, 298-99 (6th Cir. 2002). For instance, does Coffey's unlawful-entry claim fail because the officers entered Coffey's home while in hot pursuit? Stanton v. Sims, 571 U.S. 3, 6 (2013) ("[F]ederal and state courts nationwide are sharply divided on the question whether an officer with probable cause to arrest a suspect for a misdemeanor may enter a home without a warrant while in hot pursuit of that suspect."). Is the evidence supporting Coffey's excessive-force claim inadmissible because it is not based on personal knowledge? See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4) ("An affidavit or declaration used to support or oppose a motion must be made on personal knowledge, set out facts that would be admissible in evidence, and show that the affiant or declarant is competent to testify on the matters stated."). And does Coffey's malicious-prosecution claim fail because he did not show that the officers influenced or participated in the decision to prosecute him? See Fox v. DeSoto, 489 F.3d 227, 237 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing McKinley v. City of Mansfield, 404 F.3d 418, 444-45 (6th Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1090 (2006)). Because "these are the kind of questions that may be raised by interlocutory appeal . . . [, ] we have jurisdiction" here. Phelps, 286 F.3d at 298-99; see also Livermore ex rel Rohm v. Lubelan, 476 F.3d 397, 403 (6th Cir. 2007). We will, however, entertain the officers' arguments only to the extent they challenge the district court's legal determinations. We "must ignore the defendant's attempts to dispute the facts" as read by the district court. Bunkley v. City of Detroit, 902 F.3d 552, 560 (6th Cir. 2018) (internal citations omitted).

         III. ...


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