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Choate v. City of Gardner

United States District Court, D. Kansas

July 12, 2018

MICHELE CHOATE, individually and on behalf of the heirs and estate of Deanne Choate, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF GARDNER, KANSAS; ROBERT HUFF; JUSTIN MOHNY; and JEFF BRENEMAN, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. # 164). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part. The motion is granted with respect to plaintiff's claim against defendant City based on a failure to provide medical training and plaintiff's claim against the City for punitive damages. The motion is otherwise denied.

         I. Background

         On March 26, 2015, various police officers for the City of Gardner, Kansas, including Officers Robert Huff, Justin Mohny, and Jeff Breneman, responded to a 911 call from the Gardner residence shared by decedent Deanne Choate and her boyfriend. The boyfriend had made the 911 call and told the dispatcher that decedent had been drinking, had fired a gun, and was possibly suicidal. After arriving at the residence, the officers removed the boyfriend from the house and located decedent in bed, apparently naked. After several minutes, in which officers repeatedly asked about decedent's firearm, decedent stated “it's right here, ” and within a few seconds, Officer Mohny and Officer Huff discharged their weapons, killing decedent.

         Plaintiff, the daughter of decedent, brings this action on behalf of decedent's heirs and estate. Plaintiff asserts claims against the City of Gardner and Officers Huff, Mohny, and Breneman pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, based on alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff also asserts wrongful death claims under Kansas law.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and that it is “entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In applying this standard, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Burke v. Utah Transit Auth. & Local 382, 462 F.3d 1253, 1258 (10th Cir. 2006). An issue of fact is “genuine” if “the evidence allows a reasonable jury to resolve the issue either way.” Haynes v. Level 3 Communications, LLC, 456 F.3d 1215, 1219 (10th Cir. 2006). A fact is “material” when “it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Id.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Thom v. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). In attempting to meet that standard, a movant that does not bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial need not negate the other party's claim; rather, the movant need simply point out to the court a lack of evidence for the other party on an essential element of that party's claim. Id. (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325).

         If the movant carries this initial burden, the nonmovant may not simply rest upon the pleadings but must “bring forward specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial as to those dispositive matters for which he or she carries the burden of proof.” Garrison v. Gambro, Inc., 428 F.3d 933, 935 (10th Cir. 2005). To accomplish this, sufficient evidence pertinent to the material issue “must be identified by reference to an affidavit, a deposition transcript, or a specific exhibit incorporated therein.” Diaz v. Paul J. Kennedy Law Firm, 289 F.3d 671, 675 (10th Cir. 2002).

         Finally, the court notes that summary judgment is not a “disfavored procedural shortcut;” rather, it is an important procedure “designed to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1).

         III. Fourth Amendment Claims Against Individual Defendants

         As the basis for her claims under Section 1983 against the individual defendants, plaintiff alleges that Officers Huff, Mohny, and Breneman used excessive force against decedent in violation of the Fourth Amendment. To overcome the defense of qualified immunity, a plaintiff asserting a claim under Section 1983 must show a violation of a constitutional or statutory right and that the right was clearly established when the alleged violation occurred. See Olsen v. Layton Hills Mall, 312 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2002).

         As the Court noted at the pleading stage in this case, the Tenth Circuit has explained the applicable inquiry for an excessive force claim as follows:

A police officer violates an arrestee's clearly established Fourth Amendment right to be free of excessive force during an arrest if the officer's arresting actions were not “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him. This court assesses the reasonableness of an officer's conduct from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, acknowledging that the officer may be forced to make split-second judgments in certain difficult circumstances. This reasonableness standard-which is “clearly established” for the purposes of § 1983 actions-implores the court to consider factors including the alleged crime's severity, the degree of potential threat that the suspect poses to an officer's safety and to others' safety, and the suspect's efforts to resist or evade arrest. Because the reasonableness inquiry overlaps with the qualified immunity analysis, a qualified immunity defense is of less value when raised in defense of an excessive force claim. Whether an officer acted reasonably in using deadly force is heavily fact dependent.

See Id. at 1313-14 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Thus, the Court considers whether a question of fact remains concerning whether the officers acted reasonably in this case ...


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